The allied judges at Nuremburg had little sympathy for the reply, “I was just following orders.” What if the defendants had said, “I was just following my conscience?” Would that have made a difference? Would it have made what they did right? We often treat an appeal to conscience as a justification for our behavior. Does conscience really justify? To reply adequately, we need to consider the nature of the moral conscience.
Vatican II defines conscience in a three-fold way: 1) the knowledge we possess about right and wrong from our own moral formation (which may be good or poor); that we 2) bring to bear upon some concrete situation requiring a moral decision; and 3) the conclusion—or “conscience judgment”—we come to (through our deliberation and in light of our moral knowledge) that the act under consideration is or is not morally good, and therefore is or is not permissible. (See Gaudium et Spes , nos. 16 17; Dignitatis Humanae , nos. 2-3, 14)
Because it is our last and best judgment concerning what’s right and wrong, the tradition says that a conscience judgment binds us to obedience, not by chains, but by the force of the moral “ought.” The ought binds us because in the end it is a judgement on ourselves: if I do what I judge I ought not to do (or vice versa), then I am willing to be an evil-doer.
Conscience Is “Supreme”
It is in this sense that the tradition, following Aquinas, says that “conscience is supreme:” because in the last analysis, if I wish to be a good person, I must follow what I believe to be right and flee from what I believe to be evil; and that judgment comes from conscience.
This is even the case when my conscience is in error, because under the circumstances I don’t know I’m in error, and hence think my judgment is correct. Therefore, to oppose my judgment would be, as far as I’m concerned, to do what I judge to be wrong, and this is always wrong, even if my judgment, because of a mistaken conscience, is wrong. Blessed John Henry Newman writes :
If a man is culpable in being in error, which he might have escaped, had he been more in earnest, for that error he is answerable to God, but still he must act according to that error, while he is in it, because he in full sincerity thinks the error to be truth.
Right For Me?
This raises the question of this essay: If my conscience is supreme in moral decision-making, and it decides that some act under consideration is right, then isn’t that act truly right for me? Only if the act is in accord with objective moral truth. If, however, my conscience is in error, the answer is emphatically No!
“But you said,” one might object, “that I am still bound by it.” And I am. But to say I am bound to obey it, does not mean I am obeying a right conscience. A right conscience means my judgement about what is good is true. If I judge something that’s bad to be good, and I act on the judgment, then my act is objectively bad, inconsistent with human good. Only acts that are objectively good are good for me.
Conscience is like a gold miner; moral truth is the gold. If I believe a pile of fool’s gold is real, I may be excused for my error; but I’m not now rich. If my erroneous conscience is due to ignorance that is entirely beyond my control, there is no guilt associated with following it. But even though the conscience is not blameworthy, the behavior it directs is most certainly not praiseworthy. The most the tradition has been willing to say is that I am “excused” for following it (see Aquinas, ST, II-II, Question 71, Article 3 , paragraph beginning, “I answer that …”).
This is because morality underwrites human nature. A morally good act is in accord with human good, and a morally bad act is contrary to human good. Although my will is not bad if I follow an invincibly ignorant conscience, the act is still contrary to my good and often bad for others. So, for example, while it is possible that an abused child who has learned to lie to avoid harm may have an invincibly ignorant conscience, the lying is still harmful to her. Why? Because she believes lying is sometimes good! So she lies to other people, which warps her understanding of truth-telling, alienates her from people, and even disposes her to lie when she does know it’s wrong.
Conscience is not the final arbiter of right and wrong. As Vatican II teaches: “[Conscience] testifies to a law that is not its own.” The authority of conscience derives from the objectivity of moral truth. Conscience has authority to judge right from wrong because there is an objective right and wrong.
What’s the payoff of all this? The Christian tradition answers loudly and consistently: sound conscience formation is necessary to a healthy moral life.
We have a serious duty to engage in the life-long search for moral truth. When we find it, we have a duty to incorporate it into what we already know. And thus we increasingly build up over time a conscience and a self that knows the truth, loves the truth and follows the truth.