Lesson 13: Conscience

The virtue of practical intellect which in conjunction with rectified appetite, that is, the moral virtues, effectively applies the known good in particular instances is called prudence, phronesis, practical wisdom. But isn't conscience the term we would employ in talking of bringing particular possible actions under the rule of reason? Are prudence and conscience different terms for the same thing? If they differ, in what does their difference consists?

You will find in Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings at p. 217 a translation of a famous early treatment of conscience by Thomas Aquinas, taken from the Disputed Question on Truth. That reference is made to an early work of Thomas when the question of conscience arises is thought to be significant by some. Conscience is not a prominent feature of later moral discussions and it is sometimes suggested that this indicates that Thomas fused what he had said of conscience with discussions that employ another terminology. This is the basis of the suggestion that there is no need to distinguish between prudence and conscience. Each term refers to the discursive process whereby general precepts are applied to concrete circumstances.

What we have discussed in the previous lesson enables us to see why this is not so. I refer you to a text on p. 223, the answer to the fourth object. In case you do not have the Penguin volume in hand, I reproduce it here.

Ad 4. It should be said that the judgments of conscience and of free will in some ways differ and in some ways are similar. They are similar in that both bear on the particular act -- it belongs to the judgment of conscience as examining -- and in this the judgments of both differ from that of synderesis. But the judgment of conscience differs from that of free will because the judgment of conscience consists of pure knowledge, but the judgment of free will lies in the application of knowledge to the affections, which indeed is the judgment of choice. That is why it sometimes happens that the judgment of free will is perverted and not that of conscience. As when someone examines something imminently to be done and judges as if still speculating through principles that this is evil, for example, to fornicate with this woman. But when he begins to apply it to action, many circumstances of that act occur, for example the pleasure of fornication, from desire of which reason is bound and its dictate is not carried out in choice. In this way one errs in choosing and not in conscience; rather he acts against conscience and is said to do this with a bad conscience only insofar as what is done is not in accord with the judgment of knowledge. Evidently then conscience should not be said to be the same as free will.

Thomas likens conscience and the judgment of free will in their difference from synderesis. Synderesis, we have seen, is the name of the quasi-habit whereby one knows the precepts of natural law. The precepts of natural law are general and of sweeping application. The judgments of conscience and free will, on the other hand, are particular: they bear on the here and now. This is what ought to be done. How does he say they differ?

When we consider what he says of the judgment of free will, it is clear that what he is talking of is the conclusion of the practical syllogism as reached by the virtue of prudence. The judgment which has practical truth because it is in conformity with rectified appetite. It is just that that provides the contrast with the judgment of conscience. Conscience is said to consist of pure knowledge -- that is, knowledge unaffected by the condition of the knower's appetite. The judgment of conscience cannot be rerouted because of my lack of virtue; it does not yet engage my appetite.

This way of drawing the contrast is important. In the case of the virtuous man, action would move with such ease from general precepts to singular choice that there would be little need to distinguish between a purely cognitive judgment of conscience and the judgment of free choice. But when the latter swerves off from known and relevant moral knowledge because of the condition of appetite, the contrast with the judgment of conscience stands out. One knew he should not do this. He nonetheless did do this.

The judgment of conscience about a particular act precedes the act and follows it as well. As antecedent to action, it is admonitory, a warning; as subsequent it is productive or remorse. We recognize that what we did was wrong. In both cases, that of antecedent and subsequent conscience, conscience is the application of the general to the particular. But neither of these seems to accommodate much of our familiar talk about conscience.

We speak, for example, of forming a conscience. We speak of an erroneous conscience. And, as I point out in Ethica Thomistica, conscience is often invoked to justify very general judgments about what persons may or may not do.

Although Thomas's preferred meaning for 'conscience' is the here and now judgment of the morality of a singular act, he also uses it of the retrospective judgment of an act performed, something usually associated with an act which failed to embody the morally relevant knowledge. Thus remorse of conscience, agenbite of inwit in the phrase beloved of James Joyce, results. But conscience is also used to refer to the general moral knowledge that the agent holds in readiness to apply as circumstances require. It is this that seemed to be referred to when someone says, for example, "My conscience tells me that extramarital sex is all right." Such a remark might be the response to a concerned parent's inquiry as to what junior has been up to. As phrased, the remark is designed to stave off further criticism, implicit or explicit. By taking refuge in conscience one occupies a citadel to which he alone has access and which no one else can enter. What he says goes on in there is the final word.

Why is this nonsense? Every action implies a general judgment that is embedded and particularized in it. To remove a slice of french toast from your plate when you are engaged in conversation with the person to your left is a singular act. It is deliberately and voluntarily performed. Within moments, all evidence of what has happened is gone. So to act is to imply that it is all right so to act. When opportunity affords, french toast may be purloined from distracted diners. Such a general judgment is either defensible or not. There are several possibilities. Imagine that the syrupy felon was raised in a boarding house run by his widowed mother. At meals, it was every man for himself and food remained spearable until it had actually been eaten. Thus for food to be on one's plate represented only a prima facie claim to ownership. It was still fair game for the long arm of the voracious boarder. Our agent has carried this sad baggage into the wider world. His moral training has been such that his taking your slice of french toast is not only permissible, but even a laudable act, however prudent it might be to keep the triumph to himself. Is it to do violence to his conscience to suggest that his habits at table must be discussed with an eye to altering his way of looking at the food on other people's plates?

The discussion concerns the implicit general judgment about eating what is on the plates of others. You will doubtless first ask him what it would be like if everyone acted as he did. His response is that they do, or at least would if they had the chance. You shift your ground from the sociological to the moral. It is not what men do but the good or evil attached to it you want to discuss. Eschewing for the nonce the altruistic, you will ask what his judgment is when he looks down at his place and finds that it has been emptied by someone else. What does he think, and do, when he looks down to see a morsel departing from his plate on the fork of another? If disapproval or resistance comes into the picture, you will want to analyze the reasons why. And so on. With your legendary patience and dialectical skill you soon bring your interlocutor to the point of seeing that his mode of action violates justice. He already has some conception of justice, as his negative response to being the victim of the practice suggests. So convinced does he become that he eventually publishes a two volume work,The Torts of Orts, which becomes required reading in the better law schools of the nation.

Before this salutary exchange, while he is still in the grips of the moral education he learned at the boardinghouse table, the single deed of taking his neighbor's french toast seems covered by the knowledge he had at the time. Holding that knowledge to be true, his act would seem justified, even perhaps mandated and obligatory. It is simple logic to hold that a person is bound to do what he thinks he is bound to do. What else could he do?

Let us look at some texts of Thomas which are celebrated for the clarity they bring to this matter.

Respondeo dicendum quod, cum conscientia sit quodammodo dictamen rationis (est enim quaedam applicatio scientiae ad actus, ut in Primo dictum est), idem est quaerere utrum voluntas discordans a ratione errante sit mala, quod quaerere utrum conscientia errans obliget. Circa quod aliqui distinxerunt tria genera actuum: quidam enim sunt boni ex genere, quidam sunt indifferentes; quidam sunt mali ex genere. Dicunt ergo quod, si ratio vel conscientia dicat aliquid esse faciendum quod sit bonum ex suo genere, non est ibi error. Similiter, si dicat aliquid non esse faciendum quod sit malum ex suo genere: eadem enim ratione praecipiuntur bona, quae prohibentur mala. Sed si ratio vel conscientia dicat alicui quod illa quae sunt secundum se mala, homo teneatur facere ex praecepto; vel quod illa quae sunt secundum se bona, sunt prohibita; erit ratio vel conscientia errans. Et similiter si ratio vel conscientia dicat alicui quod id quod est secundum se indifferens, ut levare festucam de terra, sit prohibitum vel praeceptum, erit ratio vel conscientia errans. Ducunt ergo quod ratio errans circa indifferentia, sive praecipiendo sive prohibendo,obligat: ita quod voluntas discordans a tali ratione errante, erit mala et peccatum. Sed ratio vel conscientia errans praecipiendo ea qua sunt per se mala, vel prohibendo ea quae sunt per se bona et necessaria ad salutem, non obligat: unde in talibus voluntas discordans a ratione vel conscientiae errante, non est mala. -- IaIIae.19.5.c

I reply that it should be said that since conscience is in its way a dictate or reason (it is the application of knowledge to an act, as was said in Ia, 79.13) to ask if a will out of harmony with erring reason is evil is the same as asking whether an erroneous conscience binds. Some have dealt with this question by distinguishing three types of act: some are good because of the kind they are; some are indifferent, others are evil because of the kind they are. Then they say that, if reason or conscience dictates that something is to be done that is in its very kind good, there is no error. Similarly, if it dictates that something is not to be done which is evil because of its kind: the reason for prescribing good is the same as that for prohibiting evils. But if reason or conscience should dictate that a man is held to do by precept what is of itself evil, or that things of themselves good are forbidden, it will be an erroneous reason or conscience. So too if reason or conscience commands that something indifferent, like picking a stick from the ground, is forbidden or commanded, it will be erroneous. So they conclude that an erroneous conscience in indifferent matter, whether commanding or forbidding, obliges, such that a will out of harmony with such an erroneous reason is evil and sinful. But an erroneous reason or conscience commanding intrinsic evils or forbidding things good in themselves and necessary for salvation does not oblige, so that in those cases a will out of harmony with an erroneous conscience is not evil.

Thomas gives a lot of space to this position which links the question as to whether or not conscience binds to the kind of act at issue. If conscience forbids something as such good or enjoins something intrinsically evil, it is not binding. But in indifferent matters, whether it forbids or enjoins it binds, just as it does when enjoining the intrinsically good or forbidding the intrinsically evil. But this is nonsense.

Sed hoc irrationabiliter dicitur. In indifferentibus enim voluntas discordans a ratione vel conscientia errante, est mala aliquo modo propter obiectum a quo bonitas vel malitia voluntatis dependet: non autem propter obiectum secundum sui naturam, sed secundum quod per accidens a ratione apprehenditur ut malum ad faciendum vel ad vitandum. Et quia obiectum voluntatis est id quod proponitur a rationem ut dictum est, ex quod aliquid proponitur a ratione ut malum, voluntas, dum in illud fertur, accipit rationem mali. Hoc autem contingit non solum in indifferentibus, sed etiam in per se bonis vel malis. Non solum enim id quod est indifferens potest accipere rationem boni vel mali per accidens, sed etiam id quod est bonum potest accipere rationem mali, vel id quod est malum rationem boni propter apprehensionem rationis.

But this is a silly judgment. For in indifferent matter a will out of harmony with an erroneous reason or conscience is evil because of its object on which the goodness or evil of will depends -- not on the very nature of the object but insofar as it is accidentally grasped by reason as an evil to be done or avoided. The object of will is what is proposed to it by reason, as has been said, so that when reason judges something to be evil, a will bearing on it is evil. This is the case not only in matters of indifference, but also when it is a question of things intrinsically good or evil. It is not only the indifferent that can take on the note of good or evil incidentally, but also that which is good can take on the note of evil and that which is evil the note of good because of the way reason apprehends them.

The will is guided by the judgment of reason and what is decisive for this matter is not simply the distinction between acts intrinsically good or evil, or indifferent, but what the mind grasps. The intrinsically good can be judged to be evil and the intrinsically evil to be good and the will is bound to conform itself to those judgments. An erroneous conscience binds. Thomas continues.

Puta, abstinere a fornicatione bonum quoddam est, tamen in hoc bonum non fertur voluntas nisi secundum quod a ratione proponitur. Si ergo proponatur ut malum a ratione errante, feretur in hoc sub ratione mali. Unde voluntas erit mala quia vult malum, non quidem id quod est malum per se, sed id quod est malum per accidens, propter apprehensionem rationis.

For example, to abstain from fornication is a kind of good, but the will can only choose it insofar as it is proposed to it by reason. There if it should be presented as an evil but erring reason, it would choose it as evil. Hence the will will be evil because it chooses evil, not that which is in itself evil, but what is evil incidentally, because of the way reason judges it.

The argumentation Thomas dismisses fails to take into account that the objective distinction into kinds of act has to be mediated to will by reason. That is, one has to know that an act is of a certain kind. If he is mistaken, his will can only follow his judgment. In every case of it, Thomas argues, an erroneous conscience binds.

His position here, and the gusto with which he rejects the alternative to which he devotes so much time, can surprise. Thomas's moral thought has been firmly anchored in objective reality. His teaching is a welcome alternative to the various kinds of moral relativism abroad. That adultery is wrong is not just an opinion, a judgment dictated by one's feelings but which another's feelings might dictate is permitted. But now, in the crunch, as it were, Thomas seems to relativize action. His opponents do not what an erroneous conscience to bind when it tells us good is forbidden or evil commanded. Nonsense, Thomas replies. Conscience binds. Correct and erroneous conscience binds. Every kind of erroneous conscience binds. But if one must do what he thinks he should do and people think differently about the same matter, moral relativism seems triumphant.

Or is it? Is the action obligated by an erroneous conscience good?

Respondeo dicendum quod, sicut praemissa quaestio eadem est cum quaestione qua quaeritur utrum conscientia erronea liget, ita ista quaestio eadem est cum illa qua quaeritur utrum conscientia erronea excuset. Haec autem quaestio dependet ab eo quod supra de ignorantia dictum est. Dictum est enim supra quod ignorantia quandoque causat involuntarium, quandoque autem non. Et quia bonum et malum morale consistit in actu inquantum est voluntarius, ut ex praemissis patet, manifestum est quod illa ignorantia quae causat involuntarium tollit rationem boni et mali moralis; non autem illa quae involuntarium non causat. Dictum est etiam supra quod ignorantia quae est aliquo modo volita, sive directe sive indirecte non causat involuntarium. Et dico ignorantiam directe voluntariam, in quam actus voluntatis fertur: indirecte autem propter negligentiam, ex eo quod aliquis non vult illud scire quod scire tenetur, ut supra dictum est. -- IaIIae.19.6.c

I answer that just as the prior question is the same as the question whether an erroneous conscience binds, so this question should be seen as the same as that which asks whether an erroneous conscience excuses. But this question depends on what was said earlier (q. 6, a. 8) about ignorance. There it was pointed out that ignorance sometimes causes the involuntary but sometimes does not. And, since moral good and evil belong to the act insofar as it is voluntary, as what has gone before makes clear, it is obvious that the ignorance that causes the involuntary removes the note of moral good or evil but not the ignorance which does not cause the involuntary. It was pointed out earlier that an ignorance that is in some way willed, whether directly or indirectly, does not cause the involuntary. I call ignorance directly voluntary which is chosen by the will, but indirectly so insofar as one does not wish to know what he is held to know, as was said above.

Having established that the erroneous conscience binds, Thomas approaches the question whether it excuses by way of what he had earlier said of ignorance. An erroneous conscience is one that does not know, that is, ignores what is truly good, evil and indifferent. Since you can only do what you know you ought to do, it would seem that an erroneous conscience excuses as well as binds, all the more so you cannot be held responsible for an act you don't know you're committing. Yes, but there is ignorance and ignorance and not every kind of it renders an act involuntary. It is possible for one to be responsible for his ignorance, either because he directly chooses it or because he has been negligent about what he is held to know. Ignorance is an excuse only where it is innocent. What Thomas is saying is that one may be responsible for having an erroneous conscience and that obviously affects whether we can say that the erroneous conscience both excuses and binds.

Si igitur ratio vel conscientia erret errore voluntario, vel directe vel propter negligentiam quia est error circa id quod quis scire tenetur; tunc talis error rationis vel conscientiae non excusat quin voluntas concordans rationi vel conscientiae sic erranti sit mala. Si autem sit error qui causat involuntarium, proveniens ex ignorantia alicuius circumstantiae, absque omni negligentia; tunc talis error rationis vel conscientiae excusat, ut voluntas concordans rationis erranti non sit mala. Puta, si ratio errans dicat quod homo teneatur ad uxorem alterius accedere, voluntas concordans huic rationi erranti est mala, eo quod error iste provenit ex ignorantia legis Dei, quam scire tenetur. Si autem ratio erret in hoc, quod credat aliquam mulierem submissam esse suam uxorem, et, ea petente debitum, velit eam cognoscere, excusatur voluntas eius, ut non sit mala, quia error iste ex ignorantia circumstantiae provenit, quae excusat et involuntarium causat. -- IaIIae.19.6.c

Therefore if reason or conscience should err by a voluntary error, either directly or on account of negligence because it is an error concerning something one is held to know, then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse and the will in harmony with reason or conscience thus erring is evil. But if the error which causes the involuntary arises out of ignorance of some circumstance without any negligence, such error excuses and the will in harmony with erring reason is not evil. For example, if erring reason dictates that a man is held to lie with another's wife, the will in harmony with erring reason is evil, because this error arises from ignorance of God's law which one is held to know. But if reason errs in this that one believes that the woman yielding to him is his wife and at her request he wills to know her, his will is excused and is not evil because this error arises from ignorance of the circumstances.

Thomas's example of the ignorance that excuses may seem to betray his celibate status, but doubtless he was thinking of biblical examples. The two articles, five and six, of Question 19 of the Primae Secundae are a good example of the precision with which Thomas handles vexing issues in moral theory. Conscience rightly holds a place of honor in the moral life. For Cardinal Newman it was a favorite basis for proving the existence of God. At any given moment, what I judge to be what I should do is indeed what I should do. I am obliged to follow my conscience. However, what I judge that I should do might be a mistake. Then I do not know, am in ignorance of, what I really should do. It is because my error may deal with something about which I should know better, that my ignorance does not excuse me. But non-negligent ignorance of the circumstances in which I act -- I didn't know the gun was loaded, the coke bottle contained poison, the head on my shoulder is not my wife's -- excuses and although I do the objectively wrong thing my act is not culpable.

In order to make a point about this matter, Aristotle tells a joke of the man who has an erroneous conscience but, because he is weak-willed, fails to do what he think he should and ends by doing the objectively right thing. Huck Finn believes he should return Jim the runaway slave to his owner but decides he won't do it, even if it means going to hell. The reader is meant to applaud his failure to follow his convictions. Perhaps Twain meant that Huck had the moral good sense to override the evil mores of the culture in which he had been raised and thus acted on a principle he knew was just. Let us hope so. Otherwise Huck might have ended up where he said he was willing to.

Reading Assignment

Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, selection 10.

Writing Assignment

Conscience always binds even when it is erroneous but an erroneous conscience does not necessarily excuse.


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