[A lecture given at the Holy Rosary Parish Philosophy Conference in Portland, OR on November 4, 2017]
Here are some common beliefs people have about conscience: Conscience is a special faculty, perhaps comparable to sensory perception, by which we know right from wrong. Or if it is not a kind of perception, it is a kind of feeling, of either guilt or innocence. Hence if one does not feel guilty about some action, then one can in good conscience go ahead and do it. And by the same token, if one does feel guilty about some action, one should never do it. One should in any case always follow one’s conscience. The Catholic Church, in particular, teaches that one’s conscience is the ultimate guide to what one ought to do. This is so even when one’s conscience conflicts with some solemn teaching of the Church. Yet some people, called psychopaths, don’t have consciences. Perhaps this entails that such people are not really morally responsible for the evil they do, because they don’t know any better.
These beliefs about conscience are, as I say, widely held. Yet they are all seriously wrong, or at best extremely misleading. They reflect grave misunderstandings about what conscience is, when we are obligated to follow it, and what the Church teaches about it.
In what follows I will address these three issues in turn. In particular, I will first offer an account of what conscience is that is based on the position of Thomas Aquinas and other Thomistic natural law theorists. Next, I will discuss how, according to natural law theory, one ought to form one’s conscience and the conditions under which one’s conscience ought to be followed. Finally, I will discuss how the analysis given applies to how Catholics ought to form their own consciences in light of the moral teachings of the Church.
What conscience is
The common notions about conscience that I cited regard it as an aspect of human psychology, and to that extent they are correct. But they look in the wrong place when seeking to locate it there. There are four aspects (or purported aspects) of the human mind relevant to our subject: the intellect; perception; the emotions; and a sui generis faculty some might want to identify conscience with.
SUI GENERIS FACULTY?
The intellect is what makes us rational animals, and thus what sets us apart from all other animals. It involves three basic capacities. The first is the capacity to form abstract or universal concepts. Consider the concept man. A dog can see a man and even form a mental image of a man. But the concept man is not the same thing as a perceptual experience or mental picture of a man. A mental image of a man is always going to be of a tall man or a short man, a fat man or a skinny man, a bald man or a man with hair or a man with a wig. It is always going to fit at most some men but never all of them. The concept man, by contrast, applies to every man without exception, of whatever size or shape, whatever hair or skin color, whatever time or place. The concept abstracts from these features of all particular individual men and is able thereby to have a truly universal reference. Hence you can’t strictly imagine the concept man, because anything you could imagine would not be universal in this way. It is via your intellect rather than your senses or imagination that you are able to entertain the concept.
The second characteristic capacity of the intellect is the forming of a judgment or complete thought – what philosophers call the entertaining of a proposition. Hence you can not only form the concept man and the concept mortal, but also go on to entertain the complete thought or proposition that all men are mortal. A proposition or complete thought is always either true or false in a sense that a concept considered all by itself is not. If I say “Man. True or false?” you would not know how to respond, because the concept man just by itself is not yet the sort of thing it makes sense to describe as either true or false. But if I say “All men are mortal. True or false?” now you are able to reply.
The third characteristic capacity of the intellect is the ability to reason from one proposition or complete thought to another in accordance with principles of logical inference. For instance, you can not only entertain the complete thought that all men are mortal, but can also combine it with the further thought that Socrates is a man, and then go on to draw the conclusion that Socrates is mortal. It is by virtue of being able to entertain complete thoughts or propositions that we can know truths, and it is by virtue of being able to reason logically from one thought to another that we can come to learn new truths from ones we already knew.
So that’s the intellect in a nutshell. Next we have perception, which, unlike intellect, is something we share with other animals. Perception involves taking in information about the material world through specialized sense organs, such as eyes or ears. Now, because we have intellects, perception in us involves conceptualizing the thing perceived. For example, you not only see a particular man, but you see him as a man, fitting him into the universal class of things referred to by the concept man. By contrast, a dog, though it can also perceive a man, does not conceptualize what it sees as a man, or as anything else for that matter. If you take a human perceptual experience and subtract out from it the conceptual content, that will give you at least a first, rough approximation of what a non-human perceptual experience is like. There is an awareness of colors, shapes, and the like, and a behavioral response to a certain cluster of colors, shapes, etc. as to a single unified object of the kind we human beings would call a man. But again, there is in the dog itself no grasp of this unified thing as a man per se, because a dog does not have that concept or any other.
Then we have what Thomistic philosophers would call the passions. Since modern usage of that term might have potentially misleading connotations, I’ll use instead the common term “emotions.” These are appetites of a sensory nature. That is to say, they involve an inclination either toward or away from something, where this inclination is typically felt as a kind of bodily sensation. For example, fear involves an inclination to get away from some thing or situation perceived as dangerous, and the inclination is typically experienced as a kind of agitation in the body. Now, emotion, like perception, is something we share with non-human animals. For example, a dog can exhibit fear, anger, desire, and the like. But as with perception, there is a conceptual element in the emotions as human beings experience them that is absent in non-human animals. When you are angry at someone or something, you are angry at it precisely as something you take to be unjust or otherwise not right, not the way things ought to be. A dog has no concept of justice or injustice, or of things being rightly or wrongly ordered. Its anger is simply a tendency to respond negatively to something that in some way frustrates its actions, but where the dog doesn’t conceptualize that something as unjust, or as wrong, or in any other way.
Now, where does conscience fit in? Is it a kind of emotion? A kind of perception? A kind of intellectual activity? Or something altogether different from any of these, a fourth sui generis kind of faculty?
It might seem that conscience is a kind of emotion. For when we talk about a guilty conscience, it seems that what we are describing is a kind of feeling. You consider carrying out a certain action, and insofar as you feel guilty about it, you have a kind of inclination to avoid going through with it. Perhaps that inclination will be overpowered by a conflicting inclination in the direction of doing the action, when your mind focuses instead on the pleasurable nature of the action or what it will bring you. But insofar as you feel at least some aversion toward the action, it might appear that that is what having a guilty conscience consists in. By the same token, when we speak of having a clear conscience or a clean conscience, it might seem that this is essentially a matter of not having any guilty feelings about some action we have performed or are considering performing, and perhaps also a matter of feeling a kind of pleasure in the perceived goodness of the action.
However, a little reflection shows that this cannot be right. Consider first that while other animals have emotions, they don’t have consciences, because they don’t think in terms of right and wrong action in the first place. The reason they don’t, of course, is that they don’t think at all, at least not in the sense of carrying out the distinctively intellectual or rational operations that we do. Like us, a dog might feel an aversion toward a certain action, but a dog can’t feel guilty about doing it, because it can’t conceptualize the action as morally bad. So, conscience can’t merely be a matter of having certain emotions. There must be something more to it than that.
Consider also that we often rightly regard the feeling of guilt or the lack thereof as misleading. For example, consider the lone survivor of a car accident who feels guilty that he was somehow spared when everyone else died. He might feel as if he should have done more to help them even though in fact he could not have, or he might feel that he has in some way gotten some benefit he didn’t deserve. We rightly tell him that he should ignore these feelings and that in fact he has done nothing wrong. If he persists, we tell him that he is not being rational, and that if he does follow his reason rather than his emotions he will see that he is not guilty. Or consider someone who persists in some immoral activity until he no longer feels guilty about doing it. We rightly tell him that the fact that he has gotten used to his bad behavior and no longer feels guilty of wrongdoing doesn’t entail that he is not in fact guilty. Again, there must be something more to conscience than merely the presence of absence of certain feelings, even if feelings are part of the story.
Might conscience then be a kind of perception? The idea here would be that conscience is a kind of “moral sense” by which we know the goodness or badness of actions, analogous to the way we know colors by means of sight and sounds by means of hearing. But this cannot be right. Perception involves knowledge of material features of things, and operates by means of specialized material organs. But goodness and badness are not material features, the way color, size, and shape are. For example, they aren’t locatable in space the way these material features of things are. There are also no specialized bodily organs by which we detect the goodness or badness of a thing.
But mightn’t conscience be a perceptual faculty of an unusual sort? Perhaps, it might be suggested, we are perceiving the badness of an act when we feel guilty about it. But such a suggestion really amounts to identifying conscience with a kind of emotional state, and we have already seen what is wrong with that. Or perhaps, it might be suggested instead, the perception of moral goodness or badness isn’t a matter of feeling anything, but rather a kind of intellectual grasp of the moral features of an action. But this would be to treat conscience as having essentially to do with the intellect and thus not really as a kind of perception at all.
So there doesn’t seem to be any way plausibly to identify conscience with a kind of perception. For similar reasons, it is no more plausible to identify it with some sui generis faculty. For what exactly would this faculty be like if it is not any of the other aspects of the mind that we have been considering? If we were to say that this sui generis faculty involves something analogous to a bodily sensation, how would that be different from identifying conscience with emotion? If we were to say that this purported faculty involves something analogous to the cognitive grasp of a material feature of a thing, how would this be different from identifying conscience with perception? If we were to say that the sui generis faculty involved the cognitive grasp of something more abstract than any material feature, how would this be different from identifying conscience with the intellect?
For another thing, there is simply no need to posit some unusual sui generis faculty, because what is essential to conscience is in fact to be found in one of the familiar faculties of human psychology that we have already identified, and it should be clear by now that that faculty is the intellect. This should not be surprising when we note that just as we are capable of knowing right from wrong and animals are not, so too do we have intellects and animals do not, despite their sharing with us the capacities for perceptual experience and emotion. And we have also seen that when our emotions lead us wrongly to feel guilty or not guilty, it is our intellects that correct the error and tell us to ignore the unreliable feelings. None of this is accidental, because conscience is essentially just the operation of the intellect when it considers the question of how one ought to act.
In fact, the correct understanding of conscience as an operation of the intellect is almost anticlimactic, because conscience turns out on this account to be far less exotic and mysterious a thing than many people seem to think. What it involves is essentially this. In its everyday operations, the intellect makes use of general principles of various sorts. For example, it makes use of general logical principles, such as the principle of non-contradiction (which states that a statement and its negation cannot both be true); of general metaphysical principles, such as the principle of causality (which states that whatever comes into existence has a cause); and of general physical principles, such as the law of universal gravitation. Sometimes we consciously entertain and apply these general principles, but sometimes we just apply them automatically, as a matter of habit. For example, suppose someone proposes that round squares exist. We are inclined just spontaneously to judge this to be obviously false. Typically we don’t go through an explicit reasoning process such as: 1. Self-contradictory things cannot exist, and 2. Round squares would be self-contradictory, so 3. Round squares cannot exist. Instead, we just respond to the claim that round squares exist by thinking: “That’s ridiculous.” If we want to, we can justify this response by explicitly setting out a chain of reasoning like the one just given, but usually we just apply a general principle like the principle of non-contradiction in an inexplicit, automatic, habitual way.
Now, the intellect also makes use of general moral principles. There is, for example, what Aquinas calls the first principle of the natural law, which is that good is to be done and evil is to be avoided. And there are derivative principles, such as that it is wrong to steal, that it is wrong to commit murder, and so forth. Sometimes we apply these in an explicit way, but often, these too are applied in a habitual or automatic way. For example, if a fellow customer at Starbuck’s suggested to you that you should take some money from the tip jar when the barista is not looking, you would (I hope!) just spontaneously judge: “No, that would be wrong.” You would not necessarily go through an explicit chain of reasoning like: 1. Stealing is wrong, and 2. Taking money from the tip jar would be stealing, so 3. Taking money from the tip jar would be wrong. You could do so if you wanted to justify your spontaneous judgment, but at least for many moral judgments, we apply general moral principles in an automatic or habitual way.
Now, natural law theorists use the technical term synderesis to refer to the habitual application of general moral principles. Conscience is just the intellect’s determination of how to act in light of its knowledge of general moral principles, whether applied consciously or just as a matter of habit. For example, when you judge, of the suggestion that you should take some money from the tip jar, “No, that would be wrong,” that is your conscience speaking. That is to say – to put it less colorfully – that is your intellect judging that a certain act does not conform to the demands of morality. It is comparable to what your intellect does when, in light of your knowledge of logic, it judges, of the idea of a round square, “That is ridiculous”; or when, in light of your knowledge of causality, it judges, of a sound you hear, “That’s probably somebody knocking on the door”; or when, in light of your knowledge of the way the physical world works, it judges, of a cup you see falling to the ground, “That’s gravity in action.” There is in that respect nothing terribly remarkable about conscience. It’s just the intellect applying what it knows about right and wrong to a concrete situation.
But aren’t feelings of guilt or the lack thereof part of the story? They are, but not in the way people often suppose. Consider an analogy with love. Love is essentially an act of the will rather than a passion or emotion. To love someone is to will what is good for him. Now, love is also usually associated with feelings of affection and the like, and these are by no means unimportant. Nature puts these feelings into us to facilitate our acting in a loving way. You will what is good for your children or your friends, and the feelings of affection help prod you actually to do what is good for them even when your will is weak or distracted by other things. But these affectionate feelings are not strictly identical with love. You can will what is good for someone even if you lack any such feelings. For example, a rebellious teenage child or abusive spouse may cause you such heartache that your feelings of affection have largely been replaced by anger. But you can still love such a person insofar as you can still will what is good for him. Or you might love your enemies, as Christ commands us to do. Christ is not commanding us to have affectionate feelings for our enemies, which would be psychologically impossible. He is asking us to will what is good for them even though we might rightly find them repulsive. Or you might simply not be a very affectionate person, and thus lack strong feelings even where your family and friends are concerned. But can still love others insofar as you can will what is good for them. By the same token, you might have affectionate feelings for a certain person and yet not love him in any substantive way. For example, if a man is romantically attracted to a woman but comes to treat her cruelly, humiliating her in public, cheating on her, etc., we would rightly say that his “love” for her is extremely superficial.
So, though love is usually associated with affectionate feelings, it is not identical to affectionate feelings. In the usual case, love in the sense of willing the good of another will be correlated with some degree of affection, but it is possible for the love to be present in the absence of any affectionate feelings, and also possible for affectionate feelings to be present in the absence of a genuine willing of another’s good. So, while the feelings are important, they are nevertheless secondary. They are not the essence of love, but rather (at least in human beings) what Scholastic thinkers would call a proper accident of love. That is to say, love in the sense of willing another’s good tends naturally to be associated with affectionate feelings, but the tendency can be blocked (just as a dog tends naturally to have four legs, but can nevertheless fail to manifest this natural tendency as a result of injury or genetic defect). Or the tendency can be manifested in a distorted or dysfunctional way (just a dog might through genetic defect end up growing five legs).
Now, the guilt or lack thereof that is associated with conscience is like this. When the intellect judges something to be wrong, we tend naturally to have an unpleasant feeling of guilt at the thought of doing it. And when the intellect judges something to be morally permissible, we tend naturally to lack such feelings of guilt. The feelings of guilt are put into us by nature to facilitate our doing what our conscience tells us we should do, just as affectionate feelings are put into us by nature to facilitate our willing of what is good for another. But conscience is not identical to such feelings, any more than love is identical to feelings of affection.
Moreover, here as elsewhere, a natural tendency can be blocked, or manifested in a dysfunctional way. You might lack feelings of guilt even when your intellect judges that what you have done or are considering doing is wrong. Or you might have feelings of guilt even when your intellect judges that what you have done or are considering doing is not wrong. In such cases, your conscience, strictly speaking, is what the intellect is telling you, and not what your feelings are telling you – just as love is what the will does, not the feelings associated with what the will does. And just as you should will another’s good whether or not you have the feelings, so too should you follow what conscience – that is to say, your intellect – is telling you even if your feelings are telling you something different. Conscience, then, is not a feeling. Feelings are merely an aid to conscience, and they can misfire.
For this reason, it is false, or at least highly misleading, to say that a psychopath lacks a conscience. What people usually mean when they say this is that psychopaths lack feelings of empathy for other people, or any feelings of guilt, remorse, or sorrow for the evil things they do. But conscience is not a feeling in the first place, so that the lack of such feelings simply does not entail a lack of conscience. A psychopath has an intellect, and if he can understand a general moral principle and see that a certain specific act is either allowed or ruled out by the principle, then he has a conscience. Even if he is strongly attracted to doing what his intellect is telling him is wrong and feels no guilt whatsoever about doing it, he nevertheless has a conscience and is culpable for not following it. Perhaps in some cases one could argue that culpability is diminished by the absence of natural feelings of guilt together with strong unchosen impulses toward antisocial behavior. It would depend on the details. The point for present purposes is simply that an absence of feelings, or the presence of aberrant feelings, does not by itself entail the lack of a conscience in the strict sense.
When you should follow your conscience
So, conscience is not a feeling. However, feelings can affect one’s conscience. When things are functioning properly, they affect it by reinforcing your inclination to do what your intellect has correctly told you that you ought to do. Consider, again, your friend’s suggestion that you steal some money from the tip jar. You tell him: “No, that would be wrong.” Suppose, however, that your friend responds: “But we need money for the bus, and if we get back late we’ll miss the big game.” Now you are tempted. Your intellect entertains the thought of missing the big game and how unpleasant this would be. This seems to give you a reason to take the money after all. It distracts your intellect’s attention away from the fact that the action would nevertheless be wrong, and thus should not be done even if in other respects taking the money would afford you a benefit. This is where the feeling of guilt steps in. It prods the intellect to direct its attention back again to the moral considerations and not be distracted by the benefit that stealing might afford you. Ideally, the feelings of guilt are strong enough that they overwhelm the feeling of pleasure you get when entertaining the thought of getting back in time to watch the big game. The feelings in that case facilitate your resistance to temptation. They help you finally to say: “Sure, we don’t want to be late, but stealing the money would be wrong and so I won’t do it.”
But feelings can be dysfunctional, and when they are they can affect the operation of one’s conscience in a negative way. For example, suppose that, for whatever reason – perhaps you have become habituated to stealing, or perhaps your temperament is such that you aren’t prone to strong emotional reactions of any sort – the idea of taking the money from the tip jar simply doesn’t produce in you any unpleasant feeling of guilt, even though you believe that it would be wrong to do so. In that case your intellect might be easily drawn away from the moral considerations, so that you focus your mind instead on the benefit that would accrue from taking the money, and you might go ahead and steal it. The absence of guilty feelings wasn’t itself the voice of conscience. Your conscience wasn’t telling you that what you did was permissible. Rather, the absence of guilty feelings facilitated your ignoring the voice of conscience, which told you that what you did was impermissible.
Or consider a case where feelings of guilt become dysfunctional in a very different way. Suppose the barista at Starbuck’s makes a mistake on your order and decides not to charge you for it. Suppose also that, for whatever reason – perhaps you were raised in an excessively strict household, or perhaps your temperament is such that you are given to very strong emotional reactions – you have a tendency very easily to feel guilty about things. You drink the coffee, but then start to feel guilty because you didn’t pay for it. Your intellect tells you that this wasn’t stealing, because the barista had the authority to decide that giving you the coffee for free was the best way to correct the mistake made to your order. But your feelings of guilt keep distracting you from this fact, and you focus instead on the idea that taking something without paying for it is stealing. Even though your intellect reminds you that this is not true in every single case, the feelings of guilt keep pushing this thought aside. Your conscience isn’t telling you that you did something wrong. Rather, your feelings of guilt are keeping you from listening to your conscience, which is telling you that you did nothing wrong.
So far I’ve been describing cases where your conscience is telling you something true but your feelings of guilt or lack thereof keep you from paying sufficient attention to it. But dysfunctional emotional reactions like those I’ve been describing can also, over time, lead to mistaken judgments of conscience. For example, consider someone whose temperament is such that he simply isn’t very prone to having guilty feelings. Suppose that, at a cerebral level, he does have a general intention to do the right thing, but nevertheless is more inclined at a visceral level to be moved to action by considerations of pleasure and pain. In that case, when considering what he ought to do, his intellect might be too inclined to focus on the pleasure or pain a certain action may bring, and insufficiently attentive to the moral character of the act. As a result, he may come habitually to judge things to be morally permissible which, had he thought about them more carefully, he would see are not permissible. He has what natural law theorists and moral theologians call a lax conscience, a conscience that is unreliable in that it is prone to yielding excessively lenient conclusions.
Or consider someone whose temperament is such that he is prone constantly to having guilty feelings. In that case, his intellect may never be satisfied that it has adequately canvassed all the relevant moral considerations, or that it has drawn the right conclusions from them. The feelings of guilt keep leading such a person to suspect that he must have made a mistake somewhere, or that he must have been reasoning in bad faith in deciding as he did. Thus he second guesses himself constantly and often becomes convinced that he has done something wrong, when, had he ignored these feelings and looked at the matter more calmly and rationally, he would have seen that what he did was perfectly permissible. Such a person has what natural law theorists and moral theologians call a scrupulous conscience, a conscience that is unreliable in that it is prone to yielding excessively strict conclusions.
Perhaps it is obvious by now that there is something wrong with the cliché that you should always let your conscience be your guide. (Perhaps Pinocchio’s nose grew a little when he sang that?) For if someone comes to realize that he has either a lax conscience or a scrupulous conscience, then he has, accordingly, a good reason to doubt his conscience, and thus not to follow it. Furthermore, even a person who has neither a lax conscience nor a scrupulous conscience might simply be perplexed about what to do. For instance, one might face a moral situation that is complicated, where competing moral considerations seem to point in two different directions. An example would be a pregnant but seriously ill woman who wonders whether a certain medical procedure would be permissible if it posed some small but not insignificant risk of causing a miscarriage. Or the situation might not be complicated, but a person might simply not know what the moral principle is that governs it. For example, imagine someone who gets stuck in traffic, is ten minutes late for Mass, and wonders whether he has failed to fulfill his Sunday obligation. In various ways, then, a person might have what natural law theorists and moral theologians call a doubtful conscience.
Now, a doubtful conscience should never be followed. The reason is that if you follow a doubtful conscience, you will be doing something that you believe stands a serious chance of being wrong. If you didn’t believe that, your conscience wouldn’t be doubtful. What you may follow, and indeed what you must follow, is only ever a certain conscience. This may sound like an impossibly high standard. Doesn’t that mean that you’d have to have infallible knowledge of what the right thing to do is? And even if that were possible, wouldn’t it still be frightfully difficult and time-consuming to acquire this knowledge? But in fact, the degree of certainty required is not that high, and neither is it difficult to attain.
Go back to our examples. Consider the person who comes to realize that he has either a lax conscience or a scrupulous conscience. He starts to doubt himself in a particular situation. For instance, the person with the scrupulous conscience at first thinks he shouldn’t take the free coffee but then thinks: “Well, I am prone to excessive worry about these things. Am I really doing something wrong in this case?” So he resists his nagging feelings of guilt, looks at the situation rationally, and realizes that objectively speaking, it is ridiculous to think that what he is doing constitutes stealing. He no longer has a doubtful conscience but a certain conscience, and goes ahead and takes the coffee, ignoring the residual feelings of guilt that he now realizes are irrational. Or consider the person who, not knowing what the Church teaches on the matter, worries that he has not fulfilled his Sunday obligation because he was ten minutes late for Mass. He then asks the priest, or Googles Catholic Answers, and gets the information he needs. His doubtful conscience becomes a certain conscience, and he gets on with the day knowing he has fulfilled his obligation and needn’t worry any further. Or consider the woman wondering whether to have the medical procedure done. She consults a reputable moral theologian or reads a good textbook on moral theology and learns how the relevant moral principles apply to her specific case. Her doubtful conscience becomes a certain one.
As such examples indicate, the kind of certainty the natural law theorist or moral theologian says we should attain before acting is not a matter of coming up with something like a geometrical proof from first principles. It is a very commonsensical sort of certainty – to a first approximation, it is certainty for ordinary practical purposes. It does not require immunity from the possibility of error, but only that one has done what one reasonably can do in order to find out what one needs to know.
Suppose, however, that one cannot find it out – perhaps because one doesn’t know where to look for the relevant information, or doesn’t have time to do so and needs to make a decision right away. How should someone who cannot resolve his doubtful conscience act? The traditional answer is that what to do in such a case is itself a special kind of moral quandary which is governed by moral principles of its own. In other words, just as we are all faced with questions about what the moral thing to do is, so too are we sometimes faced with a moral question about what to do when we can’t figure out what the moral thing to do is.
There are two key moral principles traditionally proposed as allowing for a resolution of a situation like this. They are what you might call second-order moral principles, which kick in when you have been unable to determine either which first-order moral principles apply in a given case, or if you have been unable to determine how to apply the first-order moral principles if you do know them. The first of these second-order principles is the principle that the morally safer action is to be preferred. Suppose you have done your best to investigate whether a certain action is morally permissible, cannot settle the matter, but need to make a decision imminently. If there some risk that the action is immoral, but no risk that you would be doing anything immoral by refraining from the action, then the principle would tell you that you should not carry out the action.
Now, this principle raises all sorts of questions. For example, what if the morally safer course is extremely onerous? Are you obligated to take that course anyway, even though it may turn out (once you do get the answer to the moral question you initially weren’t able to settle) that it wasn’t in fact required of you after all? Or what if taking the action and refraining from taking it both carry moral risks? That is to say, what if neither one seems the morally safer?
But there is another second-order principle that has traditionally been proposed to deal with situations of unresolvable doubt, a principle that balances out the first one. This is the principle that a doubtful law is not binding. The idea here is that it is in the nature of a moral obligation that it be knowable. I cannot be bound to observe a law that I am not even sure exists in the first place. Again, suppose that you’ve done your best to determine whether some action is permissible, but have been unable to do so, and yet you have to make a decision. The principle that a doubtful law does not bind would tell you that you are at liberty to choose the action, since there is no evident obligation not to do so.
Now, it might seem that these two second-order principles conflict, at least in some cases. For if we are obligated to do the morally safer thing, then shouldn’t we do it whether or not the law commanding it is doubtful? Or, if we need not obey a doubtful law, doesn’t that mean that we needn’t do the morally safer thing if there is no evident law requiring us to do so? So, one of these two second-order principles, it seems, must be more fundamental than the other, otherwise we might end up left with exactly the same sort of unresolvable doubt at the level of second-order principles that the second-order principles were supposed to be allowing us to avoid.
Here things get complicated, for, historically, natural law theorists and moral theologians have defended several different ways of resolving this tension. For present purposes I will simply briefly describe what, by the nineteenth century, came to be the majority view among Catholic moral theologians, since I happen to think it is also the correct view. This is the theory known as probabilism, which – to oversimplify things – essentially takes the fundamental second-level principle to be the principle that a doubtful law is not binding. Suppose that you do your due diligence in trying to determine whether you are obligated to take a certain course of action, and you are honestly unable to settle the matter. Suppose, in particular, that you find that there is some significant probability that you are not obligated, even though there may also be some probability that you are. You simply don’t know. In that case, probabilism says, you are at liberty not to perform the action. You are not bound to do it.
Now, you might think that this is too lax a rule, but properly understood it is not. To take a textbook example, suppose you are out hunting and you aren’t sure whether there is another hunter moving around behind some distant bushes. Is probabilism saying that you are at liberty to shoot into those bushes, since you don’t know for sure whether someone is really there? Shouldn’t you instead follow the principle that the morally safer course should be followed, and therefore refrain from firing into the bushes?
The answer is that of course you should refrain from firing into those bushes, but that it is a serious misunderstanding of probabilism to think that it would allow you to do so. For probabilism, and in particular the principle that a doubtful law is not binding, apply only – I emphasize only – in cases where you aren’t otherwise sure what your first-order moral obligations are. They apply only where you have serious doubts about what you are obligated to do. And that simply isn’t what is going on in the hunting example. For it is hardly mysterious what general moral rule applies in a context like the one in question. It is the principle that one ought to exercise great caution when using dangerous items like firearms. Since you know that that moral rule is binding on you, you know what you are supposed to do when you aren’t sure whether there is another hunter is behind the bushes. End of story. There is no question of having a doubtful conscience here, and hence there is no question of having to apply the principle that a doubtful law is not binding as a means of resolving that doubt.
Suppose, then, that a second-order principle like the principle that a doubtful law is not binding is indeed available to us as a way of resolving moral dilemmas, as moral theologians who endorse probabilism claim. Then there will always be a way after all to achieve a certain conscience, and thus always a way to determine what one ought to do, even when one initially has a doubtful conscience.
The Catholic conscience
What I want to do in the remainder of the talk is to examine how the position just described applies to Catholics who are trying to decide what the practice of their faith obligates them to do. Some might suppose that the principle that a doubtful law is not binding would be welcome to Catholics who dissent from the moral teachings of the Church, and that it would be or should be troubling to Catholics who are striving to be faithful to those teachings. But that is actually the reverse of the truth. In fact, the principle that a doubtful law is not binding gives no aid and comfort whatsoever to Catholics who dissent from the Church’s moral teachings. But it can be a great aid and comfort to those who strive to live by those teachings.
The reason why I say this can be understood if we recall the crucial point that conscience is essentially a matter of the intellect rather than a matter of feelings, and recall also what this fact tells us about how to evaluate the lax conscience and the scrupulous conscience.
Consider first the Catholic who dissents from the Church’s moral teachings. For example, consider someone who dissents from the Church’s teachings about sexual morality. Suppose such a person thinks he has good reason to doubt these teachings. Now, obviously this person would not be justified in acting in a way contrary to these teachings by the principle that the morally safer action is better. That principle would obviously entail that such a Catholic must follow the Church’s moral teachings even if he doubts them, because he certainly won’t be committing any immoral acts if he simply refrains from doing what the Church forbids, whereas even he has to admit that he might be committing immoral acts if he does such things.
But would such a dissenting Catholic be justified in doing things the Church forbids by the other second-order principle, to the effect that a doubtful law is not binding? No, he would not be. Remember, first, that this second-order principle applies when, and only when, there is some reasonable doubt about whether one is obligated to carry out or refrain from a certain course of action. And there simply is no reasonable doubt in the case of a Catholic who dissents from the Church’s teachings about a topic like sexual morality.
The reason is precisely that such a person considers himself a Catholic. For to identify as a Catholic entails that you think Catholicism is true. But to think Catholicism is true is to think that, where Catholicism differs from other views, including rival brands of Christianity, Catholicism is correct and those rival views are mistaken. Now, what distinguishes Catholicism from rival brands of Christianity is primarily its conception of authority. In particular, Catholicism teaches that the faithful are bound to assent to those teachings of the magisterium of the Church that are presented by the Church as binding. To accept Catholicism is in this respect like accepting a job offer or joining a club. To accept a job offer is ipso facto to agree to follow the directives of your employer, and to join a club is ipso facto to agree to adhere to its bylaws. (Lest there me any misunderstanding, I am not saying that the Catholic Church is in every way like a club or like an employer. Of course it is not. I am merely making a point by calling attention to one, very narrow but crucial respect in which it is similar.)
So, to identify as a Catholic while at the same time flouting the moral teachings it presents in an unambiguous way is like taking a job but then disobeying the clear directives of your employer, or joining a club and then refusing to follow its bylaws. It is simply a kind of cognitive dissonance. Such a Catholic cannot reasonably claim to be in doubt about whether he is obligated to follow the moral teachings of the Church, such as the Church’s teachings about sexual morality. For the Church has repeatedly and very clearly stated what those teachings are, and stated that she regards them as binding on the faithful. And someone who identifies as a Catholic has, by virtue of doing so, at least implicitly agreed to abide by such teachings. If he refuses to do so, he is either very confused or intellectually dishonest. But he does not have a rational basis for doubting that these teachings are binding on him, and thus he does not have a basis for appealing to the second-order principle that a doubtful law is not binding.
Why, then, do so many dissenting Catholics feel justified in ignoring the moral teachings of the Church? The answer, I would suggest, is precisely because they are feeling rather than thinking. In particular, they are confusing their lack of guilty feelings with the having of a well-formed clear conscience, and as we have seen, these are simply not the same thing. Their consciences are in fact not well-formed, because conscience is a matter of intellect, of thinking rather than feeling, and their thinking is incoherent. It involves the implicit self-contradiction of both affirming Catholicism while at the same time refusing to do what is logically entailed by the affirmation of Catholicism.
What facilitates the feelings in question, I would suggest, are the bad example of others coupled with the lack of discipline within the Church today. Most Catholics today routinely ignore the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and other issues. They also rarely hear sermons on these subjects at Mass, and are used to Catholic politicians and other prominent Catholics publicly flouting these teachings with no repercussions either in the form of disciplinary actions from their bishops or damage to their reputations. The result is that most Catholics have gotten the impression that violations of these moral teachings are “no big deal,” even if they are still vaguely aware that the Church hasn’t actually altered the teachings. The feelings of guilt that might otherwise prod them into forming their consciences more carefully have thus withered, and as a result, enormous numbers of Catholics today have lax consciences, and a lax conscience ought never to be your guide.
There is another and very different kind of Catholic who is too prone to let his feelings distort his conscience. This is the sort of Catholic who is in no way lax, but on the contrary is excessively worried that he is not sufficiently living up to the Church’s teachings. I am speaking, of course, of the scrupulous conscience. These days this is no doubt a less common problem than the lax conscience, but it is not an uncommon problem, and it is certainly a very serious problem. Whereas the person with a lax conscience is excessively optimistic about the state of his soul, the person with a scrupulous conscience is excessively pessimistic. The person with a lax conscience tends confidently to presume that he is more or less doing the right thing, when in fact he is not. The person with a scrupulous conscience tends to despair that he is more or less doing the wrong thing, when in fact he is not. In particular, he tends to worry that something he has done or is considering doing is sinful, when in fact there is no good reason to think it is; or to worry that he has not sufficiently confessed his past sins or been sufficiently sorry for them, when in fact he has; or to be unable to decide upon a course of action, because crippling doubts assail him at every turn. But a scrupulous conscience, like a lax conscience, ought never to be your guide.
The remedy, here as with a lax conscience, is to ignore feelings and remember that conscience is primarily about the intellect rather than the emotions. The principle that a doubtful law is not binding can be a great aid to this endeavor. A scrupulous person should, like anyone else, do his due diligence to find out what is required of him, but after doing so he should rest assured that he needn’t continue splitting every hair before deciding how to act. If, after doing his due diligence, any doubt remains, he should remind himself that a doubtful law is not binding – and that the Church herself allows him to apply this principle -- and then proceed with a clear conscience. If his feelings keep telling him that he is sinning, he should simply ignore these feelings. The feelings in this case, as in the case of the lax conscience, are dysfunctional. They are not the voice of conscience. They are simply like other psychological dysfunctions we poor flesh-and-blood creatures are subject to. But as we have seen, even when the emotions are functioning properly, they are not the voice of conscience but at most an amplifier for that voice. The true voice of conscience is the voice of reason.