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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Conscience

THE EIGHTH REQUIREMENT OF PRACTICAL reasonableness is the result of the fact that man is a social animal. The eight requirement, which will be discussed in detail later, is the requirement of favoring and fostering the common good of the communities of which one is part. In an age of overemphasized individualism, the role of the common good is often neglected.

The ninth requirement takes us into the internal forum of man.

[The ninth requirement of practical reasonableness] is the requirement that one should not do what one judges or thinks or 'feels'-all-in-all should not be done. That is to say one must act 'in accordance with one's conscience.'

NLNR, 125.*

Conscience is--for better or worse--malleable. It can be formed, but it can also be deformed. One's natural inclinations, education, training, culture, one's experiences, one's prior moral decisions, one's prior acts or omissions . . . all serve to have an effect upon the tender faculty of conscience.
If one were by inclination generous, open, fair, and steady in one's love of the human good, or if one's milieu happened to have settled on reasonable mores, then one would be able, without solemnity, rigmarole, abstract reasoning, or casuistry, to make the particular practical judgments (i.e. judgment of conscience) that reason requires. If one is not so fortunate in one's inclinations or upbringing, then one's conscience will mislead one, unless one strives to be reasonable and is blessed with a pertinacious intelligence alert to the forms of human good yet undeflected by the sophistries which intelligence so readily generates to rationalize indulgence, time-serving, and self-love.
NLNR, 125.

On the Threshold of Eternity by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh referred to conscience in a letter to his brother Theo dated April 3, 1878, which merits quotation:
One must never let the fire in one's soul die, for the time will inevitably come when it will be needed. And he who chooses poverty for himself and loves it possesses a great treasure and will hear the voice of his conscience address him every more clearly. He who hears that voice, which is God's greatest gift, in his innermost being and follows it, finds in it a friend at last, and he is never alone! . . . That is what all great men have acknowledged in their works, all those who have thought a little more deeply and searched and worked and loved a little more than the rest, who have plumbed the depths of the sea of life.
Ronald de Leeuw, ed., The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Pomerans, Arnold, trans.) (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 54.

The faculty of human conscience is subjectively infallible in the sense that its promptings (which should be distinguished from the promptings of feelings, something entirely different) are mandatory upon us. This is true even if the conscience's promptings as a result of deformation or error are objectively wrong. To follow the promptings of one's conscience--even if those are objectively wrong--makes one faultless so long as the deformation or error is not one of our own making (i.e., so long as we are invincibly ignorant of the deformation or error).

[I]f one chooses to do what one judges to be in the last analysis unreasonable, or if one chooses not to do what one judges to be in the last analysis required by reason, then one's choice is unreasonable (wrongful), however erroneous one's judgments of conscience may happen to be. (A logically necessary feature of such a situation, is, of course, that one is ignorant of one's mistake.)

NLNR, 125-26. Most of us, of course, would phrase the choice not as one involving reasonable/unreasonable (although it is not inaccurate if reason is understood broadly enough) but the choice as involving what is right and what is wrong (which includes reason in all its breadth, including the inclinations--that intellectual feltness--which is part of our reasoning nature).

*One should observe the scare quotes around the words "feel" and the words in "accordance with one's conscience. The word "feel" makes it clear that what is involved with conscience is not some sort of emotional feeling, but an intellectual feltness, a faculty of reason, not a faculty of emotion or primeval urge, a faculty that is wed or linked to objective moral truth. Additionally, as Finnis clarifies in his notes: "It scarcely needs to be added that (i) if my conscience is erroneous, what I do will be unreasonable [thought it may be faultless], and (ii) if my conscience is erroneous because of my negligence and indifference in forming it, in doing what I do I will be acting culpably (notwithstanding that I am required by the ninth requirement of reasonableness to do it) . . . and (iii) that if I am aware that I have formed my practical judgment inadequately it will be reasonable of me to bow to contrary advice or instructions or norms." NLNR, 133. Importantly, "it by no means follows . . . that if . . . . I have an obligation to φ, others have no liberty to prevent me from doing φ, or to punish me from doing φ [or for doing φ]; indeed, often enough they have not only the liberty but also the obligation to do so." NLNR, 133. Others cannot force you to act against your conscience, but they can, under certain limited circumstances, prevent you, or discourage you, from acting in accordance with it. There is a distinction, not always noted or observed, between forcing someone to act against his conscience and forcing someone not to act in accordance with conscience. This seems obvious in extreme situations: I should not be able to force a man to kill another if he objects to it in conscience; however, I should be able to prevent a man from killing another man even though his (erroneous) conscience prompts him to kill the other man. It follows that I may also punish the latter for having killed a man even if he does it in invincible ignorance. A Muslim terrorist, regardless of his sincerity and invincible ignorance, may be convinced in conscience that he needs to blow up a public building. He may forcibly be stopped from acting in accordance with his conscience, even, if the circumstances require it, with deadly force.

1 comment:

  1. In the context of the so-called "natural law" of reasonableness, where does the real Laws of Nature that guide animal groups and humans, (a) the sense of belonging and (b) volkenhass, exist? Johann Herder brought this up. Does man who is a social animal not practice and need these Laws of Nature? So how does the Law of nature of Volkenhass (racial prejudice) work with the Natural Law of Catholic Social Justice? Or does Catholic Social Justice now preached every where countermand the real Laws of Nature and so therefore creates an oxymoron?

    Does the Catholic Natural Law countermand the Laws of Nature? What built the Cosmos, the Laws of Nature or the Catholic Natural Law?