Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) on the rights of erroneous conscience (from Bayle vs. Spinoza on Toleration, by Edwin M. Curley, Mededelingen vanwege het Spinoza Huis #95, Voorschoten 2009)
[P]erhaps his most distinctive and interesting argument occurs quite late in the Commentaire [philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ, constrains-les d’entrer], where he contends, in replying to an objection, that an erroneous conscience has the same rights as an enlightened conscience. Here’s a summary of this argument:
I. To say that your conscience judges an action to be good or evil is the same as saying that your conscience judges it to be pleasing or displeasing to God. (Volume II of Pierre Bayle, Ouvres diverses, ed. Elisabeth Labrousse [OD II], p.422b; Pierre Bayle, Ouvres diverses, ed. John Kilcullen and Chandran Kukathas [KK], p.220)
II. If a man’s conscience tells him that an action is evil and displeasing to God, and he nevertheless does it anyway, he acts with the intent of offending and disobeying God. (OD II, 422b-423a; KK, 220)
III.Whoever acts with the intent of offending and disobeying God necessarily sins.
IV. So, if a man’s conscience tells him that an action is evil and displeasing to God, and he nevertheless does it anyway, he necessarily sins. Or more succinctly: whatever is done against the dictates of conscience is a sin. (OD II, 422b; KK, 220)
Bayle recognizes that this argument will not be persuasive to an atheist, but that may not be a problem for his purposes. His primary opponents are Christians, who may not be troubled by the theistic aspects of his assumptions. I presume most Christians – and most theists in general – would readily grant that if you act with the intent of offending and disobeying God, you sin. The first premise of Bayle’s argument will be more controversial. As he formulates it, it requires a commitment to what we might call ‘analytic theological voluntarism’, the theory that the meaning of ethical terms is to be analyzed by using the concepts of what is or is not pleasing to God. Many Christian philosophers would grant that Plato’s Euthyphro showed that analysis of ethical language to be faulty. But perhaps there is a way of reformulating I [the first premise] which would avoid the commitment to voluntarism.
[Note: According to Advayavada Buddhism, what human beings experience and identify as good, right or beneficial, indeed as progress, is, in fact, that which takes place in the otherwise indifferent direction that wondrous overall existence flows in of its own accord.]