The Reading Selection from Moral Science

[Nature of Conscience]

It may be proved, by such evidence as the case admits of, that the peculiarity of the Moral Sentiment, or Conscience, is identified with our education under government, or Authority.

Conscience is described by such terms as moral approbation and disapprobation; and involves, when highly developed, a peculiar and unmistakeable revulsion of mind at what is wrong, and a strong resentment towards the wrong-doer, which become Remorse, in the case of self.

It is capable of being proved, that there is nothing natural or primitive in these feelings, except in so far as the case happens to concur with the dictates of Self-interest, or Sympathy, aided by the Emotions formerly specified. Any action that is hostile to our interest, excites a form of disapprobation, such as belongs to wounded self-interest; and any action that puts another to pain may so affect our natural sympathy as to be disapproved, and resented on that ground. These natural or inborn feelings are always liable to coincide with moral right and wrong, although they are not its criterion or measure in the mind of each individual. But in those cases where an unusually strong feeling of moral disapprobation is awakened, there is apt to be a concurrence of the primitive motives of self, and of fellow-feeling; and it is the ideal of good law, and good morality, to coincide with a certain well-proportioned adjustment of the Prudential and the Sympathetic regards of the individual.

The requisite allowance being made for the natural impulses, we must now adduce the facts, showing that the characteristic of the Moral Sense is an education under Law, or Authority, through the instrumentality of Punishment.

[Conscience Formed by Association]

(1) It is a fact that human beings living in society are placed under discipline, accompanied by punishment. Certain actions are forbidden, and the doers of them are subjected to some painful infliction; which is increased in severity, if they are persisted in. Now, what would be,the natural consequence of such a system, under the known laws of feeling, will, and intellect? Would not an action that always brings down punishment be associated with the pain and the dread of punishment? Such an association is inevitably formed, and becomes at least a part, and a very important part, of the sense of duty; nay, it would of itself, after a certain amount of repetition, be adequate to restrain for ever the performance of the action, thus attaining the end of morality.

There may be various ways of evoking and forming the moral sentiment, but the one way most commonly trusted to, and never altogether dispensed with, is the associating of pain, that is, punishment, with the actions that are disallowed. Punishment is held out as the consequence of performing certain actions; every individual is made to taste of it; its infliction is one of the most familiar occurrences of every-day life. Consequently, whatever else may be present in the moral sentiment, this fact of the connexion of pain with forbidden actions must enter into it with an overpowering prominence. Any natural or primitive impulse in the direction of duty must be very marked and apparent, in order to divide with this communicated bias the direction of our conduct. It is for the supporters of innate distinctions to point out any concurring impetus (apart from the Prudential and Sympathetic regards) sufficiently important to cast these powerful associations into a secondary or subordinate position.

By a familiar effect of Contiguous Association, the dread of punishment clothes the forbidden act with a feeling of aversion, which in the end persists of its own accord, and without reference to the punishment. Actions that have long been connected in the mind with pains and penalties, come to be contemplated with a disinterested repugnance; they seem to give pain on their own account. This is a parallel, from the side of pain, of the acquired attachment to money. Now, when, by such transference, a self-subsisting sentiment of aversion has been created, the conscience seems to be detached from all external sanctions, and to possess an isolated footing in the mind. It has passed through the stage of reference to authority, and has become a law to itself. But no conscience ever arrives at the independent standing, without first existing in the reflected and dependent stage.

We must never omit from the composition of the Conscience the primary impulses of Self-Interest and Sympathy, which in minds strongly alive to one or other, always count for a powerful element in human conduct, although for reasons already stated, not the strictly moral element, so far as the individual is concerned. They are adopted, more or less, by the authority imposing the moral code; and when the two sources coincide, the stream is all the stronger.

(2) Where moral training is omitted or greatly neglected, there is an absence of security for virtuous conduct.

In no civilized community is moral discipline entirely wanting. Although children may be neglected by their parents, they come at last under the discipline of the law and the public. They cannot be exempted from the associations of punishment with wrong. But when these associations have not been early and sedulously formed, in the family, in the school, and in the workshop, the moral sentiment is left in a feeble condition. There still remain the force of the law and of public opinion, the examples of public punishment, and the reprobation of guilt. Every member of the community must witness daily the degraded condition of the viciously disposed, and the prosperity following on respect for the law. No human being escapes from thus contracting moral impressions to a very large amount.

(3) Whenever an action is associated with Disapprobation and Punishment, there grows up, in reference to it, a state of mind undistinguishable from Moral Sentiment.

There are many instances where individuals are enjoined to a course of conduct wholly indifferent with regard to universal morality, as in the regulations of societies formed for special purposes. Each member of the society has to conform to these regulations, under pain of forfeiting all the benefits of the society, and of perhaps incurring positive evils. The code of honour among gentlemen is an example of these artificial impositions. It is not to be supposed that there should be an innate sentiment to perform actions having nothing to do with moral right and wrong; yet the disapprobation and the remorse following on a breach of the code of honour, will often be greater than what follows a breach of the moral law. The constant habit of regarding with dread the consequences of violating any of the rules, simulates a moral sentiment, on a subject unconnected with morality properly so called.

The arbitrary ceremonial customs of nations, with reference to such points as ablutions, clothing, eating and abstinence from meats,—when rendered obligatory by the force of penalties, occupy exactly the same place in the mind as the principles of moral right and wrong. The same form of dread attaches to the consequences of neglect; the same remorse is felt by the individual offender. The exposure of the naked person is as much abhorred as telling a lie. The Turkish woman exposing her face, is no less conscience-smitten than if she murdered her child. There is no act, however trivial, that cannot be raised to the position of a moral act, by the imperative of society.

Still more striking is the growth of a moral sentiment in connexion with such usages as the Hindoo suttee. It is known that the Hindoo widow, if prevented from burning herself with her husband's corpse, often feels all the pangs of remorse, and leads a life of misery and self-humiliation. The habitual inculcation of this duty by society, the penalty of disgrace attached to its omission, operate to implant a sentiment in every respect analogous to the strongest moral sentiment.