Sunday, June 19, 2022

What is conscience and when should we follow it?

I plan to post some unpublished material that’s been accumulating over the years, over at my main website.  First up is a lecture on the theme “What is Conscience and When Should We Follow It?” which I’ve given a couple of times but has never seen print.  Is conscience a kind of emotion?  A kind of perceptual faculty or “moral sense”?  An operation of the intellect?  Or some sui generis faculty?  When are we obligated to follow conscience?  What is a lax conscience?  A scrupulous conscience?  A doubtful conscience?  What does the Catholic Church teach about these matters?  These issues and related ones are addressed in the talk.

33 comments:

  1. nice round-up on the wooly topic of conscience

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  2. I find it helpful to conceive of the intellect operating on a spectrum running from conscious to subconscious. Under this view, Conscience operates more on the subconscious end, intellectually arriving at conclusion that some might label 'feeling' or 'intuition' because they seem spontaneously arrived at to the conscious awareness. However, it was the result of a subrosa operation of the intellect, a 'back office' processes of reason behind the scenes.
    Additionally, I think that subconscious has a tremendous module that I'd call a 'compare' function. It runs a current situation by the library of existing knowledge and experiences and often can quickly find a match for which a moral judgment has already been concluded. And it's done in a flash!

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  4. I’ll tell you what, people consistently convincing themselves that what they find repulsive is actually the next step to inclusivity are not following their conscience.

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  5. Like that. A lot. Because it follows closely what ' is happening here'. 'Nuff said...

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  6. I note that one may not have "either a lax conscience or a scrupulous conscience" because you can have both. At the same time.

    "You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity."

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  7. Very nice lecture. So, how does what is said there about conscience fits with our aesthetic sense? Is it a sorta of way that our intellect judge something to be beautiful, similar to conscience and morality, or is it a diferent faculty? It is hard to know here because the criterias to judging beauty are more unclear than the ones used on ethics


    Also, another thing, it is right that our ethical judgments tend to use reason more?, it seems to me that there is a lot of things we know that can only be used by reason indirectly, with the intelect being the one calling the shots more.

    Since i saw a augustinian arguing that thomistic epistemology can't deal well with the way we know ethical truths i found myself thinking on the relation between our moral sense and reason and what i got is something like this: the intellect get from the phantasms the forms of beings but does not do so by a process of inference, we sort of get the knowledge of these forms in a more intuitive way, thanks to the intellect. My contact with dogs helps me know dogness but the operation does not "pass" between reason, the concept will only do so when i reason about dogs.

    It seems to me that this would explain why we usually have so much dificult in making our more intuitively-know beliefs explicity even when we do judge based on them all the time. Also would fit well with our aesthetic sense and it seems to me that it would escape the old problem of having all our reasoning circular because, says the skeptic, we can't justify any premise except by using a argument, which would have his premises as well etc. If the intellect aprehend somethings directly* them there are truths that do not need arguments to be believed.

    *like the "fallor, ergo sum" or that other people have minds, we hardly reason to these

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  8. Thank you for sharing this post, Dr. Feser. I’d like to ask a question (please forgive me if your article already addresses this matter, but there’s something with additional complexity I’d like to add, by way of example).

    The question: Is it OK to simply trust the guidance of a regularly consulted priest (and spiritual director) in matters where Church Law SEEMS to be applicable, but no formal teaching appears to be made? Specifically, let’s take the example of a baptized — but non-practicing — Catholic relative, that’s marrying without canonical form (and also without any known dispensation). Let’s add that a person’s LACK of attendance (in this case: a married man w/ growing children) would cause very significant familial turbulence and argumentation with one’s spouse and family, and could significantly hurt the marriage. This, of course, could result in additional emotional damage to one’s growing children.

    IF that person (the married man w/ children), after consulting carefully w/ his conservative spiritual director were told that, for the sake of familial harmony, that it would be permissible to attend the “marriage”: would it be OK to simply trust and follow the priest’s instructions?

    This seems like one area where The Church really needs to provide clarity. It also seems like a situation where the principles of probabilism would certainly be applicable.

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    1. I will offer two answers, one general and the other specific. For the general: if there is truly no definitive Church guidance (as in the example you gave), then yes, it is certainly appropriate to take the question to a reliable priest and go by their advice. Or to another counselor, frankly, though in MOST cases priests have more training than lay people on moral or religious problems. The point is that if there is no Church teaching that speaks to the question in a clear way, then this (it would seem) constitutes the kind of area in which your own judgment - guided by the right general principles - can determine what seems best.

      In the example given, in my opinion the critical principles are those of whether attending the "wedding" represents formal or material cooperation with evil, and if material only, whether it is immediate or remote material cooperation. And (if the latter), whether it is possible to mitigate the potential for scandal by going sufficiently. It would seem that being either the officiant, or the legally required witnesses (usually, the best man and maid of honor) would be formally cooperating, because their action is NECESSARY for the event to occur. Being in mere attendance does not imply formal cooperation. But being AT the "wedding" itself seems more like immediate material cooperation, than, say, being at the reception or some later event, so arguably being at the reception is not immediate material cooperation with evil, and MAY be moral, i.e. if the good effects outweigh the bad effects. All the more so if you can explain (to the couple getting "married", especially, but also to others) that you ARE NOT going to the ceremony itself, because you are afraid no real marriage is taking place, thus reducing the risk of scandal by your presence.

      But these latter kinds of weighings are, in themselves, the sort of prudential judgments that can work out differently for different situations, and thus (a) are not ripe for general Church pronouncements, and (b) a indeed open to personal judgment and therefore not locked in stone.

      And by-the-way, I think this was a great example to use: as far as I can tell, it USED TO BE the case that there was a well-understood and well-obeyed standard that a good Catholic did not attend a "wedding" of a Catholic not sanctioned by the Church. But that standard held in a day in which (a) society itself upheld MOST of what the Church understands by marriage, and (b) nearly everyone around you would understand by your attendance that you were intending to defy the Church in this matter. In such a situation, your attendance would almost always provide unmitigatable scandal, and often WOULD happen on account of formal cooperation with evil. Going forward 60 or 80 years, society no longer upholds what the Church understands about marriage, and the average Catholic is so ill-catechized on his faith and what marriage really means, that neither (a) nor (b) above apply any more. So (at least arguably), the earlier normative standard (of not attending such weddings) is no longer AS controlling as it used to be: it wasn't (so far as I can find) an actual Church law. And this makes it a good test case.

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    2. Thank you for this response. Beautifully written.

      I think this very example may truly be one of THE BEST examples of how terribly catechized Catholics are today. In fact, I’d like to know the actual % of Catholics that even know canonical form is a thing. While many might not be CULPABLE of mortal sin, they’re doing something that’s objectively contrary to Church Law.

      This ALSO seems to be an area where (from my experience anyway) that you’ll get a wide variety of answers even from individual PRIESTS. I’ve heard things from priests ranging from “two Catholics are married automatically by the fact that they’re baptized”, to “well, they’re still MARRIED, just not in The Church”, and whole variety of other bizarre answers.

      Now, interestingly, it seems that, even before the 1983 revisions, The Church HAS recognized marriages as valid even if the vows were exchanged SOLELY BEFORE WITNESSES, viz. without a priest (i.e. I think there was a “30 day rule” where a priest would have to bless the marriage within 30 days FROM the date of original consent, but I could be mistaken on that. I think this was more common in remote areas w/ limited access to priests). But, I believe this still required permission in advance from The Church, similar to the dispensation from canonical form that exists today.

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  9. Now, a doubtful conscience should never be followed. The reason is that if you follow a doubtful conscience, you will be doing something that you believe stands a serious chance of being wrong. If you didn’t believe that, your conscience wouldn’t be doubtful. What you may follow, and indeed what you must follow, is only ever a certain conscience.

    While most of the article is excellent, I must set forth a complaint at this point. I don't think that this "doubtful" and "certain" are explained adequately. Let me illustrate by using numbers for probability, while acknowledging that the judgment faculty isn't really using numbers for the judgments it is making. Suppose that (like is sometimes the case in law), you think that a probability below 5% is acceptable for setting forth a contingency that is "so remote as to be negligible". Now suppose that your judgment is that the probability of the proposed action being one that is immoral is more like 7%. This is no longer "so remote as to be negligible." But neither does it clearly and readily fit the description "you will be doing something that you believe stands a serious chance of being wrong". 20% is a "serious chance". 12% might possibly be a "serious chance". 7%...probably isn't a serious chance. The difficulty is that while there can be areas of probability that we are EASILY sure are "negligible", there is (and, from the nature of the case, almost MUST BE) a gradual slide from "serious chance" toward "negligible" that, at its foundation, is not readily and clearly judged to be "serious" or "negligible", but is something more like "not-negligible but not serious". There is, at root, no basic principle that divides the epistemic range of confidence levels so that no action could fail to be a "serious chance" of being wrong if the chance is not "negligible". There is no bright-line demarcation in such epistemic estimation.

    I would also suggest that precisely because the estimative faculty, being combined with the judgment of morality, is NOT capable of assigning specific numbers to these confidence levels, the issue of what level of confidence you have about whether an action is "likely" to be immoral is all the more not well-analyzed in terms of "serious chance" vs "negligible", without room for chances that lie in between those. But if there IS room for the "chance it is wrong" to lie between those, all the discussion has done is to move the goalpost to THAT issue, and then leave it simply unaddressed. While we might not have articulated it quite so well as Feser did, we were already pretty clear that when your conscience says "there is a high chance that's immoral", we probably shouldn't do it. The real difficulty has ALWAYS been with the problem cases where the judgment faculty is saying that it is "less probable than 'serious' " but still not (or not clearly) "negligible."

    You can get out of (much) of the difficulty by making a rule that you don't do any action whose chance of being immoral is more than negligible, (and avoiding "serious chance" phrasing altogether), but I fear that the BASIS for this kind of rule is not clearly articulated.

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  10. I suggest there is less of mystery about conscience than may appear. Augustine famously said, Love God, and do what you please. For those of us who do not affirm belief in God, this dictum might be rephrased, Love your neighbor, and do what you please. Why should we care, you may ask, if we don't affirm God? We care because experience has taught us that loving neighbor, and seeking to maintain justice, are good.

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  11. Does Aristotle have a conception of "conscience"?

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  12. Today is a great day! We all know why....:D

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    1. Indeed it is, Son of Ya'Kov! Abortion is against natural law. The Greek physicians who wrote the Hippocratic Oath around the 4th century B.C. knew that.

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    2. The decision was announced today, right? Because it happening in the day of Our Lord Sacred Heart would be cool.

      Anyway, very good news indeed! The fight is not over yet but it is possible!

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    3. While I do think that it is a day to rejoice and celebrate. I think it's also important to note that this win is the result of a dedicated and competent conservative legal movement. Two of the key jurors in the decision were Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito who who were appointed by Bush Sr and Bush jr respectively. I mention this because some people have been giving Trump credit which he doesn't really deserve. He did what any other generic Republican President would have done. He just happened to get three vacancies during his tenure .To suggest that those who supported Trump especially in the Republican Primaries were somehow doing God's work or that Trump himself was doing God's work seems arbitrary to me. Trump's role in it is at best tangential. He just happened to be the guy. And one might want to hold one's horses before praising Trump too much, because of all the prominent republicans, his reaction has been the most sombre, he has been reportedly telling everyone that this move will be bad for republicans politically. Apart from the utterly disgusting attitude of only thinking about everything in terms of one's electoral prospects,God forbid that he starts supporting pro choice candidates if there indeed is political backlash against Republicans. It wouldn't help to point that God works in mysterious ways if this terrible outcome does materialise. Instead one should just rejoice in this victory and works towards reducing Trump's influence in the GOP if we want to maintain this win.

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    4. Norm,
      Things are more complicated than you suggest. Bush Sr gave us Souter (who supported Roe v Wade) and Thomas (who opposed it). Bush Jr gave us Roberts (who upheld Roe v Wade and not just on this last vote). Bush Jr also nominated Miers (who has said she would have upheld Roe v Wade) and it was only because of her poor performance interviewing with senators that led to the nomination of Alito (who opposed Roe v Wade). Judicial conservatives did see the nominations of Souter and Miers as betrayals, and Roberts was at least a poor choice also.
      Trump (for all his many faults) did not betray conservatives on the Roe v Wade issue. I am skeptical that a Jeb Bush, say, would have done as well in nominating and fighting for such justices, even assuming that he won the general election (no sure thing). And certainly Roe v Wade would not have been overturned if Clinton had won in 2016.
      Rod Dreyer did not vote for Trump and has been one of Trump's harshest critics in the last six years (and I agree with most of those criticisms). But Dreyer recently said, "Let us be thankful for Donald Trump; I didn't vote for him in part because I didn't think he would do anything in the courts; I have scarcely been happier to admit I was wrong. This would not have happened without his presidency."
      I agree with you that conservatives can do much better than Trump in 2024, but that does not negate what I said above.

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    5. "I mention this because some people have been giving Trump credit which he doesn't really deserve. He did what any other generic Republican President would have done."

      The cope is strong with this one.

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    1. Hope you, your brother and the rest of the family get a cool day.

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  14. Did the Supreme Court actually call B.S. on Roe v Wade? Because if true I might actually love America for having a heart and a brain.

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  15. Honestly I am very proud of America for ending Roe v Wade finally. May freedoms banner reign high.

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  16. Abortions will continue in this country. They will be harder to get, but they will continue.

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    1. Of course they will continue. It will.be busness as usual in the more liberal states, and those in others who can afford it and are able to travel will just go to them to procur their services. The women who will be utterly screwed by this will be the poor and powerless who have the great misfortune to live in right wing/ religious states.

      Of course, horror stories about the poor being forced into backstreet abortions, or being compelled to carry their pregnancy to term following incest or rape, or despite significant danger to their health or life will follow soon enough. There will then be a huge backlash against this, even in conservative America.

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    2. [i] Abortions will continue in this country. They will be harder to get, but they will continue.[/i]

      And Carthage must burn.

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    3. Carthago delenda est

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  17. If you think carefully about St. Thomas his "intellectualism" is not as intellectualist as it is made out to be. Practical intellect is will. In other words when we will we are, at once, understanding. Will is not blind. In other words there is no antiseptic division between intellect and will. There is a real distinction, but real distinction implies a real link. Will moves the whole soul. Is everything based on intellect? Yes but one needs to go into the depths to penetrate the meaning this has in St. Thomas. It is not a superficially intellectualist doctrine.

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    1. Very good point there. St. Thomas let the will, the controled passions and the habits have their place on a healthy individual life, he is hardly a intellectualist on the way the word is used normally.

      This short of intellectualism that sharply divides intellect and will seems to exist only when the intellect is conceived as the only real feature of a soul that is so high and divine it is a literaly separate thing from the other parts of the individual which is stuck on the body, so needs to let go of everything non-rational before being free again or, ironically, when the intellect is conceived as a limited thing that can only deal with the world of abstractions provided by modern science, so can't deal with anything non-quantitative, anything outside this little prision.

      As the Philosopher would say: virtue is in the mean.

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  19. Just wanted to add something to an interesting debate Prof. is having on twitter.
    It may be pertinent to note that Pope Saint John Paul 2 very frequently used the language of "invitation" while referring to Christ's words..

    Here are atleast six occasions where he said "Christ Invites Us", two of them while addressing the youth.

    http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/1998/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_23091998.html

    http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1982/may/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19820528_cattedrale-southwark.html

    http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/messages/youth/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_24111991_vii-world-youth-day.html

    http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1984/september/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19840912_giovani-terranova.html


    http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1979/may/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19790521_ist-non-cattolici.html

    http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1979/june/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19790630_concistoro-pubblico.html

    Apart from that, he always almost used the language of "invites" while referring the church, i.e "the church Invites us" or "the Church invites you "

    Cheers :)

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  20. This is ultra-important because CCC 1800 allows for abortion/murder by conscience which is forbidden by CCC 2258 and 2261.
    1. CCC 1800…“1800 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” does not exist in the Catholic Church, nowhere in the Magisterium. It is not Catholic dogma or doctrine. You cannot show where it is an official teaching of the Magisterium. 1800 has never been defined by the Church as it stands.
    2. CCC 1800 has no citations, no footnotes, no references, no documentation. Therefore, it itself admits it is not official Catholic teaching, it cannot justify itself.
    3. The CCC is not allowed to use Ex Cathedra terminology unless it is a Magisterial teaching. 1800 is an obvious violation that is simply taken for granted because it is in the CCC and nobody cares that it is unsupported by the Magisterium and completely absent from the Catholic Magisterium.
    4. CCC 2258 "Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being."56
    5. CCC 2261 “The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.”.
    Both 2258 and 2261 contradicts 1800 because “Thou Shall Not Kill” is binding to each and every person, always and everywhere regardless of conscience.
    Please help me!
    Sincerely,
    Chris Griffin

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