Imágenes de páginas

and emotions of our fellows, might be found, all blent and fused into a combined "suggestion," a mental push, a "must" or "ought," from whose influence we find it difficult

to escape.

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 so 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.

(3) We also need conscience because of our forgetfulness. Over and over again we say, "I did n't stop to think." If our conscience had been properly acute, it would have made us stop. Insight, however comprehensive and clear, is apt to remain somewhere in a locked drawer in our minds when the hot-blooded impulse appears. If we were but to pause and reflect, we should be sensible and kind. But our intellect is dulled by our emotions, it does not get working. We need a more instinctive, a deeper-rooted mechanism, an imperious "Halt!" at the brief moment between the thought of sin and the act. Conscience is not only a teacher and a driver, it is a sentinel. Its red flag stops us at the brink of many a disaster, and we have it to thank for many an otherwise forgotten duty performed.

To sum up: Instinct and desire are lacking in proper adjustment to the needs of life. Society seeks to control them by the pressure of law and custom. These powerful forces, however, are external, and, savoring more or less of tyranny, tend at times to awaken a rebellious spirit in the hot-headed. So a perpetual antinomy would exist between internal impulse and external constraint, were it not that that external constraint is reflected within the individual mind by a secondary and overlying set of inhibitions and promptings which we call variously the "moral sense,” the 'sense of duty," or "conscience." We often do not know or remember consciously at the moment of decision what the law ordains or the wisdom of the race teaches. But we have an inward monitor. We often hang back from a recognized duty. But we feel an inward push. When the wrong impulse is pungent and enticing, and the right one insipid and tame, when we would forget if we could the perils of sin, conscience surges up in us and saves us from ourselves. It is a mechanism of extreme value which nature has evolved in us for


imposing on our weak and vacillating wills action that makes for a truer good than we should otherwise choose.

No wonder, then, if we reverence this saving power within us, and crown it with a halo as the divine spark in the midst of our grosser nature. The more we revere it, the brighter the glamour it has for us, the stronger it grows and the more it helps us. The apotheosis of conscience has been of immense use in leading men to heed its voice and obey its leading. Yet this blind allegiance has its dangers; conscience has often been a cruel tyrant. It is by no means an always safe guide, as we shall presently note. And as men grow more and more adjusted by instinct and training to their real needs, they will have less and less need of this helmsman. After all, there is something wrong with a life that needs conscience; it is a transition-help for the long period of man's maladjustment. Spencer looks forward, a little too hopefully, perhaps, to a time in the measurable future when we shall have outgrown the need of it, when we shall wish to do right and need no compulsion, outer or inner. And Emerson, in a wellknown passage, writes: "We love characters in proportion as they are impulsive and spontaneous. When we see a soul whose acts are all regal, graceful, and pleasant as roses, we must thank God that such things can be and are, and not turn sourly on the angel and say, 'Crump is a better man with his grunting resistance to all his native devils."" A Chinese proverb says, "He who finds pleasure in vice and pain in virtue is still a novice in both." The saint is he who has learned really to love virtue, in its concrete duties, better than all the allurements of sin; to him we may say, as Virgil said to Dante, "Take thine own pleasure for thy guide henceforth." But until we are saints it is wise for us to cultivate conscientiousness, the habit of obedience, even when it costs, to that inward urging which is, on the whole, for most of us, our safest guide.

F. Paulsen, System of Ethics, bk. 11, chap. v, secs. 1, 2, 5. H. Spencer, Data of Ethics, chap. VII, secs. 44-46. S. E. Mezes, Ethics, Descriptive and Explanatory, chaps. v, VIII. Sutherland, op. cit., chap. xv. F. Thilly, Introduction to Ethics, chap. III. Westermarck, op. cit., chap. v. Darwin, Descent of Man, pt. 1, chap. ш. J. H. Hyslop, Elements of Ethics, chaps. VI, VII. J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, chap. v. H. W. Wright, Self-Realization, pt. 1, chap. IV. H. Rashdall, Is Conscience an Emotion? chap. I. Studies in Philosophy and Psychology (Garman memorial volume), chap. IV. J. H. Leuba, in American Journal of Psychology, vol. 8, p. 528.

« AnteriorContinuar »