Lesson 7: Conscience


    Conscience makes the judgment that this particular action is or is not in accord with the moral law. It is both prospective and retrospective -- that is, it judges and warns prior to action, and judges after action, inducing remorse if we recognize that the act we performed is not in accord with the moral law. The judgment of conscience is the proximate rule of action.

    Cardinal Newman devoted a great deal of attention to conscience, even basing an argument for God's existence on it. When we become aware of the moral law, we are aware that we owe obedience to something prior to ourselves. The metaphor of the "voice of conscience" is taken by Newman to mean that we hear the voice of God in our hearts when we approach difficult moral decisions,


    It is a feature of the judgment of conscience that we are bound to follow it. What else could be we do? It is our proximate judgment when we act as to what we ought to do. This produces a paradox. Conscientious judgments about what to do in concrete circumstances differ. We can image two soldiers, say, in the same place, confronting the same situation, and one judging that he should and the other that he should not shoot the person approaching. Each is bound to follow his conscience. Their judgments of conscience differ. This seems to relativize the moral order at its most important point -- when we are actually acting.

    It should be noted, however, that often when people say their conscience tells them something quite different than yours tells you, they are talking about general rules or precepts, and not of here and now applications of a precept. Thus one hears, "My conscience tells me that contraception is okay."

    This use of the term is widespread, so let us make it explicit: the judgment of conscience may mean either a general moral precept or the here and now application of a general precept. In both cases, one has to act on what he takes the truth of the matter to be. And this seems to relativize morals at the level of general precepts and not simply of application.


    If we are bound to follow our conscience -- that is to act according to what we think is the truth of the matter -- we may nonetheless be mistaken in our judgments. Any Catholic who finds himself adopting moral views at odds with the teaching of the Church is alerted to the fact that his conscience is erroneous. In that sense, the judgment of conscience is not the last word, because when the judgment involved is a general one, it must be held on the basis of equally general premisses, and can in principle be shown to be wrong. A general judgment of conscience will be erroneous when it prescribes a kind of action which does not accord to the human good.

    But while the judgment of conscience is ours -- whether it is general or the application -- we are bound to act in accord with it. If we are obliged to act in accord with even an erroneous conscience, does this mean that such an action is good?

    Thomas Aquinas states the tradition on the matter: an erroneous conscience binds, but it does not necessarily excuse. We are responsible for the conscience we have and we have a prior responsibility to form a sound conscience. For the Catholic, this involves heeding the moral guidance of the Church. To ignore the moral magisterium of the Church is a prescription for forming an erroneous conscience.


    When we spoke of moral discourse, we portrayed it as a movement from very general principles expressive of the end, through less general rules and their application here and now. That application, we argued, will go awry, we fail to act in accord with the principles from which we began, when our appetites are at variance with the good intellectually recognized in the principles. The known good is not our good. The true good becomes our good because of the habituation that results in moral virtue, causing our appetite to be responsive to the direction of reason and thus orderable to the true complete good of the agent.

    How does conscience fit into that picture. Thomas Aquinas draws a distinction between the judgment of conscience and the judgment of free will, the prudential judgment which terminates moral discourse so that it issues in action. The judgment of free will is dependent upon our appetitive disposition; in the absence of the moral virtues, it will prompt us to do something inconsonant with the principle with which we began. The judgment of conscience, Thomas says, is purely cognitive, unaffected by the affections. That means that it anticipatory conscience, it comes before our appetite is engaged, and in retrospective conscience, the judgment is made after the passions have cooled.

    The conscience and freedom of the human person must never be forced. It is our capacity to direct ourselves, for good or ill, which constitutes our dignity as human persons. Within very wide limits, human agents have the right to be wrong. But this profound truth ought not lead us into the common error of thinking that any and every use of freedom is morally equal. Our freedom is measured by the divine law and by the nature God gave us.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IaIIae, q. 19, aa. 5 & 6
Ralph McInerny, Aquinas on Human Action
John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Right


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