Conscience: It’s time to read the manual

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First in a series on rediscovering moral competence.

How would you respond to the following?

Oh—you’ve never driven a car with a standard transmission before? It’s not hard—and the manual is in the glove compartment.

I raise this question for two reasons: 1) this situation really happened to me; 2) the situation can teach us a lot about conscience.

I’ve already written extensively in these pages about conscience, especially recently, because it seems necessary in response to challenges facing members of the Church today, and because it’s an election year where I live. Consequently, lots of folks are talking about conscience, most often quite badly, and, sadly, very often, quite dangerously.

My father used to say to me, “None of you kids arrived with a manual, you know!” In the moral life, “reading the manual” is not enough—one has to act and one has to act rightly. That kind of action takes practice (lots of it) and it takes more thought than most people realize (or so it seems to me, at least). Good cooks will tell you that good cooking starts with following a good recipe. Good cooking can become great cooking when a cook equipped with hard-won insight and knowledge goes beyond the recipe to create something exceptionally admirable. No good cooking is done by spurning all recipes. In other words, there is a value, an indispensable value, to learning how to “read the manual.” So too for the moral life.

The reason so many people say such foolish things about morality, and then act more foolishly than their words could have indicated, is because they never “read the manual.” They’ve never availed themselves of the wisdom accumulated over the millennia by great sages, scholars, and saints reflecting on natural moral law and divine law. Consequently, they may discover, after many misadventures and regrets, the wisdom of the words, “When all else fails, follow the directions.”

What I’d like to do with you is to “read the manual” associated with conscience. Of course, one doesn’t become a moral person just by reading the manual, any more than one becomes a pilot by reading a book about flying. But in both cases, one is less likely to come to a bad end if one is familiar with the directions.

Contrary to popular opinion, conscience is not a feeling (not even a very strong feeling!) nor is it “the little voice in your head that tells you what to do” (there’s medication for that). Conscience, as the Latin roots suggest (con-scienctia) is acting “with knowledge.” Conscience is a function of the intellect, based on knowledge of moral principles as well as the knowledge of morally relevant facts pertaining to the case. Regarding the latter, when someone begins with, “My conscience says …” rather than “The evidence I’ve gathered shows …,” I tend to be skeptical and suspicious.

So, what I propose that we do here in this forum is to “read the manual” together—that is, to review step-by-step a distillation of the tried-and-true wisdom of Western civilization regarding conscience. In the coming weeks, we will look at conscience across three dimensions, namely, as intellect, process, and judgment. My promise to you is that unlike other technical manuals you’ve come across and tossed aside, the walk-through of the manual for an owner/operator of a well-formed conscience will be understandable, memorable, and above all—useful.

Along the way, I will try to be at least a bit entertaining. And maybe, just maybe, I will tell you about my first encounter with a standard transmission.

When I write next, I will speak of conscience in terms of the intellect as a faculty of forming judgments about the moral quality of actions. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer. 

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