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

Francis Wayland

BOOK 1, CHAPTER 2, SECTION 5

Rules For Moral Conduct, Derived From The Preceding Remarks

Several plain rules of conduct are suggested by the above remarks, which may more properly be introduced here, than in any other place.

I. Before you resolve upon an action, or a course of action,

1. Cultivate the habit of deciding upon its moral character. Let the first question always be, Is this action right? For this purpose, God gave you this faculty. If you do not use id, you are false to yourself, and inexcusable before God. We despise a man who never uses his reason, and scorn him as a fool. Is he not much more to be despised who neglects to use a faculty of so much higher authority than reason? And let the question, Is this right? be asked first, Before imagination has set before us the seductions of pleasure, or any step has been taken, which should pledge our consistency of character. If we ask this question first, it can generally be decided with ease. If we wait until the mind is agitated and harassed by contending emotions, it will not be easy to decide correctly.

2. Remember that your conscience has become imperfect, from your frequent abuse of it. Hence, in many cases, its discrimination will be indistinct. Instead of deciding, it will, frequently, only doubt. That doubt should be, generally, as imperative as a decision. When you, therefore, doubt, respecting the virtue of an action, do not perform it, unless you as much doubt whether you are at liberty to refrain from it. Thus, says President Edwards, in one of his resolutions: “Resolved, never to do any thing, of which I so much question the lawfulness, as that I intend, at the same time, to consider and examine afterwards, whether it be lawful or not; except I as much question the lawfulness of the omission.”

3. Cultivate, on all occasions, in private or in public, in small or great, in action or in thought, the habit of obeying the monitions of conscience; all other things to the contrary notwithstanding.

      Its slightest touches, instant pause
      Debar a’ side pretences;
      And, resolutely, keep its laws,
      Uncaring consequences.
      Burns

The supremacy of conscience imposes upon you the obligation to act thus. You cannot remember, in the course of your whole life, an instance in which you regret having obeyed it; and you cannot remember a single instance in which you do not regret having disobeyed it., There can nothing happen to you so bad as to have done wrong, there can nothing be gained so valuable as to have done fight. And remember, that it is only by cultivating the practical supremacy of conscience over every other impulse, so that you can attain to that bold, simple, manly, elevated character, which is essential to true greatness.

This has been frequently taught us, even by the heathen poets:

      Virtus, repulsae nescia sordidae,
      Intaminatis fulget honoribus:
      Nec sumit aut ponit secures
      Arbitrio popularis aurae:

      Virtus, recludens immeritis mori
      Coelum, negata tentat iter via;
      Coetusque vulgares et udam
      Spernit humum fugiente penna.

      HOR. Lib. 3, Car. 2.

A greater than a heathen has said, “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light;” and has enforced the precept by the momentous question, “What shall it profit a man, though he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

II. After an action has been performed,

1. Cultivate the habit of reflecting upon your actions, and upon the intention with which they have been performed, and of thus deciding upon their moral character. This is called self-examination. It is one of the most important duties in the life of a moral, and specially of a probationary existence.

      ‘Tis greatly wise, to talk with our past hours,
      And ask them what report they bore to Heaven,
      And how they might have borne more welcome news.

a. Perform this duty deliberately. It is not the business of hurry or of negligence. Devote time exclusively to it. Go alone. Retire within yourself, and weigh your actions coolly and carefully, forgetting all other things, in the conviction that you are a moral and an accountable being.

b. Do it impartially. Remember that you are liable to be misled by the seductions of passion, and the allurements of self-interest. Put yourself in the place of those around you, and put others in your owe place, and remark how you would than consider your actions. Pay great attention to the opinions of your enemies: there is generally foundation, or, at least, the appearance of it, in what they say of you. But, above all, take the true and perfect standard of moral character, exhibited in the precepts of the gospel, and exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ; and thus examine your conduct by the light that emanates from the holiness of heaven.

2. Suppose you have examined yourself, and arrived at a decision respecting the moral character of your actions,

1. If you are conscious of having done right, be thankful to that God who has mercifully enabled you to do so. Observe the peace and serenity which fills your bosom, and remark how greatly it overbalances the self-denials which it has cost. Be humbly thankful that you have made some progress in virtue.

2. If the character of your actions have been mixed, that is, if they have proceeded from motives partly good and partly bad, labor to obtain a clear view of each, and of the circumstances which led you to confound them. Avoid the sources of this confusion; and, when you per form the same actions again, be specially on your guard against the influence of any motive of which you now disapprove.

3. If conscience convicts you of having acted wrongly,

1. Reflect upon the wrong, survey the obligations which you have violated, until you are sensible of your guilt.

2. Be willing to suffer the pains of conscience. They are the rebukes of a friend, and are designed to withhold you from the commission of wrong in future. Neither turn a neglectful ear to its monitions, nor drown its voice amid the bustle of business, or the gayety of pleasure.

3. Do not let the subject pass away from your thoughts until you have come to a settled resolution, a resolution founded on moral disapprobation of the action, never to do so any more.

4. If restitution be in your power, make it, without hesitation, and do it immediately. The least that a man ought to be satisfied with, who has done wrong, is to repair the wrong as soon as it is possible.

5. As every act of wrong is a sin against God, seek, in humble penitence, his pardon, through the merits and intercession of his Son, Jesus Christ.

6. Remark the actions, or the courses of thinking, which were the occasions of leading you to do wrong. Be specially careful to avoid them in future. To this effect, says President Edwards, “Resolved, that when I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then both carefully endeavor to do so no more, and to fight and pray, with all my might, against the original of it.”

7. Do all this, in humble dependence upon that merciful and every where present Being, who is always ready to grant us all assistance necessary to keep his commandments; and who will never leave us, nor forsake us, if we put our trust in him.

It seems, then, from what has been remarked, that we are all endowed with conscience, or a faculty for discerning a moral quality in human actions, impelling us towards right, and dissuading us from wrong; and that the dictates of this faculty are felt and known to be of supreme authority.

The possession of this faculty renders us accountable creatures. Without it, we should not be specially distinguished from the brutes. With it, we are brought into moral relations with God, and all the moral intelligences in the universe.

It is an ever-present faculty. It always admonishes us, if we will listen to its voice, and frequently does so, even when we wish to silence its warnings. Hence, we may always know our duty, if we will but inquire for it. We can, therefore, never have any excuse for doing wrong. since no man need do wrong, unless he chooses; and no man will do it ignorantly, unless from criminal neglect of the faculty which God has given him.

How solemn is the thought, that we are endowed with such a faculty, and that we can never be disunited from it! It goes with us through all the scenes of life, in company and alone, admonishing, warning, reproving, and recording: and, as a source of happiness or of misery, it must abide with us for ever. Well doth it become man, then, to reverence himself.

And thus we see, that, from his moral constitution, were there no other means of knowledge of duty, man is an accountable creature. Man is under obligation to obey the will of God, in what manner soever signified. That it is signified in this manner, I think there cannot be a question; and for this knowledge he is justly held responsible. Thus, the Apostle Paul declares, that “the Gentiles, who have not the law, are a law unto themselves, which show the work of the law, written on their hearts, their consciences being continually excusing or accusing one another.” How much greater must be the responsibility of those to whom God has given the additional light of natural and revealed religion!