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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Conscience - Proof of Moral Liberty

William S. Andrews, 1829

The operations of the principle of our nature called conscience, just considered, appear to me of itself to prove conclusively the moral freedom of man, without entering into any other considerations for this purpose.

Conscience, I should define to be a power which passes judgment upon our actions, as being right or wrong, good or bad, and punishes us with its condemnation, or rewards us with its approval, according as these are, or are not, conformed to the moral standard which is created by our Reason.

In this view of it then it is evident, that it implies both a knowledge of our duty, and an ability to perform it–and when it gives us its approbation, it is because we have exercised this ability in conformity to this knowledge, and when it punishes us with its disapprobation, it is because we have neglected, or refused, to exercise it in this way. Instances where a knowledge of duty was necessarily wanting, and so where the conscience would fail to punish conduct proceeding from this involuntary ignorance, as in the case of the Hottentots and Spartans, etc., I will proceed now to consider, therefore, cases, where the ability to do our duty is called in question.

Supposing then mankind in any way under the control of an extraneous influence, compelling them to certain actions, as some have contended; it is clear, that conscience could neither decide them to be right nor wrong, could neither reward nor punish them, since by the supposition, they would be wanting in the ability of acting in a different manner, even if they could have a perception that such manner was right. All our actions would be as much beyond our control, as those which are now called unintentional, and we should be no more accountable for the former than the latter.

Should a person inflict an injury upon another in a way termed accidental, as by discharging a fowling piece at a bird and hitting a man, who might be concealed by the trees, although the circumstance would be a source of very great regret to him, he could in no way reproach himself for it, since he had not a knowledge that the person injured was there, and so not an ability to avoid it. His conscience would not therefore punish him for it.

Or if one ran against me and pushed me against a third, and in this way the last should receive any hurt, although I should be very sorry for it, I should not consider myself culpable, since I was impelled by a superior force, which I could not withstand, and the injury occasioned would, as respects me, be involuntary. I should not blame myself, or, in other words, feel the compunctions of conscience, for this circumstance.

So would it be with all our conduct, if we were under the dominion of any thing like necessity in respect to it. It would at once occur to us, that we could not have avoided acting as we have done, and we should no more pass censure upon ourselves in respect to it, than we should for the injury we might sustain in running against a post, or falling into a hole in the night, of which we were entirely ignorant.

It therefore involves a perfect absurdity, to say that a man may be made the creature of necessity, or have his actions inevitably controlled by a superior power, and still may be under the dominion of a power called conscience, since the latter presupposes, in its very nature, freedom of action, and could not exist without it,–and is nothing more nor less, than a consciousness that he might have conducted in the way he did, or differently.

If he could not have helped doing as he has done, why does he blame himself, why does he experience any of what are called the stings of conscience, or remorse. The very fact of experiencing this remorse, proves his own consciousness that he could have acted differently, and it is the blame he casts upon himself, because he did not.

This view then of conscience proving the moral freedom of man, and other reasoning upon the foreknowledge of God proving not only its existence, but the absolute necessity that it should exist, for the government of the world, and the progressive advancement of his rational creatures towards perfection, it follows that these two doctrines must be reconcilable with each other, though the manner in which the Deity may be able to foresee actions which are in themselves contingent and free, and over which he exercises no compulsory influence, may be a mystery to us, as indeed the nature, extent, and operation of all his attributes in a great degree are.

We can form no conception of Omnipresence extending to a universe without limits, or of Omnipotence commensurate with the former. Why then should we expect to be able to understand the nature of his Omniscience, or of his Prescience, as being a part of this, and flowing from it.

All we can be assured of, is the actual existence of these attributes as proved by the evidence of reason in conjunction with faith; but the mode of their exercise is at the present time beyond our comprehension.