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What is conscience now?
conscience” in one's own life and note of what mental stuff it is made. When a number write down their findings without mutual suggestion, the results are usually widely divergent. Any of the original ingredients hitherto mentioned may be discovered, or other personal factors. There may be present to consciousness only a vague uneasiness or restlessness, or there may be a sophisticated recurrence of the concepts of “conscience,” “duty,” etc. The one universal fact is that there is a conflict between some primitive impulse or passion and some maturer mental checks. Any sort of mental stuff that serves the purpose of controlling desire will do; we must define conscience in terms not of content but of function. There is no such unity in the material as the single name seems to imply; and whether or not that name shall be given to a given psychological state is a matter of usage in which there is considerable variation.
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 background 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 promptings that well up in a man's heart are taken to be a supernatural guidance 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 ages of natural evolution, is not only rich in fruitful insight, but entirely consistent with a deep religious feeling. For hortatory or inspirational purposes we do not need to make this analysis; it has, indeed, its practical dangers. It tends to rob the glory from anything to analyze it into its parts and study the natural causes that produced it. The loveliest painting is but a mess of pigments to the microscope, the loveliest face but a mess of cells and hairs and blood vessels. There is something gruesome and inhuman about embryology and all other studies of origins. While we are analyzing an object, or tracing its genesis, we are not responding to it as a whole or feeling its beauty and power. The mystery, the spell, vanishes; we cease to thrill when we dissect.
But knowledge proceeds by analysis, and gains by a study of origins and causes. And the temporary emotional loss should be more than balanced by the value of the insight won. We need not linger too long at our dissecting. The discovery that conscience is an explicable and natural development does not preclude a realization of the awfulness of obligation, the sacredness of duty, any more than a geologist must cease to thrill at the grandeur and beauty of the Grand Cañon because he has studied the composition of the rocks and understands the causes that have slowly, through the ages, wrought this miracle. So we need feel no reluctance in admitting that the sense of duty is not something imposed upon human nature from without; it is of its very substance, it has developed step by step with our other faculties, slowly crystallizing through millenniums of human and pre-human experience.
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. For example, we may be pulled up sharply from a course of self-indulgence by a conscious realization of the harm we are doing to others thereby; this bridling state of mind, whether chiefly emotional or more intellectual, we may call sympathy, or an altruistic instinct, or love. But when we feel the pressure from these same mental states incipiently aroused, when our motor-mechanism half-automatically steers us away from the selfish act, without our consciously formulating a specific name for the new impulse or recognizing any articulate motive, we are apt to give this mental push the more general name of conscience. So if we consciously reckon up, balance advantages, and decide on the less inviting act in recognition of its really greater worth to us, we say we act from prudence or insight, we are reasonable about it; while if the grumblings of the prudential motives remain subterranean, subconscious, they play the rôle of conscience.
onscience 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 the opinions and emotions of our fellows, might be found, all blent and fused into a combined “suggestion,"
suggestion," a mental push, a "must" or "ought," from whose influence we find it difficult
The detailed psychological analysis of cases of conscience and the study of its genesis are of no essential ethical interest, except as they show us that the sense of duty is not an ultimate, irreducible element in our consciousness, or make clearer to us its function and value. 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 80 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. To a more explicit statement of its value we must now turn.
What is the value of conscience?
It would seem, at first glance, as if the development of reason should make conscience unnecessary. When we are able to discern the consequences of our acts, formulate and weigh our motives and aims, what need of these vague prerational promptings and inhibitions? Why not train men to supplant a blind sense of duty by a conscious insight, a rational valuation of ends and means? Is not reason, as it has been recently called, "the ultimate conscience"? 1
(1) Conscience is valuable on account of our ignorance. Individually we have not had experience enough to guide us in our crises; 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
1 G. Santayana, Reason in Science, p. 232; where also the following: "So soon as conscience summons its own dicta for revision in the light of experience and of universal sympathy, it is no longer called conscience, but reason.”
we can lean upon the racial experience. Many past experiences, now forgotten, have gone to the moulding of this faculty. The need of action is often imminent, there is no time for the long study of the situation which alone could form a sure insight into the conduct it demands. We need readymade 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 the necessary data. Altogether, insight, though in the long run the critic of conscience, is not a practical substitute. What conscience tells us is more apt to be true than what at the moment seems a rational judgment.
(2) Conscience is also valuable in view of our rebelliousness. Conventional morality is external, and would continually arouse revolt, were it not reinforced by an inward prompting. If external motives and penalties alone bore upon us we should chafe under them, and under the stress of passion or longing throw them aside. Even if these external sanctions were reinforced by insight into the rationality of morality, that insight might still leave us rebellious and unpersuaded. Knowledge alone is feeble, marginal in our lives. We often sin in the full knowledge of the penalties awaiting us. We need something more dynamic, pressure as well as information. Conscience is such a driver. Its commands weigh upon us, and will not be stilled. Reason plays but a weak part in the best of us; and to counteract our incurable waywardness, our recurrent longings for what cannot be had without too great a cost, we need not only the presence of law and convention, not only the weak voice of knowledge, but the stern summons of this powerful psychological response. Nature was wise when she evolved this function as a bulwark against our weakness, a bit between our teeth.