The authority of conscience: does conscience oblige us?

Having examined the nature of conscience, we continue to consider the obligation following from it. And first, whether conscience obliges us?

And it seems that it does not, because

1. No one is bound except by some authority superior to himself. But one’s conscience is not superior to oneself. Therefore one is not bound by conscience.

2. The same authority that can oblige a man, can also free him from obligation. But conscience cannot free a man from obligation, therefore it cannot oblige him.

3. Conscience recognizes not merely obligatory goods and evils that one must avoid, but also that which is better, yet not obligatory. For example, it might in some case be just to demand the return of a debt while being better to forgive it. But a man is not obliged to that which is better. Therefore he is not obliged by conscience as such.

4. No one is obliged to the impossible. But sometimes conscience urges to contradictories, and therefore to the impossible. For example, if someone unwittingly caused a fire that led to horrible loss of human life and pain, another person might be urged by conscience to lie about some circumstances in order to spare that person from distress over what he did, while still in conscience perceiving the lie as a moral evil. Or a military office might feel himself obliged to destroy a plane with innocent hostages that is being used as a missile and would kill far more people if not destroyed, yet perceive the destruction of the plane as murder. Or the leaders of a state might, to deter nuclear attack, intend nuclear retaliation if attacked with nuclear weapons, thus being ready in principle to actually carry through with a retaliation that kills many innocent people in order that the present threat of retaliation be credible.

Against this is the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.” (CCC 1790)

I respond: to impose an obligation on a moral or free agent means to make that to which he is obliged necessary, not in the sense that he is absolutely unable to do anything else, but in the sense that his freedom is constrained, so that he may not do anything else, if he is to attain his end.

Some such constraints are given by nature and are known to man as natural law, while others are imposed by positive divine decree and known through revelation, accepted in faith.

These constraints have a basis in reality itself. For example, since life and the ability to performs acts of life is a presupposition for living well, or happiness, preserving one’s life and capacity for living activities is necessary for happiness. (Or, in a case of conflict, preserving the life of others, whom one loves as oneself.) Since man’s perfection is found above all in knowing and loving, pursuing truth and truth, for example, is necessary for happiness.

Yet the way that these constraints, or precepts of natural law or positive divine law, constrict the will in its freedom, is by being known by man, and known in their application to his potential action, as constraining or prohibiting him from performing certain actions, or requiring him to perform certain actions, if he is to attain his end.

But the knowledge of the constraints on actions in relation to the attainment of happiness, or morally obligatory precepts, as applied to action, is nothing other than conscience. Therefore conscience obliges the will.

Ad 1. To the first argument against this position, it should be noted that though conscience is not superior to oneself, it is the recognition of an order superior to himself, whether the order of nature or of the divine truth. And so one can be bound by conscience, which sets one in relation to a superior order that is not at one’s own disposal.

Ad 2. To the second we respond that in the sense we are considering here, of moral obligation, conscience does indeed free a man from obligation to a duty of which he is not aware, unless his limited or erroneous conscience results from his fault, and he could and should have known of an objective law or precept obliging him.

Ad 3. To the third we respond that conscience obliges according to the nature of conscience’s judgment. Where conscience recognizes a necessary good or an evil that must be unconditionally avoided, it obliges absolutely. Where the judgment is of a good, but not a necessary good, it obliges one to respect that good as a good, and not treat it as an evil, but does not absolutely oblige to that good.

Ad 4. To the fourth we respond that when a man seems urged in conscience to contradictories, damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, presupposes an incomplete or erroneous conscience. By “incomplete” I mean that some link in the moral connection between the ultimate end is missing or does not have unconditional force. In the first example, “causing or allowing distress” is not absolutely incompatible with the order to man’s complete good. If the principle “distressing people is bad” is taken as a principle only applicable for the most part, and therefore producing a merely provisional judgment about what the man should do, this judgment, since it is not final or definitive, is not properly conscience, yet in common parlance may be termed “doubtful” conscience. Conscience in this incomplete sense is, in and of it itself, not binding, the common opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, and with respect to conscience of this kind we grant the argument that conscience which urges equally to contradictories is not binding. We shall however consider the question of doubtful conscience in greater detail later.

If the general notion “distressing people is bad” is taken as a principle for an absolute judgment that this “must” not be done, this judgment of conscious is erroneous, being based on a false supposition. As also in speculative matters two arguments, at least one of which proceeds from false premises, may lead to contradictory conclusions, so also a judgment of conscience, proceeding from a false premise, may contradict another judgment of conscience considering the action and circumstances from a different perspective. Now an erroneous conscience does bind, as we will explain in the next article. Consequently, if a man were to be immovably stuck in an error, such that he believed that "doing this deed now" and "not doing this deed" now are both absolutely wrong, he would be so bound as to be unable to perform any action morally, as also a man can for physical or emotional reasons be restrained from performing any moral action. However, in general a man can correct his conscience, if in no other way, then at least by considering the fact that the contradiction of the two contrary conclusions “I must unconditionally do this now”, and “I must unconditionally not do this now”, necessarily implies an error in at least one of the trains of thought. Having drawn this conclusion, he will now have an incomplete or doubtful conscience, and what was just said above will apply.

A similar account applies to the other two examples.

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