The Moral Faculty

That there is in human nature a distinct and imperial moral faculty we cannot doubt. It proclaims itself in our moral judgments; it speaks authoritatively in the voice of our conscience; it charges home on us the responsibility of our actions; it lashes our disobedience with the scourges of shame and remorse; it raises before us dreadful visions of retribution. Over our entire being it claims rightful and supreme rule, and sits enthroned as a lawful sovereign in the midst of our various appetites, passions, and powers.

That this mysterious and sacred inmate of our hearts has in all ages led mankind to believe in an external reality corresponding to it, namely, in an objective moral law, and a Supreme Power which enforces it, is an undeniable fact of history.

For our present purpose, the value of the fact lies in this: that it leads us to view this inference as being of the nature of a basic intuition of the reason; for if it is so, it becomes a valid witness for the existence of God.

Of course, to the mere logician, bent on weaving demonstrations of syllogistic processes out of axiomatic premises, our moral nature is a purely subjective thing from which nothing external to itself can be legitimately inferred. But to us who are looking for those primary intuitive or instinctive beliefs which underlie all possible logical proof, the real question is whether, as a matter of fact and human experience, the consciousness of a moral nature does not beget the conviction of an objective moral law, and a Supreme Lawgiver.

Right and Wrong, are they truly irreconcilable extremes? Do they confront each other eternally at opposite poles of rational existence? Whatever speculative philosophers may argue, to these questions the great heart of humanity returns an unwavering reply in the affirmative. There is no language in which the word "ought" is destitute of a solemn meaning, or the word "duty" has ceased to carry with it a sacred imperative. Never has there been a society constructed on the principle that moral differences are mere figments of the imagination, or products of custom or fashion; never a religion which dispensed with a distinction between moral good and evil. If ever there have existed individual human beings, who denied their possession of any faculty which witnessed for right and protested against wrong, they are held by the general verdict of the race to have been but distorted and monstrous specimens, in whom the noblest element of humanity was deficient.

Concurrently with the conviction of an eternal, irreconcilable opposition between right and wrong, there has always existed in the human heart a sense of responsibility. Moral judgment carries with it a felt authority and sanction. It differs essentially from the judgments of the intellect in having self-approval and shame for its ministers. When it has pronounced on the rightness of an action in the existing circumstances, we feel that we are summoned to perform that action. We cannot put the decision aside as one with which we have no practical concern. It haunts us, it presses in on us, it demands our obedience; and if we refuse to obey, we experience a sensation of uneasiness, self reproach, and shame. Hence arises the consciousness of responsibility. When we know what is right, we cannot help feeling accountable for neglecting to do it; whatever ill consequences follow from our disobedience to the sacred voice within, we recognize that they are justly chargeable upon us; we cannot repudiate them; responsibility for them is a burden from which there is no release. Nor is that all.

The sense of responsibility irresistibly forces on us the idea of a tribunal at which we must answer, an objective moral law which lies upon us, and is armed with retributive sanctions. The history of all nations shows that the human mind has never been able to restrict the idea of moral responsibility to a purely subjective conception; the advance to an external authority, commanding and enforcing its commands, has been found inevitable, and is thus proven to be rooted in the constitution of our nature--in other words, to be instinctive.

In whatever form the conception has embodied itself; whether of a Nemesis that dogs the heels of guilt, or a Tendency that works in favor of virtue, or an "Eternal not-ourselves that makes for righteousness," or a Judge at whose bar the disembodied soul is arraigned after death, or a supreme moral Governor of the universe; the substance of it has been that there really is outside us, and independent of us, a moral law under which we live, and an administration of justice which somehow, whether in this or a future life, or in both, takes cognizance of human actions and is armed with the power of retribution. The law within the breast has always been more or less distinctly regarded as the reflection of a law which is outside and above; the voice of conscience within as the echo of a sovereign voice without; the sense of guilt and shame as the shadow of an avenging power, to which moral agents are accountable for their deeds.

All this is plain matter of fact, independent of any speculations as to its origin or significance. An ineradicable sense of antagonism between Right and Wrong, and of human responsibility, giving birth to the conception of an external Moral Law and Tribunal of Justice, is a primary fact of human nature.

Doubtless it is very possible to put this fact into the alembic of critical analysis, and resolve it into its supposed elements, till all that is significant in it seems to disappear, and nothing worth noting is left behind. There are no moral or spiritual facts which may not be got rid of in this way, and the process may easily be continued till human nature is stripped of everything that honorably distinguishes it from the beasts of rapine.

Mankind have only to be portrayed in an imaginary primitive condition, just emerging from the bestial stage, and beginning to live in rude communities, ignorant of everything but how to provide a scanty sustenance for their bodily life. Moral distinctions would at first be as foreign to them as to tigers a rattlesnakes. But some actions would soon be found to promote the well-being of the nascent tribe, others to be adverse to it; and accordingly the former would be approved and rewarded, the latter censured and punished. Then the word Right would be invented to describe those, the word Wrong these. So as time ran on, and succeeding generations inherited the gradually accumulated experience of their forefathers, ideas of rightness and wrongness would be formed, and grow into force and completeness; virtue would mean what benefited the social life, vice what harmed it; and thus the whole genesis of morality, conscience, responsibility, awe of a supreme moral Power, would be accounted for as easily and thoroughly as the art of building houses or weaving cloths.

Morality is a fact, a transcendent fact, rooted in the very depths of our nature, and filling our minds with awe at the grandeur and sacredness of its presence. We cannot help asking whence it came, and what it means; and from one quarter only can we conceive of an answer being returned in which reason can rest contented.

If we might be allowed to imagine a being of infinite righteousness whose creatures we are, and who has placed this faculty in us as a witness to himself, and to make us capable of being the subjects of his moral rule, then everything connected with our consciousness of morality would be amply explained. The faculty would be his gift, conscience his voice within us, the moral law his law, responsibility the shadow of his authority over us, retribution his righteous judgment.

Here, then, we are in the presence of a conjunction of particulars which merits our closest attention. First, a grand elementary fact of our humanity; secondly, one and only one conceivable way of satisfactorily accounting for it, but that way entirely and absolutely sufficient; and lastly, an instinctive acceptance of that explanation as to the true one by mankind generally, in proportion as the development of their faculties has enabled them to reflect upon and interpret the phenomena of their moral consciousness.

If such a combination of particulars does not entitle the belief in an objective moral law, and a supreme lawgiver by whom it is enforced, to be reckoned among the primary beliefs of human reason, to discover any such beliefs would seem impracticable.

Our next consideration is the extreme difficulty of justifying the sense of responsibility, except by referring it to a sovereign authority to whom we are accountable. In our experience a feeling of responsibility can only be directed towards persons alone, and cannot be drawn out towards impersonal things. To say that we owe a duty to a physical law would be an abuse of language. If I thrust my hand heedlessly into a fire, I am burnt and must suffer; but to say I have broken a moral obligation towards the fire would be absurd. Moral responsibility, as it is a feeling which can arise in none but persons, so also can it be felt towards none but persons. To be responsible to myself is like owing a debt to myself. It has no significance. The responsibility of man to man springs out of voluntary engagements. If they are broken, the person who fails in performance feels that the sufferer has a right to complain, and to exact compensation or inflict proportionate punishment. That is all. But the willful base betrayer of trust might dismiss this and think none the worse of himself. The responsibility in theory would be discharged and done with. But the facts are terribly otherwise. He bears to the grave the crushing sense of responsibility. His interpitude haunts him, abases him, fills him with a sense of unworthiness, stings him with remorse. This surely is something very different from the feeling that his fellow man has a right to complain of his failure to fulfill a contract.

Perhaps it will be said that the feeling of having offended against a moral law is what creates the shame and self-reproach. Most true; but what does this mean? If the moral law were purely subjective, a rule of conduct without extrinsic force, and existing nowhere but in the individual's mind, the obligation to obey it would simply be an obligation to himself, and of such an obligation the practical effect, as we have already seen, would be nugatory. If, on the other hand, the law were really objective and had force and reality independently of the individual's mind, still as long as it remained impersonal, even if we could conceive of such a thing as an impersonal obligatory law, it could not evoke any real sense of responsibility, for it is only to persons that we can feel that sense of obligation out of which responsibility emerges. So that the explanation, to be satisfactory, must bring us round to the conception of a person above us, to whom we are accountable, and whose will expresses and enforces the eternal law of morality.

No one can doubt that this conception, if it could be entertained, would supply a full and adequate reason for that urgent and haunting sense of responsibility which clings to us like our shadow. If indeed there be a holy God who created us moral beings, and rules us by moral law, the natural and appropriate response of our hearts to that tremendous reality is an ineradicable and dominant conviction that to him we must give account. And inasmuch as mankind have been led by reflection on, or at any rate by the working of, their consciousness of responsibility to entertain this conception, we argue that it really is a genuine product of their mental constitution, and therefore that belief in a supreme moral governor may justly be ranked among the primary beliefs of the reason.

There are three leading theories of morality expounded by systematic writers on ethics: Hedonism is the science of pleasure; the rule of conduct is the maxim of doing always what will yield one's self the greatest total amount of gratification. Utilitarianism, or altruism is the rule of conduct or maxim of doing always that which will produce the greatest happiness to the greatest number of persons. The Intuitional rule of conduct is the maxim of always obeying the intuitive sense of right which dwells in every human being. By none of these theories of ethics is a sufficient working force of morality supplied. Yet morality has ever worked, and continues to work; its triumphs are the glory of human nature. Whence then does it fetch that motive of force, of which none of the theories can give an explanation?

Not from earth, but from heaven. The soul springs up from its own moral consciousness to the conception of an infinitely righteous will, supreme over all things, and sure to bring about a final coincidence of well-being with well-doing. Instinctive belief in a holy God solves the difficulty and supplies the force. Assume his existence and rule, and the inference is inevitable that it must go well with the righteous. Sufferers for conscience have the Lord of the universe on their side. Ignominy, privation, torture, death itself, may be their lot here; but they can afford to smile at their losses, as they "commit the keeping of their souls to Him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator."

We can see the uniqueness and grandeur of the moral faculty existing in man as an essential part of his constitution, and manifesting itself in a recognition of the eternal distinction between right and wrong in the voice of conscience, the sense of responsibility, the passion of remorse, and the fear of retribution.

In all ages and among all nations, in proportion to men's growth and culture in the higher attributes of humanity, this faculty has led them to the concept of an objective moral law under which they were placed, and of a Supreme Moral Governor to whom they were accountable.

While this concept affords an adequate explanation of the origin of the faculty, of the sense of responsibility to which it gives birth, and of the force by which it wins its practical triumphs; of these great facts of human nature reason discovers no other solution which can be pronounced adequate.

Here then we find ourselves in the face of a belief in a Supreme Righteous Lawgiver characterized by these three features: it has its roots in one of the most noblest elements of human nature; it has sprung up with scarce an exception, wherever any tolerable degree of civilization has prevailed; and it is shown by reflection to be in entire harmony with the demands of reason. But such a Lawgiver is what we mean by the awful name -- God. The conclusion seems inevitable, that belief in God, as the Supreme Lawgiver to whom we are responsible, is really one of those primary, intuitive beliefs which justify themselves by their very existence.