THE SOCIAL CONSCIENCE. BY F. D. HUNTINGTON, D. D.
CONSCIENCE, I SAY, NOT THINE OWN, BUT OF THE OTHER. 1 Cor. x. 29.
THE form of the expression is accommodated and idiomatic. Strictly it would be, " Conscience, not only thine own, but of the other as well." For it is only through my " own conscience " that I can morally re spect the conscience of that " other." If I regard his, it must be by obeying my own ; and my thoughtfulness for his must be proportioned to the sensibility of my own.
By all who believe that there is any such thing as a moral authority for human life, that duty is a word with a meaning, and that responsibility is a fact, it will be granted that each of these three propositions is ap plicable to our intercourse and connections with each other ; that is, that the moral significance of life is nowhere more vitally manifest than in what we do or fail to do for the characters of our neighbors ; that a large part of what is included in the term duty is what we owe to other men s welfare, or their goodness, which is the same thing ; and that society presents a scene of personal responsibility, peculiar to itself, where the ma
terials of judgment are always accumulating.
But, as in other cases, so here : the consent to a gen-
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eral statement of a principle is one thing, while a cour ageous loyalty to its personal requirements is another. There may be a wide gap between the storehouse where we keep a supply of respectable abstract notions loosely laid away for quotation, something between the ear nestness of conviction and the inconvenient disrepute of scepticism, on the one hand, and the living embodi ment of these notions in a self-denying practice, on the other. It is easy enough to agree that we ought not to weaken and damage and degrade other men s con sciences ; but to give up the gratification, the amuse ment, the pleasant and otherwise harmless habit, which will certainly damage and mislead them, is not always very easy. Besides, there are some questions of right, how far, in particular cases, this ought to be done, or is demanded to be done. These questions may really complicate the matter to honest minds; or they may only furnish a subterfuge for cowardly and evasive na
tures to escape a disagreeable sacrifice, without at the same time losing all self-respect by abandoning the gen eral principle. The New Testament takes pains to pro vide directions for a settlement of both these classes of difficulties. Whether it will be of any use to appeal to that source of instruction will depend on another point, viz. whether we have determined to make the spirit and word of the New Testament, when we have found them out, the law of our lives, let them cut in upon whatever comfort or indulgence ; let them rebuke, and chasten, and humiliate, and tax our fortitude as they may.
We begin with the broadest obligation belonging to the matter. This is, that every man shall make his relations to other men s characters, and the effects of his actions on other men s actions, a direct part of his
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regular religious culture. It shall be more than a sen timent, a concern; and more than a speculation, a practice. To this both the nature of the case and the word of the Gospel agree. On the ground of the nature of the case, it can be denied only by one of three classes
of objectors. It may be consistently denied by asceti cism, by indifferentisin, or by the mere impulsive theory of morals. A monk, or rather an utter anchorite, might refuse to pay a religious regard to- social relations, on the ground that in solitude, as a higher state of man, the relations do not exist. A thorough-going indifferentist, or practical fatalist, or antinomian, might refuse, on the ground that the result of things is beyond the influence of ethical distinctions as recognized by the human will. Or a believer in the absolute legitimacy of sheer im pulse, whether sensual or supersensual, might object, on the score of the philosophy which, in professing to follow Nature with peculiar fidelity, confuses her legislation of just liberty, and turns the beauty of her economy and the order of her subordinations into a mob of ungoverned desires. These three are intelligible defences of that recklessness of other men s principles which denies that we are answerable for our influence on every life of those around us.
Quite as clear as the reason of the case is the word of the Gospel. The Christian faith is eminently a social principle. Its ideas are social ideas. Its development is a social development. It contemplates each heart as having interdependencies and communications with its fellows. The forms it takes on are domestic and asso
ciative. It proposes fellowship. It founds a church. It advocates the common weal. It is always asking, from the beginning, of every cruel Cain, " Where is thy
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brother ? " It calls every exclusive, oppressive, abusive, corrupting community, or person, to account for the lost, the neglected, the betrayed, the weaker members of the household. It says, with the solemn voice of God, " Thy brother s blood cries from the ground," the blood of his soul no less than of his body. One half of its twofold commandment is, " Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." If it declares, in one breath, that " every man shall bear his own burden," in the next it says, " Bear ye one another s burdens." It predicts an infinite misery for them that tempt, betray, misguide, deprave one another, for them that form companies, clubs, societies, to make each other frivolous, profligate, dissolute. It treats with terrible severity any one that presumes to reply, when called to reckon for such out rages, "Am I my brother s keeper?" virtually rejoin ing, " Yes, you are ; all men are each other s keepers, educators, helpers or hinderers, saviours or seducers."
It requires all to give not only food, clothes, and money, but the ministry of encouraging words, patient endur ance, honest living, aspiring thoughts. So, negatively, it forbids theft and killing ; and if we study the whole religion through and through, we shall see that this means the robbery of any particle of virtue, honor, tem perance, truth, the killing of the spiritual and immor tal part, quite as much as the theft of a garment, or the murder of the body it covers. In fact, all the pages of our Book of Faith are marked with these earnest coun sels and expostulations about caring for other souls. It is always adjuring us to work for, to think for, to suffer for and to that end to love other people. Such is the compass of its charity. "Whether it commands or forbids, its intent is the same. If you examine both
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prohibitions and injunctions, you will find they run into each other, and are only the two sides of one bright truth, the positive and the negative being only meas urements in opposite directions of the universal law of
affection and service. The lives of the Apostles were throughout consecrated, abstemious, self-sacrificing la bors for the souls of their fellow-men. And we have only to look into any period of the earthly ministry of Christ to see how constantly and scrupulously he acted for the internal state of those he met. He did, and re frained from doing, he spoke and kept back, he came into danger and went away from it, all for the sake of the souls of others. Nay, his whole earthly career, his humiliation into a body, and his human suffering, are instances of what a true and faithful Spirit will do for human need. Suppose he had said, " Why should I take the form of a servant, make myself of no reputa tion, become obedient unto death, bear the ignominy of the Cross ? Men must live according to the laws and condition of their own being. My communion is above. My joys and tastes are heavenly ; why condescend to these miserable, unintellectual, uncultivated creatures ? They have their own pleasures, associations, their own set in society. Why should I deprive myself of some of my best and highest enjoyments for them ? " Do we never hear language a little like that about us here ? His doctrine was that nothing on earth or in heaven can possibly be higher than serving, lifting up, saving the spiritual life of God s children ; and that, compared with that, all social fastidiousness and all intellectual
self-seeking are vulgarity and shame.
Or is it said that in this respect the Son of God is no example for us ? This is practical infidelity, to make
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excuse that we are not called to live in the same spirit in which our Saviour lived. That is the very thing we have to try to do ; and if we try devoutly God will help us to it more and more. But even if the Master s selfsacrifice were set aside as too exalted, the same condem nation of our letting other people s virtue take care of itself would come down from every nobler and holier life of his great followers and confessors of every age. And were this testimony to fail, I should still be sure of a nearer witness to the essential reality of the doctrine, even a voice speaking in the loftier moods of your own breasts. This silent decree within will reaffirm the living oracles of the Evangelists. Together they will pronounce him to be the only truly conscientious man who is ever applying the discriminations of his sense of right to new regions, new connections, new questions of conduct ; and will pronounce that it must
be a very limited conscience indeed which only inquires, of a course of action, how it will affect the individual performing it. " Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other."
Now, the helps men render to one another s virtue are, for the most part, rendered without any express attempt at what is called " setting an example." That is, all excellence is more impressive when it is seen liv ing and acting by a certain independent force from within itself, looking for its motive above the world, than when it is prepared and put on exhibition for a pattern. At the best, a man can give only what he has, and work only with what is in him. To begin a correct life with the notion of being a model is, to say the least of it, beginning a good way from the heart of the mat ter, and is likely to end with a mere surface morality.
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In agriculture and mechanics, producers do sometimes raise stock, or finish fabrics, merely for a show ; and ii they do it to stimulate other brains and muscles in the line of their profession, it is plainly more honorable
than to do it for the premium or the admiration. So it is higher to conquer passion for the sake of encour aging other strivers for that mastery, than for self-inter est, or a politic vanity. But goodness is a more delicate thing, and has quite another nature than machinery or animal symmetry. The danger is, that if we undertake to manufacture it for a pattern, we shall spoil it in the making. It will not be genuine. The very idea of making it a spectacle will have taken the authenticity out of it. Pattern-behavior, putting the foreign effect before the spiritual essence, is Pharisaic, just as any declaimed righteousness, where speech gets before con viction, is cant. When words are felt, or sincere, they instantly and infallibly become efficacious, as health always is. Of Sterling s saying, " First realize your cant, then put it off," the last half is not wanted ; for cant turned into reality is put off already ; when vital ity or sincerity went into it, the thing was changed, and it ceased to be cant. Besides, goodness is not a conveyable or merchantable substance. It has to strike its root deep in an individual consciousness, a personal faith. And for all these reasons, men are very far from being morally acted on, to the best purport, by what is aimed directly at them.
But this does not at all deny the quick sensibilities of
the social constitution, nor our obligation both to do some things, and not to do some other things, out of a simple regard to their social effects. " Thine own con science " is not thorouo-hlv active, unless it bears a
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sacred respect to the conscience of the " other." In fact, the case seems to be clearer about refraining from what will injure others, than about doing what they may imitate. Christian modesty may shrink from the thought of being exemplary ; but Christian principle will eagerly renounce what is hurtful. Is it not likely that we are set into society for this very end, that by sacrifices for others moral purity as well as their physi cal comfort, by relinquishing some pleasures for our brethren s inward as well as outward abundance, we may be disciplined into a more Christlike disinterested ness ? I can see no great sense in the maxim of Cecil, that " society shows us what we are, and solitude what we should be." If we only catch up its overt manifes tations, its current criticisms, or look into the mirror of its manners, society will only show us what we are, and in fact very imperfectly show us that. But if "we look
at it on the side of its moral powers, and moral wants and exposures, it will eloquently teach us what we ought to be, and furnish the very school for making us that. He has not half awaked to the majesty and the mystery of his being, who can tolerate in himself the atrocious levity of living as if the integrity of his com panion s conscience were never a cause for the abridg ment of his own pleasures.
The complicated case, undoubtedly, is where some habit, or some indulgence of taste, or some gratification of appetite, is felt to be perfectly safe to yourself, but would probably be unsafe to others by reason of their less guarded position or weaker principles, while they are the more likely to go astray for your practice. There is the real issue and strain. Have we no guide, in the Christian teaching, to a right decision, even there ?
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The defence set up for a continuance of the gratifica tion is this : 4 Rules of meat and drink, amusement and display, are not definite nor absolute. Each must adjust his habit to his constitution and circumstances, and
stop there. Everything is likely to be abused that is used. I cannot look after all abuses, nor people, nor positions. I am to strike out a way of living that seems lawful enough for myself, and expect everybody else to do the same. I am not the appointed guardian of my neighbors, and need not forego what I consider the good things of life lest some weaker heart should be ensnared or enslaved by them.
This answer will carry different degrees of plausi bility to different persons. Christianity certainly com ments upon it.
In the first place, it may be said, without argument, that to many ears this language has, in its very tone and its first impression, a sound of hardness and self ishness. A certain intuitive moral judgment pronoun ces that it is not the final nor the highest view of duty ; that, whatever the truth may be, this is not the whole of it ; that, whatever the difficulty may be, this does not go to the bottom of it. It is not a disposition of the case that satisfies the best demands of a self-denying relig ion. It is not the sort of response we expect from the nobler order of men, who live for the good of their race, and not for themselves, live before their times and beyond their fellows, prophets and apostles. But
this is only an appeal to sentiments, which may not be universal.
Another remark, not conclusive but pertinent, is that this defence is not one very likely to be presented by any of us, where the party endangered by our gratifica-
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tion should be very near to our affections, a child, or a brother by blood. There the gratification would prob ably be waived. But Christianity recognizes no such limitation of responsibility as this : it declares all man kind one family ; and, by the lips of its Divine Founder, affirms that, for the purposes of doing God s will, every human being is a mother or a brother or a sister.
But furthermore, when it is said that all things used, however lawful, must be abused, let it be remembered that this tendency to abuse by no means excuses him who so uses, beyond the line of actual necessity or imperative duty, that the abuse comes in. If " offences must needs come," none the less " woe to him by whom the offence cometh." The question now is, not whether
men are extremely liable to do wrong on occasion, but whether I shall add to that liability by offering a fresh occasion, and under the plea that other men do so, or will do so, if I do not. In full view of that likelihood Christ said, " It were better for a man that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea, than that he should cause one of these weak ones to offend."
And further still, if you say that, so long as your act is not in itself wrong, Providence, in the general ongo ing of affairs, must see to it that no harm comes of it : may it not reasonably be put back to you that Provi dence is quite as likely to see to it that no harm conies to you when you deny yourself, as that no harm comes to those weak natures when your self-indulgence has tempted them ? Besides, when we speak of an act as " right in itself," let us consider what is included in " itself," and take in all its necessary elements and rela tions. For no act can be said to be right in itself
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which is so done that the spirit of the doer or the
situation of its occurrence binds it up inseparably with wrong.
And further yet, if it is urged that nothing ought to be given up which makes for the genial and happy pro cesses of social life, then let it be fully established that the practice, the luxury, the pleasure in question, does belong to the best order of life, and is essential to it, and that its advantages are not outweighed by the evils that spring directly out of it. Above all, let a sol emn examination of the motives and sources of action make it clear, whether the thing is really done from a conscientious and comprehensive regard to the public good, or whether that is only an afterthought of apol ogy, a sophistication to palliate what is actually done only because it is agreeable and entertaining.
There may possibly be instances let it be granted where the mind honestly hesitates whether the good to be done by a compliance with a luxurious custom will not overbalance the possible mischiefs of leading others to transgress. But if the foregoing principles are kept steadily before us, if, in every such emergency, we go directly to the Master, who never mistakes, to correct and clear up our moral judgments by communion with his unselfish and blameless soul, we shall find that class
of perplexities reduced to a very narrow line. And if then we are ready, with self-command enough, in every case that is only doubtful, to resign our ease or enter tainment, and stand on the side that is sure to be safe, rather than run the risk of putting any human soul on that which is wrong, if we make and keep it a matter, not of inclination, but of conscience, we shall hardly go far astray, "Conscience, I say, not only thine own,
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but of the other," for light will fall from the uner ring Sun on a spirit so seeking and so sincere.
Let us now set over against the defence we have sup posed the following words of the Apostle Paul, sub mitting it to each hearer, which seems to ring clearest from the heights of Christian clearsightedness and truth, and which sounds most as if the heavenly testimony was in it, " None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. Let us therefore judge this, that no man put a stumbling-block, or an occasion to fall, in his broth er s way. If thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with
thy meat, for whom Christ died. It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stuinbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. When ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth. For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy."
The more frequent obstacle to this thoughtful and generous behavior, at least among decent men, is the absence of any glaring evidence that our luxuries do tempt our neighbors. What is the delight of a palate, or of an amusement, that any of us would not hurl from him with all the intensity of disgust, if he saiv before his eyes one fellow-creature, however weak or ignorant, who, from an unhappy childhood, or any misfortune of condition, was plunged over the edge of safety into all the shame and wretchedness and filth of profligacy by a questionable liberty of his own ? But surely, in such a matter, a doubt is grave enough to dictate a Chris tian s conduct. A very earnest moral nature will not
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be willing to imperil a fellow-creature s purity on the slender difference between a conjecture and a certainty. The likelihood of a poison taking effect will be pon dered, not without a prayer for help. And, as if to assist us in such discoveries, human beings are often thrown together, in such local connections, such close ness of contact, and such peculiarity of relationship, as to bring out and exhibit plainly these mutual interactings of moral conduct and impression. Of that kind is every collection of givers and receivers, of teachers and pupils, every seminary of learning, or family, or class associated for a common pursuit. There spring up new obligations, new occasions for restraint, new calls for cheerful and voluntary sacrifices, peculiar to the struc ture of the society. He that does not feel them, or is not equal to them, may well reconsider the fitness of his presence. There, too, as he will find who ever takes pains to inquire, these influences come to light. The older is quoted by the younger ; the more advanced by the new-comer ; the instructor by the pupil. There the laxity of an esteemed acquaintance is made to take sides with some appetite that burns in the body. There the neglects of the more experienced are thrown up as shields for the irregularities of the novitiate. There the irreligion of the mature fosters and encourages the
recklessness of youth. And little as they may suspect it, who eat, drink, and are merry, without a religious scruple on their pleasures, all the while, in many a building not far away, the beginnings of vice are tak ing a terrible warrant and license from their freedom. " No man liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. Let us judge this, that no man put a stumbling-block, or an occasion to fall, in his brother s way."
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Brethren, there is no self-denial deserving the name that is not willing to give up any privilege of the palate or the passions rather than endanger the least or lowest of God s children. And then if it is demanded, " Why should I be deprived of the lawful use of some agree able thing, merely because some less guarded, less expe rienced, or less coolly constituted neighbor will abuse it ? " we will leave the ground of justice altogether, and come upon that of magnanimity and of privilege. We will ask, not what we have a right to do, but what is to be gladly chosen because it is right to be done. In the estimates of God and eternity, the generosity that shields a human heart from shame will stand above a genial
style of hospitality. Xot till comfort shall become the creed of Christendom, can free living be the testimony of faith.
After all, we must raise our minds before a higher judgment than our own. We need not terrify ourselves with an imaginary tribunal ; it is enough to anticipate the reality. There is to come a time when no one of us will be satisfied to have been here eating and drink ing and making merry, sporting with the virtues of our companions, quenching the better life of those for love of whom Christ was willing to die, or entertaining our selves at the cost of their integrity. Again, the voice of the Lord God will be heard at the end of the day, asking of you and me, " Where is thy brother ? " How little will it avail us then, having that brother, and all the past, standing revealed before us, to stammer with the impotent mockery of self-defence, " Am I my broth er s keeper ? " His blood will cry from the ground, and Heaven will hear. Whosoever shall cause one of these to offend, it were better that a millstone dragged him
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Too little, too little, will there appear in that day of any positive achievements of ours for God and his truth, proportioned to our opportunity. But at least let it not be found that, when some frail fellow-creature was in clining to baseness and to ruin, any frivolity or uncon cern of ours made his downward way easier and swifter ; or, if any other soul was struggling up into light and victory, that our faithlessness discouraged him, our inconsistencies confused him, our self-love drew him back.
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