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

Francis Wayland


How Far We May Learn Our Duty by the Light of Nature

IT has been shown that we may, by observing the results of our actions upon individuals, and upon society, ascertain what is the will of our Creator concerning us. In this manner we may discover much moral truth, which would be unknown, were we left to the guidance of conscience unassisted; and we may derive many motives to virtue which would otherwise be inoperative.

I. By the light of nature we discover much moral truth which could never be discovered by conscience unassisted

1. Conscience indicates to us our obligations to others when our relations to them are discovered; and impels us toward that course of conduct which the understanding points out as corresponding with these obligations. But there are many obligations which conscience seems not to point out to men, and many ways of fulfilling these obligations which the understanding does not clearly indicate. In these respects, we may be greatly assisted by natural religion.

Thus, I doubt whether the unassisted conscience would teach the wrong of polygamy or of divorce. The Jews, even at the time of our Savior, had no conception that a marriage contract was obligatory for life. But any one who will observe the effects of polygamy upon families and societies, can have no doubt that the precept of the gospel on this subject is the moral law of the system under which we are. So, I do not know that unassisted conscience would remonstrate against what might be called reasonable revenge, or the operation of the Lex Talionis. But he who will observe the consequences of revenge, and those of forgiveness of injuries, will have no difficulty in deciding which course of conduct has been indicated as his duty by his Maker.

2. The extent of obligations, previously known to exist, is made known more clearly by the light of nature. Conscience might teach us the obligations to love our friends, or our countrymen, but it might not go farther. The results of different courses of conduct would clearly show that our Creator intended us to love all men, of every nation, and even our enemies.

3. It is by observing the results of our actions that we learn the limitations which our Creator has affixed to our desires, as we have shown in the chapter on happiness. The simple fact that gratification of our desires, beyond a certain limit, will produce more misery than happiness, addresses itself to our self-love, and forms a reason why that limit should not be transgressed. The fact that this limit was fixed by our Creator, and that he has thus intimated to us his will, addresses itself to our conscience, and places us under obligation to act as he has commanded, on pain of his displeasure.

4. In many cases where the obligation is acknowledged. we might not be able, without the light of natural religion, to decide in what manner it could best be discharged Thus, a man who felt conscious of his obligations as a parent, and wished to discharge them, would derive much valuable information by observing what mode of exhibiting paternal love had produced the happiest results. He would hence be able the better to decide what was required of him.

In this manner it cannot be doubted that much valuable knowledge of moral truth might be acquired, beyond what is attainable by unassisted conscience. But this is not all.

II. Natural religion presents additional motives to the practice of virtue.

1. It does this, in the first place, by more clearly setting before us the rewards of virtue, and the punishments of vice. Conscience forewarns us against crime, and inflicts Its own peculiar punishment upon guilt; but, natural religion informs us of the additional consequences, independent of ourselves, which attach to moral action, according to the constitution under which we are created. Thus, conscience might forewarn a man against dishonesty, and might inflict upon him the pains of remorse, if he had stolen; but her monition would surely derive additional power from an observation of the effect which must be produced upon individuals and societies by the practice of this immorality; and, also, by the contrary effects which must arise from the opposite virtue.

2. Still further. Natural religion presents us with more distinct and affecting views of the character of God than could be obtained without it. One of the first aspirations of a human soul is after an Intelligent First Cause; and the most universal dictate of conscience is, that this First Cause ought to be obeyed. Hence, every nation, how rude soever, be, has its gods, ana its religious services But such a notion of the Deity is cold and inoperative, when compared with that which may be derived from an intelligent observation of the laws of nature, physical and moral, which we see pervading the universe around us. In every moral law which has been written on the page of this world’s history, we discover a new lineament of the character of the Deity. Every moral attribute of God which we discover, imposes upon us a new obligation, and presents an additional motive why we should love and serve Him. Hence we see that the knowledge of God derived from the study of nature, is adapted to add greatly to the impulsive power of conscience.

We see, then, how large a field of moral knowledge is spread open before us, if we only, in a suitable manner, apply our understandings to the works of God around us. He has arranged all things, for the purpose of teaching us these lessons, and He has created our intellectual and moral nature expressly for the purpose of learning them. If, then, we do not use the powers which He has given us, for the purpose for which He has given them, He holds us responsible for the result. Thus said the prophet: “Because they regard not the works of the Lord, neither consider the operation of His hands, therefore, He shall destroy them, and not build them up.” Thus, the Scriptures, elsewhere, declare all men to be responsible for the correct use of all the knowledge of duty which God had set before them. St. Paul, Rom. 1:19, 20, asserts, “That which may be known of God, is manifest in (or to) them, for God hath showed it to them: so that (or therefore) they are without excuse.” Thus, he also declares, “They that sin without law, (that is, without a written revelation,) shall perish without law.” And thus we come to the general conclusion, that natural religion presents to all men a distinct and important means of knowing the character and will of God, and the obligations and duties of man; and that, for this knowledge, all men are justly held responsible.