Children are familiar with the story of Jiminy Cricket who tells Pinocchio always to let his conscience be his guide. The wisdom of this advice hits people as they grow older. But many are also painfully aware of the problem presented by this advice: What is your conscience?
Conscience is sometimes called the subjective norm of morality. This means that conscience arises within us and helps us make moral decisions. Our conscience helps us take into consideration all the available data when confronted with a decision. It aids us in making the final judgment to act or not to act in a given situation. Along with the objective norm of morality – law – conscience helps us to determine whether we are doing right or wrong. This chapter will try to define and describe conscience, and the next chapter will discuss the role of law.
It is important to know what conscience is in order to respond better to others and to God. Conscience is often described as an inner voice which tells us what is right and what is wrong.
Perhaps a better way to describe conscience is in terms of self-awareness. Conscience enables us to be aware of ourselves and helps us act so that we become the persons we are capable of becoming. In other words, conscience is the capacity to judge whether an action or an attitude will help us grow as persons or whether such actions and attitudes will stifle, even kill, our growth as children of God.
As Christians, we know that our growth or non-growth does not take place in a vacuum. Our actions and attitudes involve others as well as ourselves. A religious notation of conscience sees it this way: Conscience is our inner dialogue with God who calls each one of us to act as the person we are. It is a judgment in the inner core of our being. If our conscience is formed properly, and if we decide to abide by its dictates, it helps us to respond to God’s invitation to live as his children.
A properly formed conscience, then, helps tune us in to what God wants for us in a particular situation. It comes into play at three separate points in every decision and action.
Here is an example:
Bob used the family car last night. While backing out of the parking lot on his way home, he damaged another car to the tune of about $3000. He did about $300 worth of damage to the family car. Realizing that his insurance rates would skyrocket if he admitted the accident, Bob did not leave a note on the damaged car, nor did he try to locate the owner. Today Bob feels uneasy about the decision.
Bob’s conscience was at work:
a. Before he acted, when he was trying to judge what to do or what not to do. Conscience helps a person to sort the data before a decision is made. It prompts us to look at the alternatives involved and the various consequences of each alternative. It helps in examining the right or wrong thing to do by reflecting on the teaching of our Lord and his church, the rights of others and the helpfulness to our growth.
b. As he acted, by enabling him to make a judgment after considering the relevant data. Conscience ultimately makes it possible for a person to act or not to act, to hold an attitude or not to hold one. It is that depth of our being which says “Yes, I am going to act.”
c. After he acted, through any afterthoughts he may have about his action the previous night. The third function of conscience is to help a person judge after the action whether the initial judgment was right. In Bob’s case maybe fear the night before blinded him to the right thing to do. If he is “conscientious” today, he will regret his action and try to make amends.
Before leaving Bob’s case, note two important points: First, our conscience can be misinformed. We may do the wrong thing because we have wrong information or no information at all. Sometimes we are at fault for either having wrong information or for our lack of knowledge. At other times, we are not at fault. Our obligation is to keep an open mind and to positively seek out the truth. Misinformation was not part of Bob’s case.
Second, we can violate our conscience. Bob’s conscience may very well have told him what to do before he acted (the first step above), but he simply may have ignored it. When we choose what our conscience clearly tells us is wrong, we do the wrong thing, we sin.
Though catholic Christians believe that sincerity and personal freedom are important in making conscience decisions, they are not supreme. For the Christian, individual decisions are always made with others in mind. For example, in the case of the car accident, it is very important for Bob sincerely to arrive at a decision and to do freely. But his sincerity and freedom do not make his action right! He must also take into consideration the rights of the owner of the damaged car. Further, he should consider the consequences of his action for society as a whole. What if everyone were dishonest in dealings with others? Society could hardly exist. And without a society which judges behavior as sometimes good and bad, Bob would not even have the right/privilege to drive in the first place.
Sincerity must always be tempered with correct judgment. And correct judgment should be in accord with the natural law and God’s will as made known to us in divine revelation. For example, we Catholics believe that neither good intentions nor a good outcome justify bad actions. Just because Bob wanted lower insurance rates (a good intention/ good outcome) does not mean that he was justified in leaving the scene of an accident (a bad action). This principle, a key one in Catholic morality, is sometimes stated this way: The end does not justify the means.
Peer relationships play an important role in shaping our values, especially during the adolescent years. Friends are vital to making moral decisions. But the advice of friends must not be our sole consideration in choosing the right thing to do. As with sincerity, the advice of our friends must always be tempered with correct judgment. We must know and act on our own values. To follow blindly the will of another is not to be a friend, but to be a mindless puppet. True friendship respects differences and helps each partner to feel more secure with his or her own convictions. Jesus’ warning that if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch makes tremendous sense when applied to matters of conscience.
Consider this case:
Tom, Sally and Jack were with their friends the other evening celebrating the end of the school year. They were coming back from a party when one of the members of the group suggested that it would be great fun to drive on the fairways of a suburban country club and tear up one of the greens. Several members of the groups decided to engage in the destruction, but Tom, Sally and Jack decided not to do so.
By investigating the reasons the three friends did not engage in “The Case of the Torn-up Greens,” we can discover three basics types of conscience.
Type 1: “Fear” Conscience or “What Am I Going to Get Out of It?”
Tom arrived at his decision not to join in the destruction for one simple reason—he was afraid he might be caught. He really wanted to be with the others, but his fear of the law kept him from doing so. Tom is like those who see God, church, parents and all authority figures as “cops” who are out to punish people for slipping up. In their better moments, they also see authority figures as those who will reward them for being good. They conform not so much because it is the right thing to do, but because they fear the bad consequences of their actions or look forward to the external rewards that will be theirs for doing the right thing.
Type 2: “A need to Please” Conscience
Sally also declined the invitation to joyride, but her reasoning was an advance on Tom’s. Her conscience easily detected the folly of destroying someone else’s property. She realized that by engaging in this action other people would be hurt. Sally appreciates the fact that a mature person tries to please others and works to respect the laws that help keep society together. She is more sensitive than Tom who seems more concerned with his own interests than with pleasing others or respecting the law.
Type 3: Christian Conscience
Jack demonstrated a high level of conscience development. Like Sally, he was concerned about others and also with the role of law. But his motivation was different. He considered the teaching of Jesus and saw the owners of the golf course as his own brothers and sisters. He responded to the Spirit’s call to treat everyone with love, to “treat others as you would have them treat you.” His criterion for choosing the right thing was neither fear nor expectation of reward; it was not merely to please others or to uphold a no-trespassing law. Jack clearly sees the real purpose of the law—to protect the property rights of other human beings who are our equals. He views the matter in terms of true justice and in terms of a love response to Jesus. His conscience dictates that he should respond to others in a sensitive, caring way.
Tom, Sally and Jack all did the right thing, even though they may have had different motives. They should all be praised for their good actions. However, the goal of a Christian conscience formation is to get beyond fear as a motivation for action.
Responding to people as persons related to us as brothers and sisters in Christ is the ideal in Christian behavior. Living our lives as children of God with a destiny of final union with him is the norm of Christian living. And the conscience that prompts us to act in this way is the mature conscience.
Jack’s case, the Christian conscience, clearly demonstrates our obligations in regard to conscience:
1. We must follow our conscience.
2. We must develop an informed conscience.
But how do we form this Type 3 conscience? How do we make decisions based on conscience?
The National Catechetical Directory sums up the process of responsible conscience development this way:
We live in good faith if we act in accord with conscience. Nevertheless moral decisions still require much effort. Decisions of conscience must be based on prayer, study, consultation, and an understanding of the teachings of the Church. One must have a rightly formed conscience and follow it. However, one’s right judgments are human and can be mistaken; one may be blinded by the power of sin or misled by the strength of desire.
Our obligation is twofold: We must develop an informed conscience, and we must follow that conscience.
Slander is the uttering of a false charge which damages the reputation of another. Suppose you overhear a classmate slander another classmate. You don’t know either of the individuals very well, but you do know that the classmate with the sharp tongue is lying and spreading false rumors.
Discuss: What would you do? What should you do?
Would it Matter: What if you knew the damaging remarks were in fact true? Would that change the situation? Why or why not?
1. Conscience is the subjective norm of morality which enables us to make moral decisions.
2. Conscience is the capacity to judge the rightness or wrongness of our actions and attitudes. It is inner dialogue with the Lord who calls us to be what we are meant to be.
3. Conscience operates before, during and after our decisions. It is possible, however, to have a misinformed conscience or an ignorant one. We can also freely violate the dictates of our consciences. When we do, we are doing the wrong thing and are guilty of sin.
4. Sincerity is important, but it is not enough. It must be tempered with good judgment.
5. Friends strongly influence our attitudes and values. Their example and advice often carry weight with us in moral decision-making. However, like sincerity our friend’s opinions must be tempered with our own good judgment.
6. A solid principle of Catholic morality is that the end does not justify the means. A good intention or reason for doing something does not justify using an evil way to achieve our purpose.
7. Conscience can operate out of motives of fear or expectation of reward, to please someone or to uphold the law. It can also operate out of the highest principles of love and justice, recognizing the worth of others as children of God. Christians are called to judge issues in loving ways.
8. Christians have two obligations in dealing with conscience: Follow your conscience and develop an informed conscience.
The above text is taken from the book Christian Morality and You by Michael Pennock with James Finley. It is for you to review