Conscience:  4.  Objective norms for a good conscience

In subjective terms conscience has a kind of infallibility, since we are obliged to do what we believe to be right, and conscience is the subjective authority that judges acts under consideration as right or wrong, as something to be done or not done.

Nonetheless, people make bad moral decisions often, and many of those decisions are not conscientious.  A conscientious decision requires moral seriousness and consideration.  The more important the decision, the more the agent is obliged to consider it carefully.  Deciding to eat a candy bar or not or deciding whether to plant snapdragons or nasturtiums might not require much consideration.  Deciding whether to go to war or change religion or reveal a confidence all probably require very careful consideration.

Such careful consideration involves attention to the elements of moral acts:  the act in itself; the circumstances surrounding the acts; and the intention of the agent.

The act in itself we might think of as the thing a video-recording would show:  for example, that I picked up a candy bar and put it in my pocket.

The circumstances are factors that surround the act in itself and alter its moral quality in various ways.  For instance, relevant circumstances might include that the candy bar belongs to a store owner whom I have not paid (or have paid); that I am taking the candy to a starving child; or, that I know the candy bar has been poisoned and can only remove the danger it poses by stealing it, given that the store owner does not believe me.  Such circumstantial factors change the moral nature of the outward and apparent act, particularly since classes of moral acts (e.g. theft or murder) themselves include such circumstances in their very definition.  ‘Murder’, for example, is by definition wrongful killing:  that is, it is killing that under the existing circumstances is not justifiable as self-defense, an exercise of legitimate public authority, or the like.[i]

The intention is the subjective goal or purpose of the agent.  In the case of the candy bar, possible intentions might run from a direct desire to steal and deprive the owner of his property to a desire to help a hungry child or to a desire to protect others from poison.  Subjective intentions may be objectively wrong or based on a mistake or misunderstanding, but it is nonetheless the intention which ultimately determines the subjective fault or virtue of the agent.

We have just noted that moral acts often include in their description an element that, by definition, assigns them their moral quality.  ‘Theft’ is, by definition, a taking of that to which I have no right.  ‘Murder’ is, by definition, the directly willed taking of innocent life.  The act of theft or murder is not purely something ‘in itself’, because circumstances are included in the very meaning of ‘theft’ or ‘murder’.  It is, nonetheless, useful to speak also of the act itself because some kinds of acts are intrinsically likely to be important and serious and, therefore, to call forth increased moral care, seriousness, and deliberation.  Whatever the circumstances and whatever my intention, an act that involves, say, taking the life of a child can only be conscientious if it involves great care and very serious thought.

While circumstances often change the objective moral character of an act, the intention only changes its subjective moral character.  The objective character of an act is a combination of the act and its circumstances (taking a candy bar, which belongs to someone else), while its subjective character is determined by the intention of the agent.

Moral care, thought, and consideration require attention to the relevant rules and laws that govern the kind of moral act under consideration.  Careful consideration usually involves seeking informed advice and consulting with able authorities and advisors if needed to achieve the appropriate degree of clarity.

If we assume an appropriate moral seriousness and carefulness, and understand the elements of moral acts, then the agent’s chief duty, if he is to act in good conscience, is to consider the relevant or applicable laws.

‘Laws’ are objective norms that govern the activity of various kinds of being.  Acorns and helium atoms and angels and policemen all are governed by laws, and often by many different kinds of law at once.  Policemen, for instance, are subject to various natural and physical laws (if they trip, they fall; if they breathe carbon monoxide too long they die), moral laws (if they knowingly tell untruths, they are guilty of lying), and positive laws of various kinds (such as civic, federal, and constitutional rules).  In the case of moral activity, only some of these kinds of laws are usually relevant and require much consideration.  But to understand the objective authority of law in moral matters, it is essential to consider the nature of law in general in more detail.

Law is a principle of order directing a being to its proper end or good.  The very idea of law assumes that the world is not fundamentally chaotic, but that various beings have natural tendencies or goals or purposes or ends.  The ‘end’ of an acorn is to become an oak tree in a process of germination and growth and reproduction and decay governed by natural laws which can be understood and observed in their operation.  The oak tree is the end or goal of acorns even if other laws in play mean that most acorns do not in fact become oak trees.  The law or laws which govern the germination and growth of oak trees can be described, and in a given case of an acorn or sapling that fails to develop we can understand and explain that failure in lawful terms.  We might say that ‘law’ is often as much descriptive as prescriptive:  law tells us how particular beings move towards a particular end or outcome that is appropriate to the kind of being it would be if it attained its distinctive end.

The goals, ends, and purposes of human being include transitory, worldly matters (growth, nutrition, reproduction, life in community, and improvement of the mind) and, in the Christian view, eternal matters (the enjoyment of God and community with the Trinity).  The laws to which human beings are subject describe the ways in which they move towards (or sometimes away from) these various ends.

The laws to which human beings are subject can be somewhat artificially distinguished as laws that govern mere physical beings (rocks as well as human beings – physical and chemical laws); laws that govern living being (plants and animals as well as human beings – biological laws of generation and reproduction, growth and nutrition, etc.); and humane laws, which tend to be unique to human beings.  Often the distinctively humane in fact builds on pre-human and animal activities (such as eating or sex) and that have an ultimate orientation beyond the merely human.  Animals and people eat, but we might well condemn people who eat as mere animals rather than using eating to express love and build community.  Or again, animals and people both engage in sex acts for pleasure and reproduction, but humane sexual activity also is properly ordered towards the increase of marital friendship and the giving and receiving of love.  In other words, the various levels of law that govern human beings cannot be discretely separated into distinct levels and categories, but rather are all informed by the highest ends of human being:  including, ultimately, the eternal goal of life with God.  The various levels of being with their appropriate laws are integrated for human being, and that ultimate goal of human being, and the laws that direct us toward the attainment of that goal, are the integrating principles.

Some laws are ‘natural’ and some are ‘positive’.  A natural law is imbedded in the very nature or kind of a being.  A positive law is more a matter of convention or will.  It is a natural law that a car moving forward at high velocity will tend to continue its forward motion for a time by inertia even when the motor that impels it forward has stopped.  It is a positive law that I should stop my car at intersections when I see a red traffic light or an octagonal red piece of metal with ‘STOP’ on it.  Natural laws are not subject to human will.  If I jump out of an airplane without parachute, my body will obey the law of gravity whatever I intend and however profoundly I believe I have succeeded in abolishing that law.  Conventional laws, on the other hand, are subject to alteration by the will of the relevant legislator or authority.


[i] ‘Do no murder,’ is a formally true norm.  That is, the very form of the rule or norm makes it true by definition, since ‘murder’ is by definition wrongful killing.  Saying that murder is wrong is a kind of tautology.  The materially significant judgement in such cases is deciding what kinds of killing are murder and wrong and what kinds are not.

2 thoughts on “Conscience: 4. Objective norms for a good conscience

  1. Excellent discussion of the classical Catholic position on morality. I think St. Alphonse Liguori added to the tradition with his notion of casuistry, but as you note, one cannot dispense of the objective element in ethics.


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