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Of Conscience

Conscience is not a special faculty whose function is to discover the several duties of man. Reason alone can show what is or is not a duty, and why it should be regarded as such; which to a large extent accounts for the divergence of moral opinions, arguments for or against in many cases being nearly balanced, and intellectual capacity varying greatly. On the other hand, it is the peculiar office of Conscience to give such emphasis to discovered or believed duties as shall suffice to move the will to perform them; to make the agent as a personal being realize that he stands in a given relationship to a given Law, and that he should do the acts in question because enjoined by this Law; hence Conscience works in the first instance prospectively, and then by reaction retrospectively it makes the man feel that he should do a certain act and thus creates a disposition within him towards the act, so that afterwards, according as he performs or neglects it, he feels satisfaction or remorse. This is the function of Conscience. It points man to Duty; it reveals to him his distinctive nature as a moral being; but it is not adapted to teach him infallibly the particular duties which form the contents of the abstract notion of Duty, and are the necessary correlatives of the nature thus revealed. Now as it is impossible, owing to the differences in capacity, disposition, education, environment and so forth, for each and all to get their conceptions of particular duties at first hand, these, by most people, are accepted traditionally, and Conscience works on the up traditions as extant material, getting the individual members of the community to carry them into practice. In the conditions which influence the making of this tradition, we must chiefly seek the explanation of the contrariety in moral views; and the reason why Conscience sometimes prompts actions which on general principles of ethics can be in plainly shown to be wrong. Now it is evident that in order to be correct this traditional morality should be the expression of that scheme of relationships and adjustments designated as Objective Moral Law. The limitations of the human mind, however, prevent this scheme from being at any time or in any connection fully comprehended, and it is always the few, not the many, who discover its nature. This is why the morality of states and communities is mostly derived from or modified by the effects of individual seers and lawgivers, always men of superior penetration, who recognize the character of specific duties, and endeavor by persuasion or coercion to import these into the traditional morality, and thus get them enforced by the authority of Conscience. For their complete success, however, such men need to shine, not merely as regards intellectual ability, but equally or even more in proportion as regards moral feeling, since those who are destitute of or poorly furnished with the latter, can never work successfully upon the moral sense of others, this being the main difference between reformers who aim at raising the moral tone or destroying specific abuses, and political functionaries and legislators, who look to utility and expediency rather than equity, from whence it frequently happens that prophets and politicians are directly at variance, as was the case in the matter of slavery. It would be endless to cite examples of this truth. Let it suffice to mention Buddha, whose teaching, even after more than two thousand years, still shapes the morality of millions at the present day; St. Francis, whose proclamation by word and deed of the great truth that man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth, is the Key to the greatest ethical movement of the Middle Ages; and men like Carlyle, Emerson, Ruskin, Maurice, and Robertson of Brighton who, by influencing those directly in touch with the popular mind, such as ministers of religion, journalists and so forth, have uplifted not only their own age, but left behind them a moral force mighty for generations yet unborn.

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Christopher C. Dove

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