Of the application of natural laws to human actions;
and first of conscience.
I. AS soon as we have
discovered the foundation and rule of our duties, we have only to recollect
what has been already said in the eleventh chapter of the first part of this
work, concerning the morality of actions, to see in what manner natural laws
are applied to human actions, and what effect ought from thence to result.
The application of the laws to human actions is nothing else, but the
judgment we pass on their morality, by comparing them with the law; a judgment
whereby we pronounce, that those actions being either good, bad, or
indifferent, we are obliged either to perform or omit them, or that we may use
our liberty in this respect, and that, according to the side we have taken, we
are worthy of praise or blame, approbation or censure.
This is done in two different manners. For either we judge on this
footing of our own actions, or of those of another person. In the first case,
our judgment is called conscience; but the judgment we pass on other men's
actions is termed imputation. These are undoubtedly subjects of great
importance, and of universal use in morality, which deserve therefore to be
treated with some care and circumspection.
II. Conscience is properly no more than reason itself, considered as
instructed in regard to the rule we ought to follow, or to the law of nature;
and judging of the morality of our own actions, and of the obligations we are
under in this respect, by comparing them to this rule, pursuant to the ideas we
Conscience is also very frequently taken for the very judgment we pass
on the morality of actions, a judgment, which is the result of perfect
reasoning, or the consequence we infer from two express or tacit premises. A
person compares two propositions, one of which includes the law, and the other
the action; and from them he deduces a third, which is the judgment he makes of
the quality of his action. Such was the reasoning of Judas. Whosoever
delivers up an innocent person to death commits a crime; here is the law.
Now this is what I have done; here is the action. I have therefore
committed a crime, this is the consequence, or judgment, which his
conscience passed on the action he committed.
III. Conscience supposes therefore a knowledge of the law; and
particularly of the law of nature, which, being the primitive source of
justice, is likewise the supreme rule of conduct. And as the laws cannot serve
us for rules, but inasmuch as they are known, it follows therefore, that
conscience becomes thus the immediate rule of our actions; for it is evident we
cannot conform to the law, but so far, as we have notice thereof.
IV. This being premised, the first rule, we have to lay down
concerning this matter, is, that we must enlighten our conscience, as well as
consult it, and follow its counsels.
We must enlighten our conscience; that is we must spare no care or pains
to be exactly instructed with regard to the will of the legislator, and to the
disposition of his laws, in order to acquire just ideas of whatever is
commanded, forbidden, or permitted. For plain it is, that, were we in ignorance
or error in this respect, the judgment we should form of our actions would be
necessarily vicious, and consequently lead us astray. But this is not enough.
We must join to this first knowledge the knowledge also of the action. And for
this purpose it is not only necessary to examine this action in itself, but we
ought likewise to be attentive to the particular circumstances, that accompany
it, and the consequences, that may follow it. Otherwise we should run a risk of
mistake in the application of the laws, whose general decisions admit of
several modifications, according to the different circumstances, that accompany
our actions; which necessarily influences their morality, and of course our
duties. Thus it is not sufficient for a judge to be well acquainted with the
tenor and purport of the law, before he pronounces sentence; he should likewise
have an exact knowledge of the fact, and all its different circumstances.
But it Is not merely with a view of enlightening our reason, that we
ought to acquire all this knowledge; it is principally in order to apply it
occasionally to the direction of our conduct. We should therefore, whenever it
concerns us to act, consult previously our conscience, and be directed by its
counsels. This is properly an indispensable obligation. For in fine conscience
being, as it were, the minister and interpreter of the will of the legislator,
the counsels it gives us, have all the force and authority of a law, and ought
to produce the same effect upon us.
V. It is only therefore by enlightening our conscience, that it becomes
a sure rule of conduct, whose dictates may be followed with a perfect
confidence of exactly fulfilling our duty. For we should be grossly mistaken,
if, under a notion that conscience is the immediate rule of our actions, we
were to believe, that every man may lawfully do whatever he imagines the law
commands or permits. We ought, first to know whether this notion or persuasion
is justly founded. For, as Puffendorf observes, conscience has no share in the
direction of human actions, but inasmuch as it is instructed concerning the
law, whose office it properly is to direct our actions. If we have therefore a
mind to determine and act with safety, we must on every particular occasion
observe the two following rules, which are very simple of themselves, easy to
practice, and naturally follow our first rule, of which they are only a kind of
Second rule. Before we determine to follow the dictates of
conscience, we should examine thoroughly, whether we have the necessary light
sand helps to judge of the things before us. If we happen to want these lights
and helps, we can neither decide; nor much less undertake any thing, without an
inexcusable and dangerous temerity. And yet nothing is more common than to
transgress against this rule. What multitudes, for example; determine on
religious disputes, or difficult questions concerning morality or politics,
though they are no way capable of judging or reasoning about them?
Third rule. Supposing that in general we have necessary lights
and helps to judge of the affair before us, we must afterwards see whether we
have actually made use of them; insomuch that, without a new inquiry, we may
follow what our conscience suggests. It happens every day, that, for want of
attending to this rule, we let ourselves be quietly prevailed upon to do a
great many things, which we might easily discover to be unjust, had we given
heed to certain clear principles, the justice and necessity of which is
When we have made use of the rules here laid down, we have done whatever
we could and ought; and it is morally certain, that, by thus proceeding we can
neither mistake in our judgment, nor be wrong in our determinations. But if,
notwithstanding all these precautions, we should happen to mistake, which is
not absolutely impossible; this would be an Infirmity inseparable from human
nature, and would carry its excuse along with it in the eye of the supreme
VI. We judge of our actions either before, or after we have done them;
wherefore there is an antecedent and a subsequent conscience.
This distinction gives us an opportunity to lay down a fourth
rule; which is, that a prudent man ought to consult his conscience before
and after he has acted.
To determine to act without having previously examined, whether what we
are a going to do be good or evil, manifestly indicates an indifference for our
duty, which is a most dangerous state in respect to man; a state capable of
throwing him into the most fatal excesses. But as, in this first judgment, we
may happen to be determined by passion, and to proceed with precipitation, or
upon a Very slight examen, it is therefore necessary to reflect again on what
we have done, either in order to be confirmed in the right side, if we have
embraced it; or to correct our mistake if possible, and to guard against the
like faults for the future. This is so much the more important, as experience
shows us, that we frequently judge quite differently between a past and a
future transaction; and that the prejudices or passions, which may lead us
astray, when we are to take our resolution, oftentimes disappear cither in the
whole or part, when the action is over; and leave us then more at liberty to
judge rightly of the nature and consequences of the action.
The habit of making this double examen is the essential character of an
honest man; and indeed nothing can be a better proof of our being seriously
inclined to discharge our several duties.
VII. The effect resulting from this revisal of our conduct is very
different, according as the judgment, we pass on it, absolves or condemns us.
In the first case, we find ourselves in a state of satisfaction and
tranquillity, which is the surest and sweetest recompense of virtue. A pure and
untainted pleasure accompanies always those actions, that are approved by
reason; and reflection renews the sweets we have tasted, together with their
remembrance. And indeed what greater happiness is there, than to be inwardly
satisfied, and be able with a just confidence to promise ourselves the
approbation and benevolence of the sovereign Lord, on whom we depend? If on the
contrary, conscience condemns us, this condemnation must be accompanied with
inquietude, trouble, reproaches, fear, and remorse; a state so dismal, that the
ancients have compared it to that of a man tormented by the furies. Every
crime, says the satirist, is disapproved by the very person who commits
it; and the first punishment the criminal feels is, that he cannot avoid being
self-condemned, were he even to find means of being acquitted before the
Exemplo quodcunque malo committitur, ipsi
auctori; prima hęc est ultio, quod, se
Judice, nemo nocens
absolvitur, improba quamvis
Gratia fallaci prętorls vicerit
Juv. Sat. 13. ver. 1.
He that commits a sin, shall quickly find
guilt lie heavy on his mind,
Though bribes of favor shall assert his
Pronounce him guiltless, ana elude the laws;
himself, his own impartial thought
Will damn, and conscience will record
Hence the subsequent conscience is said to be quiet or uneasy, good or
VIII. The judgment we pass on the morality of our actions is likewise
susceptible of several different modifications, that produce new distinctions
of conscience, which we should here point out. These distinctions may, in
general, be equally applied to the two first species of conscience above
mentioned; but they seem more frequently and particularly to agree with the
Conscience is therefore either decisive or dubious, according to the
degree of persuasion a person may have concerning the quality of the
When we pronounce decisively and without any hesitation, that an action
is conformable or opposite to the law, or that it is permitted, and
consequently we ought to do or omit it, or else that we are at liberty in this
respect; this is called a decisive conscience. If, on the contrary, the mind
remains in suspense, through the conflict of reasons we see on both sides, and
which appear to us of equal weight, insomuch that we cannot tell to which side
we ought to incline, this is called a dubious conscience. Such was the doubt of
the Corinthians, who did not know, whether they could eat things sacrificed to
idols, or whether they ought to abstain from them. On the one side, the
evangelical liberty seemed to permit it; on the other, they were restrained
through apprehension of seeming to give thereby a kind of consent to idolatrous
acts. Not knowing what resolution to take, they wrote to St. Paul to remove
This distinction makes room also for some rules.
Fifth rule. We do not entirely discharge our duty, by doing with
a kind of difficulty and reluctance what the decisive conscience ordains; we
ought to set about it readily, willingly, and with pleasure. On the contrary, to determine without
hesitation or repugnance against the motions of such a conscience is showing
the highest degree of depravation and malice, and renders a person incomparably
more criminal, than if he were impelled by a violent passion or
Sixth rule. With regard to a dubious conscience, we ought to use
all endeavours to get rid of our uncertainty, and to forbear acting so long, as
we do not know whether we do good or evil. To behave otherwise would indicate
an indirect contempt of the law, by exposing one's self voluntarily to the
hazard of violating it, which is a very bad conduct. The rule now mentioned
ought to be attended to, especially in matters of great importance.
Seventh rule. But if we find ourselves in such circumstances, as
necessarily oblige us to determine to act, we must then, by a new attention,
endeavour to distinguish the safest and most probable side, and whose
consequences are the least dangerous. Such is generally the opposite side to
passion; it being the safest way not to listen too much to our inclinations. In
like manner, we run very little risk of committing a mistake in a dubious case,
by following rather the dictates of charity, than the suggestion of self love.
IX. Beside the dubious conscience, properly so called, and which we may
likewise distinguish by the name of irresolute, there is a scrupulous
conscience, produced by slight and frivolous difficulties that arise in the
mind, without seeing any solid reason for doubting.
Eighth rule. Such scruples as these ought not to hinder us from
acting, if it be necessary; and, as they generally arise either from a false
delicacy of conscience, or from gross superstition, we should soon get rid of
them, were we to examine the thing with attention.
X. Let us afterwards observe, that the decisive conscience, according as
it determines good or evil, is either right or erroneous.
Those for example, who imagine we ought to abstain from strict revenge,
though the law of nature permits a legitimate defence, have a right conscience.
On the other hand those, who think that the law, which requires us to be
faithful to our engagements, is not obligatory towards heretics, and that we
may lawfully break through it in respect to them, have an erroneous conscience.
But what must we do in case of an erroneous conscience?
Ninth rule. I answer, that we ought always to follow the dictates
of conscience, even when it is erroneous, and whether the error be vincible or
This rule may appear strange at first sight, since it seems to prescribe
evil; because there is no manner of question, but that a man, who acts
according to an erroneous conscience, espouses a bad cause. Yet this is not so
bad, as if we were to determine to do a thing with a firm persuasion of its
being contrary to the decision of the law; for this would denote a direct
contempt of the legislator and his orders, which is a most criminal
disposition. Whereas the first resolution, though bad in itself, is
nevertheless the effect of a laudable disposition to obey the legislator, and
conform to his will.
But it does not thence follow, that we are always excusable in being
guided by the dictates of an erroneous conscience, this is true only, when the
error happens to be invincible. If on the contrary it is surmountable, and we
mistake with respect to what is commanded or forbidden, we sin either way,
whether we act according to, or against the decisions of conscience. This shows
(to mention it once more) what an important concern it is to enlighten our
conscience, because, in the case just now mentioned, the person with an
erroneous conscience is actually under a melancholy necessity of doing ill,
whichever side he takes. But if we should happen to mistake with regard to an
indifferent thing, which we are erroneously persuaded is commanded or
forbidden, we do not sin in that case, but when we act contrary to the light of
our own conscience.
XI. In fine there are two sorts of right conscience; the one clear and
demonstrative, and the other merely probable.
The clear and demonstrative conscience is that, which is founded on
certain princip!es, and on demonstrative reason, so far as the nature of moral
things will permit, insomuch that one may clearly and distinctly prove the
rectitude of a judgment, made on such or such an action. On the contrary,
though we are convinced of the truth of a judgment, yet if it be founded only
on verisimilitude, and we cannot demonstrate its certainty in a methodical
manner, and by incontestable principles, it is then only a probable
The foundations of probable conscience are in general authority and
example, supported by a confused notion of a natural fitness, and sometimes by
popular reasons, which seem drawn from the very nature of things. It is by this
kind of conscience, that the greatest part of mankind are conducted, there
being very few, who are capable of knowing the indispensable necessity of their
duties, by deducing them from their first sources by regular consequences;
especially when the point relates to maxims of morality, which, being somewhat
remote from the first principles, require a longer chain of reasonings. This
conduct is far from being unreasonable. For those, who have not sufficient
light of themselves to judge properly of the nature of things, cannot do
better, than recur to the judgment of enlightened persons; this being the only
resource left them to act with safety. We might in this respect compare the
persons above mentioned to young people, whose judgment has not yet acquired
its full maturity, and who ought to listen and conform to the counsels of their
superiors. The authority therefore and example of sage and enlightened men may
in some cases, in default of our own lights, prove a reasonable principle of
determination and conduct.
But in fine, since those foundations of probable conscience are not so
solid, as to permit us absolutely to build upon them, we must establish, as a
Tenth Rule, that we ought to use all our endeavours to increase the
degree of verisimilitude in our opinions, in order to approach as near as
possible to the clear and demonstrative conscience; and we must not be
satisfied with probability, but when we can do no better.
1. See the Law of Nature and Nations, book
i. chap. iii, § 4, and following; and the Duties of Man and a
Citizen, book i. chap. i. sect, 5, 6.
2. See the Law of Nature and Nations, book
i. chap. iii. § 4.
3. See Barbeyrac's first note on the Duties of
Man and a Citizen, book i. chap. i. § 5.
4. See part ii. chap. v. § 7.
5. See Grotius, Rights of War and Peace,
book ii. chap. xx. § 19.
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