The Basis of Morality/Chapter II

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When scholarship, reason and conscience have made impossible the acceptance of Revelation as the bedrock of morality, the student—especially in the West—is apt next to test "Intuition" as a probable basis for ethics. In the East, this idea has not appealed to the thinker in the sense in which the word Intuition is used in the West. The moralist in the East has based ethics on Revelation, or on Evolution, or on Illumination—the last being the basis of the Mystic. Intuition—which by moralists like Theodore Parker, Frances Power Cobb, and many Theists, is spoken of as the "Voice of God" in the human soul—is identified by these with "conscience," so that to base morality on Intuition is equivalent to basing it on conscience, and making the dictate of conscience the categorical imperative, the inner voice which declares authoritatively "Thou shalt," or "Thou shalt not".

Now it is true that for each individual there is no better, no safer, guide than his own conscience and that when the moralist says to the inquirer: "Obey your conscience" he is giving him sound ethical advice. None the less is the thinker faced with an apparently insuperable difficulty in the way of accepting conscience as an ethical basis; for he finds the voice of conscience varying with civilisation, education, race, religion, traditions, customs, and if it be, indeed, the voice of God in man, he cannot but see—in a sense quite different from that intended by the writer—that God "in divers manners spoke in past times". Moreover he observes, as an historical fact, that some of the worst crimes which have disgraced humanity have been done in obedience to the voice of conscience. It is quite clear that Cromwell at Drogheda was obeying conscience, was doing that which he conscientiously believed to be the Will of God; and there is no reason to doubt that a man like Torquemada was also carrying out what he conscientiously believed to be the Divine Will in the war which he waged against heresy through the Inquisition.

In this moral chaos, with such a clash of discordant "Divine Voices," where shall sure guidance be found? One recalls the bitter gibe of Laud to the Puritan, who urged that he must follow his conscience: "Yea, verily; but take heed that thy conscience be not the conscience of a fool."

Conscience speaks with authority, whenever it speaks at all. Its voice is imperial, strong and clear. None the less is it often uninformed, mistaken, in its dictate. There is an Intuition which is verily the voice of the Spirit in man, in the God-illuminated man, which is dealt with in the fifth chapter. But the Intuition recognised in the West, and identified with conscience, is something far other.

For the sake of clarity, we must define what conscience is since we have said what it is not: that it is not the voice of the Spirit in man, that it is not the voice of God.

Conscience is the result of the accumulated experience gained by each man in his previous lives. Each of us is an Immortal Spirit, a Divine fragment, a Self: "A fragment of mine own Self, transformed in the world of life into an immortal Spirit, draweth round itself the senses, of which the mind is the sixth, veiled in Matter." Such is each man. He evolves into manifested powers all the potentialities unfolded in him by virtue of his divine parentage, and this is effected by repeated births into this world, wherein he gathers experience, repeated deaths out of this world into the other twain—the wheel of births and deaths turns in the Ṭriloka, the three worlds—wherein he reaps in pain the results of experiences gathered by disregard of law, and assimilates, transforming into faculty, moral and mental, the results of experience gathered in harmony with law. Having transmuted experience into faculty, he returns to earth for the gathering of new experience, dealt with as before after physical death. Thus the Spirit unfolds, or the man evolves—whichever expression is preferred to indicate this growth. Very similarly doth the physical body grow; a man eats food; digests it, assimilates it, transmutes it into the materials of his body; ill food causes pain, even disease; good food strengthens, and makes for growth. The outer is a reflection of the inner.

Now conscience is the sum total of the experiences in past lives which have borne sweet and bitter fruit, according as they were in accord or disaccord with surrounding natural law. This sum total of physical experiences, which result in increased or diminished life, we call instinct, and it is life-preserving. The sum total of our interwoven mental and moral experiences, in our relations with others, is moral instinct, or conscience, and it is harmonising, impels to "good"—a word which we shall define in our fourth chapter.

Hence conscience depends on the experiences through which we have passed in previous lives, and is necessarily an individual possession. It differs where the past experience is different, as in the savage and the civilised man, the dolt and the talented, the fool and the genius, the criminal and the saint. The voice of God would speak alike in all; the experience of the past speaks differently in each. Hence also the consciences of men at a similar evolutionary level speak alike on broad questions of right and wrong, good and evil. On these the "voice" is clear. But there are many questions whereon past experience fails us, and then conscience fails to speak. We are in doubt; two apparent duties conflict; two ways seem equally right or equally wrong. "I do not know what I ought to do," says the perplexed moralist, hearing no inner voice. In such cases, we must seek to form the best judgment we can, and then act boldly. If unknowingly we disregard some hidden law we shall suffer, and that experience will be added to our sum total, and in similar circumstances in the future, conscience, through the aid of this added experience, will have found a voice.

Hence we may ever, having judged as best we can, act boldly, and learn increased wisdom from the result.

Much moral cowardice, paralysing action, has resulted from the Christian idea of "sin," as something that incurs the "wrath of God," and that needs to be "forgiven," in order to escape an artificial—not a natural—penalty. We gain knowledge by experience, and disregard of a law, where it is not known, should cause us no distress, no remorse, no "repentance," only a quiet mental note that we must in future remember the law which we disregarded and make our conduct harmonise therewith. Where conscience does not speak, how shall we act? The way is well known to all thoughtful people: we first try to eliminate all personal desire from the consideration of the subject on which decision is needed, so that the mental atmosphere may not be rendered a distorting medium by the mists of personal pleasure or pain; next, we place before us all the circumstances, giving each its due weight; then, we decide; the next step depends on whether we believe in Higher Powers or not; if we do, we sit down quietly and alone; we place our decision before us; we suspend all thought, but remain mentally alert—all mental ear, as it were; we ask for help from God, from our Teacher, from our own Higher Self; into that silence comes the decision. We obey it, without further consideration, and then we watch the result, and judge by that of the value of the decision, for it may have come from the higher or from the lower Self. But, as we did our very best, we feel no trouble, even if the decision should be wrong and bring us pain. We have gained an experience, and will do better next time. The trouble, the pain, we have brought on ourselves by our ignorance, we note, as showing that we have disregarded a law, and we profit by the additional knowledge in the future.

Thus understanding conscience, we shall not take it as a basis of morality, but as our best available individual light. We shall judge our conscience, educate it, evolve it by mental effort, by careful observation. As we learn more, our conscience will develop; as we act up to the highest we can see, our vision will become ever clearer, and our ear more sensitive. As muscles develop by exercise, so conscience develops by activity, and as we use our lamp it burns the more brightly. But let it ever be remembered that it is a man's own experience that must guide him, and his own conscience that must decide. To overrule the conscience of another is to induce in him moral paralysis, and to seek to dominate the will of another is a crime.