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Conscience: Just how certain are you? And how certain do you have to be?



Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 11/03/20

Moral certainty has to be earned. Here's what that means.

This is a continuation of our series on learning to read the (conscience) manual. (See Part 1 on the conscience manual here; Part 2 on conscience and feelings here; Part 3 on kinds of conscience here.)

Have you heard this story before?

A man visited Niagara Falls for the first time. Awed by the majestic spread of water, height, and power, he was surprised to see a wire stretched from one end of the falls to the other. He was even more surprised when he saw a woman approach him with a wheelbarrow full of bricks.She asked him, “Do you believe that I can cross that wire with this wheelbarrow full of bricks?” He replied, “Not at all! That’s crazy!” She winked at him and said, “Watch this!”He couldn’t believe his eyes as he saw the woman get up on the wire with the wheelbarrow full of bricks. She walked right across, turned around, and came back. She asked him, “NOW do you believe that I can cross the wire with this wheelbarrow?”“Oh yes!” he said. “Now I believe!” “Do you really believe?” she asked. “Oh yes! Now I really believe!” She asked, “Do you really, really believe?” “Oh yes!” he replied. “I really, really believe!”She winked at him, emptied the wheelbarrow of bricks and said, “Fine—if you really, really believe, then YOU get in the wheelbarrow.”

I tell you this story in the context of our ongoing series about reading the conscience manual. We’ve seen that conscience—contrary to popular misunderstanding—is primarily a work of intellect and not emotion. Now we need to look at conscience in terms of certainty and doubt.

Let me take a page from business parlance and present the B.L.U.F. (“Bottom Line Up Front”): It’s not enough to take a moral action because you’re “sure” that it’s the right thing to do. You can be sure and wrong. In other words, your moral certainty has to be earned—and that earned certainty requires effort to know the truth and the cultivation of character to act on the truth. First responders say, “People don’t rise to the occasion—they fall to the level of their training.” That’s true in times of physical crisis; it’s also true in times of moral decision-making.

Conscience always has subjective and objective dimensions. Subjectively, my conscience is mine and your conscience is yours. Objectively, both you and I have an obligation to conform to the moral law, to do good and avoid evil.

Subjective and objective dimensions are also found with regard to conscience and certitude. I may be subjectively certain about the judgment of my conscience in a given case, and simultaneously objectively wrong about the judgment itself.

According to the conscience manual, in that case I have a “certain but erroneous” conscience. Likewise, I may be subjectively certain about the judgment of my conscience in a given instance, and simultaneously objectively right about the judgment itself. According to the conscience manual, I have then a “certain and correct” conscience. 

A certain and correct conscience is simply a conformity of an individual’s conscience to the moral law as applied to a particular act under consideration. Consequently, a certain and correct conscience must be obeyed. A moral agent betrays himself and the moral law (which comes from God) if he does not do so.

What degree of certainty is required in order to be obliged to follow one’s certain conscience?

Here’s where the anxious and the scrupulous tie themselves in knots. Some moral issues are always black and white (e.g., always love God; never abort your children). Many moral issues are legitimately gray, and preclude the possibility of absolute certainty. As Jesuit Austin Fagothey put it: “In moral matters strict mathematical certitude (metaphysical certitude, the opposite of which is a contradiction) or even the certitude of physical events (the opposite of which would be a miracle) is not to be expected.”

Consequently, in most moral judgments, Fagothey says, “It is sufficient that the conscience be prudentially certain …,” precluding “… prudent fear that the opposite may be true, but it does not rule out imprudent fears based on bare possibilities.”

Again, borrowing some language from the business world, in the exercise of conscience, a morally mature person would exercise “due diligence.” Doing beforehand all that could reasonably be done in evaluating a moral action under consideration, a conclusion is reached that can be acted on with confidence.

And it’s worth repeating (and repeating): The work of conscience is primarily a work of the intellect, identifying moral principles and evaluating morally-relevant facts; it is not primarily an examination of how one feels about a moral action.

We’ve reviewed moral certitude—what it is and what to do with it. When I write next, I will speak of the obligation of conscience in the face of doubt. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Spiritual Life
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