What is Moral Conscience? Refuting four mistaken ideas about conscience in light of the natural law tradition


[Thomas V. Berg, hprweb]  My experience as a teacher, counselor and confessor has repeatedly confirmed that there is a tremendous amount of confusion, especially among Catholics, about the nature of moral conscience.  That experience has also taught me just how sensitive this topic is. Want to make a group of people immediately uncomfortable? Start talking about conscience—and worse, suggest that the ideas they have about conscience are perhaps mistaken. In what follows, I will offer a sketch of the perennial, Catholic, natural law (NL) understanding of conscience—in a hopefully accessible, non-scholarly, and pastoral fashion—by first sketching out and  refuting four popular misconceptions about moral conscience.1

To begin with, I hope most of us would agree that conscience is not the proverbial angel on my shoulder, the antagonist of the little devil who whispers temptations in my ear perched on my other shoulder.  Yet, while most of us have progressed beyond this childish understanding of conscience, I fear that a large percentage of Catholics still labor under some form of misconception about the nature of moral conscience.

Allow me to suggest that most if not all of those problematic notions about conscience—having trickled down to us historically from different schools of moral philosophy, psychology and related fields—generally fall into one of the following broad categories:

(a) Conscience as emotive response. On this view, conscience is nothing more than an emotive response conditioned over time by genetic factors, environment and other socializing factors, in addition to psychological forces deep at work in our own psyche.  So conceived, conscience—particularly when manifested as guilt—is to be overcome or ignored or otherwise harmoniously integrated into our own everyday life in a way that it does not become an obstacle to our “life style choices,” “values,” “self-projects,” and so on.

(b) Conscience as built in moral guidance system. Here, conscience is understood to be a kind of natural faculty or power. Some depict it as the very voice of God who, through conscience, can guide our actions directly.  If not so depicted, it is presented as at least responding to the external dictates of moral authority in the manner of an internalized moral GPS: “do this,” “avoid that,” “too much more and you will cross the line,” and so on.

(c) Conscience as moral sense. A third misconception, presents conscience as a kind of intuition which simply cannot be accounted for or explained in terms of human reasoning. Sometimes called the “moral sense,” conscience, from this viewpoint, must be developed much like developing the ability to judge a good wine, pick a winning race horse, assess a person’s character, or keep a group of school children well behaved and attentive.

(d) Conscience as moral opinion. Finally, a fourth misconception presents conscience as simply that process by which I give consideration to moral matters and come up with my best judgment—essentially my opinion—about what I, or others, ought to do or not do.  When I am convinced of this judgment, it enjoys primacy over all other moral points of reference, trumping any other considerations. As such, my “judgment of conscience”—that is, my best formed opinion on the moral matter at hand—is infallible and absolute:  my conscience is my moral compass, period.2

Now, some readers might be surprised by my suggestion that none of these definitions is a good fit for the notion of conscience that has come down to us from the NL tradition. That will become apparent as we work our way toward the tradition’s understanding of conscience by briefly critiquing each of the misconceived notions in (a) through (d).  To be sure, a point of agreement between these versions of moral conscience, and that proposed by the NL tradition, is that conscience is something very personal, whose locus is to be found within the realm of one’s own personal subjectivity. Beyond that common element, however, we have some strikingly diverse conceptions of what moral conscience actually is, each emerging from its own unique intellectual history.

To begin, I will discard notion (a) as grossly inadequate. Notwithstanding the importance of psychology and upbringing in the overall task of conscience formation, this account of conscience is highly problematic from the moment we consider how poorly it accords with our shared human experience of moral obligation. While the experience of conscience can indeed be accompanied by emotional responses (both positive and negative, both guilt at doing wrong, and delight at doing good), moral conscience itself is not simply reducible to emotional responses. Furthermore, we must reject the negativity of this notion of conscience. The NL tradition conceives of conscience as a profound aid to a healthy and fulfilling existence, not as an onerous quirk of human psychology that one must essentially learn to ignore.

Notion (b) is often taken to be the true NL, or Catholic, understanding of conscience.  This notion entails a kind of legalism, however, and the least imprecise sense that conscience—whether innate or internalized through experience—is like an interior voice that would direct our every action, understood by some to be the voice of God himself (or the Holy Spirit) speaking interiorly. While it is true that the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, speaks of conscience as our “secret core” and our “sanctuary” where we are “alone with God” whose voice “echoes in [our] depths,” such metaphors must be properly understood. While the Holy Spirit certainly can, and does, speak through a correct judgment of conscience, conscience cannot simply be reduced to “the voice of God.” As we will explain just ahead, conscience can in fact err, a reality that notion (b) fails to countenance. Notion (b) also inaccurately depicts  conscience as a kind of separate faculty of the soul, a notion which needs a some considerable specification.  That notwithstanding,  notion (b) falls very short of the mark. It presupposes that the moral life is tantamount to the following of norms of external norms. The Catholic tradition has consistently indicated the dangers of such a legalistic understanding of the moral life, which can easily stunt human moral growth, lead to scrupulosity, moral shallowness, misplaced rigidity, and imprudence in making moral judgments. As such, notion (b) constitutes an impoverished notion of what the NL tradition has genuinely maintained. is a sort of angelic voice distinct from our own reasoning which comes, as it were, from outside us, even if we hear it in our heart; it is generally trustworthy, but we must decide to obey it or not. There is more than a hint of this at several points in our theological tradition. But whatever these texts mean, they clearly do not mean a divine or diabolical voice intrudes into our ordinary reasoning processes, commanding or complaining, a rival with our own moral thinking… Were conscience really a voice from outside our reasoning it would play no part in philosophy and there might be some kind of double truth in the moral sphere. Late scholastic voluntarism and post-scholastic legalism took moral theology down just such a blind alley. [The Church’s] Magisterium became the satellite navigator and the role of conscience was to hear, interpret and obey. Many contemporary theologians and pastors are heirs to this. For some the solution to the crisis of moral authority is to keep calling for submission to the navigator. Moral tax lawyers, on the other hand, try to find ways around the moral law, or ways to “sail as close to the wind as possible” without actually breaking the moral law. Can you do a little bit of abortion or embryo experimentation or euthanasia without breaking the moral law?” (Op. cit).543

Notion (c), though very popular over the past hundred years or so, and enormously influential, is also problematic. Consider, among other things, that notion (c) leaves no room open for appeal to objective criteria on which basis I could challenge someone’s “moral sense.” A member of a Sudanese Janjaweed militia might argue a few years back that his moral sense indicated that dark-skinned African inhabitants of the Darfur region should be exterminated. Preferably, we would want a theory of moral conscience that leaves us grounds to challenge such a claim. Notion (c) does not afford us that, however. This notion presupposes, moreover, that morality is essentially something lying outside the bounds of our use of reason, and that conscience is quite literally non-rational—hardly the notion of conscience we discover in the NL tradition.76

Notion (d) requires more sustained consideration for the several valid elements it contains, for its degree of overlap with the NL notion of conscience, and for the predominance of this view, including the remarkable degree of confusion such a view has engendered, especially among Catholics.  I would go so far as to assert that notion (d) is, by and large, a kind of default understanding of conscience in our contemporary culture.  Its highly problematic reduction of conscience to the level of moral opinion, however, sets it deeply at odds with the perennial Catholic, natural law understanding of conscience.

In the NL tradition, conscience is understood to be a judgment emanating from human reason about choices and actions to be made, or accomplished, or already opted for and performed. Conscience judgments will become manifest in our personal lives to the degree that conscience has been developed. Conscience can be antecedent (while my willing has not yet settled on an option); it can be concomitant (presenting itself in the very act of choosing); or it can be consequent (presenting itself after I have settled on an option).8

Antecedent conscience presents itself as a judgment with regard to the pending choice to accomplish, or a refraining from committing a possible action, the consideration of which is the result of our deliberation process. Through deliberation, we come up with options.  We may be leaning toward choosing one of those options, when that judgment becomes interiorly manifest: “this option is good,  I may go ahead with it; this other option is wrong, I must shun it and refrain from choosing it.” In the virtuous individual, who finds herself deliberating about a morally objectionable course of action, the judgment of conscience will make itself present, then and there, and direct her not even to consider such possibilities, suspending that part of her deliberation process.9

Aquinas held that conscience, in the strict sense, was as an act of human reason—called a judgment—following upon, and concluding, a time of deliberation.  In this sense, I like to explain conscience as the interior resounding of reason. Conscience is reason’s awareness of a choice, or an action’s harmony or disharmony, with the kind of behavior which truly leads to our genuine well-being, and flourishing.

If our choice or action is not in accord with the judgment of a rightly formed and active conscience, then that judgment will linger in our conscious awareness, presenting itself as a felt disharmony between the choice, and the moral norm (and corresponding virtue), being violated. While such felt disharmony is indeed of an emotive nature (e.g. a healthy emotional guilt), the judgment of conscience remains something distinct and irreducible to the negative feeling which happens to accompany it.10

While the experience of conscience is, indeed, something intimate and personal, the NL tradition holds that conscience will always require points of reference which can be acquired through education and moral training. These points of reference are normally embodied in moral norms; the habitual living out of behaviors in accord with those norms is called virtue. Both the norms, and the virtues, become guides to conscience.  The virtues and norms reflect what the tradition holds to be reasonable human behavior; that is, human behavior in accord with the genuine and true manner of human flourishing and happiness intended by the Creator.  Some of those norms are so basic that they are accessible to all sane human beings: do no harm to the innocent; treat others as you would have them treat you; do not commit adultery.  Other norms and virtues deal with more specific aspects of the moral life.

Reference to moral norms, and the virtues which embody them, does not have to take the form of a kind of legalism (as represented by notion (b) concerning conscience). Rather, docility to these moral norms, and the acquisition of corresponding virtues, is an expression of healthy, sound, indeed, reasonable living. Now, we are hopefully poised to draw into clearer distinction the difference between mere opinion about moral matters on the one hand, and the genuine judgment of conscience. How would the NL tradition distinguish genuine conscience from mere moral opinion? Consider the following examples of what are arguably the expressions of mere opinions on moral matters:

“If I were Uncle Charlie, I wouldn’t want to be hooked up to that feeding tube; I think we should have the doctors remove it.”

“Whether my college-age kids are sexually active is none of my business.”

“We know what the Church teaches, but my wife and I think contraception is what we need to do right now.”

Again, one could, in good faith, hold any of these determinations to be a sound and genuine judgment of conscience, especially if arrived at after a good deal of deliberation, consultation with friends, even prayer.  They could also be, on the contrary, the articulation of “gut feelings,” and otherwise rather superficial assessments—mere opinion—about what is right for Uncle Charlie, or my kids, or me and my wife. The process here may have been somewhat muddled; there may be an oblique reference to a relevant moral norm, or—as in the third instance—to “what the Church teaches.” But, it also may have been determined, without a great deal of effort in trying to understand Church teaching, before discarding that teaching. Such expressions could also come encased in an impenetrable sense of infallibility: “That’s my judgment, case closed.”

Authentic moral conscience, however, is not merely something that I roll up my sleeves and produce—the product of having weighed my feelings, likes, dislikes, my friend’s opinion on the matter, advice from others, and so on.  While all of this might serve to help me arrive at a genuine judgment of conscience, that judgment—if sound and genuinely proceeding from conscience—will proceed from the core of my being, and will correspond to objective moral norms  anchored in the truth about what perfects us as human persons.  It will be a weighty and carefully distilled judgment of what—given the objective ends of human nature—is reasonably required of me (or someone else) in the present circumstance.

What most often distinguishes genuine conscience, from mere moral opinion, is the role that the virtue of prudence normally plays in arriving at a judgment of conscience. Prudence, as the tradition holds, is right reason applied to practical matters. It is the principal cardinal virtue, and also an infused virtue. In the prudent individual, judgments of conscience will be consistently right. The process of arriving at the judgment of conscience will have a subjective sense of anchoring in moral experience, an habituation to moral determinations of soundness and personal security, which are simply lacking when one is left to come up with mere opinion.11

In the prudent individual, arriving at a right judgment of conscience can at times happen with ease; or in areas of greater complexity, the process will be characterized by caution. The prudent individual is aware that his judgment of conscience could potentially err. So he seeks direction from objective moral norms, and from proven moral guides.  His judgment—when based on those objective points of reference—will have a far greater solidity than a mere opinion about what’s right or wrong in a given situation. One might even discover, upon closer examination, that the authentic judgment of conscience is at odds with one’s opinion, or that in arriving at that opinion, one never made genuine contact with one’s conscience at all!

Granted, it can be hard to distinguish the experience of a certain judgment of conscience from the experience of formulating an opinion. Generally speaking, the latter, even when it is an opinion shared by many people, is nonetheless characterized by that unmistakable taste of subjectivity—it’s my opinion. It can often conceal a lot of vested self-interest. The person clutches to his or her opinion perhaps in a state of interior uncertainty, even turmoil. Opinions are often more the product of emotion, and affective responses, than of sound reasoning. The judgment of conscience, by contrast, is normally characterized by its flavor of objectivity and consistency with moral principle. When that judgment of conscience is certain, it is held with interior serenity, not being swayed by emotion. It can even be embraced independently of one’s own self-interest: think of men and women (Thomas More, Maria Goretti) who have gone to their own deaths out of fidelity to conscience.

To conclude, let’s say a word about the notion of “forming” one’s conscience. The USCCB has written a fine and succinct paragraph about this, especially aimed at Catholics:

The formation of conscience includes several elements. First, there is a desire to embrace goodness and truth. For Catholics, this begins with a willingness and openness to seek the truth, and what is right by studying Sacred Scripture, and the teaching of the Church, as contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is also important to examine the facts and background information about various choices. Finally, prayerful reflection is essential to discern the will of God. Catholics must also understand that if they fail to form their consciences, they can make erroneous judgments (§17-18).

To the notion that a person must “form” his or her conscience through docility to sound moral guidance, or from example, or from Catholic moral teaching, that person might object, insisting that:  “I have always been taught to ‘follow my conscience’ no matter what others think, including the Catholic Church.”

 Now, the perennial moral principle, directing us to “follow your conscience,” holds true for all persons everywhere.  However—and here are some key details that too often get lost in the exuberance to affirm one’s own judgment—that principle holds true only when it presupposes two things:  (1) that what we’re calling conscience in this case is not just mere moral opinion, and (2) that what we’re calling conscience here presents itself with clarity and certainty (one should not act on an uncertain or doubtful conscience without clarifying the doubt).

In light of the foregoing, it should be clear that this principle is not directing us to “follow your best opinion about what you consider to be right or wrong.” Rather, the principle is directing us to be faithful to the authentic judgment of conscience, arising from within, when (and only when) that judgment is firm and certain: e.g., “I am not in doubt about what I ought to do, and I am not vacillating; rather I perceive interiorly what I ought to do as harmonious with the objective moral order of reality.”

Now, the tradition also holds that moral conscience, although anchored in human reason, is not infallible. Conscience can err. Consequently, one can have a subjectively certain judgment of conscience about moral matters; but it can simultaneously be an erroneous and objectively incorrect judgment. In the latter case, persons working in good faith are normally only aware that their judgment is clear and certain; they are not aware that their judgment is out of sync with objective moral norms. Think for example of the mother who believes, for certain, that she would transgress the moral order in allowing her gravely ill child to receive a blood transfusion; or, the OB/GYN, who is personally opposed to abortion, but judges it a grave omission in failing to perform an abortion on a pregnant fourteen-year-old who is seeking one with parental consent. Such judgments, even though appearing certain, are at odds with the objective moral order.12

This brings us to the question of why conscience must be “formed.” What specifically does the notion of conscience formation—from the Catholic and natural law perspective—entail?  First, conscience formation begins with the deep-seated decision to seek moral truth. One adopts, as a way of life, the habit of seeking out answers to questions about right and wrong, persevering in that quest until one arrives at a state of moral certainty, after having made the most reasonable effort possible to arrive at those answers.  Second, a sound conscience must stand on the firm foundation of integrity, sincerity, and forthrightness.  Duplicity, personal inconsistency, and dishonesty undermine any hope of forming a properly functioning conscience.  Third, conscience formation is sustained by the habit of consistently educating oneself by exposure to objective moral norms, and the rationale behind those norms.

Conscience needs a guide. Catholics, and all people of good will, find that guide in the moral tradition of perennial validity—the natural law tradition—as sustained and enriched by the constant and universal teaching of the Catholic Church. The Catholic who believes that: “The Church can think what it wants on moral matters; and I can think what I want,” may believe this to be an expression of “moral maturity.” In fact, it is the expression of quite unsound reasoning.  Catholic moral teaching is nothing other than the continuation of a tradition of moral thought which extends all the way back to Aristotle, well over two millennia.  The Church’s moral teaching, while certainly enlightened by divinely revealed law, is, at its core, the application of what this tradition has discovered over the centuries about the kinds of behavior that lead us to live genuinely fulfilling, human lives. One does not place oneself at odds with such a tradition lightly.

Consequently, conscience formation requires a habit of on-going self-formation (what we might call moral information gathering) through study, reading, and other types of inquiry. This includes consultation with persons whose moral judgment we know to be sound and in accord with the Church’s moral tradition.  Finally, conscience, if it is to be correct, needs the assistance of the virtue of prudence.  By “prudence,” we mean the virtue as understood within the NL tradition. This should not be confused with timidity, “covering one’s back,” or dissimulation (hiding the truth).

Prudence is the virtue that enables us to discern right moral options in a wide range of practical and complex circumstances. It is prudence which lends immediate guidance to conscience. The prudent individual, in arriving at a judgment of conscience, will do so under the influence of this fundamental virtue. As the Catechism affirms, “with the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error, and overcome doubts about the good to achieve, and the evil to avoid.”  In sum, conscience formation is a life-long project. It is something like playing tennis: if you stop playing long enough, you can lose your backhand. As with an athlete’s body, conscience formation is not a question of getting it in form, once and for all, but of maintaining it in form for a lifetime. It is a project that is foundational for all other life-projects, for a genuinely human existence, and—not to mention—for eternal happiness.1413

  1. Readers interested in a more scholarly approach to this vital subject should read an extremely helpful exposition on conscience authored by Anthony Fisher, O.P., auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia, prepared for the March 2007 meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and titled “The moral conscience in ethics and the contemporary crisis of authority.” It can be found at: http://www.zenit.org/article-19058?l=english ↩
  2. A corollary to this latter concept of conscience might be termed “conscience as social convention.” On this view, conscience is little more than the internalized and subjective echo of societally held values. ↩
  3. Cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, §16. ↩
  4. We can understand conscience to be something like a faculty if we consider that conscience partly has to do with a habitual kind of knowledge that we acquire as we go through life, namely, the habitual awareness of moral norms and principles. St. Thomas observed that we have habitual knowledge both in the speculative realm and the practical realm. For example, in former, we have an habitual understanding of the principle of non-contradiction. Likewise, according to Aquinas, we have an habitual knowledge of the first principles of right reason (such as >one ought to do unto others as he would have others do unto himself=); and we can also acquire an habitual knowledge of more specific moral principles and norms. Aquinas, following the tradition that preceded him, calls such habitual knowledge synderesis:  “Synderesis is the law of our intellect consisting of the habitual awareness of those precepts of natural law which are the first principles of human action” (STh I-II, q. 94, a. 1, ad 2). In this sense, as Aquinas did, we might consider conscience to be—in the sense of syndersis—a capacity of the soul. But Aquinas denies that it is literally a separate power or distinct faculty of the soul. See note 8 below. ↩
  5. As bishop Anthony Fisher explains: “Many people think [conscience ↩
  6. At the turn of the century, G.E. Moore proclaimed (in his 1903 Principia Ethica) the startling discovery that “good” is the name of a simple, non-natural property, indefinable, accessible through a sort of intuition and not subject to proof, disproof, evidence or reasoning.  His insistence on intuition would appear simply to remove the question about the good and the right from the realm of reasonable consideration, once and for all.  In the wake of Moore, some of the greatest names in 20th century philosophy offered their own individual nuances to the moral sense theory. Perhaps, most notable among these are C.L Stevenson, who held that evaluative propositions express approval or disapproval (<X is good’ = <I like to do X and I approve of your doing X’) and R.M. Hare who held that moral judgments have prescriptive meaning and express subjective imperatives (<X is good’ = <Do X!’). ↩
  7. There can be a valid sense in which we think of conscience to be “intuitive.” By that, we mean that the judgment of conscience comes to us in a non-discursive manner, that is, with ease, instantaneously, without the need for reasoned consideration.  This is conscience in the sense of synderesis (see note 4 above). Synderisis, the habitual (virtuous) knowledge of principles and moral norms, is, as such, non-discursive, and could be referred to as a kind of intuition. But, this is a far cry from the modern, non-rational sense of “moral intuition” or “moral sense” which remains problematic. ↩
  8. Thomas identifies it specifically as the judgment of practical reasoning. As such, he excludes the possibility that such a judgment is a separate power of the soul (Cf. STh I, q. 79, a. 13). Practical reasoning is anchored of course in reason itself. ↩
  9. The interior manifestation of such a judgment is a far cry from the caricaturized “little voice” telling me what to do, or not do. ↩
  10. The judgment of conscience, when genuine, can be characterized as being firm, yet serene; and its interior manifestation as persistent, clear, deep, simple, and to the point. ↩
  11. There is much, much more that could and should be said about the relationship between conscience and prudence, but space limitations in the present essay preclude this.  (See Aquinas,  STh II-II, qq. 47-51.)  The exercise of prudence also culminates in a judgment of reason that is, at least in principle, distinct from the judgment of conscience; since the latter can err, it must be informed by the former. The intimate relationship between these two judgments also suggests the intricate relationship that prudence plays throughout the entire process of moral reasoning which culminates in choice.  It is easy enough to see that the two judgments are distinct from the simple fact that one’s judgment of conscience could conceivably differ from the judgment of prudence. Such a situation, however, would appear to entail some degree of imperfection in the exercise of prudence, as well as error in arriving at the judgment of conscience. For example, a young woman might have some basic grasp that it is unreasonable to be living with her boyfriend prior to marriage (prudence); yet she is conflicted, and in good faith, believes it would be irresponsible, or unfair on her part (conscience), to move out now that she is financially supporting her unemployed, and physically disabled, live in boy-friend. The latter represents an erroneous judgment of conscience that has succumbed to emotional interference and confusion with regard to specific moral norms. ↩
  12. For more on the matter of erroneous judgments of conscience, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church §1790-94. ↩
  13. See CCC §1806. ↩
  14. “The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents, or cures, fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom, and engenders peace of heart”; CCC §1784.