Man alone of all creatures upon earth is capable of moral action. He alone realizes what is indicated by the word ought.…
The relation of the susceptibility of conscience to the perception of moral truth, is like that of the susceptibility of taste to the perception of Šsthetical truth. Conscience quickens the rational spirit to discern between right and wrong, as the sensibility of taste quickens it to discern between beauty and deformity.
Our only intuitive perceptions with which the susceptibility of conscience is associated, are those which relate to moral truths. Other feeling attend other perceptions; here is the exclusive dominion of conscience.…
[C]onscience includes both the power of perception, and a susceptibility to a peculiar feeling. But the power of perception is always the same, to whatever truths it may be directed.… Thus conscience involves two psychological elements, the cognitive and the motive, affirmed in one and the same deliverance of the personal consciousness.
But while all the susceptibilities of the soul are dependent upon the intellect, there is one only, which, as united and co÷perating with it, constitutes the distinguishing and sublime faculty of conscience. It is this which we are now to examine.
The Latin word conscientia and the Greek συνειδησις, used in the Bible, denote an inward susceptibility to or realization of the mind's perceptions. Thus a man's intellect perceives the beauty of an object, and his susceptibility to the beautiful make him realize it. He thus not only knows it, but he feels it. The former is speculative knowledge; the latter is experimental. As both of these mental acts respect the same objective fact, the former is the scientia of it, the latter the conscientia of it. The one confirms the other.
Precisely thus a man's intellect perceives, and his conscience makes him feel, that is, it makes him experimentally know, the distinction between right and wrong.…
Conscience, then, including the power of perception, is man's susceptibility to moral distinctions. It is a faculty implanted in our mental constitution expressly to make us feel the distinction between moral truth and falsehood, and between right and wrong action, and thus to incite us to duty. It was not designed to go before reason, nor to act independently of it, to teach us which is true and right, but to be always strictly in its service.…
That which distinguishes the susceptibility of conscience from all other susceptibilities, is its exclusive interest in what pertains to the person's own conduct as morally right or wrong. It has nothing to do with the actions of others, nor yet those of one's self, except as they are related to his personal duty. In addition to this, the feeling of obligation, and the feeling of pleasure and of pain, which it imparts, are unlike any other. No other feeling is like that of moral obligation; no other pain is like that which arises from a consciousness of having done wrong; no other pleasure is like that which arises from a consciousness of having done right. It is not a difference in mere degree, but in kind. Our appeal here is to every man's experience.
Considered as a motive power, conscience is both passive and active; a susceptibility and an impulse. Besides prompting the rational spirit to discern between right and wrong, it has three functions, or, in other words, there are three ways in which it incites us to do right. It makes us feel that we ought to do so; it affords us a feeling of self-approval, when we have done so; it inflicts upon us a painful feeling of self-reproach, when we have not done so.
The first feeling is prospective. It is one that we have in view of something to be done. The last two are retrospective. They are feelings which we realize in view of something which we have done. The present moment is but a point; hence, all actions upon which we deliberate, must precede or follow the deliberation.…
Conscience makes us feel that we ought to do what we believe to be right. In the same connection we may say, that it makes us feel that we ought not to do what we believe to be wrong. Both amount to the same thing; for, failing to do right, is doing wrong.
A boy sees tempting fruit in a neighbor's garden. He knows that it would be wrong to steal it. Now, whether we say, his conscience admonishes him that it is right to let it alone, or that it is wrong to steal it, our meaning is of course the same.
On returning from the bank, a man finds that the teller has accidentally counted to him a ten dollar note too much. We mean the same, whether we say, his conscience reminds him that he ought to return it, or, that it would be wrong not to do so.…
The second function of conscience is, to afford us a delightful feeling of self-approval when we have done what we believe to be right. This feeling is especially vivid, after a successful encounter with a strong and dangerous temptation to do wrong. When a severe struggle has been had, and a triumph has been won on the side of virtue, the feeling of satisfaction is peculiarly rich and delightful.
It is needless to attempt to analyze or to define this feeling. To know it, we must experience it. It was evidently designed to be a token of approbation from the Being who made us; a present reward of virtue, or rather, a foretaste of the richer reward awaiting it hereafter. It is a kind of first fruit of goodness. It was meant to encourage us to persevere in the conflict with temptation, and thus to strengthen and establish every right principle.…
The third function of conscience is, to inflict upon us a peculiar painful feeling, when we have done what we believe to be wrong. When the conscience is not seared, reflecting upon wrong conduct of which we have been guilty, is invariably attended with this feeling. It is termed remorse. It is designed, in part, as a present punishment for misdoing, or rather as an admonition of its guilt, and of the fearful ultimate consequences to which it tends. It is thus evidently meant to warn us against repeating the act.
It is useless to attempt a definition of remorse. Dictionaries define it, the keen pain or anguish excited by a sense of guilt. But as we have keen pain and anguish from other sources, this definition only refers us to its cause; thus leaving every person to learn, from his own experience, what the pain and anguish actually are.…As it cannot be defined, like every other primitive feeling, it can be known only as it is experienced.
Even the little child who disobeys his mother, or does other things which he knows to be wrong, has the painful feeling of a disturbed conscience. The young man rightly taught at home, who, when removed from parental watchfulness, begins to venture upon vicious indulgences, sometimes passes many a sleepless night in painful reflections upon his conduct.
It is important to observe, that the retributions of conscience are by no means always immediately consequent upon wrong doing. They are sometimes delayed, especially in the case of hardened transgressors, for months and for years.
The law of the operation of conscience seems to be this. In the early stages of transgression, its rebukes are prompt and earnest; but if these are disregarded, its sensibility gradually becomes less active, and, like the deep fires of a volcano when crusted over at the top, prepare for a tremendous outburst at a future time.
Thus the libertine, the thief, the defrauder, the murderer, has sometimes gone on for a series of years, realizing, especially during the latter part of his career, but feeble, if any, compunctions of conscience.
He is thus greatly emboldened in crime. "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil."
Retribution at length overtakes the guilty man. Perhaps the civil arm arrests him, and places him in circumstances to reflect upon his ways. His feelings are at first mostly those of regret and chagrin. But conscience is at length aroused. His guilt now stares him in the face, and darts its fiery stings into his inmost spirit. Remorse, relentless and agonizing, makes him its prey, and drags him to the gates of despair.
Let no one, then, who offends his conscience, hope to escape its retributions. They may be slow, but they are sure; and when they come, they will be all the more severe for the delay; for they will find greatly enhanced guilt. Sooner or later, they will certainly overtake him, and they will be in proportion to his crimes. But there will not have been made an even barter of pleasure for pain. Far, very far from it. All the pleasures of vice will prove at last to have been as nothing, compared with those merciless and bitter pangs, which an avenging and relentless conscience will justly inflict.
Such are the threefold functions of conscience, in accomplishing the great moral end for which it was given us. It is to our moral and religious interests what the desire of life is to our existence. The former would induce us to prize and protect character, as the latter would to prize and protect life. It is an original faculty. This susceptibility, as truly as the discerning intellect, with all its fearful power to bless and to torment us, is a part of our mental constitution, and, like the soul itself, imperishable.
Eccl. 8: 11.