What is conscience?

In the current series of posts I am taking up the question of the morally binding force of authorities. Since conscience mediates the morally binding force of other authorities, before continuing to the question of external and legal authority, we should consider conscience in more detail. This consideration will take the form of a disputed question.

1. Is conscience a judgment of reason?

2. Does conscience oblige us?

3. Does an erroneous conscience oblige us?

4. Does an erroneous conscience excuse us?

5. Does a doubtful conscience oblige us?

It seems that conscience is not a judgment of reason, but rather

a feeling

1. Conscience seems rather to pertain to affective movements than to reason. For we speak of the pangs or remorse of conscience, which is a kind of sorrow, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church also says that contrition is a stirring of conscience. (CCC 1453) But remorse and contrition are affective movements, of will rather than of reason. Therefore conscience pertains to will rather than to reason.

2. Again, to say that someone has a guilty conscience seems to mean the same as saying that he feels guilty about it. Therefore conscience is a matter of feeling rather than judgment.

or a faculty within us

3. Further, it seems to be a part of us rather than an act, such as judgment. For according to the Letter to the Hebrews, The blood of Christ shall “purify our conscience from dead works.” (Heb 9:14) But dead works, or sins, are present in a subject. Therefore conscience is a power or part of the soul, rather than an act of judgment. The same thing is implied by the Catechism, which says that “The principles of the moral law… are written in the conscience of every man” (CCC 1860)

4. Again, conscience judges us about what we have done. But a judge is one who sets down a judgment, rather than being the judgment itself. Therefore conscience is not a judgment, but a faculty of judging.

or a voice outside us

5. Further, granting that conscience in some way pertains to reason, it seems to be external to us rather than within us. For conscience speaks to us, telling us what is right and wrong. Therefore conscience is not our own judgment, but the voice of another in us.

6. If it is said that this voice is actually our own voice to ourselves, as we also encourage ourselves and tell ourselves to do various things, the Catechism seems to exclude this account, when it says that “when he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” (CCC 1777)

or a directive given to our mind, which we may or may not accept

7. Again, granting that conscience is a judgment of reason, since it is said to manifest the moral law or even God himself to us (CCC 33, 46, 1706, 1776, 1778), it seems not to be a conclusion, but rather a principle of reason.

8. Further, a man sometimes acts contrary to his conscience. But every voluntary action presupposes a judgment that such action is good. Therefore conscience is not the human judgment about what is to be done.

But against these positions, St. Thomas Aquinas defines conscience as the application of knowledge to some action, (ST I q. 79, a. 13) but knowledge is applied to a thing by an act of reason. Therefore conscience is an act of reason.

Again, according to the Catechism, “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.” (CCC 1778)

I respond: to clarify this question and resolve the difficulties and doubts concerning it, we must consider the manner in which we act humanly and introspectively know ourselves as actors.

All properly human action, in contrast with involuntary actions and reactions such as blinking, jerking away after touching a hot pan, and the like, presupposes deliberation or a judgment about the action.

When we deliberate, we may begin either from our end or from a set of immediately available options. For example, I might reflect on the fact that I desire to be happy, or to be united with God, or to do God’s will, and continue on to consider how I may attain attain this end, what are possible or perhaps necessary ways and means to this end. For example, I might do (continue doing) active ministry, or I might become a hermit or monk. I may, on the other hand, consider a more or less limited set of options for immediate action, when someone proposes, for example, “we’re having a party tonight, would you like to come?”, or I consider, “shall I eat a sandwich or a salad for lunch?” where my consideration begins with concrete particular possibilities.

Various potential goals, apprehended by a judgment of the intellect, “knowledge is good (for me) and part of happiness; health is good; freedom from coercion is good” may provoke a desire, a wish or longing for them. Such desire may in turn be recognized and expressed in words (with the power of reason): “I would like to understand God, myself and the world better; I would like to be (to remain) healthy”.

Similarly the possibilities with the consequences and circumstances they entail can be apprehended by intellect: “if I go to the party I can eat tasty food; I can meet and talk to so-and-so; I will have pleasure in the food, music and company and enjoy myself.” Some of these things may arouse my desire for them and consequently incline me to go to the party. I may recognize my desire as such and express it in words such as: “I would like to go to the party and enjoy it.”

Action is properly and fully human only when these two chains of reasoning are linked up, or one the chain starting on one end is completed on the other end. That is, when I refer a concrete chosen behavior at least implicitly to an ultimate end, which I intend “for it’s own sake”, not because it would desirable for the sake of something else.

I need not, of course, always make every step in this chain explicit. Assuming I have previously made a reasonable decision “pursuing my studies or writing is at the current period of my life a major component of a happy and holy life”, and this evening is needed for studies or preparation for work, I might merely consider “going to the party excludes studying, but I still need to study this evening.” Granting that I can reasonably presume, at least implicitly, that there is not a particularly special importance to the party, which might overrule some of my general decisions and considerations, this general consideration suffices to make a reasonable and prudent choice “not to go to the party,” but rather to study, as usual. In virtue of a previous general choice of a way of life, in which academics are an important part, the choice to study on this evening is already implicitly ordered to the further goal of a happy and holy life, even without explicitly averting to it.

What kind of relationship can particular objects of desire have to the last end (happiness as that which fulfills all human desire)?

A. I may recognize something as containing all that I desire in itself: God.

B. Some things may be like parts of that end, inasmuch as I take joy or pleasure in them in themselves: knowledge of the truth, or the unfettered use of my various human faculties, physical and mental, which I may experience in play, study or work, conversation, friendship, or contemplation. I seek these not merely as “means”, as I might take a slightly bitter pill to remedy a headache, but as ends, desirable as such. Nonetheless none of them are complete happiness, so I further want to enjoy these goods as parts of a whole happy existence and life.

C. Other things may be means to those parts of happiness or to happiness altogether, which are desirable only because they lead to something else.

Of these parts of happiness (B) and of means to happiness or its parts (C), there are three types. (1) Some actions are compatible with complete happiness and further the attainment of it, e.g., the enjoyment of a meal that upholds our health. Of these, some are necessary for happiness, e.g., preserving one’s life and seeking truth, while others are optional but not necessary for happiness, e.g., eating sweets or wine. (2) Other things are opposed to complete happiness, as they detract from significant parts of happiness, yet are compatible with a life directed towards complete happiness, e.g., the enjoyment of a tasty but definitely unhealthy meal or drinking a bit too much wine, when the value of the taste and enjoyment and any other circumstances in favor of that meal do not “justify” eating that meal or drinking so much. (3) Still other things are altogether incompatible with a life directed towards complete happiness, such as (apart from extraordinary circumstances) eating a meal that will kill us, because we are, say, deathly allergic to it.

The assessment, or judgment, of these types of acts can be expressed as (1) “I may enjoy this meal” or “I should eat to nourish myself”, or (2) “I should not eat this junk food” or “I should not drink that much”, or (3) “I must not eat those peanut bars”. In christian language, these three types of acts are good acts, venial sins and mortal sins.

We make similar judgments about ourselves in relation to previously performed actions or non-actions. “I should not have eaten so much”, “I should have studied more.”

Such judgment, by which we direct ourselves to or from a future action with a view to our ultimate end, or judge ourselves in relation to a current or past action, is conscience in its original sense.

However, because, especially on the basis of our emotions, we are readily inclined to set aside or ignore this judgment of conscience, nature has equipped us with particularly strong feelings that support the judgment of conscience: pride in the thought of acting according to our judgment or shame in the thought of acting against it, pride and self-admiration after having acted according to it or shame and remorse after having acted against it.

Since the human way of knowing proceeds from what is perceived by sense to what is known by intellect, that which is closer to sensation normally makes a more fervent impression on us than what is more intellectual. Consequently these feelings, designed to be subsequent upon conscience and to support it against those things that could distract us from paying attention to conscience, sometimes take on the name of conscience, as the effect and what manifests is named from that which it manifests. This occurs especially in regard to its negative judgment, when one speaks about having a guilty conscience, since the feeling of shame is particularly felt.

Again, the habits and customs by which conscience is formed so as to be effective and objectively correct, sometimes receive the name conscience, as a cause is named from the effect.

In summary, conscience names principally the judgment by which we assess or judge an action or behavior (including “not acting” inasmuch as that is voluntary) in relationship to our final end, but can also refer to the feelings naturally consequent upon such an assessment, or to the habitual character that enable us to form correct judgments of conscience.

Ad 1 and 2. To this the response to the first and second objection is evident. To the first it may, however, also be said that in the express “pangs of conscience”, the “of” signifies precisely that this mental pain proceeds from conscious as from its cause, and similarly, contrition is a stirring of conscience, in that it is stirred up or caused by conscience.

Ad 3. To the third it may be said that conscience is cleansed from dead works, not as through those works were in it as in a subject, but inasmuch as an earlier conscience or judgment of the guilt of past works, is followed by conscience or judgment of the guilt forgiven through Christ. And the principles of the moral law are said to be written in the conscience, in the sense in which conscience names the principles of judgment.

Ad 4. To the fourth we should say that properly speaking, conscience is the very judgment about what we have done. However, inasmuch a judgment already formed about an action, or the subsequent feeling of guilt, manifests the truth of what we have done despite any desire we might have to ignore it, this judgment stands to us now as a judge of our action.

Ad 5. A similar response can be made to the fifth objection, which proceeds from the experience of conscience as a voice or interlocutor. While the judgment of conscience is finally the judgment of our own reason, it is able to enter into further considerations as though it were independent of us, as indeed it may be independent of a separate train of thought. We have this experience especially when the judgment of conscience is so evident as not to demand any deliberation and proceeds directly from a universal consideration. For example, I might be thinking about playing an elaborate prank on someone and taking pleasure in the idea of it. Then I realize that the prank would involve a direct lie about a serious matter, and therefore should not be done. Since the two trains of thought (having fun, wrongness of lying) are opposed, I may even mentally put the two arguments together in the form of a dialog “it would be fun”, “but you shouldn’t lie! Playing the prank would be lying, therefore you shouldn’t play the prank!” so as to form the final judgment about playing the prank “I shouldn’t play the prank.”

Ad 6. To the sixth objection, that in conscience God speaks to us, we respond that every created truth is a participation in and flows from divine truth. So every true practical and moral judgment such as conscience derives from the divine and natural law, by which we are ordered to our end, know our end, and recognize fundamental principles on how to attain that end, of which the most fundamental is “do good and avoid evil.” Inasmuch as it corresponds to the truth about us and our actions, conscience, a judgment or declaration about what we should do, manifests to us the divine mind, which knows the truth of our actions more perfectly than we do, but which we do not know directly. Thus, in our own prudent judgment about our action, or conscience, we recognize God’s understanding of it. In this sense we may take conscience as a mode of God speaking to us.

Ad 7. To the seventh objection, that conscience manifests the moral law to us, we might reply that this language in the Catechism may come from Cardinal Newman, who appears indeed to see conscious more as an innate, independent source of knowledge than as the judgment applying universal knowledge to particular situations, and that, following Thomas Aquinas, conscience presupposes knowledge of the moral law (synderesis) rather than manifesting it.

We might better respond, however, that we come to know universals through particulars, and consequently, though the judgment of conscience always presupposes a certain knowledge of what is good and bad, this moral knowledge may be clarified and discerned more perfectly through reflection on the judgment of conscience in a multitude of cases.

Ad 8. To the eight objection we note that it may sometimes happen that conscience is mistaken and subsequently corrected. For example, a person sick with the flu might believe he is obliged to get up and attend Mass on Sunday, on the grounds that Sunday attendance is obligatory. Upon further reflection, or after discussion with a trustworthy person, he may come to the judgment that he should not attend, as he would risk his own health and/or risk infecting other persons. In this case, a first judgment of conscience commanding or forbidding an action is set aside, and another judgment formed, and a man acts according to the second judgment.

It however also happens that man, without a change of conscience, performs an act contrary to his conscience. Thus someone may be aware of the grave obligation to attend Sunday Mass, but, having had a disagreement with the pastor or another parishioner, does not want to see that person. In this case, the one ultimate judgment of the act “I must do this to be obedient to the Church and (so) fulfill God’s will” he ignores, and proceeds from another judgment “I would be uncomfortable seeing that person” to the choice “I shall not go to Mass, but remain home, to avoid seeing that person”. This judgment finding goodness in staying home does not relate it to the ultimate end, and therefore does not constitute conscience.

Thus, we grant that the eighth objection indeed proves that conscience is not just any human judgment about what is to be done, but hold conscience to be a particular kind of judgment about what is to be done, namely one relating it to the last end, as for example compatible with, necessary for, or incompatible with that end.

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