Friday, October 16, 2009

A Reader Asks: Does an Erring Conscience Bind?


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A Reader Asks: I have a dilemma. On the one hand, it seems that we are obliged to follow the natural law, the commandments, and to accept the truth of the Faith, whether or not we think we are. These things are binding on all men, regardless of whether they accept it or not.

But, on the other hand, it would seems that one must obey conscience, whether or not it is formed in accordance with the natural law and the truths of our Faith. In other words, it seems that disobeying conscience (whether doing something conscience says is permissible or not doing something it says you should do) requires choosing something that seems evil to you, which is fundamentally wrong (subjectively speaking).

Let me explain. First, if conscience tells you that something is immoral, even though in reality it is permissible, it would seem that you are obliged to abstain from doing it. For, instance, a Muslim is raised to think that having a dog as a pet is not permissible and offends God. It would seem that to go buy a dog as a pet would be immoral for him, as that would represent (at least in his mind) an act of rebellion against God.

Conversely, if conscience tells you that a certain action is to be done, even though it is in reality immoral, it would seem that one is obliged to do it. For instance, that same Muslim man was also raised to think that he has an obligation to observe the practices of Islam. It would seem that not observing the practices of Islam would be immoral for him, as that also would represent (at least in his mind) an act of rebellion against God. Therefore, it would seem even an erring conscience is binding. What are your thoughts on this?


-Ite ad Thomam Replies: Excellent question!  There are two issues: whether an erring conscience binds and whether an erring conscience excuses.  Aquinas dealt directly with both.  So let's go to Thomas!

Here is Aquinas' answer to the question of whether an erring conscience binds:

Summa Theologiae I-II.19.5:

Whether the will is evil when it is at variance with erring reason?
I answer that, Since conscience is a kind of dictate of the reason (for it is an application of knowledge to action, as was stated in the I, 19, 13), to inquire whether the will is evil when it is at variance with erring reason, is the same as to inquire "whether an erring conscience binds." On this matter, some distinguished three kinds of actions: for some are good generically; some are indifferent; some are evil generically. And they say that if reason or conscience tell us to do something which is good generically, there is no error: and in like manner if it tell us not to do something which is evil generically; since it is the same reason that prescribes what is good and forbids what is evil. On the other hand if a man's reason or conscience tells him that he is bound by precept to do what is evil in itself; or that what is good in itself, is forbidden, then his reason or conscience errs. In like manner if a man's reason or conscience tell him, that what is indifferent in itself, for instance to raise a straw from the ground, is forbidden or commanded, his reason or conscience errs. They say, therefore, that reason or conscience when erring in matters of indifference, either by commanding or by forbidding them, binds: so that the will which is at variance with that erring reason is evil and sinful. But they say that when reason or conscience errs in commanding what is evil in itself, or in forbidding what is good in itself and necessary for salvation, it does not bind; wherefore in such cases the will which is at variance with erring reason or conscience is not evil.
But this is unreasonable. For in matters of indifference, the will that is at variance with erring reason or conscience, is evil in some way on account of the object, on which the goodness or malice of the will depends; not indeed on account of the object according as it is in its own nature; but according as it is accidentally apprehended by reason as something evil to do or to avoid. And since the object of the will is that which is proposed by the reason, as stated above (3), from the very fact that a thing is proposed by the reason as being evil, the will by tending thereto becomes evil. And this is the case not only in indifferent matters, but also in those that are good or evil in themselves. For not only indifferent matters can received the character of goodness or malice accidentally; but also that which is good, can receive the character of evil, or that which is evil, can receive the character of goodness, on account of the reason apprehending it as such. For instance, to refrain from fornication is good: yet the will does not tend to this good except in so far as it is proposed by the reason. If, therefore, the erring reason propose it as an evil, the will tends to it as to something evil. Consequently the will is evil, because it wills evil, not indeed that which is evil in itself, but that which is evil accidentally, through being apprehended as such by the reason. In like manner, to believe in Christ is good in itself, and necessary for salvation: but the will does not tend thereto, except inasmuch as it is proposed by the reason. Consequently if it be proposed by the reason as something evil, the will tends to it as to something evil: not as if it were evil in itself, but because it is evil accidentally, through the apprehension of the reason. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 9) that "properly speaking the incontinent man is one who does not follow right reason; but accidentally, he is also one who does not follow false reason." We must therefore conclude that, absolutely speaking, every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.

Here is Aquinas' answer to the general question of whether an erring conscience excuses:

Summa Theologiae I-II.19.6:

Whether the will is good when it abides by erring reason?
I answer that, Whereas the previous question is the same as inquiring "whether an erring conscience binds"; so this question is the same as inquiring "whether an erring conscience excuses." Now this question depends on what has been said above about ignorance. For it was said (6, 8) that ignorance sometimes causes an act to be involuntary, and sometimes not. And since moral good and evil consist in action in so far as it is voluntary, as was stated above (2); it is evident that when ignorance causes an act to be involuntary, it takes away the character of moral good and evil; but not, when it does not cause the act to be involuntary. Again, it has been stated above (6, 8) that when ignorance is in any way willed, either directly or indirectly, it does not cause the act to be involuntary. And I call that ignorance "directly" voluntary, to which the act of the will tends: and that, "indirectly" voluntary, which is due to negligence, by reason of a man not wishing to know what he ought to know, as stated above (6, 8).
If then reason or conscience err with an error that is voluntary, either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will, that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil. But if the error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being evil. For instance, if erring reason tell a man that he should go to another man's wife, the will that abides by that erring reason is evil; since this error arises from ignorance of the Divine Law, which he is bound to know. But if a man's reason, errs in mistaking another for his wife, and if he wish to give her her right when she asks for it, his will is excused from being evil: because this error arises from ignorance of a circumstance, which ignorance excuses, and causes the act to be involuntary.

So, in the case of the Muslim man, you mentioned four possible scenarios.  He buys a dog; he does not buy a dog.  He practices Islam; he does not practice Islam.

First, he would not sin if he did not buy the dog, obviously, since not buying a dog is neither evil in itself nor is being apprehended as evil by the agent.  But he would sin if he bought the dog.  This is a matter of indifference in its own nature, but it is being willed by an agent who apprehends it as an evil--as the first text above explains.

Now, he does sin whether or not he practices Islam.  He sins if he does not practice it, because he apprehends not practicing Islam as an evil, it is evil to will something that is apprehended as evil, even if in reality it is not evil--as the first text above explains.  But he sins if he practices it, because this is objectively evil, even though he apprehends it as a good: but in this case, his error arises from ignorance of the Divine Law, which he is bound to know--as the second text above explains.  So, with a malformed conscience, "damned if you do it, damned if you don't."
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