Before developing any of these foundational themes into more complex discussions on the God debate we must explore one more departure point; that of the human conscience. It may at first appear strange to address this matter out with the subject of Ethics. Yet for as much as one relates quite significantly to the other, conscience is in fact rather distinct from Ethics. This frequently mistaken correlation stems from a number of popular and naïve assumptions concerning the nature of conscience. One common and almost convincing misconception of conscience is articulated by C. S. Lewis in his description of Natural Law, wherein he makes appeal to a behavioural ‘standard’ intuited innately by all people which when contravened produces a neuralgic effect within which we know as the conscience. Lewis’ description of this phenomena leads to the conclusion that the conscience is an in-built and therefore natural knowledge of objective right and wrong:
“What did God do? First of all He left us conscience, the sense of right and wrong: and all through history there have been people trying (some of them very hard) to obey it (Mere Christianity, 1944).”
Neither is the conscience some amusing exchange between an angel and a demon perched upon our shoulders. While we may imagine ourselves, possibly vainly, to be too sophisticated to adhere to this comic imagery, it is surprising that this image persists. It is problematic as a conception of conscience because by exteriorising the ethical decision making process it also relinquishes the moral agent of responsibility; the school yard defence of ‘the devil made me do it.’ The reality is that the conscience is a deep-seated psychological mechanism that, while sharing common elements across the human species, is unique to every individual person. A similar misconception, rather than exterior agency, is that of the interior dialogue. Many people may in fact believe that they hear little voices in their heads (sometimes a ‘radio’ or other auditory hallucinations), but this paracusia is more likely to be a form of psychosis than the processes, conflicts and resolutions of the developed human conscience.
In order to proceed from the above negative definitions of this familiar Aȝenbite of Inwit we must reach some understanding of the nature of conscience. There can be little doubt that the psychological and philosophical debate surrounding the nature of conscience will continue for many years to come, but the present consensus suggests that conscience is the having and holding of certain fundamental moral principles and action which is in accordance with the same. It is an underlying commitment to these moral principles and an awareness that these principles are at odds with various continuing or past actions. For however much complexity is attached to the present debate on the subject, most people are content with this simplistic definition; at least as a launching point to further debate. What next requires attention is the thorny issue of the authority of conscience.
It is generally felt that it is virtuous or somehow noble to act in accordance with ones’ conscience. This is a widespread belief and one which carries much merit. In fact the notion of the infallibility of conscience has been granted a great deal of currency in modern philosophical and theological discourse. Conscience as the unerring measure of human morality can be traced to the work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and slightly earlier to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who wrote the ode to conscience:
“Secure guide of an ignorant and limited, but intelligent and free being, infallible judge of good and evil that makes man like to God (Émile, 1762)!”
There is, however, an obvious problem with this assumption. Unless we are willing to subject ourselves to abject relativism, the concept of the infallibility of conscience is threatened by the reality that the consciences of two separate persons can be contradictory. By obeying the dictate of his or her conscience one person can ‘perform their duty’ in a project of mass murder or genocide while another can, in good conscience, segregate children of different races and ethnicities in the classroom. Extreme as these example are it is clear the moment an objectively unconscionable action is performed or defended behind the protection of the infallibility of conscience, this infallibility is at once and forever contradicted. It may not be wise to disobey ones’ conscience, but the conscience is not infallible. If we are to reject this conclusion in favour of personal conscientious infallibility then we accept a reductionist understanding of the conscience which cannot escape the event horizon of complete subjectivity where it becomes a matter of individual or atomised will and desire. Immediately one is faced with a problem of significant magnitude; the conscience requires direction. This necessity of direction presupposes a competent authority able to direct the human conscience from error. This authority poses two distinct problems; firstly there is the question of identifying this obviously transcendent authority, and secondly the fact the modernity has largely rejected any notion of authority which claims superiority over the autonomous moral agent.
The absence of a transcendent authority over conscience has created in the modern world a type of conscience, distinct from conscience, which is more in keeping with the demands of social and political consensus. This is little more than an assimilation method which situates the ‘autonomous’ person in a socially acceptable collective. Given the propensity of such social constructs to automaton behaviour and the corrosion of individuality it would not be correct to identify this type of conscience with the free conscience of the human mind. Thus, counter-intuitively, liberty of conscience and the moral rectitude of the conscience is guaranteed only by submission to this heretofore unidentified authority. One of the greatest expressions of this insight was made by John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) in the lyrics, “I loved to choose and see my path; but now lead thou me on.” Admittedly this is an indirect pointer to Newman’s identification of this authority in God, an identification which is maybe a little premature at this point in the discussion, and one which I have strenuously tried to avoid. Yet note must be taken that it was not the intention of Newman to convey the notion of total and slavish surrender of will to a heavenly despot; on the contrary, at least as far as he was concerned, this submission was the assurance of his own freedom of conscience.
It was, as troubling as it is to admit, the then Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), who drove this point of the necessity of an authority over conscience home;
“I knew with complete certainty that something was wrong with the theory of the justifying power of the subjective conscience – that, in other words, a concept of conscience that leads to such results must be false. Firm, subjective conviction and the lack of doubts and scruples that follow from it do not justify man (On Conscience, 1991).”
The modern psychoanalytical awareness of the subconscious exposes to us the levels of complexity and concealment within its depths. That the motives behind our most elemental drives are most frequently veiled even from our own conscious mind stipulates that we simply cannot be in command of all the inner forces ‘informing’ our conscience. To this he adds the profoundly wise (and this is not said lightly) observation of the Psalmist, “Who can detect his own failings? Wash out my hidden faults (Psalm 19:12).” Naturally the problem with Ratzinger’s approach is that it, rather obviously, directs the reader to another Infallibility; the unerring authority of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Here the objection can be raised that this Infallibility stands on less stable ground than the quick sand upon which the infallibility of conscience rests. So we may agree with Ratzinger to a point; certainly his critique of conscience and his identification of its need for direction are valid. One must not cast out the baby with the bathwater.
The identification of this transcendent authority is more simple than this; to the point of being almost self evident. In fact, in the schema of his clericalist mind, Cardinal Ratzinger would agree. Truth is that transcendent and objective reality which conscience is incapable of ignoring without igniting within it a conflict that cannot be resolved until it is realigned with the Truth. Poetically put by John the Evangelist, “Know the truth, and the truth will make you free (John 8:32).” Thus, to be fair to Ratzinger, who by submission in faith to his ecclesial community, identifies the Church with Truth; he is thinking in the right direction. Conscience then is humanly fallible in and of itself, but purged of error in its acceptance of the Truth. Conscience then is infallible only when it is directed sincerely and intelligently to the Truth and obedient to that transcendent Truth.