In general, we reserve the name conscience for the vaguer and more elusive restraints and leadings, the sense of reluctant necessity whose purpose we do not clearly see although we feel its pressure, the accumulated residuum of long inner experience and many influences from without. Our minds retain many creases whose origin we have forgotten; we veer away from many a pleasant inclination without knowing why. These unanalyzed and residual inhibitions that grip us and will not let us go, form a contrasting back ground to our more explicit motives and often count for more in our conduct. The very lack of comprehension serves in less rational minds to enhance their prestige with an atmosphere of awe and mystery. These strange checks and promptions that well up in a man’s heart are taken to be a supernatural guideline which he must not dare to disobey.
The voice of God in our hearts we may, indeed, well conceive them to be the attempt to analyze into its psychological elements and trace the natural genesis of conscience, as of morality, in general, must not be taken as an attempt to discredit it or to read God out of the world. For God works usually, if not universally, through natural laws; and the historical viewpoint, that sees everything in our developed life as the outcome of of ages of natural evolution, is not only right in fruitful insight, but entirely consistent with a deep religious feeling.
In the abstract, then, we may say that conscience is a name for any secondary impulses or inhibitions which check and redirect man’s primary impulses, for a greater good; any later developed aversions or inclinations, judgments of value or feelings of constraint, which guide a man in the teeth of his animal nature toward a better way of life – provided that these superimposed impulses are not explicit enough to be classified under some other head.
Conscience is, on such occasions, but inarticulate common sense. Usually however, prudential and altruistic motives would both be discovered if the dumb driving of conscience were to be made articulate. The reverberation of parental teachings, of sermons heard and books read, of opinions and emotions of our fellows, might be found, all bent and fused into a combined “suggestion,” a mental push, a “must” or “ought”, from whose influence we find it difficult to escape.
Conscience is the general name for coercion upon conduct from within the mind. The important thing to note is the useful purpose which, in its so widely varying forms, it serves. Whatever its sources or its exact nature in contemporary man, it is one of the most valuable of our assets.
Much of our morality is the result of tendencies thus long cultivated by the ruthless methods of nature; we inherit a complex nervous organization, the outcome of ages of moulding and selection, which now instinctively and easily responds to stimuli with a certain degree of inbred morality. This is the case much more than is apparent upon the surface. The child seems very unmoral, the mere prey of passing impulses; but latent in his brain are many aptitudes and tendencies which will at the proper time ripen and manifest themselves.
In all later stages of animal evolution, however, moral development is largely conscious, or semi-conscious. Besides our inner inheritance of altered brain paths there is a social inheritance of habits which each generation adopts by imitation of its predecessors. Without any deliberate intention, the young of every species imitate their parents, and then the older members of the flock or herd. Whichever are more important, the inherited tendencies or those acquired by contagion, both of these factors play a large part in the development of the individual’s morals.
The conscience of our moralizing and religious literature figures as a sharply defined and easily recognizable faculty like will or reason. But this classification, though useful, is misleading by its simplicity. If we observe by introspection what goes on in or minds when we “will” or “reason” or “listen to conscience”, we shall find all sorts of emotions, ideas, impulses, surging back and forth, altering from moment to moment, never twice the same.
The customs and expectations of this group not only bear upon him from without but find a reflection in his own motor-mechanism. He hears the voice of the community in his heart, an echo of the general condemnation and approval. So important is this pressure in his mental life, though not understood or recognized for what it is, that conscience is defined by many moralists as the pressure of the judgment of the tribe in the mental life of its members, or in similar terms.
Conscience is valuable on account of our ignorance. Individually we have not had experience enough to guide us in our crisis; conscience is the representative in us of the wisdom of the race. In many cases we should never reason out the right solution of a problem; we lack the data. But we can lean upon the racial experience. Many past experiences, now forgotten, have gone to the moulding of this faculty.We need ready made morals. Moreover, we are subject to bias, to individual one sidedness, and to the distortion of passion; in the stress of temptation we are not in a mood to reason judicially, even if we have necessary data. What conscience tells us is more apt to be true than what at the moment seems a rational judgment.
We often do not know or remember consciously at the moment of decision what the law ordains or the wisdom of the race teaches. But we have an inward monitor. We often hang back from a recognized duty. But we feel an inward push. When the wrong impulse is pungent and enticing, and the right one insipid and tame, when we would forget if we could the perils of sin, conscience surges up in us and saves us from ourselves. It is a mechanism of extreme value which nature has evolved in us for imposing on our weak and vacillating wills action that makes for a true good than we should otherwise choose.
No wonder, then, if we reverence this saving power within us, and crown it with a halo as the divine spark in the midst of our grosser nature. The apotheosis of conscience has been of immense use in leading men to heed its voice and obey its leading. Yet this blind allegiance has its dangers; conscience has often been a cruel tyrant. It is by no means an always safe guide, as we shall presently note. and as men grow more and more adjusted by instinct and training to their real needs, they will have less and less need of this helmsman. After all, there is something wrong with a life that needs conscience; it is a transition-help for the long period of man’s maladjustment.
Conscience, as we have seen, is the result of a fusion of elements coming from personal experience and tribal judgment. In its early phases the latter elements predominate; conscience may be fairly called the inner side of custom. Primitive men have little individuality and involuntarily reflect the general attitude. But with widening experience and growing mental maturity, conscience, like man’s other faculties, tends to become more individual and divergent, until we find, in civilized life, a man standing out for conscience’ sake against the opinion of the world.
Morals have developed blindly, as we have seen, through all sorts of irrational influences, swayed this way by class-interest, by rulers or priests, veered that way by superstition, passion, and stupidity. Morality has not understood itself; and the natural forces which have developed it into its enormous usefulness have not always weeded out the baneful elements. The persecution of heretics was sheer mistake, but it was acceded to by practically the entire Church in the Middle Ages, and practiced with utter conscientiousness. The hostility of the Puritans to music and art was pure folly, though it seemed to them their grim duty.
In the lack of a mature moral insight, which is one of the latest of mental developments, and indeed, where it exists, to reinforce its pale affirmations with greater impulsive power, a stern sense of duty is a veritable rock of salvation. So we cannot wonder when moralists put it forward as the foundation-stone of all morality and seek to build their systems upon it. To a man who has been bred to obey the inner voice, it seems the very source and basis of the right; it is so inescapable, so authoritative, that it cannot be deemed derived, or evolved by a mechanical process of selection. It figures as something ultimate and unanalyzable, if not frankly supernatural; that it is a mere instrument in the attainment of an ulterior end, to be used or reflected according to its observed usefulness, is an abhorrent thought.
Nothing is more notorious to an unbiased observer than the conscientious differences between men. Even among members of a single community, with closely similar inheritance and environment, we find marked divergence in moral judgment. It is only a very smug provincialism that can attribute the alien standards of other races and nations to a disregard of the light. Mohammedans and Buddhists have believed as firmly in, and fought as passionately for, their moral convictions as Christians have for theirs. When we survey the vast amount of material amassed by anthropologists, we find that, as has been often said, there is hardly a vice that has not somewhere been deemed a virtue, and hardly a virtue but has been branded as a vice. History is full of the pathos of havoc wrought by conscientious men, of foolish and ruinous acts which they have braced themselves to do for conscience’ sake. One has but to think of the earnest and prayerful inquisitors and persecutors in the medieval Church, of the Puritans destroying the stained glass windows and paintings of the Madonna, of the caliph who destroyed the great Alexandrian library, bereaving the world at one blow of that priceless culture-inheritance.
Perhaps the original source of the doctrine was a certain sort of religious faith; it follows easily as a corollary to the belief in God. If God commands us to do right, it is felt, he must have given us some way to know what is right. The inner voice of conscience may be just such a God-given guide; therefore it is such a guide; there it is infallible. The natural piece of a priori reasoning, on a par with the Christian Scientist’s syllogism: God is good; a good God would not permit evil to exist; therefore there is no evil. Unfortunately a priori reasoning has to yield to actual experience. Since we see that conscience is not infallible and evil does exist, there must be some fallacy in the arguments.
Another source of the doctrine’s strength lies in its simplicity. It is a great mental relief to drop the tangle of confusing considerations, to stop trying to reason out one’s course of action, and follow a supposedly reliable guide. The intuition-theory goes naturally with a moral conservatism which dreads the chaos and uncertainty that follow upon the doubt of established moral habits. It is so much more comfortable to feel that one has already the one divine and ultimate code, that one has always done right because one has steadily obeyed the inner light! It is reassuring to divide the world into the sheep and goats, if one can believe one’s self a sheep. But what = O dismay!- what if one were after all a goat! A great deal of mental anguish has been caused by the pseudo-simplicity of this dichotomy. There is no such clean-cut and clearly visible line between right and wrong; there is instead a bewildering maze of goods. Hardly any choice but involves a sacrifice, hardly any ideal but has its disadvantages. One learns with experience to be wary of these simple theories, these closet theories which collapse when they are brought out into the light of day.
For all ordinary cases we of Christendom agree without hesitation that murder is wrong, and lying, and stealing. It seems a waste of time to try to justify our instinctive verdict, and the attempt would only be bewildering to most men. It is only when brought face to face with some alien code that we see the need of digging below intuition. A missionary to the South Seas may be confronted with men to whom the killing of other tribesmen and the accumulation of skulls is a glorious and honorable feat, or to whom skillful lying is an enviable and proud accomplishment. But most of us live among neighbors whose conscience is comfortable like our own and only occasionally become seriously perplexed.
It is true that to obey conscience is, in a sense, to do right, to be moral, no matter how distorted conscience may be. Conscientiousness is in itself a virtue. We need only say here that conscientiousness is not enough. Life is not so simple a matter as that. We need judgment, sanity, insight, as well as a strong sense of duty. We need to correct and train conscience, to adjust it to our real needs, to recognize that it is a means, not an end.
Our discussion, though rapid, should show that we cannot start with the “ought” of our conscience, or moral sense, and erect our moral theory upon that. Conscience itself needs to be explained. Its commands need to be justified by reference to some more ultimate criterion. It needs to be pruned of its fanaticism, developed where it is weak, and kept in line with our growing insight into what is best in conduct. Ruskin once summed the matter up by saying, “Obey thy conscience! but first be sure that it is not the conscience of an ass.” Conscience may be a very dangerous guide. And even where it is normal and useful it must not be invested with any absolute and irrational authority.
For those of y’all who are freakin’ out over the above text, just hold your horses! I’m presenting one side at a time. Since I had started with Durant Drake’s Problems of Conduct, I figured I’d start y’all with the same: get the brain spinning and then we can go on from there.