Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/537

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THE PLACE OF CONSCIENCE IN EVOLUTION.

and must exist independently of all theories as to what in the abstract constitutes right and wrong, and in spite of mistakes in particular cases.

Lastly, conscience is imperative, because the inwrought consciousness in human nature that man has a right to himself makes every other consideration whatsoever subordinate to itself. This is the right which must be at every cost pursued by myself and conceded to me by others, which dominates every action, lies at the root of all human progress, shapes every institution of our devising, and presides over the destiny of mankind to its remotest end. For, travel as far as we please, we can never escape from the conditions under which we were called into being.

So far, then, the task we set before us of ascertaining how the sense of rightness came into the world has been in some degree accomplished. The process by which from this prolific germ the vast fabric of human morality, together with the exquisitely delicate machinery of the individual conscience, as we now see it, has by slow degrees grown up, can be indicated in a sentence. Morality consists in transferring to other beings like ourselves those rights which we feel that we ourselves possess, in learning that what is due to us from them is also due to them from us, in ascertaining in what those mutual rights consist, in adjusting the rights of individuals within the limits of one society, lastly, in forming to ourselves notions of abstract right and wrong by the methods of philosophical inquiry. Manifestly, therefore, this account of the origin of conscience does not conflict with any one proposition that has ever been formulated by any of the great masters of experimental philosophy; it does but claim to add to them that undefinable something which seemed to the common-sense of mankind deficient in their account of conscience. The true method of inquiry is surely not to ask what such words as "conscience," "ought," "duty," "happiness," mean in the mind of a modern thinker, but to discover, if we can, what they meant, or rather to what instinctive impressions they corresponded, in the minds of the forefathers of our race. For the question is not "How did I come by my conscience?" but "How did those remote ancestors of mine, the first man and after him the first society of men, come by theirs?"

The history of the process by which, under the influence of social life, its wants, obligations, utilities, arrangements, and sanctions, the sense of a right due to ourselves was elaborated into the voice of conscience prescribing what is due to others, would be a valuable and interesting contribution to moral science. But though quite beyond our present limits it is, I think, possible to sketch in mere outline the stages through which conscience passed till it reached its full growth. I disclaim any pedantic desire to show that these stages are chronologically successive; on the contrary, they act and react upon each other, and may be immensely varied in their operations among different races or at different times. But with this proviso the seven ages of conscience may be briefly indicated as follows: