From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia
THE IMMIEDIATE COMMUNICATION OF THE WILL OF GOD.
The reader is solicited to approach this subject with that mental seriousness which its nature requires. Whatever be his opinions upon the subject, whether he believes in the reality of such communication or not, he ought not even to think respecting it but with feelings of seriousness.
In endeavouring to investigate this reality, it becomes especially needful to distinguish the communication of the will of God from those mental phenomena with which it has very commonly been intermingled and confounded. The want of this distinction has occasioned a confusion which has been greatly injurious to the cause of truth. It has occasioned great obscurity of opinion respecting divine instruction; and by associating error with truth, has frequently induced skepticism respecting the truth itself. When an intelligent person perceives that infallible truth or divine authority is described as belonging to the dictates of “conscience,” and when he perceives, as he must perceive, that these dictates are various and sometimes contradictory; he is in danger of concluding that no unerring and no divine guidance is accorded to man.
Upon this serious subject it is therefore peculiarly necessary to endeavour to attain distinct ideas, and to employ those words only which convey distinct ideas to other men. The first section of the present chapter will accordingly be devoted to some brief observations respecting the conscience, its nature, and its authority; by which it is hoped the reader will see sufficient reason to distinguish its dictates from that higher guidance, respecting which it is the object of the present chapter to inquire.
For a kindred purpose, it appears requisite to offer a short review of popular and philosophical opinions respecting a Moral Sense. These opinions will be found to have been frequently expressed in great indistinctness and ambiguity of language. The purpose of the writer in referring to these opinions, is to inquire whether they do not generally involve a recognition—obscurely perhaps, but still a recognition—of the principle, that God communicates his will to the mind. If they do this, and if they do it without design or consciousness, no trifling testimony is afforded to the truth of the principle: for how should this principle thus secretly recommend itself to the minds of men, except by the influence of its own evidence?
CONSCIENCE, ITS NATURE AND AUTHORITY.
IN the attempt to attach distinct notions to the term “conscience,” we have to request the reader not to estimate the accuracy of our observations by the notions which he may have habitually connected with the word. Our disquisition is not about terms, but truths. If the observations are in themselves just, our principal object is attained. The secondary object, that of connecting truth with appropriate terms, is only so far attainable by a writer, as shall be attained by a uniform employment of words in determinate senses in his own practice.
Men possess notions of right and wrong: they possess a belief that, under given circumstances, they ought to do one thing or to forbear another. This belief I would call a conscientious belief. And when such a belief exists in a man’s mind in reference to a number of actions, I would call the sum or aggregate of his notions respecting what is right and wrong, his conscience.
To possess notions of right and wrong in human conduct,—to be convinced that we ought to do or to forbear an action,—implies and supposes a sense of obligation existent in the mind. A man who feels that it is wrong for him to do a thing, possesses a sense of obligation to refrain. Into the origin of this sense of obligation, or how it is induced into the mind, we do not inquire; it is sufficient for our purpose that it exists; and there is no reason to doubt that its existence is consequent of the will of God.
In most men—perhaps in all—this sense of obligation refers, with greater or less distinctness to the will of a superior being. The impression, however obscure, is in general fundamentally this: I must do so or so, because God requires it.
It is found that this sense of obligation is sometimes connected, in the minds of separate individuals, with different actions. One man thinks he ought to do a thing from which another thinks he ought to forbear. Upon the great questions of morality there is indeed in general a congruity of human judgment; yet subjects do arise respecting which one man’s conscience dictates an act, different from that which is dictated by another’s. It is not therefore essential to a conscientious judgment of right and wrong, that that judgment should be in strict accordance with the Moral Law. Some men’s consciences dictate that which the moral law does not enjoin; and this law enjoins some points which are not enforced by every man’s conscience. This is precisely the result which, from the nature of the case, it is reasonable to expect. Of these judgments respecting what is right, with which the sense of obligation becomes from time to time connected, some are induced by the instructions or example of others; some by our own reflection or inquiry; some perhaps from the written law of revelation; and some~ as we have cause to conclude, from the direct intimations of the Divine will.
It is manifest that if the sense of obligation is sometimes connected with subjects that are proposed to us merely by the instruction of others, or if the connexion results from the power of association and habit, or from the fallible investigations of our own minds—that sense of obligation will be connected, in different individuals, with different subjects, So that it may sometimes happen that a man can say, I conscientiously think I ought to do a certain action, and yet that his neighbour can say, I conscientiously think the contrary. “With respect to particular actions, opinion determines whether they are good or ill; and conscience approves or disapproves, in consequence of this determination, whether it be in favour of truth or falsehood.”1
Such considerations enable us to account for the diversity of the dictates of the conscience in individuals respectively. A person is brought up among Catholics, and is taught from his childhood that flesh ought not to be eaten in Lent. The arguments of those around him, or perhaps their authority, satisfy him that what he is taught is truth. The sense of obligation thus becomes connected with a refusal to eat flesh in Lent; and thenceforth he says that the abstinence is dictated by his conscience, A Protestant youth is taught the contrary. Argument or authority satisfies him that flesh may lawfully be eaten every day in the year. His sense of obligation, therefore, is not connected with the abstinence; and thenceforth he says that eating flesh in Lent does not violate his conscience. And so of a multitude of other questions.
When therefore a person says, my conscience dictates to me that I ought to perform such an action, he means—or in the use of such language he ought to mean—that the sense of obligation which subsists in his mind is connected with that action; that, so far as his judgment is enlightened, it is a requisition of the law of God.
But not all our opinions respecting morality and religion are derived from education or reasoning. He who finds in Scripture the precept, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” derives an opinion respecting the duty of loving others from the discovery of this expression of the will of God. His sense of obligation is connected with benevolence towards others, in consequence of this discovery;—or, in other words, his understanding has been informed by the moral law, and a new duty is added to those which are dictated by his conscience. Thus it is that Scripture, by informing the judgment, extends the jurisdiction of conscience; and it is hence, in part, that in those who seriously study the Scriptures, the conscience appears so much more vigilant and operative than in many who do not possess, or do not regard them. Many of the mistakes which education introduces, many of the fallacies to which our own speculations lead us, are corrected by this law. In the case of our Catholic, if a reference to Scripture should convince him that the judgment he has formed respecting abstinence from flesh is not founded on the law of God, the sense of obligation becomes detached from its subject; and thenceforth his conscience ceases to dictate that he should abstain from flesh in Lent.—Yet Scripture does not decide every question respecting human duty, and in some instances individuals judge differently of the decisions which Scripture gives. This again occasions some diversity in the dictates of the conscience; it occasions the sense of obligation to become connected with dissimilar, and possibly incompatible actions.
But another portion of men’s judgments respecting moral affairs, is derived from immediate intimations of the Divine will. (This we must be allowed for the present to assume.) These intimations inform, sometimes, the judgment; correct its mistakes; and increase and give distinctness to our knowledge:—thus operating as the Scriptures operate to connect the sense of obligation more accurately with those actions which are conformable with the will of God. It does not however follow, by any sort of necessity, that this higher instruction must correct all the mistakes of the judgment; that because it imparts some light, that light must be perfect day; that because it communicates some moral or religious truth, it must communicate all the truths of religion and morality. Nor, again, does it follow that individuals must each receive the same access of knowledge. It is evidently as possible that it should be communicated in different degrees to different individuals, as that it should be communicated at all. For which plain reasons we are still to expect, what in fact we find, that although the judgment receives light from a superhuman intelligence, the degree of that light varies in individuals; and that the sense of obligation is connected with fewer subjects, and attended with less accuracy, in the minds of some men than of others.
With respect to the authority which properly belongs to conscience as a director of individual conduct, it appears manifest alike from reason and from Scripture, that it is great. When a man believes, upon due deliberation, that a certain action is right, that action is right to him. And this is true, whether the action be or be not required of mankind by the moral law.2 The fact that in his mind the sense of obligation attaches to the act, and that he has duly deliberated upon the accuracy of his judgment, makes the dictate of his conscience upon that subject an authoritative dictate. The individual is to be held guilty if he violates his conscience,—if he does one thing, while his sense of obligation is directed to its contrary. Nor, if his judgment should not be accurately informed, if his sense of obligation should not be connected with a proper subject, is the guilt of violating his conscience taken away. Were it otherwise, a person might be held virtuous for acting in opposition to his apprehensions of duty; or guilty, for doing what he believed to be right. “It is happy for us that our title to the character of virtuous beings depends not upon the justness of our opinions or the constant objective rectitude of all we do, but upon the conformity of our actions to the sincere conviction of our mind.”3 Dr. Furneaux says, “To secure the favour of God and the rewards of true religion, we must follow our own consciences and judgments according to the best light we can attain.”4 And I am especially disposed to add the testimony of Sir William Temple, because he recognises the doctrine which has just been advanced, that our judgments are enlightened by superhuman agency. “The way to our future happiness must be left, at last, to the impressions made upon every man’s belief and conscience, either by natural or supernatural arguments and means.”5—Accordingly there appears no reason to doubt that some will stand convicted in the sight of the Omniscient Judge, for actions which his moral law has not forbidden; and that some may be uncondemned for actions which that law does not allow. The distinction here is the same as that to which we have before had occasion to allude, between the desert of the agent and the quality of the act. Of this distinction an illustration is contained in Isaiah x. It was the Divine will that a certain specific course of action should be pursued in punishing the Israelites. For the performance of this the king of Assyria was employed:—“I will give him a charge to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.” This charge the Assyrian monarch fulfilled;—he did the will of God: but then his intention was criminal; he “meant not so:” and therefore, when the “whole work” is performed,—“I will punish,” says the Almighty, “the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks.”
But it was said, that these principles respecting the authority of conscience were recognised in Scripture.—“One believeth that he may eat all things: another who is weak eateth herbs. One man esteemeth one day above another; another esteemeth every day alike.” Here then are differences, nay, contrarieties of conscientious judgments. And what are the parties directed severally to do?—“Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind;” that is, let the full persuasion of his own mind be every man’s rule of action. The situation of these parties was, that one perceived the truth upon the subject, and the other did not; that in one the sense of obligation was connected with an accurate, in the other with an inaccurate opinion. Thus again: “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself;”—therefore, absolutely speaking, it is lawful to eat all things: “but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” The question is not whether his judgment was correct, but what that judgment actually was. To the doubter, the uncleanness, that is, the sin of eating, was certain, though the act was right. Again: “All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.” And again, as a general rule: “He that doubteth is condemned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith, is sin.”6
And here we possess a sufficient answer to those who affect to make light of the authority of conscience, and exclaim, “Every man pleads his conscientious opinions, and that he is bound in conscience to do this or that; and yet his neighbour makes the same plea and urges the same obligation to do just the contrary.” But what then? These persons’ judgments differed: that we might expect, for they are fallible; but their sense of obligation was in each case really attached to its subject, and was in each case authoritative.
One observation remains; that although a man ought to make his conduct conform to his conscience, yet he may sometimes justly be held criminal for the errors of his opinion. Men often judge amiss respecting their duties, in consequence of their own faults: some take little pains to ascertain the truth; some voluntarily exclude knowledge; and most men would possess more accurate perceptions of the moral law, if they sufficiently endeavoured to obtain them. And therefore, although a man may not be punished for a given act which he ignorantly supposes to be lawful, he may be punished for that ignorance in which his supposition originates. Which consideration may perhaps account for the expression, that he who ignorantly failed to do his master’s will “shall be beaten with few stripes.” There is a degree of wickedness, to the agents of which God at length “sends strong delusion” that they may “believe a lie.” In this state of strong delusion, they perhaps may, without violating any sense of obligation, do many wicked actions. The principles which have been here delivered, would lead us to suppose, that the punishment which awaits such men will have respect rather to that intensity of wickedness of which delusion was the consequence, than to those particular acts which they might ignorantly commit under the influence of the delusion itself. This observation is offered to the reader because some writers have obscured the present subject, by speculating upon the moral deserts of those desperately bad men, who occasionally have committed atrocious acts under the notion that they were doing right.
Let us then, when we direct our serious inquiry to the immediate communication of the Divine will, carefully distinguish that communication from the dictates of the conscience. They are separate and distinct considerations. It is obvious that those positions which some persons advance;—“Conscience is our infallible guide,”—“Conscience is the voice of the Deity,” &c. are wholly improper and inadmissible. The term may indeed have been employed synonymously for the voice of God: but this ought never to be done. It is to induce confusion of language respecting a subject which ought always to be distinctly exhibited; and the necessity for avoiding ambiguity is so much the greater, as the consequences of that ambiguity are more serious: it is obvious that, on these subjects, inaccuracy of language gives rise to serious error of opinion.
REVIEW OF OPINIONS RESPECTING A MORAL SENSE.
The purpose for which this brief review is offered to the reader is explained in a very few words. It is to inquire, by a reference to the written opinions of many persons, whether they do not agree in asserting that our Creator communicates some portions of his moral law immediately to the human mind. These opinions are frequently delivered, as the reader will presently discover, in great ambiguity of language; but in the midst of this ambiguity there appears to exist one pervading truth,—a truth in testimony to which these opinions are not the less satisfactory because, in some instances, the testimony is undesigned. The reader is requested to observe, as he passes on, whether many of the difficulties which inquirers have found or made, are not solved by the opposition of a divine communication, and whether they can be solved by any other.
“The Author of nature has much better furnished us for a virtuous conduct than our moralists seem to imagine, by almost as quick and powerful instructions as we have for the preservation of our bodies.”7
“It is manifest, great part of common language and of common behavior over the world, is formed upon the supposition of a moral faculty, whether called conscience, moral reason, moral sense, or divine reason; whether considered as a sentiment of the understanding, or as a perception of the heart, or, which seems the truth, as including both.”8 Is it not remarkable, that for a “faculty” so well known “over the world,” even a name has not been found, and that a Christian bishop accumulates a multiplicity of ambiguous epithets to explain his meaning? Bishop Butler says again of conscience, “To preside and govern, from the very economy and constitution of man, belongs to it. This faculty was placed within to be our proper governor, to direct and regulate all undue principles, passions, and motives of action.—It carries its own authority with it, that it is our natural guide, the guide assigned us by the Author of our nature.” Would it have been unreasonable to conclude, that there was at least some connexion between this reprover of “all undue principles, passions, and motives,” and that law of which the New Testament speaks, “All things that are reproved are made manifest by the light?”9
Blair says, “Conscience is felt to act as the delegate of an invisible Ruler;”—“Conscience is the guide, or the enlightening or directing principle of our conduct.”10 In this instance, as in many others, conscience appears to be used in an indeterminate sense. Conscience is not an enlightening principle, but a principle which is enlightened. It is not a legislator, but a repository of statutes. Yet the reader will perceive the fundamental troth, that man is in fact illuminated, and illuminated by an invisible Ruler. In the thirteenth sermon there is an expression more distinct: “God has invested conscience with authority to promulgate his laws.” It is obvious that the Divine Being must have communicated his laws, before they could have been promulgated by conscience. In accordance with which the author says in another place, “Under the tuition of God let us put ourselves.”—“A heavenly Conductor vouchsafes his aid.”—“Divine light descends to guide our steps.”11 It were to be wished that such sentiments were not obscured by propositions like these: “A sense of right and wrong in conduct, or of moral good and evil, belongs to human nature.”—“Such sentiments are coeval with human nature; for they are the remains of a law which was originally written in our heart.”12
I do not know whether the reader will be able to perceive with distinctness the ideas of Lord Bacon and of Dr. Rush in the following quotations, but I think he will perceive that they involve a recognition—obsure and indeterminate, but still a recognition—of the doctrine, that the Deity communicates his laws to the minds of men. Dr. Rush says, “It would seem as if the Supreme Being had preserved the moral faculty in man from the ruins of his fall, on purpose to guide him back again to paradise; and at the same time had constituted the conscience, both in man and fallen spirits, a kind of royalty in his moral empire, on purpose to show his property in all intelligent creatures, and their original resemblance to himself.” And Lord Bacon says, “The light of nature not only shines upon the human mind through the medium of a rational faculty, but by an internal instinct according to the law of conscience, which is a sparkle of the purity of man’s first estate.”
“The faculties of our minds are so formed by nature, that as soon as we begin to reason, we may also begin, in some measure, to distinguish good from evil.”—“We prefer virtue to vice on account of the seeds planted in us.”13
The following is not less worthy of notice because it is from the pen of Lord Shaftesbury: “Sense of right and wrong, being as natural to us as natural affection itself, and being a first principle in our constitution and make, there is no speculation, opinion, persuasion, or belief, which is capable, immediately or directly, to exclude or destroy it.”14 Sentiments such as these are very commonly expressed; and what do they imply? If sense of right and wrong is natural to us, it is because He who created us has placed it in our minds. The conclusion too is inevitable, that this sense must indicate the Divine law by which right and wrong are discriminated. Now we do not say that these sentiments are absolutely just, or that a sense of right and wrong is strictly “natural” to man, but we say that the sentiments involve the supposition of some mode of Divine guidance,—some mode in which the moral law of God, or a part of it, is communicated by Him to mankind. And if this be indeed true, it may surely, with all reason, be asked, why we should not assent to the reality of that mode of communication, of which, as we shall hereafter see, Christianity asserts the existence?
“The first principles of morals are the immediate dictates of the moral faculty.”—“By the moral faculty, or conscience, solely, we have the original conception of right and wrong.”—“It is evident that this principle has, from its nature, authority to direct and determine with regard to our conduct; to judge, to acquit or condemn, and even to punish; an authority which, belongs to no other principle of the human mind.” “The Supreme Being has given us this light within to direct our moral conduct.”—“It is the candle of the Lord, set up within us to guide our steps.”15 This is almost the language of Christianity, “That was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”16 I do not mean to affirm that the author of the essays speaks exclusively of the same Divine guidance as the apostle; but surely, if conscience operates as such a “light within,” as “the candle of the Lord,” it can require no reasoning to convince us that it is illuminated from heaven. The indistinctness of notions which such language exhibits, appears to arise from inaccurate views of the nature of conscience. The writer does not distinguish between the recipient and the source; between the enlightened principle and the enlightening beam. The apostle speaks only of the last; the uninspired inquirer speaks, without discrimination, of both;—and hence the ambiguity.
Dr. Beattie appears to maintain the same general principle, the same essential truth, under other phraseology. Common sense, he says, is “that power of the mind which perceives truth, or commands belief, by an instantaneous, instinctive, and irresistible impulse, neither derived from education nor from habit, but from nature.”—“Every man may find the evidence of moral science in his own breast.” An “instinctive” perception of truth derived from nature, must necessarily be tantamount to a power of perception imparted by the Deity. “Whatsoever nature does, God does,” says Seneca: and Dr. Beattie himself explains his own meaning—“The dictates of nature, that is, the voice of God.”17 We have no concern with the justness of Beattie’s philosophy, intellectual or moral, but the reader will perceive the recognition of the truth, or of something like the truth, to which we have so often referred.
“What is the power within us that perceives the distinctions of right and wrong? My answer is, the understanding.”—“Of every thought, sentiment, and subject, the understanding is the natural and ultimate judge.” This is the language of Dr. Price; but he does not seem wholly satisfied with his own definition. He says, “The truth seems to be, that in contemplating the actions of moral agents, we have both a perception of the understanding, and a feeling of the heart.” And again, “It is to intuition that we owe our moral ideas.” He speaks too of “the virtuous principle,”—“the inward spring of virtue;” and says, “Goodness is the power of reflection, raised to its due seat of direction and sovereignty in the mind.” These various expressions do not appear to represent very distinct notions, but after the “understanding” has been stated to be the ultimate judge, we are presented with the idea of conscience, and then we perceive in Dr. Price’s language, that which we find in the language of so many others, “Whatever our consciences dictate to us, that He (the Deity) commands more evidently and undeniably, than if by a voice from heaven we had been called upon to do it.”18 Dr. Watts says that the mind “contains in it the plain and general principles of morality, not explicitly as propositions, but only as native principles, by which it judges, and cannot but judge, virtue to be fit and vice unfit.”19
And Dr. Cudworth: “The anticipations of morality do not spring merely from notional ideas, or from certain rules or propositions arbitrarily printed upon the soul as upon a book, but from some other more inward and vital principle in intellectual beings as such, whereby they have a natural determination in them to do some things and to avoid others.”20
Voltaire, in his Commentary on Beccaria21 says, “I call natural laws those which nature dictates, in all ages, to all men, for the maintenance of that justice which she (say what they will of her) hath implanted in our hearts.”
“And this law is that innate sense of right and wrong, of virtue and vice, which every man carries in his own bosom.”—“These impressions, operating on the mind of man, bespeak a law written on his heart,” “This secret sense of right and wrong, for wise purposes so deeply implanted by our Creator on the human mind, has the nature, force, and effect of a law.”22
Locke: “The divine law, that law which God has set to the actions of men, whether promulgated to them by the light of nature or the voice of revelation, is the measure of sin and duty. That God has given a rule whereby men should govern themselves, I think there is nobody so brutish as to deny.”23 The reader should remark, that revelation and “the light of nature” are here represented as being jointly and equally the law of God.
“Actions, then, instead of being tried by the eternal standard of right and wrong, on which the unsophisticated heart unerringly pronounces, were judged by the rules of a pernicious casuistry.”24 This may not be absolutely true; but there must be some truth which it is like, or such a proposition would not be advanced. Who ever thought of attributing to the unsophisticated heart the power of unerringly pronouncing on questions of prudence? Yet questions of right and wrong are not, in their own nature, more easily solved than those of prudence.
“Boys do not listen to sermons. They need not be told what is right; like men, they all know their duty sufficiently; the grand difficulty is to practise it.”25 Neither may this be true; and it is not true. But upon what species of knowledge would any writer think of affirming that boys need not be instructed, except upon the single species, the knowledge of duty? And how should they know this without instruction, unless their Creator has taught them?
Dr. Rush exhibits the same views in a more determinate form: “Happily for the human race, the intimations of duty and the road to happiness are not left to the slow operations or doubtful inductions of reason. It is worthy of notice, that while second thoughts are best in matters of judgment, first thoughts are always to be preferred in matters that relate to morality.”26
Adam Smith: “It is altogether absurd and unintelligible, to suppose that the first perceptions of right and wrong can be derived from reason. These first perceptions cannot be the object of reason, but of immediate sense and feeling.”—“Though man has been rendered—the immediate judge of mankind, an appeal lies from his sentence to a much higher tribunal, to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their conduct.” In some cases in which censure is violently poured upon us, “the judgments of the man within, are, however, much shaken in the steadiness and firmness of their decision. In such cases, this demigod within the breast appears, like the demigods of the poets, though partly of immortal, yet partly too of mortal extraction.” Our moral faculties “were set up within us to be the supreme arbiters of all our actions.” “The rules which they prescribe are to be regarded as the commands and laws of the Deity, promulgated by those vicegerents which he has thus set up within us.”
“Some questions must be left altogether to the decision of the man within the breast.” And let the reader mark what follows: “If we listen with diligent and reverential attention to what he suggests to us, his voice will never deceive us. We shall stand in no need of casuistic rules to direct our conduct.” How wonderful that such a man, who uses almost the language of Scripture, appears not even to have thought of the truth,” The anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you!” for he does not appear to have thought of it. He intimates that this vicegerent of God, this undeceiving teacher to whom we are to listen with reverential attention; is some “contrivance or mechanism within;” and says that to examine what contrivance or mechanism it is, “is a mere matter of philosophical curiosity!”27
A matter of philosophical curiosity, Dr. Paley seems to have thought a kindred inquiry to be. He discusses the question, whether there is such a thing as a moral sense or not; and thus sums up the argument: “Upon the whole, it seems to me, either that there exists no such instincts as compose what is called the moral sense, or that they are not now to be distinguished from prejudices and habits.”—“This celebrated question therefore becomes, in our system, a question of pure curiosity; and as such we dismiss it to the determination of those who are more inquisitive than we are concerned to be, about the natural history and constitution of the human species.”28 But in another work, a work in which he did not bind himself to the support of a philosophical system, he holds other language; “Conscience, our own conscience, is to be our guide in all things.” “It is through the whisperings of conscience, that the spirit speaks. If men are wilfully deaf to their consciences, they cannot hear the spirit. If, hearing, if being compelled to hear the remonstrances of conscience, they nevertheless decide and resolve and determine to go against them, then they grieve, then they defy, then they do despite to, the Spirit of God.” “Is it superstition? Is it not on the contrary a just and reasonable piety to implore of God the guidance of his holy Spirit when we have any thing of great importance to decide upon or undertake?”—“It being confessed that we cannot ordinarily distinguish, at the time, the suggestions of the spirit from the operations of our minds, it may be asked, How are we to listen to them? The answer is, by attending, universally, to the admonitions within us.”29 The tendency of these quotations to enforce our general argument is plain and powerful. But the reader should notice here another and a very interesting consideration. Paley says, “Our own conscience is to be our guide in all things.”—We are to attend universally to the admonitions within us. Now he writes a book of moral philosophy, that is, a book that shall “teach men their duty and the reasons of it,” and from this book he absolutely excludes this law which men should universally obey, this law which should be their “guide in all things!”
“Conscience, conscience,” exclaims Rousseau in his Pensées,” divine instinct, immortal and heavenly voice, sure guide of a being ignorant and limited, but intelligent and free, infallible judge of good and evil, by which man is made like unto God!” Here are attributes which, if—they be justly assigned, certainly cannot belong to humanity; or if they do belong to humanity, an apostle certainly could not be accurate when he said that in us, that is in our flesh, “dwelleth no good thing.” Another observation of Rousseau’s is worth transcribing: “Our own conscience is the most enlightened philosopher. There is no need to be acquainted with Tully’s Offices to make a man of probity; and perhaps the most virtuous woman in the world is the least acquainted with the definition of virtue.”
My Umpire, Conscience; whom if they will hear,
Light after light, well used, they shall attain.”30
This is the language of Milton; and we have thus his testimony added to the many, that God has placed within us an umpire which shall pronounce his own laws in our hearts. Thus in his “Christian Doctrine” more clearly: “They can lay claim to nothing more than human powers, assisted by that spiritual illumination which is common to all.”31
Judge Hale: “Any man that sincerely and truly fears Almighty God. and calla and relies upon him for his direction, has it as really as a son has the counsel and direction of his father; and though the voice be not audible nor discernible by sense, yet it is equally as real as if a man heard a voice saying, This is the way, walk in it.”
The sentiments of the ancient philosophers, &c. should not be forgotten, and the rather because their language is frequently much more distinct and satisfactory than that of the refined inquirers of the present day.
Marcus Antoninus: “He who is well disposed will do every thing dictated by the divinity,—a particle or portion of himself, which God has given to each as a guide and a leader.”32—Aristotle: “The mind of man hath a near affinity to God: there is divine ruler in him.”—Plutarch: “The light of truth is a law, not written in tables or books, but dwelling in the mind, always a living rule which never permits the soul to be destitute of an interior guide.”—Hieron says that the universal light, shining in the conscience, is “a domestic God, a God within the hearts and souls of men.”—Epictetus: “God has assigned to each man a director, his own good genius, a guardian whose vigilance no slumbers interrupt, and whom no false reasonings can deceive. So that when you have shut your door, say not that you are alone, for your God is within. What need have you of outward light to discover what is done, or to light to good actions, who have God or that genius or divine principle for your light?”33 Such citations might be greatly multiplied, but one more must suffice. Seneca says, “We find felicity—in a pure and untainted mind, which if it were not holy were not fit to entertain the Deity.” How like the words of an apostle!—“If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy: for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”34 The philosopher again: “There is a holy spirit in us;”35 and again the apostle: “Know ye not that” “the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?”36
Now respecting the various opinions which have been laid before the reader, there is one observation that will generally apply,—that they unite in assigning certain important attributes or operations to some principle or power existent in the human mind. They affirm that this principle or power possesses wisdom to direct us aright,—that its directions are given instantaneously as the individual needs them,—that it is inseparably attended with unquestionable authority to command. That such a principle or power does, therefore, actually exist, can need little further proof; for a concurrent judgment upon a question of personal experience cannot surely be incorrect. To say that individuals express their notions of this principle or power by various phraseology, that they attribute to it different degrees of superhuman intelligence, or that they refer for its origin to contradictory causes, does not affect the general argument. The great point for our attention is, not the designation or the supposed origin of this guide, but its attributes; and these attributes appear to be divine.
THE IMMEDIATE COMMUNICATION OF THE WILL OF GOD.
I. That every reasonable human being is a moral agent,—that is, that every such human being is responsible to God, no one perhaps denies. There can be no responsibility where there is no knowledge: “Where there is no law there is no transgression.” So then every human being possesses, or is furnished with, moral knowledge and a moral law. “If we admit that mankind, without an outward revelation, are nevertheless sinners, we must also admit that mankind, without such a revelation, are nevertheless in possession of the law of God.”37
Whence then do they obtain it?—a question to which but one answer can be given; from the Creator himself. It appears therefore to be almost demonstratively shown, that God does communicate his will immediately to the minds of those who have no access to the external expression of it. It is always to be remembered that, as the majority of mankind do not possess the written communication of the will of God, the question, as it respects them, is between an immediate communication and none; between such a communication and the denial of their responsibility in a future state; between such a communication and the reducing them to the condition of the beasts that perish.
II. No one perhaps will imagine that this argument is confined to countries which the external light of Christianity has not reached. “Whoever expects to find in the Scriptures a specific direction for every moral doubt that arises, looks for more than he will meet with;”38 so that even in Christian countries there exists some portion of that necessity for other guidance which has been seen to exist in respect of pagans. Thus Adam Smith says that there are some questions which it “is perhaps altogether impossible to determine by any precise means,” and that they “must be left altogether to the decision of the man within the breast.” But, indeed, when we speak of living in Christian countries, and of having access to the external revelation, we are likely to mislead ourselves with respect to the actual condition of “Christian” people. Persons talk of possessing the Bible, as if every one who lived in a Protestant country had a Bible in his pocket, and could read it. But there are thousands, perhaps millions, in Christian and in Protestant countries, who know very little of what Christianity enjoins. They probably do not possess the Scriptures, or if they do, probably cannot read them. What they do know they learn from others,—from others who may be little solicitous to teach them, or to teach them aright. Such persons therefore are, to a considerable extent, practically in the same situation as those who have not heard of Christianity, and there is therefore to them a corresponding need of a direct communication of knowledge from Heaven. But if we see the need of such knowledge extending itself thus far, who will call in question the doctrine that it is imparted to the whole human race?
These are offered as considerations involving an antecedent probability of the truth of our argument. The reader is not required to give his assent to it as to a dogma of which he can discover neither the reason nor the object. Here is probability very strong; here is usefulness very manifest, and very great; so that the mind may reasonably be open to the reception of evidence, whatever truth that evidence shall establish.
If the written revelation were silent respecting the immediate communication of the Divine will, that silence might perhaps rightly be regarded as conclusive evidence that it is not conveyed; because it is so intimately connected with the purposes to which that revelation is directed, that scarcely any other explanation could be given of its silence than that the communication did not exist. That the Scriptures declare that God has communicated light and knowledge to some men by the immediate exertion of his own agency admits not of dispute; but this it is obvious is not sufficient for our purpose; and it is in the belief that they declare that God imparts some knowledge to all men, that we thus appeal to their testimony.
Now here the reader should especially observe, that where the Christian Scriptures speak of the existence and influence of the Divine Spirit on the mind, they commonly speak of its higher operations; not of its office as a moral guide, but as a purifier, and sanctifier, and comforter of the soul. They speak of it in reference to its sacred and awful operations in connexion with human salvation; and thus it happens that very many citations which, if we were writing an essay on religion, would be perfectly appropriate, do not possess that distinct and palpable application to an argument, which goes no further than to affirm that it is a moral guide. And yet it may most reasonably be remarked, that if it has pleased the Universal Parent thus, and for these awful purposes, to visit the minds of those who are obedient to his power,—he will not suffer them to be destitute of a moral guidance. The less must be supposed to be involved in the greater.
Our argument does not respect the degrees of illumination which may be possessed, respectively, by individuals,39 or in different ages of the world. There were motives, easily conceived, for imparting a greater degree of light and of power at the introduction of Christianity than in the present day: accordingly, there are many expressions in the New Testament which speak of high degrees of light and power, and which, however they may affirm the general existence of a Divine Guidance, are not descriptive of the general nor of the present condition of mankind. Nevertheless, if the records of Christianity, in describing these greater “gifts,” inform us that a gift, similar in its nature, but without specification of its amount, is imparted to all men, it is sufficient. Although it is one thing for the Creator to impart a general capacity to distinguish right from wrong, and another to impart miraculous power; one thing to inform his accountable creature that lying is evil, and another to enable him to cure a leprosy; yet this affords no reason to deny that the nature of the gift is not the same, or that both are not divine. “The degree of light may vary according as one man has a greater measure than another. But the light of an apostle is not one thing and the light of the heathen another thing, distinct in principle. They differ only in degree of power, distinctness, and splendour of manifestation.”40
So early as Gen. vi. there is a distinct declaration of the moral operation of the Deity on the human mind; not upon the pious and the good, but upon those who were desperately wicked, so that even “every imagination of the thoughts of their heart was only evil continually.”—“My spirit shall not always strive with man.” Upon this passage a good and intelligent man writes thus: “Surely, if his spirit had striven with them until that time, until they were so desperately wicked, and wholly corrupted, that not only some, but every imagination of their hearts was evil, yes, only evil, and that continually, we may well believe the express Scripture assertion, that’ a manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.”41
Respecting some of the prophetical passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, it may be observed that there appears a want of complete adaptation to the immediate purpose of our argument, because they speak of that, prospectively, which our argument assumes to be true retrospectively also. “After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts;”42 from which the reader may possibly conclude, that before those days no such internal law was imparted. Yet the preceding paragraph might assure him of the contrary, and that the prophet indicated an increase rather than a commencement of internal guidance. Under any supposition it does not affect the argument as it respects the present condition of the human race; for the prophecy is twice quoted in the Christian Scriptures, and is expressly stated to be fulfilled. Once the prophecy is quoted almost at length, and in the other instance the important clause is retained, “I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them.”43
“And all thy children,” says Isaiah, “shall be taught of the Lord.” Christ himself quotes this passage in illustrating the nature of his own religion: “It is written in the prophets, and they shall be all taught of God.”44
“Thine eyes shall see thy teachers: and thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it; when ye turn to the right-hand, and when ye tum to the left.”45
The Christian Scriptures, if they be not more explicit, are more abundant in their testimony. Paul addresses the “foolish Galatians.” The reader should observe their character; for some Christians, who acknowledge the Divine influence on the minds of eminently good men, are disposed to question it in reference to others. These foolish Galatians had turned again to “weak and beggarly elements,” and their dignified instructer was afraid of them, lest he had bestowed upon them labour in sin. Nevertheless to them he makes the solemn declaration; “God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts.”46
John writes a general Epistle, an epistle which was addressed, of course, to a great variety of characters, of whom some, it is probable, possessed little more of the new religion than the name. The apostle writes—“Hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.”47
The solemn declarations which follow are addressed to large numbers of recent converts, of converts whom the writer had been severely reproving for improprieties of conduct, for unchristian contentions, and even for greater faults: “Ye are the temple of the living God, as God hath said, I will dwell in them and walk in them.”—“What, know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you!”48 “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”49
And with respect to the moral operations of this sacred power:—”As touching brotherly love, ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another;”50 that is, taught a duty of morality.
Thus also:—“The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;”51—or in other words, teaching all men moral laws,—laws both mandatory and prohibitory, teaching both what to do and what to avoid.
And very distinctly:—“The Manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.”52 “A Light to lighten the gentiles.”53 “I am the Light of the world.”54 “The true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”55
“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,”56—written, it may be asked, by whom but by that Being who said, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts?”57
To such evidence from the written revelation I know of no other objection which can be urged than the supposition that this divine instruction, though existing eighteen hundred years ago, does not exist now. To which it appears sufficient to reply, that it existed not only eighteen hundred years ago, but before the period of the deluge; and that the terms in which the Scriptures speak of it are incompatible with the supposition of a temporary duration: “all taught of God:” “in you all:” “hath appeared unto all men:” “given to every man:” “every man that cometh into the world.” Besides there is not the most remote indication in the Christian Scriptures that this instruction would not be perpetual; and their silence on such a subject, a subject involving the most sacred privileges of our race, must surely be regarded as positive evidence that this instructions would be accorded to us for ever.
How clear soever appears to be the evidence of reason, that man, being universally a moral and accountable agent, must be possessed, universally, of a moral law; and how distinct soever the testimony of revelation that he does universally possess it,—objections are still urged against its existence.
Of these, perhaps the most popular are those which are founded upon the varying dictates of the “Conscience.” If the view which we have taken of the nature and operations of the conscience be just, these objections will have little weight. That the dictates of the conscience should vary in individuals respectively is precisely what, from the circumstances of the cue, is to be expected; but this variation does not impeach the existence of that purer ray, which, whether in less or greater brightness, irradiates the heart of man.
I am however disposed here to notice the objections58 that may be founded upon natural derelictions of portions of the moral law. “There is,” says Locke, “scarce that principle of morality to be named, or rule of virtue to be thought on, which is not somewhere or other slighted and condemned by the general fashion of whole societies of men, governed by practical opinions and rules of living quite opposite to others.”—And Paley: “There is scarcely a single vice which, in some age or country of the world, has not been countenanced by public opinion: in one country it is esteemed an office of piety in children to sustain their aged parents, in another to despatch them out of the way: suicide in one age of the world has been heroism, in another felony; theft, which is punished by most laws, by the laws of Sparta was not unfrequently rewarded: you shall hear duelling alternately reprobated and applauded according to the sex, age, or station of the person you converse with: the forgiveness of injuries and insults is accounted by one sort of people magnanimity, by another meanness.”59
Upon all which I observe, that to whatever purpose these reasonings are directed, they are defective in an essential point. They show us indeed what the external actions of men have been, but give no proof that these actions were conformable with the secret internal judgment; and this last is the only important point. That a rule of virtue is “slighted and condemned by the general fashion,” is no sort of evidence that those who joined in this general fashion did not still know that it was a rule of virtue. There are many duties which, in the present day, are slighted by the general fashion, and yet no man will stand up and say that they are not duties. “There is scarcely a single vice which has not been countenanced by public opinion;” but where is the proof that it has been approved by private and secret judgment! There is a great deal of difference between those sentiments which men seem to entertain respecting their duties when they give expression to “public opinion,” and when they rest their heads on their pillows in calm reflection. “Suicide, in one age of the world, has been heroism, in another felony;” but it is not every action which a man says is heroic that he believes is right. “Forgiveness of injuries and insults is accounted by one sort of people magnanimity, by another, meanness;” and yet they who thus vulgarly employ the word meanness do not imagine that forbearance and placability are really wrong.
I have met with an example which serves to confirm me in the judgment, that public notions, or rather public actions, are a very equivocal evidence of the real sentiments of mankind. “Can there be greater barbarity than to hart an infant! Its helplessness, its innocence, its amiableness, call forth the compassion even of an enemy.—What then should we imagine must be the heart of a parent who would injure that weakness which a furious enemy is afraid to violate! Yet the exposition, that is, the murder, of new-born infants was a practice allowed of in almost all the states of Greece, even among the polite and civilized Athenians.” This seems a strong case against us. But what were the grounds upon which this atrocity was defended?—“Philosophers, instead of censuring, supported the horrible abuse, by far—fetched considerations of public utility.”60
By far-fetched considerations of public utility! Why had they recourse to such arguments as these! Because they found that the custom could not be reconciled with direct and acknowledged rules of virtue: because they felt and knew that it was wrong. The very circumstance that they had recourse to “far-fetched” arguments is evidence that they were conscious that clearer and more immediate arguments were against them. They knew that infanticide was an immoral act.
I attach some importance to the indications which this class of reasoning affords of the comparative uniformity of human opinion, even when it is nominally discordant. One other illustration may be offered from more private life. Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, says that he proposed the question to the moralist, “Whether duelling was contrary to the laws of Christianity?” Let the reader notice the essence of the reply: “Sir, as men become in a high degree refined, various causes of offence arise which are considered to be of such importance that life must be staked to atone for them, though in reality they are not so. In a state of highly polished society, an affront is held to be a serious injury. It must therefore be resented, or rather a duel must be fought upon it, as men have agreed to banish from their society one who puts up with an affront without fighting a duel. Now, sir, it is never unlawful to fight in self-defence. He then who fights a duel does not fight from passion against his antagonist, but out of self-defence, to avert the stigma of the world, and to prevent himself from being driven from society.—While such notions prevail, no doubt a man may lawfully fight a duel.” The question was, the consistency of duelling with the laws of Christianity; and there is not a word about Christianity in the reply. Why? Because its laws can never be shown to allow duelling; and Johnson doubtless knew this. Accordingly, like the philosophers who tried to justify the kindred crime of infanticide, he had recourse to “far—fetched considerations,”—to the high polish of society,—to the stigma of the world,—to the notions that prevail. Now, while the readers of Boswell commonly think they have Johnson’s authority in favour of duelling, I think they have his authority against it. I think that the mode in which he justified duelling evinced his consciousness that it was not compatible with the moral law.
And thus it is, that with respect to public opinions, and general fashions, and thence descending to private life, we shall find that men very usually know the requisitions of the moral law better than they seem to know them; and that he who estimates the moral knowledge of societies or individuals by their common language, refers to an uncertain and fallacious standard.
After all, the uniformity of human opinion respecting the great laws of morality is very remarkable. Sir James Mackintosh speaks of Grotius, who had cited poets, orators, historians &c., and says,” He quotes them as witnesses, whose conspiring testimony, mightily strengthened and confirmed by their discordance on almost every other subject, is a conclusive proof of the unanimity of the whole human race on the great rules of duty and fundamental principles of morals.”61
From poets and orators we may tum to savage life. In 1683, that is, soon after the colonization of Pennsylvania, the founder of the colony held a “council and consultation” with some of the Indians. In the course of the interview it appeared that these savages believed in a state of future retribution; and they described their simple ideas of the respective states of the good and bad. The vices that they enumerated as those which would consign them to punishment, are remarkable, inasmuch as they so nearly correspond to similar enumerations in the Christian Scriptures.
They were “theft, swearing, lying, whoring, murder, and the like;”62 and the New Testament affirms that those who are guilty of adultery, fornication, lying, theft, murder, &c. shall not inherit the kingdom of God. The same writer, having on his travel met with some Indiana, stopped and gave them some good and serious advice. “They wept,” says he, “and tears ran down their naked bodies. They smote their hands upon their breasts and said, The Good Man sins, told them what I said was all good.”63
But reasonings such as these are in reality not necessary to the support of the truth of the immediate communication of the will of God; because, if the variations in men’s notions of right and wrong were greater than they are, they would not impeach the existence of that communication. In the first place, we never ‘affirm that the Deity communicates all his law to every man; and in the second place, it is sufficiently certain that multitudes know his laws, and yet neglect to fulfil them.
If, in conclusion, it should be asked, what assistance can be yielded, in the investigation of publicly authorized rules of virtue, by the discussions of the present chapter? we answer, Very little. But when it is asked, Of what importance are they as illustrating the principles of morality? we answer, Very much. If there be two sources from which it has pleased God to enable mankind to know his will,—a law written externally, and a law communicated to the heart,—it is evident that both must be regarded as principles of morality, and that in a work like the present, both should be illustrated as such. It is incidental to the latter mode of moral guidance, that it is little adapted to the formation of external rules; but it is of high and solemn importance to our species for the secret direction of the individual man.
See Footnotes here.
All Sub-Works of Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).:
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- Preface to the American Edition.
- Introductory Notices.
- Moral Obligations.
- Standard of Right and Wrong.
- Subordinate Standards of Right and Wrong.
- Standard of Right and Wrong Footnotes.
- Collateral Observations.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God Footnotes.