“What Is the Guide to Morality?” The American Sentinel 6, 14, pp. 105, 106.

April 2, 1891

AT the end of his discussion of the subject of “Ethics for Schools,” Mr. Bierbower come to “conscientiousness.” In fact this point is touched upon in the very beginning of the introduction of the book, so that the beginning and the end, the first and the last, deals with the question of conscience. In stating “the ground of right,” the second paragraph in the book says:—

We recognize right by our judgment of what is best, and by a feeling—conscience—which indicates, as the result of many impressions, what we ought to do, and impels us thereto.

And the last chapter of the book begins with the following paragraph:—

The most general rule of morality is to do what you believe believe right and good, and to preserve the perpetual consciousness of this by instantly performing your duty, when seen. Goodness is simple when thus reduced to one rule. For you have but to look at your conscience to see your duty, conscience being the sense of what we ought to do, which results from all our thought and information on the subject.Page 283.

This ground of right is just as treacherous as that which was discovered in the previous article on this subject; in fact, it is the same thing only stated in other words; yet as it enters the realm of conscience it touches the real ground of supreme right, and ultimate good. If conscience were a true guide, then this rule would be good enough; but conscience is not a true guide. Conscience as a guide is as erratic as any other faculty in man. The truth is that conscience itself must be guided. This is admitted by the book now under notice. One statement to this effect is as follows:—

It is important then in taking conscience as a guide, to have it in working order.—Page 284.

Yes, we should naturally suppose so. Any kind of an instrument that is not in working order is not of much use; and especially in questions of conscience and of ultimate right. And in this case even to think of taking as a guide an instrument that could ever by any possibility get out of working order, seems a most singular suggestion. Another statement to the same purpose is as follows:—

We can not do right to-day on yesterday’s wrongs; so that men should often straighten out their conscience to get its legitimate indications.—Page 284.

And again:—

Inspect your conscience as well as your observance of it, or, rather, look after your views of right as well as your conformity thereto.—Page 290.

Of what use is a rule of right which goes so much awry and becomes so easily kinked that it needs “often” to be straightened out? And, of what use is a guide that has to be held up for inspection every little while?

Again we read:—

Though conscience may err, it is the best judgment we have—the pointing of the compass after all the conflicting forces which would diversely impel us, and so coming of our knowledge to a head in the will.Page 283.

With how much certainty can a compass be depended upon which not only may, but confessedly does, often point the wrong way? What insurance company or ship-owner would send a ship to sea with such a compass as that? What captain or sailor would think of starting to sea with such a compass? The strangest part of this whole system of ethics, is that conscience would be recommended as a guide, when it is stated repeatedly not only that it may err, but that it does err, often.

There is another question which arises here. How is conscience to be inspected? Who is to conduct the inspection? Who [106] shall straighten it out? By what standard shall it be compared when it is straightened, to know whether it is straight or not?

As to who shall do this, the directions are plain enough. Inspect your own conscience. “Men should often straighten out their conscience.” That is, each individual is to be the judge of his own conscience, as to whether it is in working order, or as to whether it is straight or not. This being so, then who is really to guide the individual, or the conscience of the individual? Clearly the individual; but this directly reverses the order of the book. The proposition of the book, is that conscience is the guide to right, and the indicator of what we ought to do. And when the one who is to be guided must needs inspect and straighten out, and put in working order, that which is to guide him; then the one who is to be guided becomes in fact the guide. In other words the one who is guided, must guide his guide. This brings us once more round the circle to the starting point, that whatever each individual thinks to be right, in his own case, that is right.

As to the standard with which the conscience is to be compared when straightened, to know whether it is straight or not; to know whether it is in working order; and to know whether it fitly passes inspection,—this is the same as that discovered in our examination of the grounds of right, namely, whatever each one thinks best for himself. So says the book, as follows:—

Nothing is duty which can not be clearly done. Duty being that course which, in view of all the circumstances, is best…. Duty is indicated by the preponderance of interests, which when learned makes conscience clear. It is sometimes difficult, indeed, to learn this and so to determine duty, so that the knowledge of right is not always without effort. We must work hard to know our duty, as well as to do it, which labor then becomes part of our duty. But when we once decide what is best, conscience takes it up.Page 292.

Thus it appears that the individual by “working hard” must discover where the preponderance of interest lies, in order to find out what is best, and so determine duty and attain to the knowledge of right. And this “makes conscience clear”! Without this effort of the individual, conscience is cloudy, it is not in working order, it will not pass inspection. But when all this is done, so that the individual knows just what is right, then conscience becomes clear. Conscience takes it up and says, “Very good, I agree to that.” But in such a system, conscience is not only not a guide, it is not even a helper; for all the work must be done and the knowledge of right attained, before conscience is clear, and before conscience takes it up.

Then, according to this system, of what earthly use is conscience? None whatever. In fact, this statement demonstrates that in this system of ethics, conscience really has no intelligent place at all. It is virtually destroyed. And again we are brought round the circle to the original starting point, that whatever each individual may think best for himself, that is right, and ending in supreme selfishness. By the evidences already given, it will be seen that in the final analysis, this system of ethics comes dangerously near to the fatalistic doctrine that “Whatever is, is right.” This would be bad enough if it stopped with going dangerously near, but it does not stop there, it goes all the way, as logically every system of morals without religion must do; and here is the evidence:—

Though conscience may err, it is the best judgment we have—the pointing of the compass after all the conflicting forces which would diversely impel us, and so the coming of our knowledge to a head in the will. If we go wrong by following it, then wrong is inevitable and any other course would still more likely be wrong. If the result is not good, it is the best we can have. For, going by conscience, we simply go on our best information.—Page 283.

This is in very substance the doctrine that “Whatever is, is right.” It is fatalism, and fatalism only. In fact it can not be anything else, proceeding upon the theory which it does. It proposes to leave religion out of the question and to teach morality without religion. But when man is separated from religion, he is left wholly to himself. Himself is his only resource, and in searching for the supreme right and ultimate good, he starts for himself and whatever course he follows, he is inevitably brought back to himself. This is precisely what this book has done three times. And when men do this, over and over again, groping round and round in the narrow circle of self and finding only “apples of Sodom” at the end of every circle, they are driven to the precise point to which, by this system of ethics, they are driven, that is, to the despairing sink of fatalism.

Another name for it is paganism, for it is the identical conclusion to which paganism came in its supremest day. Compare with the foregoing the following from Marcus Aurelius:—

What then is that about which we ought to employ our serious pains? This one thing, thoughts just, and acts social, and words that never lie, and a disposition which gladly accepts all that happens, as necessary, as usual as flowing from the principle and source of the same kind. Willingly give thyself up to Clotho [one of the Fates], allowing her to spin thy thread into whatever things she pleases.

The final conclusion of Mr. Bierbower’s proposed system of ethics for society and schools in the United States, in this nineteenth century, is identical with that of the pagan, Marcus Aurelius, in the second century. And this open and sheer paganism, it is seriously proposed, shall be taught to the children and practiced by society in the United States! And Mr. Bierbower actually seems to have so much confidence in his proposed system, that he thinks that “Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and unbelievers may use this book with equal approval.” For our part we should like very much to see a single Catholic, or Protestant, or Jew, or unbeliever who, having examine the book, would use it with any manner of approval whatever.

Again, we say that which is so often admitted by this book, conscience itself be seen must needs have a guide. And faith is the guide and the only guide of conscience. Whatever a man believes to be right, to that his conscience will freely assent. Therefore a right faith is essential to a good conscience. Now the only right faith in this world, is the faith of Jesus Christ. Without faith in Jesus Christ, there can be no right conscience; without a right conscience there can be no genuine morality.

This is the logic of the question and it never can be escaped; and it only demonstrates once more by proofs that can not be refuted, the position which THE SENTINEL has always occupied, that morality without religion is a misnomer. And more than this, that morality without the religion of Jesus Christ, is a misnomer. Jesus Christ is the author of the right faith through which he leads men to the right morality. The teaching of this faith, by which alone right morality can be attained, he committed to the Church. The Church he endowed with the Spirit of God by which the teaching may be performed with power. If the Church or the family does not teach it, it never can be taught. The teaching of it was never committed to the State; the power by which alone it can be inculcated has never been bestowed upon the State.

Therefore as genuine morality can come only from a right conscience, and a right conscience can come only from a right faith, and a right faith can come only by Jesus Christ, it is demonstrated that there is no genuine morality outside of a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. And as the State can not teach faith in Jesus Christ, as the State can not teach the religion of Jesus Christ, the position of THE SENTINEL is impregnable, that the State can not teach morality. Civility is the realm, and the conservation of it the prerogative, of the State. Morality is the realm, and the conservation of it the prerogative, of God. “Render therefore unto Cesar the things that are Cesar’s; and unto God the things which are God’s.”

A. T. J.

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