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Conscience

So what about conscience? What role does that have to play? Interestingly, most of the concern with conscience seems to focus on bad conscience, whereas it is also important to remember that there is such a thing as a good conscience. However, it is true that even my good conscience can accuse me of bad practice, make me aware of the harm I have done, and above all, accuse me of my failure to live up to the best that I know. In effect, I may not have failed to be compliant, but I may realize that I have been no more than compliant and have failed to be a person in relationship with my client—failed indeed to recognize him or her as an equal moral interlocutor. Above all, there is raised in my mind my own status as a moral interlocutor: in what sense am I a “self,” a responsible virtuous person? What is involved here?

My conscience may be stirred as the import of what I have done dawns on me. In this case, my sense of guilt may inhibit my ability to apologize; it may even make clear to me that in any case, an apology is hardly adequate. I will want to be forgiven as a practical matter and therefore apologize with a view to regaining public recognition of my desire to accept my responsibilities. But while this is all to the good, it may not go far enough; it may simply be an expression of my intention to comply with public expectation regarding good manners. What is more, the acceptance by the wronged person of my apology and my gratitude for his or her forgiveness may still leave me hurt or ashamed or both. My confidence to do better in the future needs to be supported.

What Aquinas has to say is helpful here: he draws an illuminating distinction between synteresis and conscience, which he regards as two aspects of the practical reason (McDermott, 1989, pp. 123-24). Synteresis is a natural, God-given habit of the human mind whereby we may know that the basic principles of moral behavior are inex- pungible, even as the result of human sin: they are not the result of inquiry but habits of thought that underpin an implicit confidence that we know that we are free to practice the good and eschew the bad. The saying “Behave to others as you would wish them to behave toward you” is thus a natural insight of the practical reason.

Our conscience applies our knowledge by means of reason to these innate first principles, which cannot themselves be in error, in order to guide what we choose to do in specific circumstances. When the conscience argues clearly in the light of these first principles of moral behavior, the resulting decision will be good and further confirm the desired habit of acting well. But conscience may reason wrongly and in error lead us to choose evil rather than good. We may fail to notice a full range of the choices open to us, neglect relevant evidence, or simply be seduced by jealousy or greed to behave sinfully.

However, Aquinas is of the opinion that the spark of reason cannot be extinguished so long as the light of the mind remains, which not even sin can remove. The underlying dimension of this perspective, taken up also by Rahner, is that there is no such thing as an ungraced nature. Wherever we find ourselves, in whatever circumstance, with whatever choices we are faced, the God-given possibility of choosing to behave well always remains with us. From one point of view, we may say that shame can perform the positive function of bringing us to ourselves. This encouraging thought offers an illuminating context in which to think through how best to behave when we come to believe that we have acted badly. It makes sense of the possibility that an apology can be the expression of a real sense of the good, its possibility the consequence of our failure to reason well enough to identify what we should have done—and could have done.

The fact is, therefore, that although we can never be completely satisfied, we can fulfill our responsibilities; we are morally responsible for our actions as persons. This is important for all our relationships and a normal assumption of our experience of others. Certainly, we hold other people responsible for their actions, which we place in a context that assumes their intentions toward us and beliefs about us. Strawson underlines the importance of this dimension when he says, “The central commonplace that I want to insist on is the very great importance that we attach to the attitudes and intentions towards us of other human beings, and the great extent to which our personal feelings and reactions depend upon, or involve, our beliefs about these attitudes and intentions” (Strawson, 2008, p. 6). Over and above the actual actions themselves, the intention or attitude that we associate with them is of paramount importance in our judgment of other people and their actions. Thus, depending on the intention or attitude that we attribute to the person in regard to his or her behavior, we will be (according to Strawson) resentful, grateful, or forgiving.

Interestingly, there is a parallel here with Jesus’s remarks in the Sermon on the Mount in which he asks for a radical reordering of moral priorities. It’s not a matter, he says, of simply refraining from adultery or murder; it is vital to understand that even considering doing so and planning it is itself evidence of a person’s lack of virtue (Matt. 5:26-27). God sees a person’s attitude and intention as vital. There is a connection here with virtue ethics.

This insight of Strawson is of particular significance in connection with the role of conscience in professional practice. As a client, I hold the professional lawyer responsible for the legal advice that he or she gives me in drawing up my will. But the lawyer’s advice is given within a professional relationship that will only flourish if I believe that his or her advice is given with goodwill and a proper sympathy for my desire for the well-being of those to whom I intend to bequeath my property. The situation would be quite different if I thought that the lawyer’s motivation was confined to the business of earning fees; how he or she comes across to me as a person is crucial. In reciprocal fashion, as a professional, I shall expect the client to be honest with me and not to be trying to use me (I employ the expression advisedly) in my professional capacity to implement an unscrupulous plan that will secure his or her unfair advantage. In both cases, I believe, above all, we want to be assured that we are dealing with persons of good character.

My conscience will threaten to bring me to my senses and awaken a realization not only that I can both behave well and behave badly but that I want to behave well and am dissatisfied if I do not try to do so. St. Paul is all too aware of this when he says, “I can will what is right, but cannot do it. I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:18b-19). He attributed this condition to sin: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:20). Sin is a concept that refers to my personal condition, my failure to recognize God’s presence, not my professional malpractice, though false reasoning and a consequent habit of moral turpitude may lead me to wrong my client. I shall explore the concept further next. In order to satisfy my essential desire to be myself, a fully mature and responsible person, in the last resort, I need to be forgiven.

 
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