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Dewey and Tufts, Ethics, chaps. v. Ix. W. Bagehot, Physics and Politics, chaps. II, VI. F. Paulsen, System of Ethics, pt. II, chap. v, sec. 6. S. E. Mezes, Ethics, chap. VIII, pp. 164–83. J. H. Coffin, The Socialized Conscience, pp. 12-23. R. B. Perry, The Moral Economy, chap. IV. W. Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, chap. II. F. M. McMurry, How to Study, chap. IX. E. J. Swift, Learning and Doing, chap. VI. Boris Sidis, Philistine and Genius.
CAN WE BASE MORALITY UPON CONSCIENCE?
What is the meaning of "moral intuitionism"?
WITH the growth of individualism in morals, the relaxing of the constraint of publicly accepted standards, there is, of course, a dangerous drift toward self-indulgence and moral nihilism. It becomes all the more necessary that conscience be strong and sensitive, that inner restraints take the place of outer. In the lack of a mature moral insight, which is one of the latest of mental developments, and indeed, where it exists, to reinforce its pale affirmations with greater impulsive power, a stern sense of duty is a veritable rock of salvation. Many a people have perished, many a brilliant hope of civilization been lost, because of its lack. So we cannot wonder when moralists put it forward as the foundation-stone of all morality and seek to build their systems upon it. To a man who has been bred to obey the inner voice, it seems the very source and basis of the right; it is ~o unescapable, so authoritative, that it cannot be deemed derived, or evolved by a mechanical process of selection. It figures as something ultimate and unanalyzable, if not frankly supernatural; that it is a mere instrument in the attainment of an ulterior end, to be used or rejected according to its observed usefulness, is an abhorrent thought.
There has thus arisen a school of philosophers who base their justification of morality entirely upon the deliverances of conscience. Their theories vary in detail and have received sundry names; we will group them here for convenience under the general caption "moral intuitionism." As a rule they steer clear of the historic point of view; they refuse to
believe that conscience has a natural history. Nor are they usually keen at psychological analysis; the numberless variations in form which conscience assumes in different individuals are, for their purposes, better ignored. Instead of analyzing the moral sense into its components and describing the mental stuff of which it is composed, instead of tracing its genesis and studying the forces that have produced it, they wax eloquent over its importance and universality. As preachers they are admirable. But the foundation they provide for morality is slippery. It amounts to saying, "We ought to do right because we know we ought!" When we ask how we can be sure, in view of the general fallibility of human conviction, that we are not mistaken in our assurance, and following a false light, they can but reiterate in altered phraseology that we know because we know.
To these intuitionists, and to the popular mind very often, the approval or disapproval of conscience is immediate, intuitive, and unerring. Its authority is absolute and not to be questioned. We have this faculty within us that tells us as surely what is right and what wrong as our colorsense tells us what is red and what green. Some people may, to be sure, be color-blind, or have defective consciences; but the great mass of unsophisticated people possess this innate guide and commandment, a quite sufficient warrant for all our distinctions of good and evil. Honest men do not really differ in their moral judgments. They may misunderstand one another's concepts and engage in verbal disputes; but at bottom their moral sense approves and disapproves the same acts. Our moral differences come mainly from the deluding effects of passion and the sophisticated ingenuities of the intellect. We should "return to nature," go by ourselves alone, and listen to the inner voice. If we sincerely listen and obey we shall always do right.1
1 "But truth and right, founded in the eternal and necessary reason of
We cannot but recognize a certain amount of practical truth in this picture. But it is over-simplified, and it is fundamentally unsatisfactory to the intellect. We shall now pass in review its most obvious inadequacies.
Do the deliverances of different people's consciences agree?
Nothing is more notorious to an unbiased observer than the conscientious differences between men. Even among members of a single community, with closely similar inheritance and environment, we find marked divergence in moral judgment. And when we compare widely different times and places we are apt to wonder if there is any com mon ground. It is only a very smug provincialism that can attribute the alien standards of other races and nations to a disregard of the light. Mohammedans and Buddhists have believed as firmly in, and fought as passionately for, their moral convictions as Christians have for theirs. When we survey the vast amount of material amassed by anthropologists, we find that, as has been often said, there is hardly a vice that has not somewhere been deemed a virtue, and hardly a virtue but has been branded as a vice. History is full of the pathos of havoc wrought by conscientious men, of foolish and ruinous acts which they have braced themselves to do for conscience' sake. One has but to think of the earnest and prayerful inquisitors and persecutors in the medieval Church, of the Puritans destroying the stainedglass windows and paintings of the Madonna, of the caliph who destroyed the great Alexandrian library, bereaving the world at one blow of that priceless culture-inheritance. Written biography, fiction which truly represents life, and individual memory are full of sad instances where deadlocks things, is what every man can judge of, when laid before him. 'Tis necessarily one and the same to every man's understanding, just as light is the same, to every man's eyes." (S. Clarke, Discourse upon Natural Religion, 1706.)
of conscience have sundered those who truly loved and wrought irremediable pain and loss. Lately the newspapers told us of the heroic suicide of General Nogi and his wife, who felt it their duty not to survive their emperor. To a Catholic Christian this imperious dictate of the Japanese conscience would be a deadly sin. And so it goes. There is no need to multiply instances of what can be observed on every hand. Conscience reflects the traditions and influences amid which a man grows up.
But if the deliverances of different men's consciences conflict, how shall we know which to trust? If any particular command of the inner voice may be morally wrong, how can we trust it at all? There are obviously morbid and perverted consciences; but if conscience itself is the ultimate authority, and is not to be justified and criticized by some deeper test, what right have we to call any of its manifestations morbid or perverted? Is it not a species of egotism to hold one's own moral discernment as superior to another's; and if so, do we not need some criterion by which to judge between them? Surely the diversity of its judgments makes conscience an impossible foundation for morality; we should have as many codes as consciences and fall into a hopeless confusion.
If conscience everywhere agreed in its dictates, could we base morality upon it?
Even, however, if conscience led us all in the same direction, would that prove its authority? Perhaps we should all be following a will o' the wisp, and foolishly sacrificing our desires to an idol of the tribe, a universal superstition. Must it not show its credentials before it can legitimately command our allegiance? It is but one specific type of impulse among many; why should it be given the reins, the control over all? Do we say, because conscience makes for our best welfare? The answer would, in general, be true;