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I. What conscience is: And,
II. What we must do in order to keep it void of S offence.
I. We are to consider what conscience is. This is a very difficult as well as important inquiry. But since we know, that conscience belongs to the mind, we must look within, and search for it there. Though the mind be immaterial and invisible, yet it consists of more than one faculty. A mental faculty properly means a mental power of receiving ideas and impressions, independently of the will. According to this definition, we shall discover a number of distinct facul. ties in the human mind. Perception is a power of receiving ideas, independently of the will. If we open our eyes in a clear day, we cannot help perceiving the visible objects around us, whether we wish to perceive them, or not. Perception, therefore, is a distinct faculty of the mind.
Reason is a power of receiving, comparing, and compounding ideas, independently of the will. If we hear a man assert, that two and two are equal to four, we cannot help perceiving the truth of the proposition, whether we wish to perceive it, or not. Or if we hear a man demonstrate the immortality of the soul, we cannot help drawing the conclusion, that we must exist in a future state, whether we wish to exist in a future state, or not. Reason, therefore, is a distinct fac. ulty of the mind.
Memory is a power of retaining and recalling past ideas, independently of the will. If we hear what we have heard before, or see what we have seen before, we cannot help recollecting, that we have heard or seen such things, whether we wish to recollect them, or not. Memory, therefore, is a distinct faculty of the mind.
Conscience is likewise a power of receiving ideas and impressions, independently of the will. If we are credibly told, that one man has killed another from malice prepense, we cannot help perceiving the eriminality of the murderer, whether we wish to perceive it, or not. Conscience, therefore, is a distinct faculty of the mind. But to make this more fully appear, I proceed to obServe,
1. That conscience is seated in the breast.* The pleasure, or pain, arising from any mental faculty, clearly determines the place where it resides and op erates. We all know, that the operation of conscience more immediately and sepsibly affects the breast. It is here we feel pleasure or pain, whenever we are approved or condemned, by conscience. But when we freely employ the powers of perception, reason, and memory, we find it is the head which is either agreca bly or disagreeably affected. If it be safe, therefore, to follow the dictates of daily experience, in reasoning upon the mind; we may safely conclude, that the con science, which is seated in the breast, and performs all its operations there, is entirely distinct from all the mental powers, which are seated in the head.
2. The conscience may be impaired, without inpairing any other faculty of the mind. A man, who pursues evil courses and forms evil habits, will necessarily blunt the edge of conscience and weaken its moral discernment. But after he has thoroughly seared his conscience, he may still retain his reason, memory, and every other intellectual faculty, in their full force and activity. How often do the most loose and aban doned wretches, who have stifled and well nigh extinguished conscience, appear to reason as well, and to write as well upon any abstruse subject, as those of the most exemplary virtue and piety? This clearly proves that conscience may be impaired, without impairing any other intellectual faculty. But how can this be accounted for, without supposing conscience to be entirely distinct from every other mental power? If conscience were perception, then nothing could im, pair it but what impaired perception. Or if conscience were reason; then nothing could impair it but what impaired reason. It is a well known fact, that any distinct faculty of the mind may be distinctly impaired. Old age often impairs the memory, without impairing reason. A delirium often impairs reason, without impairing the memory. And blindness, or deafness, often impairs the perception, without impairing any other mental faculty. If these facts prove, that either perception, reason, or memory, is a distinct faculty of the mind; then they equally prove, that conscience is so. For it clearly appears, from observation and experience, that conscience, like every other distinct faculty of the soul, may be distinctly and separately im. paired.
*It is impossible, perhaps, to determine the local seat of the soul, or of any of its faculties, since spirit does not occupy space. By the seat of conscience, there. fore, is meant its seat of influence.
3. There is often a propriety in appealing from reason to conscience; which is another evidence, that these are really distinct faculties. In reasoning upon things of a moral nature, it is proper and necessary, in many cases, to appeal from the deductions of reason to the dictates of conscience. Those, who are addicted to any particular vice, often endeavor to justify their conduct, and reason very plausibly in their own defence. But if they would fairly appeal from reason to conscience, conscience would immediately condemn both their false reasoning and criminal practice.
If we hear a loose and subtle man reason very ingenious
ly against the truth of the Scriptures; we may with great propriety, desire him to consult his conscience upon this serious subject. And if his conscience be not extremely stupid, it will immediately tell him, that his arguments are false, and the scriptures are true. Or suppose two persons should dispute upon the practice of trading in the souls of men, and one should endeavor to prove it to be right, upon the principles of reason; and the other, instead of offering a single argument, against it, should only appeal to conscience; would not conscience, in opposition to a thousand rational arguments, clearly decide in this case, and demn this inhuman practice? Now, if conscience may justly claim a right to correct the errors of reason, as well as the errors of the heart; then it must be a distinct and superior faculty of the mind. And this is what all mankind allow to be true, by their common practice of appealing from the court of reason to the court of conscience, upon any moral, or religious subject. I may further observe,
4. Conscience appears to be a distinct faculty, from its performing various offices, which no other intellectual faculty can perform. Here let us take a particuJar view of the various and peculiar offices of conscience. And,
First. It is the proper office of conscience to teach us the moral difference between virtue and vice. We are all capable of discerning the moral and immutable distinction between right and wrong, in the actions of moral agents. But if we examine our mental faculties, we shall find none but conscience, which can en: able us to discover the moral quality of moral actions.
We certainly cannot discover right and wrong, by our Memory, which is only a faculty of recalling past ideas and impressions.
By Perception, we discover nothing but natural objects, and their natural effects. This power is common to all sensitive natures. Brutes perceive the objects around them, and their natural tendency to do them good or hurt. They perceive the natural tendency of fire and water, and take peculiar care to avoid being burned by the one, or drowned by the oti er. But they have no idea of right and wrong, or of virtue and vice. And bare perception in men serves no higher purpose than in brutes. If we possessed no mental faculty superior to perception, we could never discover the distinction between moral good and evil; nor perform a single action, which deserved either praise or blame.
If we now examine the power of Reason, we shall find it equally destitute of moral discernment. It cannot discover the least merit, or demerit in the conduct of moral agents. It can only measure the advantage or disadvantage, the natural good or evil, arising from their actions. If a man should spread a false report concerning a certain merchant, and that report should ruin the merchant's interest; reason could exactly calculate the damages done to the merchant, but it could not discover the criminality and ill desert of the liar. In the view of reason, a sufficient sum of money would completely repair the damages, and settle the whole affair. But in the view of conscience, which discerns the moral quality of actions, all the gold of Ophir could not take away the sin, or moral evil of lying. Hence it appears, that conscience performs a part, which no other faculty of the mind can perform.
Secondly. It is the proper office of conscience to give us a sense of moral obligation. We all feel that we ought to do some things, and ought not to do others. Our reason, however, knows nothing about ought and