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WHETHER WE ALWAYS DO RIGHT BY OBEYING THE DICTATES OF CONSCIENCE?
Difficulty of the problem. THIS is one of the most perplexing questions in the science of morals. Many are of opinion that all that is necessary to render an action good is that the agent act agreeably to the dictates of his own conscience. This may be considered a vulgar opinion, usually taken up without much consideration. But there is an opinion, near akin to this, which has been advocated by some of the greatest men of the age; namely, that men are not responsible for their opinions or belief. It is thought that the adoption of this as a maxim is the only effectual method of putting an end to the bitter animosities and controversies among the advocates of different creeds.65
Source of error. It is not wonderful that they who make the moral sense, in a sort, infallible, and the ultimate standard of right and wrong, should hold that men cannot go astray if they will honestly listen to the voice of conscience, and obey her dictates.
Error of understanding may affect moral judgments. But as we have shown that conscience is the judgment of the mind respecting duty, and as no man’s knowledge is perfect or infallible, it follows, therefore, that so far as there is error in the understanding in relation to matters of duty, just so far the conscience will be misguided. The question at issue, therefore, is whether an action, wrong in itself, can be considered as a good and virtuous action if the agent believes that it is right. Otherwise truth would be needless. If the affirmative were true, then the discovery of truth would be of no value, for obviously upon this principle error is just as good as truth. But as soon would we believe that darkness is as good as light to direct us in the way which we wish to travel. Again, this theory supposes that a man is under 66no law but his own opinion, or the dictates of conscience; Opinion would be law. that, therefore, which is a sin in one man may be a duty to another in precisely the same external circumstances and relations; which would be to confound all moral distinctions. This theory would go to sanction every form of religion, however corrupt and superstitious; False religion would be right. and to make the vilest immoralities virtuous; for there can be no doubt that the votaries of idolatry, in their most cruel and abominable rites, follow the dictates of an erring conscience. When the heathen sacrifice to demons, and when the victim is a human being, or even a first-born son, there is nothing wrong, for all these acts of worship are performed in obedience to conscience. Every species of persecution and the Inquisition itself may be justified on this principle. Instead, therefore, of putting an end to all animosity, it would bring back, in all their horrors, the days of persecution for conscience’ sake.
On this subject, again, our appeal must be to the unbiassed judgment of mankind; and we 67think the verdict will be, that error which might have been avoided, and ignorance, which is not invincible, do not excuse. Avoidable and unavoidable. The knowledge necessary to duty is within the reach of every man, were he disposed sincerely to seek after it. But it is a truth which is of importance on this subject, that one false step leads to another; and though a man who has adopted fundamental error, labours under a kind of necessity to do wrong, yet this does not excuse him, because he ought to have exercised more diligence and impartiality in seeking for the truth, and is justly liable to all the evil consequences resulting from this neglect.
Duty of correcting errors. Suppose a man to have been educated in a wrong system of religion and morals; he is responsible, because, when arrived at the years of maturity, he should have brought the opinions received by education under an honest examination. The more difficult it is to divest ourselves of prejudices thus imbibed, as it were, with the mother’s milk, the more necessary is it that, under the influence 68of a sincere love of truth, we should, with impartiality, diligence, and resolution, endeavour to do so. It is no proof that such a course is not the solemn duty of man, that few ever perform it. The prevalence of error in the world, is very much owing to the neglect of this duty. This neglect arises from culpable indolence, from a desire to remain in agreement with the multitude or with our parents and teachers, from aversion to the truth and an unwillingness to deny ourselves, and incur the inconvenience and persecution which an avowal of the truth would bring upon us.. But none of these reasons will justify us in adhering to opinions which are detrimental to ourselves and others, or contrary to our moral obligations. It is true, if a man’s conscience dictates a certain action, he is morally bound to obey; but if that action is in itself wrong, he commits sin in performing it, nevertheless. He who is under fundamental error, is in a sad dilemma. Do what he will, he sins. If he disobey conscience, he knowingly sins; doing what he believes to be wrong; and a man never can be justified for doing what he believes to be 69wrong, even though it should turn out to be right. And if he obey conscience, performing an act which is in itself wrong, he sins; because he complies not with the law under which he is placed. It may be asked, “How can a man be responsible in such circumstances, when he is under a necessity of doing wrong?” The seat of responsibility in such a case. We are responsible for suffering ourselves to be brought into such a state; we are responsible for our ignorance of the truth. Hence we see how important the duty of seeking after truth with untiring diligence, and honest impartiality. The same necessity is found to arise from forming bad habits, and cherishing evil passions. The heart in which envy to another has been indulged until it has become habitual, cannot exercise kind and brotherly affections to that person; but this is no excuse. The fault may be traced far back, but guilt is attached to every act of envy, however inveterate the habit. If this were not so, the greater the sinner, the less his responsibility.
Objection, that belief is involuntary. The objection to making a man responsible for his opinions, is, that his belief does not depend 70upon his will, but results necessarily from the evidence existing before the mind, at any moment. This is true; but we may turn our minds away from the evidence which would have produced a conviction of the truth. And this is not all; there may be such a state of mind, that evidence of a certain kind cannot be perceived. Depravity produces blindness of mind, in regard to the beauty and excellency of moral objects. But every man ought to be free from such a state or temper of mind, as produces distorted or erroneous views. Surely, moral depravity cannot be an excuse for erroneous opinions. All actions proceed from certain principles; if, therefore, the action is wrong, because of the corrupt principle, the burden of culpability must be rolled back upon the principle, or state of the soul, which sends forth evil acts, as a poisoned fountain sends forth deleterious streams.
Metaphysical reasoning, however, rather perplexes and obscures than elucidates such points. Let us hold fast by the plain principles of common sense, and appeal to the common judgment 71of mankind; Avoidable ignorance does not excuse. and the decision will be, that ignorance or error which might have been avoided, never excuses from blame. The same is true of all evil habits and inveterate passions, which have been voluntarily or heedlessly contracted. The whole course of a moral agent must be taken together; his moral acts are complicated, and intimately connected. They form a web, in which one thread is connected with another, and one serves to give strength to another. If we honestly consult our conscience, we feel guilty when we have done wrong, even though we did it ignorantly; because we ought not to have been in ignorance.
What constitutes a right action. Two things, therefore, are necessary, in order to determine that an action is right: first, that the state of mind of the agent be such as it ought to be; and secondly, that the action be in conformity with the law under which we are placed; for the very idea of morality supposes us to be under a moral law.
Duty not fulfilled by obeying erroneous conscience. While, then, we cannot do better than obey 72conscience; yet if conscience is erroneous, we do not fulfil our duty by such obedience, but may commit grievous sin. For, following the dictates of conscience, is only one circumstance essential to a good action. When we do wrong while obeying the dictates of conscience, the error does not consist in that obedience, but in not following the right rule, with which rule the accountable moral agent should be acquainted.73
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