Conscience: What does it tell us?

Conscience: What does it tell us? November 5, 2012

Jeff Cook’s series on arguments for God continues with this reflection on conscience. What does the argument for conscience do for you?

We are quickly approaching the half way point. This is an argument from Peter Kreeft. Both Aquinas and Aristotle use the style here, and it’s a helpful framework for those arguing for God’s existence: placing the known possibilities up, knocking down all the contenders save God, and then conclude that if there are no other possible sources for something like morality or the origin of the universe or the universality of logical laws—then the only option we have is a being like God.

  1. It’s never right to disobey your own conscience.
  2. There are only four possible sources of the conscience:
    1. From something less than me (nature)
    2. From me (the individual)
    3. From others equal to me (my society)
    4. From something transcendent
  3. I cannot be absolutely obligated by something less than me—for example, by animal instinct or the chemical reactions in my skull (~2a).
  4. I cannot obligate myself absolutely, for I do not have the right to demand absolute obedience from any human being, even myself. (And if I am the one who locked myself in this prison of obligation, I can certainly let myself out, thus destroying the absoluteness of the obligation.) (~2b).
  5. My society cannot absolutely obligate me. (How do my equals establish a right to impose their values on me?) (~2c)
  6. The only source of absolute moral obligation left is something transcendent, and this transcendent source of moral obligation we call “God”.

If 1 and 6, then God exists.

Again, one can deny the first premise and the argument fails (which depending on who you are may not be difficult). You can be skeptical of premise 2 and say, “There may be other unknown possibilities,” but such is a step into blind conjecture. You may say the combination of nature, myself and my society collectively together have more authority than they do individually, but certainly nature, society and I will often differ on what is good (natural selection can be pro-genocide for example). Perhaps you think “reason” can discover moral truths, but this begs the question of why I “ought” to obey reason—should I obey reason for rational reasons (which is circular) or because of something else?

Like the argument from moral truths, the argument above is easy to dismiss if you are willing to bite certain bullets, but it has real strength if you are not.

Jeff Cook teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and is the author of Everything New: One Philosopher’s Search for a God Worth Believing in. He pastors Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado.

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