Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Cardinal Mercier and the Natural Law, Part 13: Conscience

CONSCIENCE IS ADDRESSED by Cardinal Mercier as the last topic of his discussion on general ethics. He adopts the classical scholastic distinction between synteresis and conscience. Synteresis is, as it were, the foundation of conscience. Synteresis is the "habitual disposition" within man that provides the general premise to the judgment of conscience.
We have a special natural facility disposing us to know the means which lead us to our end, a facility or 'habit' which the Scholasatics called 'habitus prinipiorum rationis practicae' or, more briefly, 'synteresis'
[239(44)] That general premise is then applied to the contingent circumstance which provides the minor premise and the resulting judgment or conclusion is that aspect of the practical reasoning we call conscience. "Conscience is that "act by which the reason applies a universal principle of morality to some particular case . . . [C]onscientia nihil aliud est quam applicatio scientiae ad aliquem actum." [259(68)] (quoting St. Thomas, S. T., Ia-IIae, q. 19, a. 5).

The principles of morality are immutable and generally known by men, "so they are without excuse" (Rom. 1:20), but the "application of these principles to the conduct of actual life varies with particular cases and allows a measure of ignorance and error." [259(69)] Since, in practice, no man can act except in the concrete, conscience is involved in each human act. If so, that presents the problem of how the judgment of conscience, being non-infallible and subject, indeed (if not properly informed) even prone, to error can be relied upon by man. How can man rely on a potentially unreliable guide?

First, Mercier disabuses us of any expectation that the human conscience involves decision-making where one should expect the precision of mathematics. Because of the subject matter, it would be unreasonable to expect the clarity that is attached to mathematical judgment to be the standard in moral judgment. Moral certainty is thus different than arithmetical certainty. [259-60(69)]

Man cannot act on a doubtful conscience. "To do an act when in doubt whether it is good or bad would be to will good or evil indifferently; and to hold the will indifferent to good or evil is to do evil, since the will must choose good alone and must eschew evil." [260(69)] Therefore, when confronting a doubtful conscience, man must do what he can to overcome any doubts. If, after have expended requisite efforts, someone is unable to come to a resolution and he concludes that the matter before him is simply invincibly doubtful then what is he to do?

Even when confronting a situation where what is good and what is evil is invincibly doubtful, man has to act reasonably. In doubt that cannot be overcome through reasonable efforts, man must take the most reasonable course of action. Is he stymied by the fact that he confronts a situation that is invincibly doubtful?

The answer is no. Man can have recourse, in a case of invincible doubt, to an indirect form of reasoning, a reflex principle, that allows him a reasonable and certain conscience and so allows him to act even in cases of invincible doubt. The reflex principle acts upon the rule that if man is not able to be convinced, after serious effort, that an act is unlawful he can prudently regard it as lawful. When is prudence able to kick in? When can a man prudently regard something that cannot be determined to be unlawful as lawful?

Here we get into different solutions, and these bring us to different schools of moral thought: rigorism, probabiliorism, equiprobabilism, probablism, and laxism. Rigorism, the strictest of all schools of thought on the issue of the application of the reflex principle when confronting invincible doubt, would require that, to act prudently when confronting an act where there is some doubt about what is lawful and what is unlawful, we ought to hold that an act is unlawful unless the reason suggesting that an act is unlawful is apparent only or futile. Laxism, which is at the opposite of the spectrum and is the least strict in applying the reflex principle in cases of invincible doubt, allows us to choose an act as lawful unless the reasons supporting that act as unlawful have a high degree of probability. Put shortly, in cases of invincible doubt, rigorism places high bias against the lawfulness of an act, whereas laxism places a high bias against the unlawfulness of an act. These two positions--rigorism and laxism--are "controvertible," [261(69)] meaning that they are not reasonable and ought to be rejected. [In fact, though not mentioned by Mercier, these two extremes have been rejected by the Church.]

In between rigorism and laxism are probabiliorists, equiprobabilists, and probabilists. The probabilist would hold that an act is, through the reflex principle, formally lawful when the lawfulness of an act is supported by a seriously probable reason, even though there is probable reason that the act is unlawful, even if these reasons are equal to or higher than those supporting the lawfulness of an act. In other words, as long as there is some serious probability that an act is lawful, even if there is probability than act act is unlawful, the actor may prudently determine, in cases if invincible ignorance, that the act is lawful. Equiprobabilists would require that, before an agent can regard as lawful a certain act, the probable reasons supporting the lawfulness of the act must be at least as probable as those supporting the unlawfulness of the act. Probabiliorists would require that, before an agent can regard an act as lawful under the reflex principle, the probable reasons supporting the lawfulness of the act must be more probable than the probable reasons supporting the unlawfulness of the act.

Whether a probabiliorist, an equiprobabilist, or a probabilist, we are confronted with the possibility of erroneous conscience. Can an erroneous conscience bind? More extreme, can a conscience that has a probability of being erroneous, and made formally certain only by the prudential application of a reflex principle, bind? Yes, Mercier concludes, but not simply and in all cases (as a conscience that is certain and not erroneous), a conscience that is erroneous binds, but only while its erroneous state lasts. If the error is ever discovered, it ceases to bind. Mercier quotes St. Thomas Aquinas's De veritate:
Although an erroneous conscience may dictate something not in accordance with the law of God, the person in error nevertheless accepts it as the real law of God; and so, strictly speaking, if he depart from this he will depart from the law of God. . . . The erroneous conscience does not bind simply and in all cases, but it binds only whilst it lasts.
[262(69)] (quoting De veritate, q.17, a. 4)

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