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Conscience isn’t an emotion — not even close


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 10/06/20

5 principles you must know (and use!).

SON: Dad, what’s the best way to avoid bad decisions?

DAD: Experience.

SON: What’s the best way to get experience?

DAD: Making bad decisions.

The meaning of moral goodness has been disputed since humans began disputing. Whatever else moral goodness might mean, it must surely include the following prerequisites: 1) Being aware of what we must know; 2) being aware of what we can’t not know; 3) being aware of what our intellectual and moral options are; 4) choosing wisely among our options; 5) acting in a manner that is consistent with what we know to be true and good.

Surely, it would be undesirable to come to know only by chance the prerequisites for moral goodness. “Making-bad-decisions-to-get-experience-to-make-good-decisions” is a frightfully hazardous process. Likewise, it must be undesirable to arrive at the prerequisites of human flourishing by a sheer act of an unguided and unaccountable will.

The impulsive movement of the will towards moral actions either good or evil, fueled by strong emotion, and guided by little or nothing, is what nowadays all too many people (alas!) describe as conscience. (I’ve written before how replying to demands for explanations of our moral choices with, “Because conscience!” is a variation of “’Shut up,’ he explained.” See HERE and HERE.)

Conscience, as understood for millennia, and confirmed by the Church repeatedly, is not an emotional impulse best expressed by, “I just feel that …”

The work of conscience is primarily the work of reason. The Latin roots of the word conscience (con scientia “with knowledge) confirm this. Reason makes a judgment of fact, that is, “This is true; that is false.” That conclusion leads to a judgment of value, that is, “This action is good and praiseworthy; this action is evil and blameworthy.” All of that takes place prior to emotions—or at least it should.

The problem is that sometimes, we fallen finite creatures, we sinners (and I certainly count myself among them!) desire what we know to be bad for us and our neighbor; sometimes we desire what offends God. When our desires overwhelm our reason, the knowledge of the facts can be suppressed, distorted or even evacuated. How clever the devil is! He exploits our desires for what is ungodly, and then tells us that we can “bless” our wicked choices by repeating the word “conscience.” The devil knows this is a trick—we should know that too.


Read more:
14 Quotes from Pope Francis on the devil

Knowledge of what is true and good is not enough. We must train our hearts to desire what reason indicates is true and good. In that way, a well-formed conscience (that is, a rational commitment to the true and the good in all the particulars) is put to use a good moral character. Character is a more-or-less stable disposition of the soul to moral quality. We are either inclined to good or evil. A person who has been trained to do the right thing, the right way, for the right reason, until such action becomes a matter of habit, has a good moral character. His reason, his heart, and his will are all aimed to the moral good, and disinclined from moral evil.

So understood, we can identify some general principles that are indispensable for any consideration of conscience:

  1. Conscience is primarily an exercise of reason, not feeling;
  2. Conscience can’t do its job well apart from the truth;
  3. Conscience can’t do its job well apart from true judgments of what is good or evil;
  4. Conscience is properly formed when it conforms to facts and true moral value;
  5. Conscience properly formed must partner with good moral character to get the job done.

We might summarize the above with what I call the “Moral Equation.” (You can learn more about the Moral Equation in my book Real Philosophy for Real People: Tools for Truthful Living, available HERE.)

The Moral Equation states: “Rightly value what is rightly valuable so that you may rightly desire what is rightly desirable, choosing the right means to the right ends, in order to attain your ultimate destiny.”

In other words, the role of conscience is to engage the whole soul, led by reason, not emotions, to orient the whole person to know, desire, and choose goods in their proper time, manner, and order, so that we can become the saints God created us to be. That is the work of a whole human life and the work of a lifetime. There are no shortcuts, no easy ways to acquire the habits of mind, heart, action and character necessary to be morally good. The wisdom of the Church can teach us how.

And remember this—the entire process comes to a screeching halt with the words, “I just feel that …”


Read more:
Saints who were ‘good’ and then found holiness

When I write next, I will continue our discussion of conscience. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Spiritual Life
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