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"My conscience told me to get an abortion out of love for my child!"
(Pablo Picasso. Young Tormented Girl. Source)
We often hear people claim that if we obey our conscience, we act well. Is this true? Let's try to scrutinize this assertion.
If our conscience "created" moral law, then anybody could do anything, as long as they were "authentic" with their conscience. Adolf Hitler could act well, as he was exterminating Jews!
The slightest intellectual effort to understand what conscience is shows us that, in itself, obeying our conscience is not enough to act well. In fact, a good definition of immorality, of moral perversion, is to take one's conscience as a kind of faculty which "invents" the standards of good and evil:
In a way, it's like the Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, in the Garden of
Eden: "The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'You may eat freely of every
tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall
not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die' [Gen 2:16-17]. With
this imagery, Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and
what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone."
[Veritatis Splendor, #35. See also #32] .
Some people, when they explain to children what's "conscience", use pretty metaphors like "conscience is a little voice in your heart that tells you what you must do", or "Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths" [Gaudium et Spes, #16]. There is nothing wrong with using metaphors, as long as you eventually give a real explanation.
"Moral conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act" [CCC, #1778, but see also Summa Theologica, I, q. 79, a. 13].
For example, right now, you are reading this text. You don't only exist biologically, but also mentally. You are in front of this text, and you know that you are in front of it. You are conscious of your mental existence. Philosophers will tell you that you are a person. If all of a sudden you spill your cup of tea, and you see the puddle of tea heading for your computer (or your hardcopy of this text), you will react. You know the general rule: "Computers (or books) are easily damaged by aqueous solutions". You also know that your computer is expensive, and that as far as possible you mustn't damage it. And of course you know the most general rule of action: "We must do good, and avoid evil". You reason will therefore apply this knowledge to this specific situation, and your will will "give an order": "QUICK! Get the computer (or the book) off the table, and get a rag!" There! Your "conscience" has just told you to remove your computer and get a rag.
The first time, it might seem strange to think our "moral conscience" is not only used for noble and heroic things like dying for the Motherland, or choosing to be fired, rather than obeying our boss who orders us to commit a crime. It can also seem strange that something as important as our moral conscience is nothing more than ourselves, when we are acting as persons (and more specifically the act of our reason which compares its situation with the relevant moral knowledge).
On the other hand, if we dig deeper, we can see a few connections between the rather dull philosophical concepts, and the better metaphors. Indeed, as a person, you are incommunicable. Nobody, apart from God, can "hear" what is going on when you exist mentally. This is why it's said that your conscience is "your most secret core".
Moreover, it can be shown that, in the final analysis, the rules of morality are based on God. Of course, normally we don't have to have God in the equation to know we must get a rag (and quickly!), but eventually, to understand why murder, rape, lying, etc., are bad, we have to dig down to the Author of Natural Law, i.e. God [See among others Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 93, a. 3]. We can therefore understand why good metaphors say that our conscience is the place where "God's voice can be heard".
What happens when our reason uses incorrect knowledge to make its judgment? Must we obey our conscience? and if so, do we act well when we obey our erring conscience?
To answer these questions, we must first remember that "Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quolibet defectu". In other words, for something to be good, everything which is necessary for that thing must be there. But for that thing to be bad, all it needs is one essential shortcoming, any one.
For example, to score a goal in hockey, many conditions must be satisfied:
- the puck must cross the goal line;
- there must be time left on the clock;
- the net must still be on its moorings;
- the puck must not have been deliberately pushed with the hand;
- and so on.
On the other hand, for a goal to be refused, you just need to be missing one of these conditions (and of course, many can be missing at the same time).
It's the same thing for a man to be able to act well. To act well, we must obey our conscience, AND our conscience must not be erring. If we don't obey our conscience, OR if our conscience is erring, we act badly.
Let's take an example. Suppose a nurse kills a patient, because she injects a poison into him. The nurse acts badly, but she might not be guilty. If an assassin broke into the hospital during the night, and put poison in the bottle of medication (in a way that nobody could see it had been tampered with), then the nurse could not have known she was injecting a poison into the patient.
"Does an erring conscience excuse? Now this question depends on what has been
said above about ignorance. For it was said that ignorance sometimes causes an
act to be involuntary, and sometimes not. And since moral good and evil consist
in action in so far as it is voluntary, as was stated above; it is evident that
when ignorance causes an act to be involuntary, it takes away the character of
moral good and evil; but not, when it does not cause the act to be involuntary.
[...] If then reason or conscience err with an error that is involuntary,
either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought
to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will,
that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil. But if the
error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so
that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or
conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being
[Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 19, a. 6].
Note that even when ignorance is involuntary and we are exempt from guilt, nevertheless we act badly even when we obey our erring conscience: "It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good." [Veritatis Splendor, #63].
I can't fully answer this question here, but I can give a few indications. First, since our moral conscience is nothing more than our reason, the rules used to direct the proper operation of our reason will also be the rules that will tell us how to "illuminate" our conscience. Thus, in a certain way, the first "flashlight" which can start to "illuminate" our conscience is "The Philosopher's Glove", and the fullness of light (humanly speaking) is Philosophy, more specifically Ethics, the fourth part of Philosophy.
To illustrate, take for example young people who cohabit without being married. Often, these couples will emphatically assert there is nothing wrong with unmarried cohabitation. But if you ask them what is the definition of marriage, or of Morality, or of good and evil, they won't know what to answer. And if you tell them that information exists, in good Philosophy books, often they will refuse to go educate themselves. We can see, in similar cases, that the ignorance is probably voluntary (and therefore that it doesn't excuse), and that these people don't want to make the effort of using their reason properly, in order to educate their conscience.
There is also a kind of "shortcut" to educate one's conscience. If God exists, and if God has founded a Church which faithfully transmits His teachings, then we'll be able to "illuminate" or educate our conscience by listening to this "teacher", this Magisterium. Indeed, God knows everything, and He knows all the possible circumstances of all of our lives. If God asserts a law, for example that "Thou shalt not kill the innocent man", we'll know how to act well in all cases when an innocent life is at stake. We'll be able to act well, even if we are unable to provide the long philosophical demonstration which shows why this law is good. This shortcut partially explains why many persons have become saints, without being highly-trained philosophers.
Strictly speaking, the simple fact of obeying one's conscience isn't enough to act well, even if it's a very good start!
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