On the Conscience and Our Response To It

On the Conscience and Our Response To It March 6, 2008

C.S. Lewis begins Mere Christianity with an important and far-reaching point: human beings, by their nature, desire things to be fair. We all possess notions of fairness which we share in common with others. Certainly there are points where it is difficult to discern what is or is not fair, and people don’t always reach the same conclusion, but they can communicate and debate with one another to determine who is right or wrong. “Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football,” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (NY: Macmillan Company, 1960), 17 – 18.

This tells us something about ourselves and can serve as a foundation for a theological anthropology. Certainly, if we need to, we could start somewhere else, with something more fundamental. Thus we could, following Augustine (and Descartes, later on), point out the fact that we know we exist (in some sense of the word “exist”). We can’t be deceived on this point; we can’t be made to think we exist when we don’t (because one needs to exist in order to be deceived). There is hardly any need for us to begin with this kind of epistemological concern, because skepticism, no matter how prevalent it is in our society, is rarely so complete that one questions their own existence.  But Lewis’ analysis is helpful because it quickly gets us past the question of existence and into questions about what our existence is like. It investigates a quality which we all possess: a sense of right and wrong (both in the realm of morality, but also in the realm of truth, the latter which serves as the foundation for the former). Those who deny this must, in their own way, argue that their position is right, which of course would be a contradiction.

We can build quite a bit upon this foundation. How, exactly, do we discern fairness? We judge events by criteria which lie outside of them, although, of course, our judgment is influenced by the facts we know about a given situation because it is a judgment about those facts. A completely empirical mindset could not be used to interpret events in this way; one would always be left in doubt as to the justification of their chosen criteria. One cannot argue for the validity of a statement by the statement itself (since that is circular reasoning). Stephen Colbert, in his humor, presents to us one kind of circular argument, and the reason why so many people find it funny is because its circular nature is easy to be seen. “I’m a Roman Catholic, the one true faith. And I know Roman Catholicism is the one true faith because Roman Catholicism tells me it is the one true faith, and if you remember from earlier in this sentence, ‘Roman Catholicism is the one true faith,’ so how can it be mistaken?” But most empiricists do not understand that this is exactly the kind of reasoning they use to justify empiricism. If you question the senses, you can’t rely upon them to justify themselves (this does not mean we should doubt their general reliability; it only tells us that we can’t present arguments in their favor by a means which relies upon them). Thankfully, our real-world experience takes us beyond empiricism and so we do not need to be stuck in this rut; by our nature, we not only have an innate connection to such a transcendental, but we constantly employ it, usually without any explicit awareness of what we are doing. Indeed, if we took the time to consider what it is that we were doing, we would realize something else: that sense which we employ in our judgments is something which we cannot measure: it is unobjectifiable, because, by its use, we objectify the world around us, but we cannot use it on itself, since it would end up becoming another form of circular reasoning.

How we relate to what our sense of fairness tells us about a given situation tells as much about ourselves. It is one thing to know whether or not something is fair, it is another to care and do something about it. Just because we know something is the right thing to do doesn’t mean we will do it. Nor does it mean we will tell others what we know. Indeed, in our arguments with others, not only will we argue about what is right or wrong, we argue in such a way as to defend our decisions, even if we know they are wrong. But when this happens, we do so because we desire something for ourselves, and we think it is more important for us to have it than it is to be fair. We place ourselves on a pedestal, and make our very self as the goal of our actions, putting it as a transcendental goal above justice. For every action, our teleological end lies either with ourselves or beyond ourselves. Either we say yes to ourselves or yes to the good. Certainly there are situations where the two merge, but such situations do not tell us anything. Only when the two objectives are in conflict do we find out what we are made of; it is at such a time that we learn what it is we find to be most important in our lives.

Now there are two different dimensions to the question of fairness: there is a subjective level and an objective level to the question. Both are important and necessary for any serious reflection. To be subjectively fair one needs to look at the circumstances one finds oneself in, to do the best they can to understand it and determine the proper outcome, and then to act upon that determination. If someone did all of that, subjectively their actions would be considered just. Now the objective situation might be quite different. Since we rarely have a comprehensive understanding of a given situation, we must judge and act upon it with an imperfect foundation. What we think we know might be correct. But it is possible what we think is false, or, as is more often the case, incomplete. Because of this, a person could act in such a way which would objectively be unjust, although subjectively their action would be more than just. Our intent, purpose and effort should be used to judge whether or not our aim is just. But we must be careful. This does not mean we can act in ignorance and use that to excuse ourselves. It is one thing to act upon incomplete knowledge and to do wrong, but it something else to determine why this happened: did we act without any attempt to get as much of the facts as possible? Or did we do what we could do to get an accurate understanding of a given situation and to act accordingly? When the former is true, ignorance is not an excuse. Our sense for fairness comes with it a desire to know the situation the best we can before we act. When we ignore that desire, we have already turned our back on being fair. But, if we follow through with it, then we can be justified in our actions, at least on a subjective level, even if what we do ends up to be an objective failure. This tells us that for one to be subjectively justified for an objective failure, they must have put a good faith effort to be objectively fair.

Now we must ask what faculty is it that we are using to make these judgments. Because its dictates transcend the self, but yet touches the self, it must be intelligible to us, but it must never be comprehended by the self. Thus, we can’t say it’s our intellect, because our intellect is only a part of the self, but we can admit that our intellect employs its use. The answer which makes the most sense is that it is the conscience, an inner voice which we all possess. If we, like St Thomas More, can say “… my conscience shall judge me,” we must admit that our conscience is something which is connected to ourselves and yet is not ourselves, otherwise, its judgment would be incomplete and self-serving. And only the conscience is capable of thorough judgment upon our actions. If we open ourselves to it, it can know what no one else knows, it can know our hidden motivations and limitations, even ones which we might even hide from ourselves. It will reveal to us what it finds, a revelation which goes beyond anything which we can discern by the use of the intellect alone. And then we will have the option to do what the conscience tells us to do based upon what it has found within us. But we can close ourselves from it; we can ignore what it tells us; but when we do, no matter how much we avoid it, it will always be there, and it will always be calling upon us to change our ways, to open ourselves up to it, and to follow it to where it wants us to go.

When we follow our conscience, it will tell us to overcome all the selfish desires and attachments we put in its way. When we do as it asks, it can direct us to something which is greater than ourselves, that is, the Good. Yet, we must understand that its decisions are personal, that is, our conscience is subjective; it tells us what to do in any given situation, but since situations can differ, what one needs to do to get to the Good will differ. Thus, while its decisions can be relative, its goal never is. There is, however, something more which needs to be said. As has already been indicated, the conscience judges, and it is always judging us based upon what we open up to it. This judgment is understood by our intellect, and it uses it as a means by which we deliberate. But this means the conscience is interactive; how well it tells us what to do in a given situation depends upon how well informed we allow it to be. A properly formed relationship with the conscience is one which allows it to be an informed conscience.

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” (Mt 18: 3-4) From the time of our birth, our conscience is directing us to become more and more informed; this is why there is a natural curiosity and desire to know among children, for they are following the dictates of their conscience without question. As we grow older, as we find out that what we learn goes against the desires we have made for ourselves, we begin to isolate ourselves, to cut ourselves off from this open inquiry, because this helps deaden the impact of the conscience in our lives. But this is why we must become once again like a child, because then we will be open once again to the free inquiry needed for the conscience to fully lead us to the Good.

By understanding how our conscience acts and judges, we can understand why its decisions are relative. We must do whatever we can do to make it an informed conscience. If we willingly ignore this duty, one of the first instilled in us, our conscience will become unstable; it will become the tool of the ego instead of its guide. In such a corrupted state, the conscience cannot properly guide us because we find a way to cover it up and ignore its full demands. When this happens, we are culpable of what objective injustice we do, even if we claim our conscience is satisfied, the conscience is not; we hear only some of what it tells us, but have become voluntarily deaf to its primary demands.

Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths,Gaudium et Spes, 16. Now, the Christian knows that the conscience is put into us by God acts as the immediate voice of God in our life. This explains how it can come from outside of us and yet be so personal. Even if someone does do not understand what the conscience is, if they heed it, they are following God, although this is true only on a very crude level. By opening ourselves up to its dictates, we open ourselves to God’s judgment, a judgment which always exists side by side by God’s grace. In accepting it, we accept God’s judgment and the reformation that is possible only through such acceptance. Again, on a very crude level, by accepting the dictates of the conscience, one is saying yes God and to God’s grace. The more one follows the dictates of the conscience, the more one opens oneself to reform, the more this judgment comes in and reforms the person involved. The more one is judged, the greater the grace will be. This truth keeps building upon itself more and more, bringing the person into greater and greater knowledge and insights about themselves and their relationship with the world and the Creator until one has a final encounter with judgment and grace in their eschatological encounter with the person of Jesus. He is our judge because he is our savior. “As the presence of the Word, he is God’s judgment: that is, he is ‘true light, that (in judgment) gives light to (or illuminates, makes visible) every man’, and draws the ‘works’ of every man to the light; here, it depends on the individual man whether he ‘hates’ this act of becoming disclosed in the light and then comes into judgment, or in faith willingly lets himself be ‘led over’ and enters the salvation of the light,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord VII:  The New Covenant. trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius press, 1989), 122. At each level of our personal development, we have the opportunity to say no, to turn away from the dictates of conscience; but even if we turn away, the conscience is always there, and the opportunity for metanoia remains with it. Jesus went to the depths of hell, joined himself in solidarity with all sinners, in order to be with the sinner at all possible stages of human denial of God; and at each stages, he offers his judging mercy which can free anyone around so they can say yes with him in his yes to God.

Salvation is dependent upon how we deal with the self. Do we hold on to it, and pit it against the rest of creation, making it as the only worthy goal of our activity? If we do, we will get what we want, we will be given that self. It will be, as much as possible, cut off from the rest of creation (it can never be completely removed from God, nor outside of the presence of Christ, for all existence, even the existence of the self, comes from God). We shall indeed be judged by the eternal judge based upon our own judgment. “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get,” (Matthew 7:2). The judge will illuminate for us what it is we desire, and he shall give it to us! If what we desire as the ultimate goal of life is our self, we will find how shallow, petty and terrible we are when we are given unto ourselves: our self will become our own private little hell. But we should know everyone will be led to experience this: everyone shall experience who it is they are in themselves. When this happens they will find the presence of Christ beside them, presenting judgment upon us, and offering us through his complete love the grace to make ourselves more, to open us up to the fullness of the divine life. But this means we must first abandon that very self which we have created and posited against the rest of creation. “He is asked to give up his idea of ‘self-realization’ (using his neighbor – and even God, if necessary – as a means to this end) and actually to lose his self; thus he may gain what, in the real and concrete God, is blessedness,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama V: The Last Act. Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 294. Total self-realization is a perpetually closed circle, incapable of receiving anything from the outside except as a means to an end. Only through love, only through opening up to a real personal encounter with God who is Love can we become open to others and be united with them in final beatitude. “What can be given to the creature, however, is love, and with this all its neediness can be transformed. The assent to such love need not be ‘created’ by man: this is not something which he achieves by his own power. And yet the freedom to resist the creation of that assent, the freedom not to accept it as one’s own, this freedom remains. Herein lies the difference between the beautiful dream of the Bodhisattva and its realization. The true Bodhisattva, Christ, descends into Hell and suffers it in all its emptiness, but does not, for all that, treat man as an immature being deprived in the final analysis of and responsibility for his own destiny. Heaven reposes upon freedom, and so leaves to the damned the right to will their own damnation,” Joseph Ratzinger, Dogmatic Theology 9: Eschatology. Trans. Michael Waldstein (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1988), 216. It is only the one who, after experiencing the full reality of themselves closed off to reality and continues, in their arrogance, to will for that existence, that we can say is in everlasting hell; for the rest of us, our encounter with Christ in the midst of that lonely closure of our self will be purgatory.

Without a comprehensive revelation from God, we can never have sufficient knowledge about the internal dispositions of those around us; we can never fully know their relationship with God and how culpable they are for what they know or do not know. This explains why there is hope that all might be saved. God alone knows how culpable they are, and God alone knows whether or not their teleological goal is themselves or the transcendent Good (which, of course, is God). Only God knows their response to him and his voice in their lives. We can and must make objective judgments, but we cannot and must not let that objectivity turn into a subjective judgment of someone’s eternal fate. The Church does not have any revelation about the damnation of individual, but only the salvation of the saints. “The silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for the Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, ‘It would be better for that man if he had never been born’ (Mt 26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation,” Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Trans. Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 186. This allows for the hope that all might be saved, although we must always accept the possibility of hell, especially for ourselves. “For the saints, ‘Hell’ is not so much a threat to be hurled at people but a challenge to oneself,” Ratzinger, Eschatology, 217. We know the judgment of the conscience upon our life, and we know what it asks us to do; we must forever keep it before us we live and breath, and will, however weakly, to follow its dictates so it can transform us into a person whose foundations and existence are in Christ.

There are some practical ramifications for this as we bring this back to the real world and the situations we face in life. There is great need for moral formation in our society. While rules are important and help establish aspects of this, we cannot rely upon them as the means for this formation. One can easily play by the rules for the wrong reason, and abuse them to some wrong end. Instead, as a society, we must embrace a higher call, a call of character where the way one is to engage their conscience is properly discussed and explained. As long as people think it is about rules, people will think their conscience is satisfied if they can find and argue some legalistic loophole for their action. But that’s not informing the conscience nor is it listening to the conscience, but it is silencing it and turning it off from the guidance it can and should give beyond any pharisaic legalism (of course, this does not mean rules should be ignored; the conscience will guide one to follow the legitimate orders of proper authorities; even if these orders go against one’s desires, they have a binding force; our submission will then be required, and following them can become a basis by which we learn to overcome the inclinations of concupiscence). 

This discussion reminds us why, despite the objective situation, there is always a subjective role in morality and in the determination of the culpability of those engaged in any individual act. The subjective nature of the act does not diminish the objective reality, but it does determine aim behind such an act. Is it for the ego in revolt against the Good, against God, or is it for the Good in rejection of the ego? Is it a yes to God or a yes to the ego? In the end, which will it be for us? Will we say to God, “Thy will be done” or will he say to us, “Thy will be done”? With correct moral formation, it will be easier for people to understand the need for the first, because they will already understand the limitations of the ego and why it can’t be relied upon for ultimate truth.

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