After presenting to my class the case of a young adult woman facing an "unwanted" pregnancy, and considering some alternatives the woman might adopt, I asked my students, "So, what should she do?"
An earnest high-schooler raised her hand and replied, "It's up to her!"
"I know it's up to her," I replied, "But what should she do?"
"It's her choice," the girl repeated.
"Yes, yes, I know it's her choice," I said. "But what choice should she make? What would be the right choice?"
"I don't feel it's my place to judge," she persisted.
"Yes, but . . . Uh, forget it. Let's try this another way," I said. "What would you do if you were in the same situation?"
"I can't say," she answered; "I'd do what I felt was right."
"Aha!" I countered triumphantly. "So you think there is a right response?"
"I didn't say that," she retorted angrily. "I said I'd do what I felt was right. She might feel differently. I can't tell her what she should feel."
Weary from fatigue, I dismissed the class.
The thrust of the conversation is perhaps familiar. The student is suffering from intermittent ethical relativism, a frame of mind characterized by a persistent doubt about the existence of moral truth. I say "intermittent" because under other circumstances, the relativist's convictions seem to waver.
Say, for example, a teacher, handing back midterm exams, announced that his method of grading was as follows: "I stood at the top of my staircase and threw the test papers into the air; the ones that landed on the top step I gave an A, the ones that landed on the second step got a B, the third step a C, the fourth a D, and the rest received an F."
The same student might complain, "Hey, that's not right; you should give us the grades we deserve."
If the teacher replied, "I did what I felt was right," her tart reply might very well be: "To hell with how you felt, I deserve an A."
If he persisted, saying, "I respect how you feel, but you can't tell me how I should feel," the girl might get up from her seat, storm down to the principal's office, and demand that the teacher be fired.
One might argue that what we view as "morality" emerges from contracts between people. This way, it seems, we could explain the possibility of different moralities for different people, and deny the existence of an objective moral law. Now, it is quite true that different moralities have existed across different ages and civilizations, and even exist within a given age like our own. But are these differences so fundamental that they throw into doubt the existence of a universal law of right and wrong?
When Thomas Aquinas was presented with this problem seven hundred years ago, he observed that moral disagreements illustrate departures from general norms, but not the complete absence of those norms. So, for example, when somebody complains: "That's not fair," and another replies, "Oh yes it is," both are appealing to a standard outside themselves to which they believe their complaint can be, as it were, compared and their position exonerated. They might disagree on the application of that standard. But they don't disagree that fairness exists, and that, whatever its precise philosophical definition, they wish to be identified with it. No one would reply, "Fairness? No such thing."
How then are we to make sense of moral differences, especially on fundamental issues like abortion (or embryo experimentation or homosexual behavior)? Must we conclude, as sometimes we are tempted to do, that everyone on the other side of the issue is either wicked or sincerely ignorant? Let's look at the psychology of moral reasoning more closely in order to uncover an answer.
First, a person's conclusion on the rightness or wrongness of an act represents the end point of a reasoning process. The process can be complex. Defenders of abortion almost never argue that abortion is an unqualified good. Most argue that abortion is legitimate when not having one is likely to bring about serious harms that can be avoided by having one. So their purpose in seeking an abortion is to avoid those harms, and avoiding avoidable harms is in principle a good thing. So they are seeking a good, even as they seek it at the expense of other goods, such as a baby's life.
This is very important to understand. Evil-doing is not pointless; it's not, generally speaking, irrational. People have reasons for doing evil—namely, to secure the goods that the evil-doing promises. In the case of many abortion defenders, the urgently felt need to avoid certain harms presses so strongly on their minds that the superior claims of the unborn child disappear.
Please understand that I'm not trying to minimize the wrongness of abortion. I'm trying, rather, to argue for the existence of objective morality. I am proposing what seems to me uncontroversial: that members of both sides in the abortion debate can see the point of the other side's position, even if they disagree with it. If this is the case, then we must admit that the moral point of things can be seen and debated. Although I may think someone else is wrong in calling an act unfair, I don't think the concept of unfairness has no meaning, is intrinsically unintelligible. Similarly, when I argue that abortion is an injustice, defenders don't argue that the term "justice" is nonsensical; rather, they disagree, saying that abortion is not unjust, or not always unjust. Their interpretation of what abortion is, and what justice demands, differs from mine in a way that changes the conclusions of their moral reasoning.
Do you see what I'm getting at? The very language we use when we argue over moral issues implies that there are standards outside that language. We are not merely saying that the other's behavior "does not happen to please me"; rather, we are appealing to a standard that we expect the other to know. Philosophy and theology have a name for this standard. They call it the natural moral law.
What Is Conscience?
This brings us to the second part of this essay: the topic of conscience. Popular misconceptions of the nature of conscience are widespread. Commenting on these misconceptions, Bishop Anthony Fisher, O.P., of Australia writes:
By the 1960s [conscience] meant something like strong feeling, intuition or sincere opinion. To appeal to conscience was to foreclose all further discussion and to claim immunity to reasoned argument or the moral law. "Follow your conscience" came to be code for pursuing personal preferences over and against Church teaching, especially in sexuality, bioethics, remarriage and communion. Conscience was now the highest court of appeal: it had "primacy" or infallibility.1
Conscience can be likened to a gold-miner, and the moral law to the gold. Or again, conscience can be likened to sight, which is within us, and the moral law to the object of sight (what is seen), which is outside us. In other words, conscience and the moral law are complementary: conscience searches for moral truth, assents to it when it's found, and then brings it to bear on concrete circumstances; and the moral law is that truth for which conscience searches and by which it judges. Conscience and moral truth, we might say, are made for each other.
Moreover, as sight is that power within us that enables us to see the world around us—a world that is real and objective, and whose reality gives truth to what we see with our eyes—so conscience is that power within us that enables us to grasp the truths of the natural moral law, a law that is real and objective and that conscience does not create, but rather affirms.
To be more precise, I would say that conscience is our rational capacity to know moral truth; the content of our conscience is what we believe to be right and wrong, good and evil (i.e., our moral knowledge, which, of course, might be skewed); and the act of our conscience—called a judgment of conscience—is the application of our moral knowledge to a concrete situation requiring our assessment: Right or wrong? Good or bad? Permissible or not?
Conscience & Moral Error
Now, if I am muddled about right and wrong, I might judge something to be good (or at least permissible) that is really evil, or I might avoid something as evil that is actually legitimate and even praiseworthy—like a short-sighted man who misses his exit because he failed to see it, or who thinks he sees something on a sign that really isn't there.
The counterpart in the moral life to corrective eye surgery is called conscience formation. In order for my conscience to guide me in making true moral judgments, I need to form (or educate) myself in accord with the natural moral law (i.e., in accord with what is objectively right and wrong). The process starts when we are very young and continues throughout life. But its crucial period is during adolescence and young adulthood. The centrality of moral formation for human happiness can hardly be overstated.
During periods in history, such as our own, when the moral reasoning of a whole generation has become muddled, the importance of trustworthy authorities to guide us in understanding right and wrong is paramount. The first authority for all creedal Christians is sacred Scripture. Most Christians recognize additional authorities—the Church, the creeds, tradition, the bishops, the councils, the pope—for trustworthy guidance.
One might object saying that to form one's conscience in accord with external authorities means to surrender the freedom to think for oneself. Although it is certainly possible that one who conforms to Christian teaching may be morally immature, this need not be the case. Anyone concerned with being good and doing what is right searches for true answers to moral questions. Mature people realize that, alone, they don't have all the answers. So they turn to sources they consider trustworthy to make up for their lack. A Christian holds (or should hold) that authoritative Christian teaching is trustworthy because it is an expression of Jesus' plan for human redemption. Accepting moral judgments from a source (in this case, Jesus and his Church) that one has good reasons for believing is truthful is not surrendering the freedom to think. It is an eminently reasonable expression of thinking.
Moreover, it is critically important to understand that the moral norms transmitted by the Bible and the Church are not extrinsic to human well-being. They are not merely rules handed down by an authority that has little knowledge of or interest in our peculiar subjective needs and interests. They are truths corresponding to the flourishing of human nature. They constitute the sure path to our flourishing. We might rephrase a maxim from the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro: "Moral truth is not true because the Bible and the Church teach it; they teach it because it's true."
This is utterly foundational to understanding Christian morality. The Bible and the Church do not legislate morality! They affirm, draw attention to, and specify the general moral principles of the natural law, and of the divine law that calls us into fellowship with God. These authorities do not create morality; they transmit and teach it.
Authority of Conscience
Conscience is where human subjectivity and the objectivity of the moral law meet. Its subjective authority derives from that law's objectivity. In other words, conscience has the authority to judge right from wrong, because there isobjective right and wrong.
It should be clearer now why we should always follow our consciences: because, in the last analysis, the judgment of conscience, after counsel and deliberation, is what I truthfully judge to be good. Human freedom is made for the good. And our souls will be judged according to the good. To -deliberately oppose this judgment would be, as far as I'm concerned, to knowingly and freely oppose the good, that is, to do evil. And to do what I judge to be wrong is always wrong, even if my judgment is in error because of a mistaken conscience.
Does my judgment make an act good? No! In the case of a conscience that erroneously judges something to be good that really is bad, the act is still objectively bad. If a person's ignorance is no fault of his own (i.e., is invincible ignorance), the bad act is chosen without guilt. But it's still bad.
Bad in what sense, if not morally bad? In what way is its badness relevant, if the person chooses the act blamelessly? This question burrows into the very core of a Christian understanding of morality. Morality underwrites human nature: a morally good act is consistent with integral human well-being, and a bad act is contrary to human good. I may will the bad act in innocence, with no subjective guilt, but the act is still harmful to me (i.e., contrary to my nature's flourishing) and often harmful to others.
So the abused child who learns to lie to avoid unjust harm may at times tell blameless lies. But inculcating a habit of lying deforms the character, obstructs communion between persons, sends people down blind alleys, and fosters a disconnect with what's real and true.
Getting right and wrong straight is not a matter of indifference. Sincerity alone is not enough. Sufficient knowledge of moral truth and full consent to choices directed by that truth is also necessary. •
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