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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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is that principle, power, or faculty within us, which decides on the merit or demerit of our own actions, feelings, or affections, with reference to the rule of God's law. It has been called the moral sense by Lord Shaftsbury and Dr. Hutcheson. This appellation has been objected to by some, but has been adopted and defended by Dr. Reid, who says, "The testimony of our moral faculty, like that of the external senses, is the testimony of nature, and we have the same reason to rely upon it." He therefore considers conscience as an original faculty of our nature, which decides clearly, authoritatively, and instantaneously, on every object that falls within its province. "As we rely," says he, "upon the clear and distinct testimony of our eyes, concerning the colours and figures of the bodies about us, we have the same reason to rely, with security, upon the clear and unbiassed testimony of our conscience, with regard to what we ought and ought not to do." But Dr. Reid is surely unfortunate in illustrating the power of conscience by the analogy of the external senses. With regard to the intimations received through the organs of sense, there can be no difference of opinion, and there can be no room for argument. They give us at once correct information, which reasoning can neither invalidate nor confirm. But it is surely impossible to say as much for the power of conscience, which sometimes gives the most opposite intimations with regard to the simplest moral facts, and which requires to be corrected by an accurate attention to the established order of nature, or to the known will of God, before we can rely with confidence on its decisions. It does not appear, that conscience can with propriety be considered as a principle distinct from that which enables us to pronounce on the general merit or demerit of moral actions. This principle, or faculty, is attended with peculiar feelings, when we ourselves are the agents; we are then too deeply interested to view the matter as a mere subject of reasoning; and pleasure or pain are excited, with a degree of intensity proportioned to the importance which we always assign to our own interests and feelings. In the case of others, our approbation or disapprobation is generally qualified, sometimes suspended, by our ignorance of the motives by which they have been influenced; but, in our own case, the motives and the actions are both before us, and when they do not correspond, we feel the same disgust with ourselves that we should feel toward another, whose motives we knew to be vicious, while his actions are specious and plausible. But in our own case, the uneasy feeling is heightened in a tenfold degree, because self- contempt and disgust are brought into competition with the warmest self- love, and the strongest desire of self-approbation. We have then something of the feelings of a parent, who knows the worthlessness of the child he loves, and contemplates with horror the shame and infamy which might arise from exposure to the world.

2. Conscience, then, cannot be considered as any thing else than the general principle of moral approbation or disapprobation applied to our own feelings or conduct, acting with increased energy from the knowledge which we have of our motives and actions, and from the deep interest which we take in whatever concerns ourselves; nor can we think that they have deserved well of morals or philosophy, who have attempted to deduce our notions of right and wrong from any one principle. Various powers both of the understanding and of the will are concerned in every moral conclusion; and conscience derives its chief and most salutary influence from the consideration of our being continually in the presence of God, and accountable to him for all our thoughts, words, and actions. A conscience well informed, and possessed of sensibility, is the best security for virtue, and the most awful avenger of wicked deeds; an ill-informed conscience is the most powerful instrument of mischief; a squeamish and ticklish conscience generally renders those who are under its influence ridiculous.

Hic murus aheneus esto,

Nil conscire sibi, nulla pallescere culpa.

(Let a consciousness of innocence, and a fearlessness of any accusation, be thy brazen bulwark.)

3. The rule of conscience is the will of God, so far as it is made known to us, either by the light of nature, or by that of revelation. With respect to the knowledge of this rule, conscience is said to be rightly informed, or mistaken; firm, or wavering, or scrupulous, &c. With respect to the conformity of our actions to this rule when known, conscience is said to be good or evil. In a moral view, it is of the greatest importance that the understanding be well informed, in order to render the judgment or verdict of conscience a safe directory of conduct, and a proper source of satisfaction. Otherwise, the judgment of conscience may be pleaded, and it has actually been pleaded, as an apology for very unwarrantable conduct. Many atrocious acts of persecution have been perpetrated, and afterward justified, under the sanction of an erroneous conscience. It is also of no small importance, that the sensibility of conscience be duly maintained and cherished; for want of which men have often been betrayed into criminal conduct without self-reproach, and have deluded themselves with false notions of their character and state.


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Conscience'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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