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

Francis Wayland


Imperfection of Conscience; Necessity of Some Additional Moral Light

IT has been already remarked, that a distinction may be very clearly observed between right and wrong, and guilt and innocence. Right and wrong depend upon the relations under which we are created, and the obligations resulting from them, and are in their nature immutable. Guilt and innocence have respect to the individual, and are modified, moreover, by the amount of his knowledge of his duty, and are not decided solely by the fact that the action was or was not performed.

It is, moreover, to be observed, that the results of these two attributes of actions may be seen to differ. Thus, every right action is followed, in some way, with pleasure or benefit to the individual; and every wrong one, by pain or discomfort, irrespective of the guilt or innocence of the author of the act. Thus, in the present constitution of things, it is evident that a nation which had no knowledge of the wickedness of murder, revenge, uncleanness, or theft, would, if it violated the moral law in these respects, suffer the consequences which are attached to these actions by our Creator. And, on the contrary, a nation which practiced forgiveness, mercy, honesty, and purity, without knowing them to be right, would enjoy the benefits which are connected with such actions.

Now, whatever be the object oi this constitution, by which happiness or misery are consequent upon actions as right or wrong, whether it be as a monition, or to inform us of the will of God concerning us, one thing seems evident, it is not to punish actions as innocent or guilty: for the happiness or misery of which we speak, affect men simply in consequence of the action, and without any regard to the innocence or guilt of the actor.

Let us now add another element. Suppose a man to know the obligations which bind him to his Creator; and, also, what is his Creator’s will respecting a certain action; and that he then deliberately violates this obligation. Every man feels that this violation of obligation deserves punishment on its own account; and, also, punishment in proportion to the greatness of the obligation violated. Hence, the consequences of any action are to be considered in a two-fold light; first, the consequences depending upon the present constitution of things; and, secondly, those which follow the action, as innocent or guilty; that is, as violating or not violating our obligations to our Creator.

These two things are plainly to be considered distinct from each other. Of the one, we can form some estimate; of the other, none whatever. Thus, whatever be the design of the constitution, by which pain should be consequent upon wrong actions, irrespective of guilt; whether it be to admonish us of dangers, or to intimate to us the will of our Creator; we can have some conception how great it would probably be. But, if we consider the action as guilty; that is, as violating the known will of our Creator; no one can conceive how great the punishment of such an act ought to be. for no one can conceive how vast is the obligation which binds a creature to his God: nor, on the other hand, can any one conceive how vast would be the reward, if this obligation were perfectly fulfilled.

As, then, every moral act is attended with pleasure or pain, and as every one also exposes us to the punishments or rewards of guilt or innocence, both of which manifestly transcend our power of conception; and, if such be our constitution, that every moment is rendering our moral condition either better or worse; specially, if this world be a state of probation, tending to a state where change is impossible; it is manifestly of the greatest possible importance that we should both know our duty, and be furnished with all suitable impulsions to perform it. The constitution under which man is formed, in this respect, has been explained at the close of the chapter on virtue. And were the intellect and conscience of man to be in a perfect state, and were he in entire harmony with the universe around him, there can be no doubt that his happiness, in the present state, would be perfectly secured.

It would not, however, be certain that, with intellectual and moral powers suited to his station, man would be in no need of farther communication from his Maker. Although his feeling of obligation, and his desire to discharge it, might be perfect, yet he might not be fully aware of the manner in which this obligation should be discharged. Thus, though our first parents were endowed with a perfect moral constitution, yet it was necessary that God should make to them a special revelation respecting some portion of his will. Such might also be the case in any other instance of a perfect moral constitution, in a being of limited capacity.

How much more evidently is additional light necessary, when it is remembered that the moral constitution of man seems manifestly to be imperfect? This may be observed in several respects:

1. There are many obligations under which man is created, both to his fellow-creatures and to God, which his unassisted conscience does not discover. Such are the obligations to universal forgiveness, to repentance, and many others.

2. When the obligations are acknowledged, man frequently errs in respect to the mode in which they are to be discharged. Thus, a man may acknowledge his obligations to God, but may suppose that God will be pleased with a human sacrifice. A man may acknowledge his obligation to love his children, but may believe that this obligation may best be discharged by putting them to death. Now, it is manifest, that, in both these cases, a man must suffer all the present evils resulting from such a course, just as much as though he knowingly violated these obligations.

3. When men both know the obligations under which they are created, and the mode in which they are to be discharged, they wilfully disobey the monitions of conscience. We act according to the impulsions of blind, headlong passion, regardless of our own best good, and of the welfare of others, in despite of what we know to be the will of our Maker. It is the melancholy fact, that men do deliberately violate the commands of God, for the sake of the most transient and trifling gratification. Hence the hackneyed confession:

    Video, proboque meliora;
    Deteriora sequor.

And hence it is evident that not only are men exposing themselves to the pains attendant upon wrong actions during the present life; but they are also exposing themselves to the punishments, how great and awful soever these may be, which are incurred by violating our obligations to our Creator and our Judge. The state of human nature in these respects I suppose to be vividly set forth by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, ch. 7, v. 7-25.

If such be our state, it is manifest that under such a moral constitution as we have above described, our condition must be sufficiently hopeless. Unless something be done, it would seem that we must all fail of a large portion of the happiness, to which we might otherwise in the present life attain; and, still more, must be exposed to a condemnation greater than we are capable of conceiving.

Under such circumstances, it surely is not improbable, that a benevolent Deity should make use of some additional means, to inform us of our duty, and thus warn us of the evils which we were bringing upon ourselves. Still less is it improbable, that a God, delighting in right, should take some means to deliver us from the guilty habits which we: have formed, and restore us to that love and practice of virtue, which can alone render us pleasing to him. That God was under any obligation to do this, is not asserted; but that a being of infinite compassion and benevolence should do it, though not under any obligation, is surely not improbable.

Should a revelation be made to remedy the defects of man’s moral state, we can form some conceptions of what night be expected in order to accomplish such a result.

1. Our defective knowledge of moral obligation might be remedied, by a clear view of the attributes of God, and of the various relations which we sustain to him.

2. Our ignorance of the mode in which our obligations should be discharged, might be dispelled, either by a more expanded view of the consequences of actions, or by direct precept.

3. In order to overcome our temper of disobedience, I know not what means might be employed. A reasonable one would seem to be, a manifestation of the character of the Deity to us, in some new relation, creating some new obligations, and thus opening a new source of moral motives within the soul of man.

The first and second of these objects are accomplished, as I suppose, by the discoveries of natural religion, and by the promulgation of the moral law, under the Old Testament dispensation. The third is accomplished, by the revelation of the facts of the New Testament, and specially, by the revelation of God, as the author of a new and a remedial dispensation.

Hence, we see that the sources of moral light, irrespective of conscience, are,

1. The precepts of natural religion.

2. The precepts and motives of the sacred Scriptures.

From what has been remarked, in the present chapter, a few inferences naturally arise, which I will insert in this place.

It is mentioned above, that the evil consequences of doing wrong, are manifestly of two kinds. First, those connected with an action as right or wrong, and arising from the present constitution of things; and, secondly, those resulting from the action as innocent or guilty; that is, as wilfully violating, or not, the obligations due to our Maker.

Now, from this plain distinction, we see,

1. That no sin can be of trifling consequence. The least as well as the greatest, being a violation of an obligation more sacred and awful than we can conceive, must expose us to punishment more dreadful than we can comprehend. If it be said, the thing in itself is a trifle, the answer is obvious: How wicked must it be, for the sake of a trifle, to violate so sacred and solemn an obligation as that which binds us to our Creator!

2. Hence we see how unfounded is the assertion sometimes made that God could not, for the momentary actions of this short life, justly inflict upon us any severe or long enduring punishment. If an act, whether long or short, be a violation of our obligations to God; if ill-desert be according to the greatness of the obligation violated; and if no one can pretend to comprehend the vastness of the obligations which bind the creature to the Creator; then, no one can, à priori, pretend to decide what is the punishment justly due to every act of wilful wickedness. It is evident that no one can decide this question but he who fully knows the relation between the parties; that is, the Creator himself.

3. Since every impure, revengeful, deceitful or envious thought is a violation of our obligations to our Maker, and, much more, the words and actions to which these thoughts give rise; and since even the imperfect conscience of every individual accuses him of countless instances, if not of habits, of such violation: if the preceding observations be just, it is manifest that our present moral condition involves the elements of much that is alarming. It surely must be the duty of every reasonable man, to inquire, with the deepest solicitude, whether any way of escape from punishment, and of moral renovation, have been revealed by the Being against whom we have sinned; and, if any such revelation have been made, it must be our most solemn duty to conform our lives to such principles as shall enable us to avail ourselves of its provisions.

4. The importance of this duty will be still more clearly evident, if we consider, that the present is a state of probation, in which alone moral change is possible; and which must speedily terminate in a state, by necessity, unchangeable; for which, also, the present state therefore offers us the only opportunity of preparation. To neglect either to possess ourselves of all the knowledge in our power on this subject, or to neglect to obey any reasonable precepts which afford the least probability of improving our condition for the future, seems a degree of folly for which it is really impossible to find an adequate epithet.

5. Nor does it render this folly the less reprehensible, for a man gravely to assert, that we do not know any thing about the future world, and, therefore, it is needless to inquire respecting it. This is to assert, without inquiry what could only be reasonably asserted after the most ful and persevering inquiry. No man can reasonably asset, that we know nothing respecting the other world, until he has examined every system of religion within his knowledge, and, by the fair and legitimate use of his understanding, shown conclusively that none of them throw any light upon the subject. By what right, therefore, can a man utter such an assertion, who, at the outset, declares that he will examine none of them? What should we think of the man who declared that he would not study astronomy, for that no one knew more about the heavens than he did himself? Yet many men neglect to inform themselves on the subject of religion for no better reason. It is very remarkable, that men do not perceive the absurdity of an assert on respecting religion, which they would immediately perceive, if uttered respecting any thing else.