The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland

BOOK 1, CHAPTER 2, SECTION 4

The Law by Which Conscience Is Governed

Conscience follows the general law, by which the improvement of all our other faculties is regulated. It is strengthened by use, it is impaired by disuse.

Here it is necessary to remark, that, by use, we mean the use of the faculty itself and not of some other faculty. This is so plain a case, that it seems wonderful that there should have been any mistake concerning it. Every one knows, that the arms are not strengthened by using the legs, nor the eyes by using the ears, nor the taste by using the understanding. So, the conscience can be strengthened, not by using the memory, or the taste, or the understanding; but by using the conscience, and by using it precisely according to the laws, and under the conditions, designed by our Creator. The conscience is not improved by the reading of moral essays, nor by committing to memory moral precepts, nor by imagining moral vicissitudes; but by hearkening to its monitions, and obeying its impulses.

If we reflect upon the nature of the monition of conscience, we shall find that its office is of a threefold character.

I. It enables us to discover the moral quality of actions.
2. It impels us to do right, and to avoid doing wrong.
3. It is a source of pleasure, when we have done right, and of pain, when we have done wrong.

Let us illustrate the manner in which it may be im proved, and injured, in each of these respects.

I. Of the improvement of the discriminating power of conscience.

1. The discriminating power of conscience is improved by reflecting upon the moral character of our actions, both before and after we have performed them. If, before we resolve upon a course of conduct, or before we suffer ourselves to be committed to it, we deliberately ask, Is this right? Am I now actuated by appetite, by self-love, or by conscience? we shall seldom mistake the path of duty. After an action has been performed, if we deliberately and impassionately examine it, we may without. difficulty decide whether it was right or wrong. Now, with every such effort as this, the discriminating power of conscience is strengthened. We discern moral differences more distinctly; and we distinguish between actions, that before seemed blended and similar.

2. The discriminating power of conscience is improved, by meditating upon characters of pre-eminent excellence, and specially upon the character of God our Creator, and Christ our Redeemer, the Fountain of all moral excellence. As we cultivate taste, or our susceptibility to beauty, by meditating upon the most finished specimens of art, or the most lovely scenery in nature, so conscience, or our moral susceptibility, is improved, by meditating upon any thing eminent for moral goodness. It is hence, that example produces so powerful a moral effect; and hence, that one single act of heroic virtue, as that of Howard, or of illustrious self-denial, gives a new impulse to the moral character of an age. Men cannot reflect upon such actions, without the production of a change in their moral susceptibility. Hence, the effect of the Scripture representations of the character of God, and of the moral glory of the heavenly state. The Apostle Paul refers to this principle, when he says, “We all, with open face, beholding, as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, are changed into he same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”

On the contrary the discriminating power of conscience may be injured,

1. By neglecting to reflect upon the moral character of our actions, both before and after we have performed them. As taste is rendered obtuse by neglect, so that we fail to distinguish between elegance and vulgarity, and between beauty and deformity; so, if we yield to the impulses of passion, and turn a deaf ear to the monitions of conscience, the dividing line between right and wrong seems gradually to become obliterated. We pass from the confines of the one into those of the other, with less and less sensation, and at last neglect the distinction altogether.

Horace remarks this fact:

      Fas atque nefas, exiguo fine, libidinum
      Discernunt avidi.

This is one of the most common causes of the grievous moral imperfection which we every where behold. Men act without moral reflection. They will ask, respecting an action, every question before that most important one, Is it right and, in the great majority of cases, act without putting to themselves this question at all. “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, my people do not consider.” If any man doubt whether this be true, let him ask himself, How large is the portion of the actions which I perform, upon which I deliberately decide whether they be right or wrong? And on how large a portion of my actions do I form such a decision, after they have been performed? For the want of this reflection, the most pernicious habits are daily formed or strengthened; and, when to the power of habit is added the seductive influence of passion, it is not wonderful that the virtue of man should be the victim.

2. The discriminating power of conscience is impaired by frequent meditation upon vicious character and action. By frequently contemplating vice, our passions become excited, and our moral disgust diminishes. Thus, also, by becoming familiar with wicked men, we learn to associate whatever they may possess of intellectual or social interest, with their moral character; and hence our abhorrence of vice is lessened. Thus, men who are accustomed to view, habitually, any vicious custom, cease to have their moral feelings excited by beholding it. All this is manifest, from the facts made known in the progress of every moral reformation. Of so delicate a texture has God made our moral nature, and so easily is it either improved or impaired. Pope says, truly,

      Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
      As to be dreaded, needs but to be seen;
      But, seen too oft, familiar with her face,
      We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

It is almost unnecessary to remark, that this fact will enable us to estimate the value of much of our reading, and of much of our society. Whatever fills the memory with scenes of vice, or stimulates the imagination to conceptions of impurity, vulgarity, profanity, or thoughtlessness, must, by the whole of this effect, render us vicious. As a man of literary sensibility will avoid a badly written book, for fear of injuring his taste, by how much more should we dread the communion with any thing wrong, lest it should contaminate our imagination, and thus injure our moral sense!

II. The impulsive power of conscience is improved by use, and weakened by disuse.

To illustrate this law, we need only refer to the elements of man’s active nature. We are endowed with appetites, passions, and self-love, in all their various forms; and any one of them, or all of them, may, at times, be found impelling us towards actions in opposition to the impulsion of conscience, and, of course, one or the other impulse must be resisted. Now, as the law of our faculties is universal, that they are strengthened by use, and weakened by disuse, It is manifest, that, when we obey the impulse of conscience, and resist the impulse of passion, the power of cor science is strengthened; and, on the contrary, when we obey the impulse of passion, and resist that of conscience, the power of passion is strengthened. And, yet more, as either of these is strengthened, its antagonist impulse is weakened. Thus, every time a man does right, he gains a victory over his lower propensities, acquires self-control, and becomes more emphatically a freeman. Every time a man does wrong, that is, yields to his lower propensities, he loses self-control, he gives to his passions power over him, he weakens the practical supremacy of conscience, and becomes more perfectly a slave. The design of the Christian religion, in this respect, is to bring us under the dominion of conscience, enlightened by revelation, and to deliver us from the slavery of evil propensity. Thus, our Lord declares, “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” And, on the contrary, “Whosoever committeth sin, is the servant (the slave) of sin.”

Again. It is to be remarked, that there exists a reciprocal connection between the use of the discriminating and of the impulsive power of conscience. The more a man reflects upon moral distinctions, the greater will be the practical influence which he will find them to exert over him. And it is still more decidedly true, that, the more implicitly we obey the impulsions of conscience, the more acute will be its power of discrimination, and the more prompt and definite its decisions. This connection between theoretical knowledge and practical application, is frequently illustrated in the other faculties. He who delineates objects of loveliness, finds the discriminating power of taste to improve. And thus, also, this effect, in morals, is frequently alluded to in the Scriptures.

Our Savior declares, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine.”

Thus, also, “Unto him that hath, shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not (that is, does not improve what he has), shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

Thus, also, the Apostle Paul: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your rational service; and be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed unto the renewing of your mind, that (so that, to the end that) ye may know what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of the Lord.”

III. The sensibility of conscience, as a source of pleasure or of pain, is strengthened by use, and weakened by disuse.

The more frequently a man does right, the stronger is his impulse to do right, and the greater is the pleasure that results from the doing of it. A liberal man derives a pleasure from the practice of charity, of which the covetous man can form no conception. A beneficent man is made happy by acts of self-denial and philanthropy, while a selfish man performs an act of goodness by painful and strenuous effort, and merely to escape the reproaches of conscience. By the habitual exercise of the benevolent affections, a man becomes more and more capacious of virtue, capable of higher and more disinterested and more self-denying acts of mercy, until he becomes an enthusiast m; goodness, loving to do good better than any thing else. And, in the same manner, the more our affections to God are exercised, the more constant and profound is the happiness which they create, and the more absolutely is every other wish absorbed by the single desire to do the will of God. Illustrations of these remarks may be found in the lives of the Apostle Paul, John Howard, and other philanthropists. Thus, it is said of our Savior, “He went about doing good.” And he says of himself, “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, and to finish his work.”

And it deserves to be remarked, that, in our present state, opportunities for moral improvement and moral pleasure are incessantly occurring. Under the present conditions of our being, there are every were, and at all times, sick to be relieved, mourners to be comforted, ignorant to be taught, vicious to be reclaimed, and men, by nature enemies to God, to be won back to reconciliation to Him. The season for moral labor depends not, like that for physical labor, upon vicissitudes beyond our control:. it depends solely upon our own will. This I suppose to be the general principle involved in our Savior’s remark to his Apostles: “Say ye not, There are four months, and then cometh the harvest? Lift up your eyes, and look upon the fields, for they are white already to the harvest.” That is, the fields are always waiting for the laborer in the moral harvest.

And, on the contrary, the man who habitually violates his conscience, not only is more feebly impelled to do right, but he becomes less sensible to the pain of doing wrong. A child feels poignant remorse after the first act of pilfering. Let the habit of dishonesty be formed, and he will become so hackneyed in sin, that he will perpetrate robbery with no other feeling than that of mere fear of detection. The first oath almost palsies the tongue of the stripling. It requires but a few months, however, to transform him into the bold and thoughtless blasphemer. The murderer, after the death of his first victim, is agitated with all the horrors of guilt. He may, however, pursue his trade of blood, until he have no more feeling for man, than the butcher for the animal which he slaughters. Burk, who was in the habit of murdering men, for the purpose of selling their bodies to the surgeons for dissection, confessed this of himself. Nor is this true of individuals alone. Whole communities may become so accustomed to deeds of violence, as not merely to lose all the milder sympathies of their nature, but also to take pleasure in exhibitions of the most revolting ferocity. Such was the case in Rome at the period of the gladiatorial contests; and such was the fact in Paris at the time of the French revolution.

This also serves to illustrate a frequently repeated aphorism, Quem Deus vult perdere, prius dementat. As a man becomes more wicked, he becomes bolder in crime. Unchecked by conscience, he ventures upon more and more atrocious villainy, and he does it with less and less precaution. As, in the earliest stages of guilt, he is betrayed by timidity, in the later stages of it, he is exposed by his recklessness. He is thus discovered by the very effect which his conduct is producing upon his own mind. Thus oppressors and despots seem to rush upon their own ruin, as though bereft of reason. Such limits has our Creator, by the conditions of our being, set to the range of human atrocity.

Thus we see, that, by every step in our progress in virtue the succeeding step becomes less difficult. In proportion as we deny our passions, they become less imperative. The oftener we conquer them, the less is the moral effort necessary to secure the victory, and the less frequently and the less powerfully do they assail us. By every act of successful resistance, we diminish the tremendous power of habit over us, and thus become more perfectly under the government of our own will. Thus, with every act of obedience to conscience, our character is fixed upon a more immovable foundation.

And, on the contrary, by every act of vicious indulgence, we give our passions more uncontrolled power over us, and diminish the power of reason and of conscience. Thus, by every act of sin, we not only incur new guilt, but we strengthen the bias towards sin, during the whole of our subsequent being. Hence every vicious act renders our return to virtue more difficult and more hopeless. The tendency of such a course is, to give to habit the power which ought to be exerted by our will. And, hence, it is not improbable, that the conditions of our being may be such, as to allow of our arriving at such a state, that reformation may be actually impossible. That the Holy Scriptures allude to such a condition during the present life, is evident. Such, also, is probably the necessary condition of the wicked in another world.

In stating the change thus produced upon our moral nature, it deserves to be remarked, that this loss of sensibility is, probably, only temporary. There is reason to believe, that no impressions made upon the human soul, during its present probationary state, are ever permanently erased. Causes operating merely upon man’s physical nature, frequently revive whole trains of thought, and even the knowledge of languages, which had been totally forgotten during the greater portion of a long life. This seems to show, that the liability to lose impressions, once made upon us, depends upon some condition arising from our material nature only, and that this liability will cease as soon as our present mode of existence terminates. That is to say, if the power of retaining knowledge is always the same, but if our consciousness of knowledge is veiled by our material organs, when these have been lad aside, our entire consciousness will return. Now, indications of the same nature are to be found in abundance, with respect to conscience. Wicked men, after having spent a life An prosperous guilt, and without being in trouble like other men, are frequently, without any assignable cause, tormented with all the agonies of remorse; so that the mere consciousness of guilt has become absolutely intolerable, and they have perished by derangement, or by suicide. The horrors of a licentious sinner’s death bed, present a striking illustration of the same solemn fact. A scene of this sort has been, no less vividly than accurately, described by Dr. Young, in the death of Altamont. All these things should be marked by us as solemn warnings. They show its of what the constitution, under which we exist, is capable; and it is in forms like these, that the “coming events” of eternity “cast their shadows before.”

      In such indexes,
      There is seen
      The baby figures of the giant mass
      Of things to come at large.