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science, because it distinguishes right and wrong, and approves or disapproves of our actions. There seems to be a particular reason why we should account it someihing more than an operation of the understanding, namely, that there is not a simple perception of agreement and disagreement between the standard of duty and our actions, but an approbation or disapprobation of them, with an anticipation, pleasant or painful, of the consequences. By philosophers, it has been sometimes called the moral sense. They have given it the designation of a sense, to signify that it perceives right and wrong, as the taste perceives sweet and bitter; and of moral sense, to specify the objects about which it is conversant. But, although the term, sense, is sometimes applied to our internal feelings, yet I look upon the phrase, moral sense, as an incongruous
I combination of terms, and prefer conscience, not only because it occurs in the Scriptures, and is adopted by theologians, but because it is free from ambiguity, and, from association at least, reminds us of an authoritative rule of action, and of a supreme Judge; while the moral sense implies a reference to neither. Besides, to call conscience a sense, implies, that we have instinctive moral perceptions; a supposition which does not accord with experience, and proceeds upon the gratuitous assumption, that this faculty is different from all our other mental faculties, which remain in a dormant state till they are excited, and require culture to fit them for the performance of their functions.
It has been objected against considering conscience as an original power of the mind, not only that it seems to be wanting in some individuals, but that its operations are not uniform. What is esteemed virtuous at one time, becomes vicious at another, and conscience is found to pronounce opposite sentences upon the same action. What the ancient Greeks, for example, practised without shame, is now held in universal abhorrence; and, even in modern times, if you only pass a river, a mountain, or an imaginary line, you shall find different ideas of morality prevailing upon the one side and the other. Hence, conscience appears to be a factitious thing; the result, not of the constitution of our nature, but of education and custom. Having been taught to look upon one action as criminal, we refrain from it, and upon another as good, we practise it; but a different training would have inverted our ideas, and made us regard the former as laudable or harmless, and the latter as infamous or unbecoming. But this reasoning against the existence of a moral principle, is more specious than solid, and might be employed with equal success to disprove any other of our mental faculties. Might it not be shown in the same way, that we have not the power of perceiving truth, because some individuals are born idiots, and men in all ages have been subject to the strangest illusions, and have embraced innumerable errors; and what has been admitted as unquestionably true at one time, has been rejected as manifestly false at another. Did we mean by conscience, an instinctive perception of the moral qualities of actions, it would be a conclusive argument against it, that men's perceptions have been so various and contradictory; but as we mean only a power in the human mind of perceiving them, the modifications to which it is subject from external circumstances, will not appear to any sound reasoner to be a proof of its non-existence.
I have not given a formal definition of conscience; but from the preceding observations you will perceive what I understand by it. It is that faculiy which perceives right and wrong in actions, approves or disapproves of them, anticipates their consequences under the moral administration of God, and is thus the cause of peace or disquietude of mind.
A question has been proposed, whether it is possible for conscience to err; and, although it seems to be a plain one, yet it has not received a uniform answer.
Some have adopted the negative, affirming that conscience cannot err. They distinguish between a judgment of the mind, and a judgment of con
science, and say, that the former may be false, but that the latter is always true; not reflecting that, if conscience has any connexion with the understanding, as it must have if it is founded on knowledge, it must be subject to the same errors with the understanding. To support their opinion, they define conscience to be a clear and certain knowledge of the objects with which it is conversant. Now, there is no doubt tat, if this definition is admitted, the inference which they draw from it is undeniable ; for it is manifest, that, if our conceptions of any subject are distinct and adequate, our judgments concerning it must be conformable to truth. The amount, therefore, of what they say, is, that we cannot be mistaken when we are certainly right; but, for this profound discovery, no man, I presume, will think himself obliged to its authors. We may affirm any thing of any thing, if we are allowed to give an arbitrary definition of it. And this definition of conscience is undoubtedly arbitrary ; for conscience, so far as it implies knowledge, is not perfect and infallible knowledge, but that degree of it which we have obtained by the exercise of our intellectual faculties, and with which many errors may be blended.
But some maintain the infallibility of conscience upon a different ground. If conscience may err, they say, it follows that God has deceived us; for he gave us this faculty, and it is his candle shining within us. If God had given conscience as the only rule of our conduct, if he had commanded us to rely with implicit confidence upon its dictates, and if it were still as perfect as it ever was, we might say that the errors into which we are led by it are imputable to its Author. But not one of these pre-requisites is true. Conscience is not our only rule, as we shall afterwards see; its dictates are not therefore to be implicitly obeyed, and it has not continued uninjured amidst the ruin of our moral nature. Conscience, which derives all its light from the understanding, must receive it, if I may speak so, obscured and discoloured as it flows from its source. Does any man say, that, when our understandings err, God has deceived us? No; and let no man say that he has deceived us when conscience errs; for, what is conscience but the application of the knowledge of the understanding to our practice, as a test to examine it? By what law was God bound to preserve conscience from being tainted by sin, any more than our other faculties? It was, indeed, impossible to have preserved it in purity, when the understanding, upon which it depends, was perverted and blinded. It is inconceivable how this notion of the infallibility of conscience could have been adopted by any man who had read his Bible, had reflected upon his own experience, had observed the conduct of others, and, in a word, was possessed of an ordinary portion of common sense. Such is a specimen of the absurd opinions which 'Theologians of great name have sometimes advanced. As they come in our way, we must take notice of them; but in doing so, there is a waste of precious time.
Let us now proceed to the rules of conscience. It is evident that conscience is not a rule to itself. Man comes into the world entirely destitute of knowledge, and gradually acquires it as his faculties expand; but in his state of greatest improvement, he is too ignorant of God and himself to be qualified to be his own guide. It is not enough that his intention is good. If he had been created without power to distinguish between right and wrong, or had been left without the means of ascertaining his duty, there might have appeared to be a reason for saying, that to mean well would be sufficient to recommend him to his Maker. But, since there are moral distinctions, and the knowledge of them is confessedly not beyond the reach of the human faculties, it is not to be imagined that our conduct can be acceptable to God, unless it be conformable to them. Those distinctions are founded in the nature of things, or in the will of the Creator, and must therefore be a law to all reasonable creatures. To suppose the intention to sanctify our actions, is to suppose that VOL. II.-34
virtue and vice are not essentially different; that actions themselves are nothing in a moral estimate, and that the only thing to be considered is the motive or the end. Thus man would, indeed, be a law to himself, and would be accountable only for his designs; every other thing would be exempt from the Divine jurisdiction. Conscience, then, must have a rule. It is plain that the rule is not the example of others, although wise and good, because the best of men are imperfect, and are liable to errors and infirmities; because, even their virtuous actions are not to be imitated, unless we be in similar circumstances, and in the application great mistakes may be committed; and because, without another rule, we could not know whether they were right or wrong. It is implied in the proposal to imitate them, that their actions are good; and this supposition further implies, that there is a standard to which they are conformable. Thus we are led, at the second step beyond them, to that standard as the rule; and exhortations to imitate them, whether delivered in the Scriptures, or by our fellow-men, can only be understood as a call to do what they have done, when we know it to be right from some other source.
I may add, that the opinion of men is not the rule of conscience, any more than their example, because they may mislead us, either from design or from their own previous error, Hence we are commanded to call no man master, and to give this honour to Christ alone; and it is said in reference to the dogmas and commands of men, “ To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.". In the church of Rome, the doctrine of probability is maintained, or the doctrine that a man may safely do any thing for which there is a probable reason. And how is this probability to be obtained ? Not by searching the Scriptures, but by consulting the Doctors; and if a few of them concur in sentiment, nay, if even one of them pronounce that a thing may be safely done, the person whom he advises may do it, whatever it is, without incurring guilt. Thus the whole law of God has been disannulled, and a sanction has been given to every abomination; for doctors have been found in that Church, who have patronized by their authority every conceivable vice. This is an extreme case; but it shows us the danger of submitting to be guided by the opinions of men. As they and we are subject to the same standard of duty, their opinions can be considered only as their interpretations of the law, which are not authoritative, and ought to be compared with the law itself before they are received.
Casuistical writers distinguish the rules of conscience into two classes. The first is the original, supreme, and independent rule, namely, the will of God, by whatever means it is made known to us. The second class comprehends the laws of men, and our own voluntary engagements, as vows, oaths, promises, and covenants. Now, there is no doubt that a man is bound in conscience to fulfil the engagements into which he has entered to God, and to his fellow-men; that they lay him under an obligation which he cannot violate without guilt, it being always presupposed that they are lawful, and that they constitute rules by which his conduct should be regulated. It is equally certain that we are subject to the authority of others, as parents, masters, and magistrates, whose commands we ought to obey; and their commands may be called rules of conscience, as by them different classes of relative duties are pointed out and enjoined; yet they are only subordinate rules, and in fact are no rules at all, if we understand by a rule, a regulation possessing intrinsic authority. Whatever power our superiors may have to enforce obedience, conscience duly enlightened does not recognise their authority, unless it perceive an agreement between their commands and the law of God. In truth, the commands of our superiors stand in the same relation to conscience, in
* Isa. viii. 20.
which the sentences of inferior magistrates stand to the subjects of a state. The latter have no authority in themselves, and all their authority is derived from the law of the land; insomuch that, if they are not conformable to it, they may be treated with contempt, and the magistrate would be punished if he should proceed to enforce them. The power of our superiors over us is founded in the law of God, made known by the light of nature or by revelation; their commands are binding only when that law gives them its sanction; and even our own engagements are not obligatory unless they accord with it, for a promise, a covenant, an oath, a vow to do what is sinful, is in itself null and void, and guilt will be incurred, not by violating but performing it. It follows that the moral obligation of our own engagements, and the moral obligation of the commands of our superiors, are resolvable into the will of God. Here, as in the former cases, our reasoning ends; and therefore, in strict language, his will is the only rule. There is danger in assigning this office to the commands of men, however much we may qualify it. The ignorant and the careless may be led to ascribe more to human authority than its due; and if they should not go so far as to maintain, with the infidel philosopher,* that virtue and vice are created by the will of the civil magistrate, may however imagine that rulers in church and state have the power of dictating to conscience, of subjecting our civil and religious liberty to restraints to which it would be sinful to refuse to submit, and of making things indifferent, to be duties as sacred as the most express injunctions of the divine law. The apostle Paul, when giving direction to Christians with respect to their civil duties, calls
them to be subject to their rulers, “not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake." But does he mean to insinuate that any new obligation upon conscience arises from their commands ? No; his own reasoning shows that the obligation results entirely from the authority of God. “Wherefore ye must needs be subject,” that is, as stated in the preceding verse, because “ he is the minister of God;" and he thus expresses himself in the beginning of the chapter.
“ Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers, for there is no power but of God; the powers that he are ordained of God.”+ Magistrates, being armed with the power of the state, may compel their subjects either to do what they please, or to suffer; but their moral power is derived from, and limited by the law of God; and it is only when they are considered as acting by his authority, that conscience calls upon us to obey them.
It appears, then, that the rule of conscience is the will of God, or his command which prescribes our duty. This will is the rule of obedience to all intelligent creatures; it is the rule to angels, as we learn from these words of the Psalmist, “ Bless the Lord, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word.”! It was the rule to our Saviour when he sojourned among men. “My meat,” he said, " is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.”'S To the rule which directs angels, and directed our Redeemer, it is right that we should conform. This will of God is wise and just, and there would be impiety in supposing that there could be any obliquity or irregularity in the conduct which it
prescribes. As it is wise and righteous, so it is good and beneficent, always aiming at our welfare, as well as the glory of our Maker; for the tendency of all the commands which it issues is to promote the order and happiness of the universe. It is the will of the Creator, to which creatures should bow with profound reverence. It is the will of a Master, whom his servants ought to obey. It is the will of a Father, which his children should regard not only with respect, but with gratitude.
The will of God is known by the light of nature. Some notions of morality
+ Rom. xiii. 1. 4, 5.
+ Pg. ciii. 20.
& John iv. 34.
are found among those who do not enjoy the advantages of revelation; and these are accompanied with a sense of obligation; that is, there is a conviction in the minds of men that they ought to do some things, and ought not to do other things. There remain treatises on morals drawn up by the Greeks and Romans, in perusing which, while we observe many defects, we cannot but admire the progress which they had made in the investigation of the various classes of relative duties. It is evident too, that conscience performed its office among them, not only from particular instances of its power in disquieting and alarming certain distinguished transgressors, but from express references to it, and their recorded declarations, that some actions were pleasing, and others were offensive to the gods. Mens sibi conscia recti, was a good conscience, and convictus conscientiâ, was a man condemned by his own mind. This is expressed by the apostle Paul in the following words: "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves ; which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one an
To Christians the rule of conscience is the word of God, in which his will is fully and clearly expressed. It is “protitable for doctrine, for reproof, for
“ correction, for instruction in righteousness," and is able to make us “perfect, and thoroughly to furnish us for every good work.”To those who enjoy it, reason is only necessary to enable them to understand the propositions contained in it, to collect together the precepts which are scattered here and there, and to apply them to the various cases which occur in the progress of life. Sometimes the Scriptures enter into detail ; but had they attempted to point out all the minutiæ of duty, they would have swelled to such a size as would have defeated their design, because few could have found leisure to peruse them, and still fewer would have been accurately acquainted with their multifarious contents. In studying them, therefore, with a view to the direction of conscience, it is necessary to attend to such particulars as the following. They sometimes content themselves with laying down principles, and leave it to us to deduce the consequences. They forbid the species, in forbidding the genus under which it is included. Thus, when they condemn injustice in general, they condemn its endless modifications. At other times, by condemning one species, they condemn all the other species which are comprehended under the same genus. The prohibition of adultery in the seventh commandment, extends to every kind of uncleanness. When an external action is commanded or forbidden, the law is applicable to the disposition or principle from which it proceeds. When alms are enjoined, charity or love to our neighbour is required ; and hatred is prohibited when it is said, Thou shalt not kill." When a duty is prescribed, the means of performing it are also prescribed; and when a sin is forbidden, every thing leading to that sin is also forbidden. In a word, when the Scriptures condemn a particular vice, they recommend the opposite virtue; and vice versa, when they recommend a particular virtue, they condemn the opposite vice. Thus, there is no sin which the word of God does not condemn, and no duty which it does not enjoin, in one or other of these ways. There are, indeed, few sins or duties which it does not specify with more or less particularity, by express precepts, by threatenings, by promises, by exhortations, by commendations, or by examples. It is therefore a perfect rule. There are no deficiencies which the doctrines and commandments of men might supply. “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple: the
* Rom. ii. 14, 15.
+ 2 Tim. iii. 16, 17.