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What to do with a doubtful conscience


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 11/10/20

Different routes to certainty

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; Part 4 on moral certainty here)

True or false: Living with a conscience is like driving a car with the brakes on.

My short answer: Not quite! 

The start of my longer answer: It is true that conscience can act like brakes on our moral activity, slowing us down so that we have time to consider, lest we act precipitously. And, like brakes, a misapplied conscience can slow us down when we need to get moving quickly, say, to get out of the way of an oncoming train (in the case of brakes), or to intervene to stop a child’s abduction (in the case of conscience).

Likewise, just as brakes can stop a car from going off a cliff, conscience can stop us from committing grave evil. Alas, also like brakes, a misapplied conscience can stop us from getting to our moral destination, because we see that the journey will be hard to make, and we just do not feel like doing what needs to be done to get us there.

Conscience functions as a power of command: “Do this! Do not do that!” What if conscience is not sufficiently sure?

How do we respond if our conscience has significant doubt about a moral matter, yet we still need to act?

Maybe this illustration will help. Imagine hunting in the woods. You hear a rustling sound. You ready your rifle. It may be a deer nearby! Or it may be another hunter. You would be disappointed to miss a deer; you would be horrified to shoot a fellow hunter. Do you take the shot? Of course not. No morally sane person would. 

If you are in fact invincibly ignorant that your conscience is erroneous, you are not at fault for your mistaken judgment, and you have no reason to believe that your judgment is mistaken. The same cannot be said if you are the hunter described above, and you pull the trigger. You acted with a doubtful conscience. You know that you do not know whether your target is a deer or a man; you violate the moral law if you nonetheless pull the trigger, even if you end up shooting a deer rather than your neighbor. You made no effort to avoid an apparent violation of the moral law, and you were prepared to act, whether the act violated the moral law or not. Such moral laxity is blameworthy.

What is your obligation when your conscience is doubtful?

You must strive for moral certitude. You can do so via the direct method by reasoning, inquiry, and consultation You can apply reasoning to the evidence. You can inquire after more evidence. You can consult with experts and ask for their advice. You must, as Jesuit Austin Fagothey says, “… use all the means that normally prudent people are accustomed to use, in proportion to the importance of the problem.”

In other words, you might be able to afford being wrong about adding an ingredient to a recipe when baking cookies; you can’t afford to be wrong about when to pull the trigger of your hunting rifle when you’re uncertain of your target. Given the grave matter (life or death for an innocent human being), the morally correct thing to do is not to pull the trigger.

What to do if the direct method does not produce the desired results?

You can have recourse to the indirect method.

Remember that morally significant doubt has two sides. You can be in doubt about the facts; you can be in doubt about your obligation in response to the facts.

The first doubt, regarding facts, is called theoretical or speculative — doubt that cannot be resolved, because the direct method proved to be fruitless.

Nonetheless, the second doubt, regarding obligation, is called practical or operative doubt.

Again, Father Fagothey summarizes succinctly: “Though many doubts are invincible theoretically, every doubt is vincible practically. A person can be certain of what he is obliged to do, how he is expected to act, what conduct is required of him, while remaining in a state of unsolved theoretical doubt … In other words, he finds out the kind of conduct that is certainly lawful for the doubting person. This process of solving a practical doubt without touching the theoretical doubt is called forming one’s conscience.” 

When I write next, I will speak of how to form one’s conscience. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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