Forming the conscience and discerning the morally safer course.
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; Part 5 on doubtful consciences here.)
Have you ever sung this little song? When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!
It’s a catchy tune, and the lyrics, though whimsical, describe a common and sometimes frustrating or even dangerous experience: You have to make an important decision, the stakes are high, the outcome unclear, the information is incomplete or unreliable, and various principles may or may not apply. Understandably, some people are paralyzed and unable to decide. Some people seem to be permanently crippled by “the paralysis of analysis.”
I refer to these poor souls collectively as the “Oblates of Perpetual Discernment.” Sadly, even more people say, “I know what to do! I’ll just follow my conscience!” That’s sad because, as I’ve already noted in this series, when most people talk about “following conscience” they are actually talking about yielding to whatever emotion is strongest at the moment.
That path most often leads to disasters great and small, and, perhaps even worse, solidifies that common misunderstanding of conscience. Nevertheless, important moral decisions may be called for in the presence of imperfect information and a doubtful conscience. What should happen next?
The goal in such situations is to find what is certainly morally licit for a person in a state of doubt about what is to be done.
The steps to resolving such a practical doubt is called “forming one’s conscience.”
Let’s turn again to Jesuit Father Austin Fagothey’s succinct summary:
The process of forming one’s conscience is accomplished by the use of reflex principles, so called because the mind uses them while reflecting on the state of doubt and ignorance in which it finds itself. Two such principles are of application here: 1) The morally safer course is to be chosen. 2) A doubtful law does not bind. The first principle may always be used, but the second is subject to very definite restrictions.
Regarding the first principle, let’s state a definition and then consider some applications. A morally safer course is one that, as Fagothey says, “… more surely preserves the moral law, more certainly avoids sin.”
As any combat soldier can tell you, sometimes the morally safer course may also be the physically more dangerous course. That should not surprise us. Moral maturity always requires the presence and exercise of fortitude. Moral clarity does not always include facility.
It is always permissible to take the morally safer course. For example, if in a given instance you are not obliged to act but you are uncertain about whether you are permitted to act, it is better to refrain from acting. A simple example: You share an apartment with your roommate. You look into the refrigerator and see one bottle of soda left from the six pack you had agreed to share with your roommate. You do not remember whether that last remaining soda, which you very much want, is actually his or yours. You are not obliged to drink the soda; the morally safer course would be refuse to drink the soda in order to avoid taking what is not rightfully yours.
On the other hand, in a given situation you may be allowed to act but doubt whether you are obliged to act. Suppose, for example, you receive a generous gift from your grandmother. You should send her a thank you note, of course. You do not remember whether or not you have already done so. You can send a thank you note as the morally safer course—if you had already sent a note, there is no harm in sending a second one. If you had not already sent a note, then this course of action avoids being discourteous to your grandmother.
Sometimes, you may be obliged to choose the morally safer course. For example, if you are an auto mechanic fixing the brake lines of a car, you might have the option, say, of choosing an inexpensive patch that will likely work, or a more expensive patch that will certainly work. The morally safer course is to choose the more reliable patch.
What about cases in which the obligation itself is what is in doubt? That is a difficult question, which I will address the next time I write. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.