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THE BIBLIOTHECA SACRA,
THE BIBLICAL REPOSITORY,
THE CHRISTIAN REVIEW,
THE MORAL FACULTY AS DISTINGUISHED FROM
BY REV. DANIEL J. NOYES, D.D., PROFESSOR IN DARTMOUTH COLLEGE.
THERE is hardly any word in our language which is so convenient, and at the same time so inconvenient, that is, so difficult of satisfactory explanation to those who freely use it, as conscience. It is obvious, on a moment's reflection, that both the convenience and the inconvenience are owing to the same cause—its comprehensive meaning. Conscience is not a single faculty. It embraces exercises of the understanding, the reason, and the emotional nature; and expresses the result of their combined action in moral conduct. Now if all these powers were in their normal state, and the action of each absolutely correct, absolute correctness might be affirmed of the result of their united action; and a single word might exactly and truly express it. Or if, when the action of one of these elements of conscience is wrong, or in any way defective, the action of the others were also absolutely as well as relatively wrong, then the whole wrong might be predicated of the combined result without particular discrimination; and a single term might be used to express that result. But if one of the elements is always right in its action, while that of another is sometimes wrong, as is
Vol. XXIV. No. 95. — JULY, 1867.
the tact, it is not proper to regard their united result as wholly characterized by the action of either; as wholly right, when the action of but one is right, or wholly wrong, when the action of but one is wrong. We cannot, therefore, say that the decisions of conscience are always in all respects right; for the decisions of one of its elements are sometimes manifestly wrong. Nor, on the other hand, can we say that they are ever in all respects wrong; for the decisions of one of its elements, and the one too which is generally regarded as constituting all that is embraced in the word “conscience,” are always right.
It is not strange, therefore, that confusion of thought should often take place in the use of this familiar word. More than this, practical evil here, as elsewhere, is likely to follow errors in judgment. If we take the ground, without very careful discrimination, that the judgments of conscience are not always correct, that it is liable to err in its decisions; our confidence in its authority is likely to be weakened. It will be regarded as essentially on a level with those impulses of our nature which are merely constitutional, and which often mislead us. It will not be recognized as the voice of God, but of man-of man, too, ignorant and fallible. Great practical evil is doubtless the result of this view of the subject. Attention is thus unduly fixed upon the element of conscience which is liable to err in its judgments. On the other hand, if the ground is taken that the decisions of conscience are always correct, that it never errs in its judgments, - meaning really a single element of it, - and that therefore it should always be obeyed; there is danger of evil in another direction. There is danger lest the decisions of the understanding, in respect to moral subjects, should be regarded as always right and clothed with the authority of an intuitive judgment. Just here will be found a fruitful source of most dangerous self-deception, and of fanaticism in its various forms and degrees.
It is a very important inquiry how the philosophical difficulties, and much more the injurious practical consequences,
which grow out of the use of this word, may be avoided. It would seem at first view, that a careful analysis of the different elements of conscience might entirely relieve the difficulty; so far at least, as regards minds of some degree of reflection. Much may doubtless be accomplished in this way for this class of persons. But more or less confusion is likely to follow the best attempts of this kind, as every teacher of Ethics can testify. In addition to this, the analysis, if well understood at the time, is liable to be forgotten or disregarded when most needed. Old and established habits of thought do not readily give place to new views, even though more correct. Were it not for the loss in other respects, and also were it possible, we should like to limit the meaning of the word “conscience" to what, in the minds of most men, is really expressed by it; and to assign other exercises of mind now embraced in it, to their appropriate faculties. This being impossible, as language is now constructed, the best method, we think, of clearing the subject of difficulty, and one which may be of some practical benefit, is to select the central element of conscience, that in it which is usually understood by the word, and assign to it an appropriate name, and use that name instead of the other, as often as occasion requires. This discrimination in the use of the word would gradually give it its proper place in written and oral discourse. Such a name stands ready for this use the Moral Faculty. We are aware that this name is now generally used by ethical writers as synonymous with conscience. But the term is so suggestive of its exact meaning, so expressive of the precise idea contained in it, and no more, that it would be easy to recover it from the broader signification sometimes given to it, and limit it to this specific use.
Though the change which we suggest may never take place, -is not perhaps to be expected in any considerable degree, there is an advantage in using the term “moral faculty," in discussing the general subject of conscience, in this limited and definite signification. In this way, better than in any other, we may be able to remove some of the difficulties that