Conscience: 3. Respect for its authority contrasted with tolerationism
In my last post on conscience I noted the high subjective authority possessed by conscience, while noting the possibility that conscience objectively may err. Before considering the various ways in which a moral agent should act and might err, I would like to note again that the subjective authority of conscience deserves respect. Even an erring conscience calls forth from others a measure of respect, and that even when they know that the person in error is in error.
Our Christian civilization has left a moral and philosophical residue, even in many people who are not, and who do not think of themselves as, Christian. The modern secular virtue of toleration is an example of such residue. Toleration is often mistaken for or masquerades as the old and real virtue of charity and of respect for the dignity of conscience which tends to flow from charity. While the practical effects of tolerationism may often be the same or very similar to those of charity and of respect for conscience, the sources and motives of the modern and of the classical virtues are quite different.
The motive and root of tolerationism is skepticism. If I believe that it is impossible to know what is true in matters of religion, or that it is impossible or extremely difficult to find objective justification for a particular moral choice, or that agreement on ultimate matters of faith or politics is highly unlikely, then I might propose that we bracket such important matters, that we relegate them to the private sphere, and that for public purposes we instead concentrate on secondary, material, practical concerns. I have elsewhere described the difficulties of this position, which position in fact has been adopted by most modern, liberal societies. Over time a liberal, tolerationist approach tends to turn into its opposite and to become quite illiberal. For present purposes, however, it is sufficient to note that modern tolerationism has a negative, skeptical root in a kind of pessimism concerning the human ability to discover many of the most important things one would like to know.
The older virtues of charity and respect for conscience are quite different in origin. Charity or love is the virtue that seeks the true good for another person. For Christians, of course, the greatest good is God, so charity directs its activity towards God, both for the agent himself and for those with whom he has dealings. As Thomas Aquinas writes, charity is the form of all virtues. Charity orders all acts towards the good, and ultimately towards God as the ultimate good, so that without charity other apparent virtues lack proper direction towards the good and are therefore are deficient in goodness.
Charity implies a strong desire to teach the truth to someone in error, but its firm desire to serve and help and improve the other will tend also to produce great patience and gentleness. When these tendencies are combined with a conviction that the conscience of another person possesses a very high dignity, then the outward results will often look like those produced by tolerationism. The difference between charity and respect for conscience, on the one hand, and tolerationism, on the other, need not lie in the outward appearance or material nature of their activity, but in their motives and sources and goals.
It is important for Christians to understand these different motives, sources, and goals. Or to put the same thing another way, it is important for Christians to understand the difference between, on the one hand, tolerationism and, on the other hand, charity. If tolerationism and charity are conflated or treated as identical, then charity itself is undermined. Charity, which properly wills the good of and for others, as an element in our love for God and our ordinate love for ourselves, will fail in its goal if it accepts the agnostic presuppositions and moral indifferentism of skeptical tolerationism. Tolerationism causes me to shrug my shoulders, when love might well cause me to say (in kindness), ‘That’s really not right.’ The difference between these two results can be vast.