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Home » People » Despatch from a Dominican » We are not born as fully-formed moral agents

We are not born as fully-formed moral agents

Pope John Paul II

Moral agents: “The conscience does not have ‘primacy’ nor is it infallible; it is always objective moral truth that has primacy and only the objective moral truth that can be infallibly true.” Pope St John Paul II wrote that the Church, “teaches the faithful specific particular precepts and requires that they consider them in conscience as morally binding.”

IN conversation recently I have had occasion to notice an increasing number of people making ready reference to their “conscience” as justification for a particular decision or course of action.

On the face of it this would seem a rather laudable development, were it not for the fact that the rapidity and regularity of the invocation has led me to conclude that the vast majority of people who employ the term “conscience” are unaware of its meaning.

Or that it has a meaning.

Indeed, it is precisely this rapid and unconsidered appeal to the conscience which demonstrates – to my mind – that the “conscience”, as commonly understood, is held to be an absolute authority for the defense of legal and moral claims upon the acting person.

Once individuals claim that they have acted on the basis of their “conscience” – or are absolved from taking action for the same reason – it would appear that they believe a barbed-wire entrenchment has been erected around their decision.

It is now safely ensconced with the taboo-zone of “conscience land”, and the person in question feels liberated from the need to provide any further justification for that decision.

As comforting as that thought may be for some people, it is unfortunately not true.

To put ourselves at ease by always simply “obeying our conscience” is a deceptive business.

In the hope that we might all be spared the unedifying sight of increasing numbers of public figures making ill-informed and ill-advised appeals to their conscience and subsequently glaring in righteous indignation at anybody who presumes to ask further questions, I thought I would outline what the tradition of the Church actually implies when it speaks of the “conscience”.

As far as I can tell, judging by my conversations with men and women in places as diverse as the Australian Catholic Youth Festival and the local market, the difficulty some people seem to have when considering conscience revolves around the fact that they often conflate two separate – though interrelated – aspects of what conscience implies.

We will begin by speaking of the first of these two interrelated aspects of conscience.

It comprises what we might refer to as primal conscience – that inner voice which admonishes us to love and do the good and to avoid that which is evil.

This is a notion with which most people have little difficulty – when I mention it, my interlocutors and I are often in furious agreement with one another.

Unfortunately, having reached this heady height of convivial concord, I feel compelled to then point out that having an ill-defined, primal sense that we ought to do the good does not, in fact, tell us what the good is.

Whether something is good or evil does not change on the basis of a vague, inherent – and entirely valid – perception that some things are morally good and some things are morally evil.

The conscience of an individual does not determine the moral law – it is subject to the moral law.

At the most fundamental level this fact is worth emphatic restatement – the conscience is not – cannot be – the autonomous basis for the validity of morality or moral action.

Rather, the conscience is itself subject to the difference between true and false, good and evil.

Thus when the Church speaks of the conscience it is always qualified by adjectives – right, upright, correct, well-formed, Christian – and there is no implicit suggestion that the conscience of a given individual is acting as the supreme arbitrator of whether an action is morally good or evil.

After all, to believe that the conscience does function as such an arbitrator would be a wholesale endorsement of moral relativism.

If this seems somewhat unclear, consider the following scenario.

One man claims that his conscience holds a certain action to be morally good.

A different man claims that his conscience holds the same action to be morally evil.

If the conscience actually determines whether an action or decision is morally evil or good, then they are both correct.

Which, in turn, would means that what is good or evil for one person is not necessarily good or evil for another.

What is true for one person is not necessarily true for another.

I hope it is clear to everyone reading these words that the mistaken notion of conscience that underlies that hypothetical is utterly incompatible with Christianity; that it runs directly counter to our faith in an intelligible created universe fashioned in accordance with a divine will and a divine law.

Having thus established that the primal conscience, while prompting us towards the good and away from evil, does not actually establish whether something is morally good or evil, we come to what we might call the second aspect of conscience.

We might call it “situational conscience”.

The vague sense that we have within us – primal conscience – does not remain on the verdant and lofty plains of abstraction; within the great adventure that is life, we must occasionally descend from the heights and confront concrete situations that demand a moral response and action from us.

Hence the term, “situational conscience”.

And in dealing with these developments, we exercise our conscience in the specific way that the word itself suggests as its true meaning: con scientia – “with knowledge”.

Conscience, writes St Thomas Aquinas, is nothing more – and nothing less – than the application of knowledge to activity.

It is more a verb than a noun – the dynamic application of concrete knowledge to specific situations of moral action.

The expression “conscience” is meant to imply the ability to decide correctly in those concrete questions of moral conduct, through the application of knowledge.

This detailed and rather profound conception of what “conscience” truly implies arises in light of the fact that no one possesses the capacity for moral judgment by nature.

Anyone who wishes to argue the contrary can take it up with my sister, who worked at a child-care center while completing her university studies.

If you wish to claim that four-year-old children are perfectly informed moral agents, my sister has a mental file full of hilarious and horrifying stories that seem to rather pointedly undermine that supposition.

We are not born as perfectly formed moral agents; a man or woman must acquire that capacity over the course of his or her life.

Specifically, this means that individuals must form their conscience in order to be capable of making a correct moral judgment.

The conscience may well be that inner sanctuary that calls us to good and away from evil, yet it is not the autonomous basis for the validity of morality: rather, it itself is subject to a universal and objective moral law which is given rather than invented.

And it is knowledge of that objective moral law that comprises the principle component in the formation of our conscience.

St Thomas Aquinas is clear on this point.

Encapsulating the Thomistic understanding of conscience Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP once wrote: “Just as the value of memory is in remembering accurately, so the value of conscience, for Thomas, is in yielding the right choice. Truth always had primacy for him.”

The conscience does not have “primacy” nor is it infallible; it is always objective moral truth that has primacy and only the objective moral truth that can be infallibly true.

Thus, whenever we are ever exhorted to “follow our conscience” we are not in fact being told, “do what you feel is best”.

What we are being asked to do in practical terms is to inform our conscience – to acquire the requisite knowledge of the objective moral truth that pertains to a given situation that calls for the exercise of our judgement.

The question that then generally arises – in my discussions at the local markets – is whence we are supposed to obtain this knowledge of the objective moral truth.

My response to the inquisitive and efficient workers behind the counter generally contains a variation on these words of a canonised saint of the Catholic Church: that the Church, “teaches the faithful specific particular precepts and requires that they consider them in conscience as morally binding.” (Pope St John Paul II)

I highlight the fact that the Church does teach definitively in moral matters, and that a well-formed Christian conscience will be informed by such authoritative teaching.

Some people respond by saying that it is “childish” to listen to the Church rather than “making up our own minds”.

Perhaps in the same way it was childish for us to listen to our parents when they told us that kicking Jimmy in the shins was perhaps not the most prudent course of moral action.

A child tends to act upon feeling and impulse and often without a great deal of reflection.

It is hoped that over the course of our education we learn to reason and apply general principles to specific instances.

But in order for us to learn someone else has to teach.

I reiterate – we are not born as fully-formed moral agents.

If we are entirely honest, many of us would have to concede that we do not have a great deal of knowledge when it comes to complicated questions of objective moral law.

As a result, it seems entirely reasonable to defer to the teaching authority of the Church which has spent a couple of millennia pondering these questions in the light of the Gospel and has gone to painstaking effort to elucidate – with exhaustive reasoning and argument – Catholic teaching on these points.

As sons and daughters of Holy Mother Church, as children of God, it actually seems rather contradictory for us suddenly to turn around and reject the teachings of the body that transmitted the gift of faith to us.

If people are willing to listen with an open ear to empty, emotive slogans and employ them as a basis for action – “love is love” is not an argument, it is a tautology; the phrase “cat is cat” carries a similar amount of persuasive heft – then I fail to see how adhering to the teaching of the Church out of the obedience of faith is unreasonable.

To me, it seems rather more reasonable and well-informed – rather more an exercise of a Christian conscience – than the alternative.

The people at the markets thought so as well.

Written by: Br Sebastian Condon
Catholic Church Insurance

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