The general problem of all moral philosophy is to give a true theory of the rules by which human conduct ought (whatever that may mean) to be regulated. It will be found on examination to be summed up in three principal questions: What is the meaning of right and wrong? Why should a man do right, and not wrong? How are men in general, or given men in particular, to know what is right and what is wrong? A complete answer to these three questions would constitute a complete system of moral philosophy. In one sense, each of the three questions is independent of the other two, but their natural order is that in which they are arranged above, and it is difficult to answer satisfactorily the question as to the rights of conscience, without giving more or less of an answer to all three.
The first question then is, what is meant by right and wrong, which, it is to be observed, are both substantives and adjectives? The answer is that right and wrong, the adjectives, are words denoting the agreement or divergence of an action from any rule with which the action is compared. Right, the substantive, means a faculty or power secured to any person by any rule; and a wrong means an act done in violation of a right. Thus, the words right and wrong, whether used as adjectives or as substantives, are emphatically relative words, and convey no information at all unless we know what is the quality of the rule according to which a given action is said to be right or wrong, or a given power is secured. The only definite quality which has ever been suggested as a possible test for moral rules is their tendency to produce the happiness of mankind at large; and after all the words which have been heaped up upon the subject, and all the books which have been written upon it, no one has been able either to deny that there is a connection between virtue and vice on the one hand, and happiness and misery on the other, or to show that right and wrong, in the emphatic sense, mean anything else than the conformity or otherwise of an action with rules so framed as to produce a maximum of happiness.
This question, indeed, though it lies at the bottom of the whole subject, and though its true character and position are not unfrequently overlooked, does not, in fact, occasion much difficulty. The great difficulty lies in answering the other two questions. How are particular people to know what course of conduct is prescribed by rules so framed as to produce a maximum of happiness, and why, when they do know it, should they act accordingly?
To the question, how you are to know what is right in the sense explained, there are two principal answers. First, it is said, the knowledge may be got as other knowledge is got—namely, by experience generalised and thrown into the shape of rules. Next, it is said, that every man has a conscience, or natural faculty, which tells him without further trouble what is right and what is wrong.
The third question, Why should I do what is right? also admits of a variety of answers, which may be arranged under two principal heads. One school counts up the sanctions of morality, such as the legal, the popular, and the religious; i.e. you will be hanged, hated, and damned if you do such or such acts—therefore abstain. The other school speaks of a special sense of obligation which, as it asserts, rises up in the mind when it contemplates right actions as such, and which is entirely different in its character from either fear or hope, and constitutes in itself a peremptory, and entirely sufficient, reason for doing one set of things and abstaining from another. It is alleged that the conscience is the seat of this feeling.
It is not necessary, in order to investigate the rights of conscience, to enter into a discussion of the comparative merits of these two systems. In each of them the same great questions are discussed and decided, and though there is a considerable difference between the ways in which the second and third questions are answered, the practical difference between the two is less important than it might at first sight be supposed to be. In each case the conscience plays much the same part. It is a guide, and a judge who executes his own sentences, and that quite as much in the utilitarian scheme as in the other.
That scheme may be, and we are disposed to think that it is, the true one; but the fact that men have consciences, explain it how you will, still remains true. There is an internal voice which warns the utilitarian, as well as other people, that this is to be done and that left undone, and which, after the act is over, makes them feel either regret or self-approval for having done it. We may, or may not, think that it is a truthful guide and a good judge—that is, that its admonitions point out the course which contributes to the production of a maximum of happiness, and that its judgments are of such a character as to furnish a motive for pursuing that course; but that it does influence human conduct, both as a guide and as a sanction, there can be no doubt at all. It is as much a matter of fact as any other fact in our whole nature.
Upon the other view of the nature of morals the position of conscience may look more important at first sight than it is upon utilitarian principles; but even on this theory it is plain enough that conscience is not, and cannot be, everything. Probably no moralist worthy of the name, or sufficiently eminent to exercise the least influence over his neighbours, was ever content with so crude and slight a theory, as that each man had in his own breast an infallible guide and judge, whose prescriptions at once announce the moral law in a complete shape, and provide adequate sanctions for enforcing its precepts.
Theorists of one kind or another always must be, and, in point of fact, we believe always are, provided with expedients for dealing with the case of an ill-instructed or diseased conscience. An external standard of morals, of one sort or another, has always to be set up as a criterion by which the dictates of individual consciences may be measured; and that is the fact which gives utilitarians one of their strongest arguments, which is, that sooner or later, and after more or less difficulty, circumlocution, and obscurity, every moral theory comes round at last to their own doctrine, under some one or other of the numerous forms which it is capable of assuming.
It would appear, therefore, that whatever answer may be given to the main questions of moral philosophy, it will always be necessary, in considering the question, what are the rights of conscience?— in other words, what specific consequences ought legislators or systematic moralists to attach to the fact that individuals do really, and in good faith, believe this or that to be right or wrong?—to assume some external standard by which the correctness of the dictates of individual consciences may be measured.
The question, therefore, what are the rights of conscience? may be thus stated. Assuming the existence of an external test of the morality of actions— and for the purpose of distinctness we will suppose that the doctrine of general utility supplies such a test—and assuming, further, the existence in every man of a faculty which tells him to do or abstain from certain things, and which rewards or punishes him for such acts and abstinences, what is the relation between this internal and the true external standard, and how far and with what limitations is it desirable to accept compliance with the internal and imperfect standard as equivalent to compliance with the external and true standard?
A complete answer to this question would be a complete statement of the rights of conscience, that is, of the specific consequences which a legislator or systematic moralist would attach to obedience to its guidance, or rather of the cases in which he would regard such obedience as a justification of the person obeying, although his conduct was wrong when judged by the external standard.
It is obvious that, when an external standard of morals has once been chosen, that external standard will apply, not only to specific acts, but to every general rule by which specific acts are estimated. Taking, therefore, the rule of general utility as the standard, the question will be, in what cases does it promote the general interests of the world at large, that men should act on the admonitions of their own consciences, even though their consciences advise them to do, and reward them for doing, and punish them for not doing, acts which violate the principle of utility—acts which belong to a class forbidden by rules calculated to produce a maximum of happiness?
It would require a complete treatise to answer this question fully, but it is possible to state shortly the leading principles on which its solution depends, and to give a few illustrations which will show the way in which it would work in practice.
The first question which it involves is—What is conscience? In what light is it to be considered? To this there are only two possible answers. Conscience may be regarded either as a faculty entirely sui generis, as a crowning ruling principle which, as has been impressively said, 'if it had force, as it has right, would govern the world,' or it may be regarded as a combination of reason and sympathy, become habitual and acting instinctively. It is obvious that the consideration to which it is entitled will vary greatly according as we adopt the first or second of these views. Our own opinion is in favour of the second, which we will state somewhat more fully before trying to support it.
We regard conscience, then, as a compound faculty, the operations of which are some evidence, but not conclusive evidence, that the actions which it commends and rewards, or forbids and punishes, are morally good or bad, i.e. conform to or violate rules framed on the principle of general utility. If we consider the operations of conscience, it will appear that every conscientious feeling contains the two elements of feeling and reason. The emotion called praise or approval, and the emotion called blame, are as spontaneous as light, and not much less vivid, though they are far less steady and definite, partly because the facts which excite them are usually complex and transient.
Reason and experience alone can frame any interpretation of these feelings, or draw any sort of inference from them. The proposition that an act ought not to be done because conscience forbids it is as much the work of the reason as the proposition that you ought not to eat green fruit because it will disagree with you. Till this task has been fully performed to some tolerable extent, a person can no more be said to have a conscience, in the full sense of the word, than a child can be said to speak till it has learnt how to arrange the sounds which, when put together, make up words.
A man sees another killed, and feels horror at the sight, or, having killed another person, feels horror at the recollection. Or, again, he receives or confers a pleasure, and feels satisfaction in the act and in the recollection. These feelings are no doubt necessary conditions, without which conscience could not be formed, as the faculty of making sounds is essential to speech; but they are no more to be called conscience, than such sounds are to be called speech, till, by the help of reason, they have received a sufficiently definite form to be capable of specific application to particular facts.
Thus, for instance, the instinctive sympathetic element of conscience revolts at the sight of the infliction of pain simply, but no one would describe conscience as being sufficiently developed to deserve the name, until it had learnt to distinguish between the pain given by a surgeon, and the pain given by an assassin. We should, therefore, describe conscience as being, not a simple primary faculty, but a power of self-praise or blame formed by reason into a habit. In so far as this habit acts by anticipation, conscience is a guide. In so far as it acts retrospectively, it is a judge executing its own decrees.
Several reasons for this opinion might be given, but the great reason is that the theory which regards conscience as a crowning governing faculty—a faculty sui generis, and distinct from all others—is inconsistent with the wide variations between the dictates of the consciences of different men at different times. The faculties which are undoubtedly sui generis and ultimate authorities vary, as far as we can judge, within very narrow limits. The more definite senses — for instance, sight, hearing, and touch — vary hardly at all, except in degree from man to man, so far, at least, as we can judge. With exceptions so rare as to constitute a curiosity, all men recognise the same colours, and even the same shades of colours, and the same shapes. No one fails to distinguish a bass voice from a tenor, or the feeling of leather from that of cloth; and where variations do occur, as in the case of colour-blindness, there is no difficulty in making the person who is in an insignificant minority recognise the fact.
This is very different from the case of morals. A great deal has been said — not always, we think, wisely—on the difference between the moral judgments of different times and countries, and of different individuals of the same time and country. It has been asserted with some vehemence, on the one side, that the virtues of one age and nation are the vices of another; and it has been said with equal warmth, on the other side, that no nation ever approved of ingratitude, or cruelty, or perfidy as such, although under particular circumstances they may have applauded actions which others would have classed under those heads.
Let us try to form some notion of the degree of truth which is contained in these opposing statements. Is it possible to state in general the limits of the agreement and divergence of men upon questions of right and wrong? We do not think the task is hopeless. The morality of a given society consists of the rules of conduct which, as a fact, are considered binding in that society, and these rules have reference to the way in which the society is organised. Now there are dispositions which are obviously and glaringly injurious to mankind in general, let society be organised how it will, although they are injurious in different ways in different kinds of societies. On the other hand, there are dispositions and practices which are injurious in societies organised in one way, and not in societies organised in other ways. We believe that this distinction marks with a considerable degree of accuracy the line of agreement and divergence in moral judgments.
Qualities generally injurious get common names, and are generally disapproved by those names, though they are variously denned. Thus cruelty, ingratitude, and perfidy are, and always have been, injurious to every society in which they have existed, and accordingly have always been stigmatised by dyslogistic names proximately equivalent to each other in various languages.
An ancient Greek and a modern Englishman, or a modern Englishman and his great-grandfather, would define cruelty differently. The Greek was not quite sure whether it was cruel to massacre the Melians in cold blood. The Englishman a hundred years ago thought it not cruel to hang people for horse-stealing, or to bait bulls, or set cocks to fight. Many Englishmen now think it cruel to hang men for murder. Still, ancient Greeks, Englishmen in the eighteenth century, and Englishmen in the nineteenth century, have all agreed in the general conclusion that there were cases in which the causing of pain was wrong, and that the disposition to cause pain in such cases was common enough to require a distinct dyslogistic epithet. In other words, all disapproved of cruelty, though they defined it variously.
On the other hand, the cases of divergence in moral judgment arise from different ideas according to which society may be organised. For instance, society may be organised on radically different ideas as to the nature and attributes of God, and as to the relation of the sexes. The result will be a totally different, and even discordant, set of moral principles and rules on these subjects. A nation may be organised in such a way as to produce a complete divorce between morality and religion. God, or the gods, may be thought of as capricious or immoral beings, or as beings indifferent to mankind. On the other hand, God may be thought of as the great source and pattern of all goodness.
Each of these theories will give birth to a corresponding set of moral rules, and to a corresponding state of conscientious sensibility. Conscience generated under well-known conceptions of the Deity prescribed Suttee and the worship of Moloch and of Baal Peor. It also prescribed, under other influences, the highest forms of Christian virtue. Some views of the relations of God to man lead to asceticism; others lead to the social conception of morals which prevails in our own time and country. Under the first of these views, a life of monastic austerity is the perfection of holiness; under the second, it is a mistake, involving a culpable neglect of plain duties.
The different conceptions of the relation of the sexes which prevail in different times and at different places are too well known to require more than a passing notice. Polygamy is approved by the conscience of Mahometans; monogamy by that of Christians. Concubinage was perfectly right and natural in the eyes of Abraham and David. Plato wrote the Phaedrus and the Symposium. In our own days, the moral sentiment on this subject prevalent in Protestant and Roman Catholic countries differs perceptibly. All these vast differences are faithfully represented by the consciences of the persons who live under the influence of the ideas from which they spring, and it is well worth remarking that there are no subjects on which conscience speaks so plainly or loudly, and rewards and punishes so severely, as those on which the consciences of different ages and classes contradict each other most flatly.
These divergencies and agreements of the consciences of different ages and nations agree perfectly with the theory that conscience is compounded of sympathy and reason; for reason acts in the most various manners under different circumstances, and is almost entirely under the dominion of the sentiments prevalent in the particular age and nation in which it acts. With the great mass of men there is little or no difference between clearly understanding a theory and believing it, and thus almost every one's conscience is a reflection of the current maxims and principles of the time and country of the person who has it. If conscience is supposed to be more than this, if it is regarded as a divine or quasi-divine δαίμωυ residing in every man's breast, it is, to us at least, altogether impossible to explain its divergencies. Either it is not such an oracle at all, or if it is, it is a fallible oracle, which comes practically to the same thing.
We are now in a position to consider what are the rights of conscience, or, in other words, what consequences the legislator, the systematic moralist, and individual men respectively, ought to attach to the fact that the conscience of a particular person approves of or blames this or that. The answer will vary considerably in each of these three cases.
First, take the case of the legislator. Legislation is always reducible to a case of the contingent infliction of penalties, and for this reason it is always prima facie an evil, for restraint and penalty mean suffering, and unless a balance of happiness is produced by its infliction the result is a loss. Where the conscience of any part of the persons legislated for, comes into opposition to the law, this loss is greatly enhanced, for to a person who does not agree with the legislator, nor believe him to be wiser than himself, a law forbidding him to do this or that is no more than a prudential reason for not doing it. His mind remains as it was, subject only to the fact that a new danger is superadded to those which he formerly ran in acting on his opinions. Heavier punishments will therefore be necessary to make such laws effectual than in cases where conscience acts the other way.
On the other hand, if the legislator has great moral weight, if those for whom he legislates have a great respect for him, the fact that he denounces and punishes a particular thing is a strong reason to his subjects for supposing that that thing is not right but wrong. Hence, if the legislator commits himself to a conflict with the conscience of his subjects, or any of them, he ought, in the first place, to have in view a perfectly clear and very great advantage. He ought, if possible, to be so much superior to those for whom he legislates in force and wisdom that his disapproval will carry with it great moral weight.
These rules, simple as they are, give the real solution of most of the common cases about the rights of conscience. Why not persecute religions which the majority of a nation consider erroneous? Because the fact that they are conscientiously held —i.e. that the reason of a large number of people, exercised on their sentiments, produces an habitual conviction of the duty of believing them—shows that the gain of exterminating them is doubtful, as they may be true; and that the certain evil to be incurred in the operation would be enormously great, because there would be so much resistance.
Why treat Thuggee and Suttee as crimes? Because the evil to be overcome is great and indisputable, and because it is so glaring that, if faced and denounced as being what it is, there is a strong probability that even those whose consciences now approve such practices will come to change their minds.
Why punish high treason as a crime, when it is often committed by virtuous men on the loftiest principles? Because destruction is to a government the greatest of all evils, and self-preservation the first of duties. Still the conscientious character of the offence mitigates it so far that, when the immediate danger is over, no one would wish to punish a traitor as one would punish a murderer. In short, the fact that anything whatever is in accordance with the consciences of a large body of people, is a matter to be considered by the legislator in the creation of rights respecting it, and is, generally speaking, one of the strongest possible reasons against hostile legislation, though it is only a reason like another which in particular cases may have to give way.
Next, consider the rights of conscience from the point of view of the systematic moralist. How does the fact that an act was prescribed by a given man's conscience affect its moral quality? Meaning by the morality of an act its consistency with the principle of utility, it is obvious that the morality of an act no more depends on the conscience of the agent than the time of day depends on his watch. Acts, however, are more frequently viewed by moralists, not so much in relation to any specific moral principle of this sort, as in relation to the light which they throw on the general character of the agent, and on the degree in which other men would love or hate him. Viewed in this light, a conscientious act is, in all common cases, equivalent to a right act, but there is an indefinable line beyond which this is not true. Intellectual duties form a real and most important, though a grossly neglected, province of morality. Honesty, energy, and courage in the conduct of the mind, are of this number, and if a man's conscience is either crotchety, superstitious, or cowardly, this is positive proof that the man himself must have been either false, idle, or cowardly in his thoughts, and some degree of disapprobation and contempt is the appropriate punishment for these offences.
Lastly, take the individual point of view. My conscience prescribes this or that. Ought I to act upon it unreservedly, fearing as I do that my mind will not be at peace unless I do so, whatever systematic moralists may say to the contrary? The answer is that no man's watch goes quite right, though the sun keeps time to a second. It is a question for every individual whether he will trust his neighbour's watch, which he can see only at a distance- and indistinctly, and whether he can trust himself to take an observation. As to peace of mind, that is an advantage of which every man must measure the value and extent for himself. As a matter of fact, it is hardly probable that a habit fixed by the practice of many years, will alter itself to meet a particular opinion, formed with reference to a special set of circumstances.
Saturday Review, September 2, 1865.