The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)
Jean Jacques Burlamaqui
Of the application of natural laws to human actions; and first of conscience.1
I. AS soon as we have discovered the foundation and rule of our duties, we have only to recollect what has been already said in the eleventh chapter of the first part of this work, concerning the morality of actions, to see in what manner natural laws are applied to human actions, and what effect ought from thence to result.
The application of the laws to human actions is nothing else, but the judgment we pass on their morality, by comparing them with the law; a judgment whereby we pronounce, that those actions being either good, bad, or indifferent, we are obliged either to perform or omit them, or that we may use our liberty in this respect, and that, according to the side we have taken, we are worthy of praise or blame, approbation or censure.
This is done in two different manners. For either we judge on this footing of our own actions, or of those of another person. In the first case, our judgment is called conscience; but the judgment we pass on other men’s actions is termed imputation. These are undoubtedly subjects of great importance, and of universal use in morality, which deserve therefore to be treated with some care and circumspection.
II. Conscience is properly no more than reason itself, considered as instructed in regard to the rule we ought to follow, or to the law of nature; and judging of the morality of our own actions, and of the obligations we are under in this respect, by comparing them to this rule, pursuant to the ideas we entertain thereof.
Conscience is also very frequently taken for the very judgment we pass on the morality of actions, a judgment, which is the result of perfect reasoning, or the consequence we infer from two express or tacit premises. A person compares two propositions, one of which includes the law, and the other the action; and from them he deduces a third, which is the judgment he makes of the quality of his action. Such was the reasoning of Judas. Whosoever delivers up an innocent person to death commits a crime; here is the law. Now this is what I have done; here is the action. I have therefore committed a crime, this is the consequence, or judgment, which his conscience passed on the action he committed.
III. Conscience supposes therefore a knowledge of the law; and particularly of the law of nature, which, being the primitive source of justice, is likewise the supreme rule of conduct. And as the laws cannot serve us for rules, but inasmuch as they are known, it follows therefore, that conscience becomes thus the immediate rule of our actions; for it is evident we cannot conform to the law, but so far, as we have notice thereof.
IV. This being premised, the first rule, we have to lay down concerning this matter, is, that we must enlighten our conscience, as well as consult it, and follow its counsels.
We must enlighten our conscience; that is we must spare no care or pains to be exactly instructed with regard to the will of the legislator, and to the disposition of his laws, in order to acquire just ideas of whatever is commanded, forbidden, or permitted. For plain it is, that, were we in ignorance or error in this respect, the judgment we should form of our actions would be necessarily vicious, and consequently lead us astray. But this is not enough. We must join to this first knowledge the knowledge also of the action. And for this purpose it is not only necessary to examine this action in itself, but we ought likewise to be attentive to the particular circumstances, that accompany it, and the consequences, that may follow it. Otherwise we should run a risk of mistake in the application of the laws, whose general decisions admit of several modifications, according to the different circumstances, that accompany our actions; which necessarily influences their morality, and of course our duties. Thus it is not sufficient for a judge to be well acquainted with the tenor and purport of the law, before he pronounces sentence; he should likewise have an exact knowledge of the fact, and all its different circumstances.
But it Is not merely with a view of enlightening our reason, that we ought to acquire all this knowledge; it is principally in order to apply it occasionally to the direction of our conduct. We should therefore, whenever it concerns us to act, consult previously our conscience, and be directed by its counsels. This is properly an indispensable obligation. For in fine conscience being, as it were, the minister and interpreter of the will of the legislator, the counsels it gives us, have all the force and authority of a law, and ought to produce the same effect upon us.
V. It is only therefore by enlightening our conscience, that it becomes a sure rule of conduct, whose dictates may be followed with a perfect confidence of exactly fulfilling our duty. For we should be grossly mistaken, if, under a notion that conscience is the immediate rule of our actions, we were to believe, that every man may lawfully do whatever he imagines the law commands or permits. We ought, first to know whether this notion or persuasion is justly founded. For, as Puffendorf2 observes, conscience has no share in the direction of human actions, but inasmuch as it is instructed concerning the law, whose office it properly is to direct our actions. If we have therefore a mind to determine and act with safety, we must on every particular occasion observe the two following rules, which are very simple of themselves, easy to practice, and naturally follow our first rule, of which they are only a kind of elucidation.3
Second rule. Before we determine to follow the dictates of conscience, we should examine thoroughly, whether we have the necessary light sand helps to judge of the things before us. If we happen to want these lights and helps, we can neither decide; nor much less undertake any thing, without an inexcusable and dangerous temerity. And yet nothing is more common than to transgress against this rule. What multitudes, for example; determine on religious disputes, or difficult questions concerning morality or politics, though they are no way capable of judging or reasoning about them?
Third rule. Supposing that in general we have necessary lights and helps to judge of the affair before us, we must afterwards see whether we have actually made use of them; insomuch that, without a new inquiry, we may follow what our conscience suggests. It happens every day, that, for want of attending to this rule, we let ourselves be quietly prevailed upon to do a great many things, which we might easily discover to be unjust, had we given heed to certain clear principles, the justice and necessity of which is universally acknowledged.
When we have made use of the rules here laid down, we have done whatever we could and ought; and it is morally certain, that, by thus proceeding we can neither mistake in our judgment, nor be wrong in our determinations. But if, notwithstanding all these precautions, we should happen to mistake, which is not absolutely impossible; this would be an Infirmity inseparable from human nature, and would carry its excuse along with it in the eye of the supreme legislator.
VI. We judge of our actions either before, or after we have done them; wherefore there is an antecedent and a subsequent conscience.
This distinction gives us an opportunity to lay down a fourth rule; which is, that a prudent man ought to consult his conscience before and after he has acted.
To determine to act without having previously examined, whether what we are a going to do be good or evil, manifestly indicates an indifference for our duty, which is a most dangerous state in respect to man; a state capable of throwing him into the most fatal excesses. But as, in this first judgment, we may happen to be determined by passion, and to proceed with precipitation, or upon a Very slight examen, it is therefore necessary to reflect again on what we have done, either in order to be confirmed in the right side, if we have embraced it; or to correct our mistake if possible, and to guard against the like faults for the future. This is so much the more important, as experience shows us, that we frequently judge quite differently between a past and a future transaction; and that the prejudices or passions, which may lead us astray, when we are to take our resolution, oftentimes disappear cither in the whole or part, when the action is over; and leave us then more at liberty to judge rightly of the nature and consequences of the action.
The habit of making this double examen is the essential character of an honest man; and indeed nothing can be a better proof of our being seriously inclined to discharge our several duties.
VII. The effect resulting from this revisal of our conduct is very different, according as the judgment, we pass on it, absolves or condemns us. In the first case, we find ourselves in a state of satisfaction and tranquillity, which is the surest and sweetest recompense of virtue. A pure and untainted pleasure accompanies always those actions, that are approved by reason; and reflection renews the sweets we have tasted, together with their remembrance. And indeed what greater happiness is there, than to be inwardly satisfied, and be able with a just confidence to promise ourselves the approbation and benevolence of the sovereign Lord, on whom we depend? If on the contrary, conscience condemns us, this condemnation must be accompanied with inquietude, trouble, reproaches, fear, and remorse; a state so dismal, that the ancients have compared it to that of a man tormented by the furies. Every crime, says the satirist, is disapproved by the very person who commits it; and the first punishment the criminal feels is, that he cannot avoid being self-condemned, were he even to find means of being acquitted before the prætor’s tribunal.
Exemplo quodcunque malo committitur, ipsi
Juv. Sat. 13. ver. 1.
He that commits a sin, shall quickly find
Hence the subsequent conscience is said to be quiet or uneasy, good or bad.
VIII. The judgment we pass on the morality of our actions is likewise susceptible of several different modifications, that produce new distinctions of conscience, which we should here point out. These distinctions may, in general, be equally applied to the two first species of conscience above mentioned; but they seem more frequently and particularly to agree with the antecedent conscience.
Conscience is therefore either decisive or dubious, according to the degree of persuasion a person may have concerning the quality of the action.
When we pronounce decisively and without any hesitation, that an action is conformable or opposite to the law, or that it is permitted, and consequently we ought to do or omit it, or else that we are at liberty in this respect; this is called a decisive conscience. If, on the contrary, the mind remains in suspense, through the conflict of reasons we see on both sides, and which appear to us of equal weight, insomuch that we cannot tell to which side we ought to incline, this is called a dubious conscience. Such was the doubt of the Corinthians, who did not know, whether they could eat things sacrificed to idols, or whether they ought to abstain from them. On the one side, the evangelical liberty seemed to permit it; on the other, they were restrained through apprehension of seeming to give thereby a kind of consent to idolatrous acts. Not knowing what resolution to take, they wrote to St. Paul to remove their doubt.
This distinction makes room also for some rules.
Fifth rule. We do not entirely discharge our duty, by doing with a kind of difficulty and reluctance what the decisive conscience ordains; we ought to set about it readily, willingly, and with pleasure.4 On the contrary, to determine without hesitation or repugnance against the motions of such a conscience is showing the highest degree of depravation and malice, and renders a person incomparably more criminal, than if he were impelled by a violent passion or temptation.5
Sixth rule. With regard to a dubious conscience, we ought to use all endeavours to get rid of our uncertainty, and to forbear acting so long, as we do not know whether we do good or evil. To behave otherwise would indicate an indirect contempt of the law, by exposing one’s self voluntarily to the hazard of violating it, which is a very bad conduct. The rule now mentioned ought to be attended to, especially in matters of great importance.
Seventh rule. But if we find ourselves in such circumstances, as necessarily oblige us to determine to act, we must then, by a new attention, endeavour to distinguish the safest and most probable side, and whose consequences are the least dangerous. Such is generally the opposite side to passion; it being the safest way not to listen too much to our inclinations. In like manner, we run very little risk of committing a mistake in a dubious case, by following rather the dictates of charity, than the suggestion of self love.
IX. Beside the dubious conscience, properly so called, and which we may likewise distinguish by the name of irresolute, there is a scrupulous conscience, produced by slight and frivolous difficulties that arise in the mind, without seeing any solid reason for doubting.
Eighth rule. Such scruples as these ought not to hinder us from acting, if it be necessary; and, as they generally arise either from a false delicacy of conscience, or from gross superstition, we should soon get rid of them, were we to examine the thing with attention.
X. Let us afterwards observe, that the decisive conscience, according as it determines good or evil, is either right or erroneous.
Those for example, who imagine we ought to abstain from strict revenge, though the law of nature permits a legitimate defence, have a right conscience. On the other hand those, who think that the law, which requires us to be faithful to our engagements, is not obligatory towards heretics, and that we may lawfully break through it in respect to them, have an erroneous conscience.
But what must we do in case of an erroneous conscience?
Ninth rule. I answer, that we ought always to follow the dictates of conscience, even when it is erroneous, and whether the error be vincible or invincible.
This rule may appear strange at first sight, since it seems to prescribe evil; because there is no manner of question, but that a man, who acts according to an erroneous conscience, espouses a bad cause. Yet this is not so bad, as if we were to determine to do a thing with a firm persuasion of its being contrary to the decision of the law; for this would denote a direct contempt of the legislator and his orders, which is a most criminal disposition. Whereas the first resolution, though bad in itself, is nevertheless the effect of a laudable disposition to obey the legislator, and conform to his will.
But it does not thence follow, that we are always excusable in being guided by the dictates of an erroneous conscience, this is true only, when the error happens to be invincible. If on the contrary it is surmountable, and we mistake with respect to what is commanded or forbidden, we sin either way, whether we act according to, or against the decisions of conscience. This shows (to mention it once more) what an important concern it is to enlighten our conscience, because, in the case just now mentioned, the person with an erroneous conscience is actually under a melancholy necessity of doing ill, whichever side he takes. But if we should happen to mistake with regard to an indifferent thing, which we are erroneously persuaded is commanded or forbidden, we do not sin in that case, but when we act contrary to the light of our own conscience.
XI. In fine there are two sorts of right conscience; the one clear and demonstrative, and the other merely probable.
The clear and demonstrative conscience is that, which is founded on certain princip!es, and on demonstrative reason, so far as the nature of moral things will permit, insomuch that one may clearly and distinctly prove the rectitude of a judgment, made on such or such an action. On the contrary, though we are convinced of the truth of a judgment, yet if it be founded only on verisimilitude, and we cannot demonstrate its certainty in a methodical manner, and by incontestable principles, it is then only a probable conscience.
The foundations of probable conscience are in general authority and example, supported by a confused notion of a natural fitness, and sometimes by popular reasons, which seem drawn from the very nature of things. It is by this kind of conscience, that the greatest part of mankind are conducted, there being very few, who are capable of knowing the indispensable necessity of their duties, by deducing them from their first sources by regular consequences; especially when the point relates to maxims of morality, which, being somewhat remote from the first principles, require a longer chain of reasonings. This conduct is far from being unreasonable. For those, who have not sufficient light of themselves to judge properly of the nature of things, cannot do better, than recur to the judgment of enlightened persons; this being the only resource left them to act with safety. We might in this respect compare the persons above mentioned to young people, whose judgment has not yet acquired its full maturity, and who ought to listen and conform to the counsels of their superiors. The authority therefore and example of sage and enlightened men may in some cases, in default of our own lights, prove a reasonable principle of determination and conduct.
But in fine, since those foundations of probable conscience are not so solid, as to permit us absolutely to build upon them, we must establish, as a Tenth Rule, that we ought to use all our endeavours to increase the degree of verisimilitude in our opinions, in order to approach as near as possible to the clear and demonstrative conscience; and we must not be satisfied with probability, but when we can do no better.
1. See the Law of Nature and Nations, book i. chap. iii, § 4, and following; and the Duties of Man and a Citizen, book i. chap. i. sect, 5, 6.
2. See the Law of Nature and Nations, book i. chap. iii. § 4.
3. See Barbeyrac’s first note on the Duties of Man and a Citizen, book i. chap. i. § 5.
4. See part ii. chap. v. § 7.
5. See Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, book ii. chap. xx. § 19.