Does an erroneous conscience excuse us?

This post continues the consideration of the binding force of authority, in particular of conscience.

1. It seems that an erroneous conscience always excuses. For what is proposed by an erroneous, is judged as good to do or good to avoid doing. Now a good will is a will that tends to its proper object, the good. Therefore the will that tends to the presented good by choosing what is judged to be good or rejecting what is judged to be evil, is a good will. Thus erroneous conscience excuses a will of evil in following that conscience.

2. Further, if an erroneous conscience sometimes does not excuse, then, since a man is always obliged to follow his conscience, a man would be compelled to do evil, either by following his conscience and thereby doing (unexcused) evil, or by violating his conscience. But the culpability of sin presupposes the possibility of acting otherwise, as St. Augustine says “No one sins in that which he cannot avoid.” (Retract., I, 9 / PL 32:596; cf. De libero arbitrio, III, 18 / PL 32:1295) Therefore erring conscience must always excuse.

On the contrary stands the authority of the psalmist, when he prays for the forgiveness of “hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12), and of St. Paul in the letter to the Corinthians: “I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”

The Catechism also teaches, that when conscience errs due to error, one must distinguish whether the ignorance is his fault. “This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility…. In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits…. If – on the contrary – the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.” (CCC 1791, 1793). Therefore an erroneous conscience excuses sometimes, but not always.

I respond that to ask whether error of conscience excuses from evil, is to ask whether the evil of what is done according to conscience is to be attributed to the one who, in acting according to his mistaken conscience, does something objectively bad. For example, a doctor may believe himself obligated by his profession and duty, or in conscience, to assist a woman in ending an unwanted pregnancy, and may do so even in a situation that, objectively, means killing an innocent person, which is contrary to natural and divine law. Is he guilty, before God, of murder?

The general principle applicable to such cases is that everything connected with a human act, whether good or evil, is to be attributed to the will just to the extent that such circumstances or characteristics of the act are voluntary, either directly, or at least indirectly. Thus, if a cook, having taking usual and reasonable precautions, serves up strawberries and cream, not knowing that the strawberries are contaminated with salmonella, poisoning the guests is not be attributed to the cook’s will, he is not to be morally blamed for the incident. But if a food distributor simply ignores reports of food poisoning, paying no attention to them at all, the resulting food poisoning from lots of contaminated food would truly and fairly be attributed to him. Although not directly willed or intended, it is a result of the voluntary ignorance, and in this sense from his will.

The same distinction may be applied to the ignorance or error of conscience, when someone’s conscience tells him he must do something, which actually is bad, though he does not know that. He does not directly will to do evil, but rather to do the good which he perceives in what he does. So the badness of what he does is not directly voluntary, as willed by him. Yet it may be indirectly voluntary, if his ignorance of the badness is voluntary, if, say, he at some time knew that he should consider the morality of the situation more carefully, but refused to do so, for reasons of public opinion, his career, or the like.

Even if the cause of the ignorance or error be general or remote, in the measure that a man is liable for that cause, by voluntary action or negligence, he is liable for the resulting error and the disordered action proceeding from it.

To illustrate this, we might compare man, with manifold interests and responsibilities, desires, and knowledge, to a company with many workers that, produces and maintains complex equipment, say aircraft for example. To save on the number of employees needed, the bosses might be pressured to have workers who double check calculations work faster; if it can be foreseen that this hurry will lead to a number of mistakes over time, and it should be predictable with some degree of probability that this would lead to the failure of jet engines, which then happens, a resulting airline crash and deaths could be attributed to the company.

Similarly, a boss, having once adopted an abusive pattern of behavior he saw in others, if he downplays and dismisses any concerns raised about the way he treats the workers under him as merely motivated by envy or a political ideology such as “wokeness”, he might become so convinced that this is a normal human way to treat employees, that he doesn’t have any doubt about it, and has a secure conscience. This ignorance, inasmuch as it arises from a voluntary, blameworthy neglect to form his views and attitudes in a balanced and authentically human manner, would be indirectly voluntary, and therefore his behavior would be morally blameworthy, despite experiencing no guilt in acting this way.

Or if a man sees to it that he is surrounded by flatters who praise him for his cleverness when he takes advantage of loopholes in the law to cheat others and enrich himself, and, as a result, ends up with a sincere opinion that “as long as it’s legal, it’s ok,” he is guilty of this error and of his resulting unjust practices, even though his conscience not accuse him on this point.

The same distinction applies when ignorance causes a judgment of conscience that something is evil that is actually good.

A man might consider it evil to believe in Christ as the Church proposes Him for belief, not due to his own fault, but because, without fault (or significant fault) of his own, he is convinced that Christ is a myth or a false prophet or that Christianity, at least as proposed by the Church, is harmful and destructive of human happiness. In such a case, he would not sin by refraining from belief in Christ, according to his erring conscience, since his error is not his fault. He would, on the other hand, sin if he were to believe in Christ contrary to his conscience.

A man, might, on the other hand, consider it bad to believe in Christ because, having over time given himself ever more to the pursuit of power, pleasure or fame, he has adopted the view and now believes without question that a religion which preaches self-denial, humility, and the giving of one’s life, is demeaning and wrong. This disbelief, resulting from sin so as to be indirectly voluntary with respect to what is bad about it, is therefore morally blameworthy.

These principles and distinctions can be helpful for examining our own conscience. They further manifest how we can defend and uphold natural and divine law without presuming to pass judgment on the guilt or lack therefore of others before God. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God;” (Romans 14:10) Since God alone knows the hearts of men, he alone can judge (surely and definitively) to what degree ignorance and error is voluntary. “I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.” (Jer 17:10)

This suffices for the reply to the first objection; the one following an erroneous conscious is not blameworthy for clinging to the good as perceived, but for, through his own fault, believing something evil to be good or something good to be an evil, and therefore actually tending to evil.

To the second objection we reply, it is true that no one sins in that which he cannot avoid, and when a man is not able to avoid having an erroneous conscience, he is not blameworthy for following it. But when it is someone’s own fault that his conscience is in error, he is rightly blamed for the disordered action he does in following his conscience. The dichotomy “following his conscience (thus doing evil), or violating his conscience (thus being evil)” is indeed a false dichotomy. For since man is by nature ordered to the truth and desires the truth, conscience will never absolutely forbid a man from reconsidering his moral situation and correcting his conscience. Thus he is able to avoid all sin by correcting his conscience, and then following his corrected conscience.

We may be confident that God, who wills all men to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4), always enables a man to remedy a voluntary error of this sort. But on the supposition, that a man’s conscience were so darkened through voluntary fault, that he was absolutely unable to correct his conscience, the disordered deeds he would perform in following his conscience would not be, morally speaking, additional sins, but merely the necessary fruit of his previous sins.

We note, further, that though involuntary ignorance excuses a man of moral fault, he does not free a man from the consequences of disordered behavior. That which contravenes natural and human goods remains harmful, even if, without personal fault, someone is genuinely convinced that this behavior is not harmful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.