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

Francis Wayland


Of The Manner In Which The Decision Of Conscience Is Expressed

Whoever will attentively observe the operations of his own mind, when deciding upon a moral question, and when carrying that decision into effect, will, I think, be conscious of several distinct forms of moral feeling. These I suppose to be the following:

I. Suppose we are deliberating, respecting an action, before performing it.

1. If we pause, and candidly consider the nature of an action, which involves, in any respect, our relations with others; amidst the various qualities which characterize. the action, we shall not fail to perceive its moral quality. We may perceive it to be gratifying or self-denying, courteous or uncivil, in favor of, or against, our interest; but, distinct from all these, and differing from them all, we may always perceive, that it seems to us to be either right or wrong. Let a man recollect any of the cases in his own history, in which he has been called upon to act under important responsibility, and he will easily remember, both the fact, and the pain and distress produced by the conflict of these opposite impulsions. It is scarcely necessary to remark, that we easily, or, at least, with much greater ease, perceive this quality in the actions of others. We discern the mote in our brother’s eye much sooner than the beam in our own eye.

2. Besides this discriminating power, I think we may readily observe a distinct impulse to do that which we conceive to be right, and to leave undone that which we conceive to be wrong. This impulse we express by the words ought, and ought not. Thus, we say it is right to tell the truth; and I ought to tell it. It is wrong to tell a lie; and I ought not to tell it. Ought, and ought not, seem to convey the abstract idea of right and wrong, together with the other notion of impulsion to do, or not to do, a particular action. Thus, we use it always to designate a motive to action, as we do passion, or self-love, or any other motive power. If we are asked, why we performed any action, we reply, we acted thus, because it gratified our desires, or because it was for our interest, upon the whole, or because we felt that we ought to act thus. Either of them is considered sufficient to account for the fact; that is, either of them explains the motive or impulse, in obedience to which we acted. It is, also, manifest, that we use the term, not merely to designate an impulse, but, also, an obligation to act in conformity with it. Thus we say, we ought to do a thing, meaning that we are not only impelled towards the action, but that we are under an imperative obligation to act thus. This is still more distinctly seen, when we speak of another. When we say of a friend, that he ought to do any thing, as we cannot judge of the impulses which move him, we refer, principally, to this
conviction of obligation, which, above every other, should govern him.

The power of this impulse of conscience is most distinctly seen, when it comes into collision With the impulse of strong and vehement passion. It is then, that the human soul is agitated to the full extent of its capacity for emotion. And this contest generally continues, specially if we have decided in opposition to conscience, until the action is commenced. The voice of conscience is then lost amid the whirlwind of passion; and it is not heard until after the deed is done. It is on this account, that this state of mind is frequently selected by the poets, as a subject for delineation. Shakespeare frequently alludes to all these offices of conscience, with the happiest effect.

The constant monitory power of conscience is thus illustrated, by one of the murderers about to assassinate the Duke of Clarence: “I’ll not meddle with it (conscience); it is a dangerous thing; it makes a man a coward; a man cannot steal, but it accuseth him; a man cannot swear, but it checks him. ‘Tis a blushing, shamefaced spirit, that mutinies in a man’s bosom: it fills one full of obstacles. It made me once restore a purse of gold, that, by chance, if found. It beggars any man that keeps it.” Richard III, Act i, Sc. 4. The whole scene is a striking exemplification of the workings of conscience, even in the bosoms of the most abandoned of men. The wicked Clarence appeals to the consciences of his murderers; and they strengthen themselves against his appeals, by referring to his own atrocities, and thus awakening in their own bosoms the conviction that he ought to die.

The state of mind of a man meditating a wicked act and the temporary victory of conscience, are seen in the flowing extract from Macbeth. He recalls the relations in which Duncan stood to him, and these produce so strong a conviction of the wickedness of the murder, that he decides no to commit it.

      “If the assassination
      Could trammel up the consequence, and catch.
      With his surcease, success; that but this blow
      Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
      But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
      We’d jump the life to come. — But, in these cases
      We still have judgment here; that we but teach
      Bloody instructions, which, being, taught, return
      To plague the inventor. This even-handed justice
      Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice
      To our own lips. He’s here in double trust:
      First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
      Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
      Who should against his murderer shut the door,
      Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
      Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
      So clear in has great office, that his virtues
      Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
      The deep damnation of his taking of.
      * * * * * *
      I have no spur
      To prick the sides of my intent, but only
      Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself.”
      Macbeth, Act i, Sc. 5.

The anguish which attends upon an action not yet commenced, but only resolved upon, while we still doubt of its lawfulness, is finely illustrated by the same author, in the case of Brutus, who, though a man of great fortitude, was, by the anguish of contending emotions, deprived of sleep, and so changed in behavior, as to give his wife reason to suspect the cause of his disquietude:

      “Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,
      I have not slept.
      Between the acting of a dreadful thing
      And the first motion, all the interim is
      Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
      The genius, and the mortal instruments,
      are then in council; and the state of man,
      Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
      The nature of an insurrection.”
      J. Caesar, Act ii, Sc. 1.

The same contest between conscience and the lower propensities, is. as I suppose, graphically described by the Apostle Paul, in the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Romans.

II. Suppose now an action to be done. I think that every one who examines his own heart will be conscious of another class of feelings consequent on those to which we have just alluded.

1. If he save obeyed the impulses of conscience, and resisted successfully the impulses at variance with it, he will be conscious of a feeling of innocence, of self-approbation, of desert of reward. If the action have been done by another, he will feel towards him a sentiment of respect, of moral approbation, and a desire to see him rewarded, and, on many occasions, to reward him himself.

2. If he have disobeyed the impulses of conscience, he will be conscious of guilt, of self-abasement, and selfish approbation or remorse, and of desert of punishment. If it have been done by another, he will be conscious of a sentiment of moral disapprobation, and of a desire that the offender should be punished, and, in many cases, of a desire to punish him himself. Of course, I do not say that all these feelings can be traced, by reflection upon every action; but I think that, in all cases in which our moral sensibilities are at all aroused, we can trace some, and frequently all of them.

In accordance with these remarks, several facts may be noticed.

The boldness of innocence, and the timidity of guilt, so often observed by moralists and pets, may be thus easily accounted for. The virtuous man is conscious of deserving nothing but reward. Whom, then, should he fear? The guilty man is conscious of desert of punishment, and is aware that every one who knows of his offence desires to punish him; and as he never is certain but that every one knows it, whom can he trust? And, still more. there is, with the feeling of desert of punishment, a disposition to submit to punishment arising from our own self-disapprobation and remorse. This depresses the spirit, and humbles the courage of the offender, far more than even the external circumstances by which he is surrounded.

Thus, says Solomon, “the wicked flee when no man pursueth but the righteous is bold as a lion.”

      “What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted?
      Thrice is he armed, who hath his quarrel just;
      And he but naked, though lock’d up in steel,
      Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.”
      2d Part Henry VI, Act iii, Sc. 2.

      Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind;
      The thief doth fear each bush an officer.”
      2d Part Henry VI, Act v, Sc. 6.

      “I feel within me
      A peace, above all earthly dignity.
      A still and quiet conscience.
      Henry VIII, Act iii. Sc. 2.

The effect of guilt:

      “No wonder why
      I felt rebuked beneath his eye;
      I might have known, there was but one,
      Whose look could quell Lord Marmion.”
      Marmion, Cant. vi, 17.

      “Curse on yon base marauder’s lance
      And doubly curs’d my failing brand!
      A sinful heart makes feeble hand.”
      Marmion, Cant. vi, St. 32.

It is in consequence of the same facts, that crime is, with so great certainty, detected.

A man, before the commission of crime, can foresee no reason why he might not commit it, with the certainty of escaping detection. He can perceive no reason why he should be even suspected; and can imagine a thousand methods, in which suspicion, awakened, might with perfect ease be allayed. But, as soon as he becomes guilty, his relations to his fellow-men are entirely changed. He becomes suspicious of every one, and thus sees every occurrence through a false medium. Hence, he cannot act like an innocent man; and this very difference in his conduct, is very often the sure means of his detection. When to this effect, produced upon the mind by guilt, is added the fact, that every action must, by the condition of our being, be attended by antecedents and consequents beyond our control, all of which lead directly to the discovery of the truth, it is not wonderful, that the guilty so rarely escape. Hence it has grown into a proverb, “murder will out;” and such we generally find to be the fact.

This effect of guilt upon human action, has been frequently remarked.

Thus, Macbeth, after the murder of Duncan:

      “How is it with me when every noise appals me?”
      Act ii, Sc. 2

      “Guiltiness will speak, though tongues were out of use.”

The same fact is frequently asserted in the sacred Scriptures, Thus, “The Lord is known by the judgment that he executeth; the wicked is snared in the work of his own hands.”

“Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished.”

I hope that I need not apologize for introducing into such a discussion so many illustrations from poetry. They are allowed, on all hands, to be accurate delineations of the workings of the human mind, and to have been made by most accurate observers. They were made, also, without the possibility of bias from any theory; and therefore ane of great value, when they serve to confirm any theoretical views, with which they may chance to coincide. They show, at least, in what lights poets, whose only object is to observe the human heart, have considered conscience, and what they have supposed to be its functions, and its mode of operation.