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

Francis Wayland


Is There A Conscience?

BY conscience, or the moral sense, is meant, that faculty by which we discern the moral quality of actions, and by which we are capable of certain affections in respect to this quality.

By faculty, is meant any particular part of our constitution, by which we become affected by the various qualities and relations of beings around us. Thus, by taste, we are conscious of the existence of beauty and deformity; by perception, we acquire a knowledge of the existence and qualities of the material world. And, in general, if we discern any quality in the universe, or produce or suffer any change, it seems almost a truism to say, that we have a faculty, or power, for doing. A man who sees, must have eyes, or the faculty for seeing; and if he have not eyes, this is considered a sufficient reason why he should not see. And thus, it is universally admitted, that there may be a thousand qualities in nature, of which we have no knowledge, for the simple reason, that we have not been created with the faculties for discerning them. There is a world without us, and a world within us, which exactly correspond to each other. Unless both exist, we can never be conscious of the existence of either.

Now, that we do actually observe a moral quality in the actions of men, must, I think, be admitted. Every human being is conscious, that, from childhood, he has observed it We do not say, that all men discern this quality with equal accuracy, any more than that they all see with equal distinctness but we say, that all men perceive it in some actions; and that there is a multitude of cases in which their perceptions of it will be found universally to agree. And, moreover, this quality, and the feeling which accompanies the perception of it, are unlike those derived from every other faculty.

The question would then seem reduced to this, Do we perceive this quality of actions by a single faculty, or by a combination of faculties? I think it must be evident, from what has been already stated, that this notion is, in its nature, simple and ultimate, and distinct from every other notion. Now, if this be the case, it seems self-evident, that we must have a distinct and separate faculty, to make us acquainted with the existence of this distinct and separate quality. This is the case in respect to all other distinct qualities: it is, surely, reasonable to suppose, that it would be the case with this, unless some reason can be shown to the contrary.

But, after all, this question is, to the moral philosopher, of but comparatively little importance. All that is necessary to his investigations is, that it be admitted that there is such a quality, and that men are so constituted as to perceive it, and to be susceptible of certain affections, in consequence of that perception. Whether these facts are accounted for, on the supposition of the existence of a single faculty, or of a combination of faculties, will not affect the question of moral obligation. All that is necessary to the prosecution of the science is, that it be admitted that there is such a quality in actions, and that man is endowed with a constitution capable of bringing him into relation to it.

It may, however, be worth while to consider some of the objections which have been urged against the supposition of the existence of such a faculty.

I. It has been said, if such a faculty has been bestowed, it must have been bestowed universally: but it is not bestowed universally; for, what some nations consider right, other nations consider wrong, as infanticide, patricide, dueling, etc

1. To this it may be answered, first, the objection seems to admit the universality of the existence of conscience, or the power of discerning in certain actions a moral quality. It admits that, every where, men make this distinction; but affirms, that, in different countries, they refer the quality to different actions. Now, how this difference is to be accounted for, may be a question; but the fact, as stated in the objection, shows the universality of the power of observing such a quality in actions.

2. But, secondly, we have said that we discover the moral quality of actions in the intention. Now, it is not the fact, that this difference exists, as stated in the objection, if the intention of actions be considered. Where was it not considered right to intend the happiness of parents? Where was it not considered wrong to intend their misery? Where was it ever considered right to intend to requite kindness by injury? and where was it ever considered wrong to intend to requite kindness with still greater kindness? In regard to the manner in which these intentions may be fulfilled, there may be a difference; but as to the moral quality of these intentions themselves, as well as of many others, there is a very universal agreement among men.

3. And still more, it will be seen, on examination, that, in these very cases, in which wrong actions are practiced, they are justified on the ground of a good intention, or of some view of the relations between the parties, which, if true, would render them innocent. Thus, if infanticide be justified, it is on the ground, that this world is a place of misery, and that the infant is better off not to encounter its troubles; that is, that the parent wishes or intends well to the child: or else it is defended on the ground, that the relation between parent and child is such as to confer on the one the right of life and death over the other; and, therefore, that to take its life is as innocent as the slaying of a brute, or the destruction of a vegetable. Thus, also, are parricide, and revenge, and various other wrong actions, defended. Where can the race of men be found, be they ever so savage, who need to be told that ingratitude is wrong, that parents ought to love their children, or that men ought t be submissive and obedient to the Supreme Divinity?

4. And still more, I think one of the strongest exemplifications of the universality of moral distinctions, is found in the character o many of the ancient heathen. They perceived these distinctions, and felt and obeyed the impulses of conscience, even though at variance with all the examples of the deities whom they worshipped. Thus, says Rousseau, “Cast your eyes over all the nations of the world, and all the histories of nations. Amid so many inhuman and absurd superstitions, amid that prodigious diversity of manners and characters, you will find every where the same principles and distinctions of moral good and evil. The paganism of the ancient world produced, indeed, abominable gods, who, on earth, would have been shunned or punished as monsters; and who offered, as a picture of supreme happiness, only crimes to commit, or passions to satiate. But Vice, armed with this sacred authority, descended in vain from the eternal abode. She found in the heart of man, a moral instinct to repel her. The continence of Xenocrates was admired by those who celebrated the debaucheries of Jupiter. The chaste Lucretia adored the unchaste Venus. The most intrepid Roman sacrificed to fear. He invoked the god who dethroned his father, and died without a murmur by the hand of his own. The most contemptible divinities were served by the greatest men. The holy voice of nature, stronger than that of the gods, made itself heard, and respected, and obeyed on earth, and seemed to banish to the confines of heaven, guilt and the
guilty.” Quoted by Dr. Brown, Lecture 75.

II. Again, the objection has been made in another form. It is said, that savages violate, without remorse or compunction, the plainest principles of right. Such is the case when they are guilty of revenge and licentiousness.

This objection has been partly considered before. It may, however, be added,

First. No men, nor any class of men, violate every moral precept without compunction, without the feeling of guilt, and the consciousness of desert of punishment.

Secondly. Hence the objection will rather prove the existence of a defective or imperfect conscience, than that no such faculty exists. The same objection would prove us destitute of taste or of understanding; because these faculties exist, only in an imperfect state, among savages and uncultivated men.

III. It has been objected, again, that, if we suppose this faculty to exist, it is, after all, useless; for if a man please to violate it, and to suffer the pain, then this is the end of the question, and, as Dr. Paley says, “the moral instinct man has nothing more to offer.”

To this it may be answered:

The objection proceeds upon a mistake respecting the function of conscience. Its use is, to teach us to discern our moral obligations, and to impel us towards the corresponding action. It is not pretended, by the believers in a moral sense, that man may not, after all, do as he chooses. All that they contend for is, that he is constituted with such a faculty, and that the possession of it is necessary to his moral accountability. It is in his power to obey it or to disobey it, just as he pleases. The fact that a man may obey or disobey conscience, no more proves that it does not exist, than the fact that he sometimes does, and sometimes does not obey, passion, proves that he is destitute of passion.