Relativism, conscience, and moral obligation

Published Date: July 12, 2010 | Topics: Philosophy, Religion

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By Robert George

In June,  I offered some reflections on relativism, conscience, and moral obligation in a commencement address at New St. Andrews College.  In light of our recent discussion on Mirror of Justice, I am posting the core of my remarks below.

The witness of Christian colleges and universities is critical to the reform and renewal of culture.  The crisis of faith that underlies much of what is most disturbing about contemporary culture is not unconnected to intellectual failings and misadventures, including (polling tells us) the widespread acceptance of moral relativism even among Evangelical and Catholic Christians, and especially among younger people.  Often, the dogmas of relativism—and dogmas are exactly what they are—find expression in paradoxically moralistic claims about individual rights and freedom of conscience.

Of course, if relativism were true, there would be no grounds for such claims, which is, perhaps, the first thing that Christian intellectuals ought to point out in engaging the wider intellectual culture.  If people have rights, and they do; if respect for conscience is important, and it is; then it cannot be because there is no such thing as moral truth, or because all truth is relative.  It must be, rather, because as a matter of strict, non-relative moral truth people do have rights, and among these is the right to freedom of conscience.  But then the question becomes:  “What is the source and ground of our rights and freedoms?” And to answer this question is to determine the nature and bounds of our rights and liberties, and to bring into focus the central flaw of the many misguided conceptions that flourish in contemporary culture.  

These conceptions, or misconceptions, it turns out, are hardly new.  Writing in the mid-late nineteenth century, the English theologian John Henry Newman had already identified the error that had prompted leading intellectuals of his time to abandon the Christian conception of conscience and replace it with what he labeled a “counterfeit.”

Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age . . . it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience . . . .  Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had.  It is the right of self-will.

The degenerate senses of “conscience” and “freedom of conscience,” whose origins Newman located in the moral and political thought of the 19th century, have indeed become deeply entrenched in our culture.  Consider how common it is for people to reason as follows:  “My conscience does not tell me that X is wrong; therefore X is not wrong for me.”  Or, even more egregiously:  “My conscience does not tell me that X is wrong (or:  wrong for me); therefore I have a right to do X as a matter of freedom of conscience.”  Evil and injustice today are often rationalized, defended, and insulated from rebuke by appeal to conscience.

The corrupt conception of conscience implicit in these appeals has even come to occupy a pivotal place in American constitutional jurisprudence.  Consider the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.  There, Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter declared that:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concepts of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Although the word “conscience” does not appear in this passage, we should have no difficulty perceiving in the justices’ conception of “liberty” the idea of “self-will” which Newman condemned as the counterfeit of conscience. 

Conscience vs. Self-will

Conscience, authentically understood, is the very opposite of defining for oneself the meaning of life or manufacturing one’s own moral universe.  It is, rather, nothing less than one’s last, best judgment (informed by faith and reason) specifying the bearing of moral principles one knows, yet in no way makes up for oneself, on concrete proposals for action.  In thus identifying one’s specific duties under the moral law, conscience is indeed “a stern monitor.”

Contrast this understanding of conscience with its counterfeit.  Conscience as what Newman called “self-will” is a matter of emotion, not reason.  It is concerned not with the identification of what one has a duty to do or not to do, one’s feelings to the contrary notwithstanding, but rather, and precisely, with sorting out one’s subjective feelings. Conscience as “self-will” identifies permissions, not obligations.  It licenses behavior by establishing that one doesn’t feel badly about doing it, or, at least, doesn’t feel so badly about doing it that one prefers the alternative of not doing it.

At a time when public officials, supported, in some cases, by prominent theologians and religious leaders, appeal to “respect for conscience” in rationalizing their advocacy of legal abortion, euthanasia, damaging and ultimately deadly embryo experimentation, and policies that promote sexual immorality and undermine the institution of marriage, we would do well to recall the teaching of St. Paul, who in his Letter to the Romans speaks of a law known even to the Gentiles, who have not the law of Moses, because it is written on the hearts of all men—the “natural law” which, though illumined by God’s revelation, is accessible even to unaided reason.

It is this law which binds in conscience all of us—Catholics, Protestants, Jews, members of every faith and even those without faith—not simply to refrain from taking innocent human life but to avoid the injustice of supporting policies which, for example, deprive the unborn and frail elderly of the protection against wrongful killing to which every member of the human family is strictly entitled, or policies that promote sexual immorality and weaken the institutions of marriage and the family.  The moral prohibitions of abortion, euthanasia, and sexual misconduct are examples of the “negative” norms of the natural law which apply always and everywhere to everyone alike.

But, of course, the requirements of morality are not exhausted by these negative norms.  The vast majority of our moral duties are affirmative, not negative—norms such as “feed the hungry,” “stand with victims of injustice,” “foster the common good.”  These precepts are no less integrally parts of the natural law than are the negative norms; nor is it the case that our obligations under the affirmative norms are any less stringent.  Conscience, properly informed, requires more—much more—than the mere avoidance of the sort of wrongdoing involved in, say, having an abortion, or performing or paying for abortions, or supporting legal abortion and its public funding.  All of us are morally bound affirmatively to combat injustice and other evils—including such evils as poverty and despair—and not merely to avoid unjustly inflicting evil on others.

However, affirmative norms differ from negative ones in an important respect.  There is no single, uniquely correct way of fulfilling affirmative responsibilities.  The precise nature of such responsibilities, in fact, varies in significant ways from person to person, depending on people’s circumstances, commitments, and opportunities, not to mention their talents and abilities.

Legitimate Relativity

The problem of unjust laws usefully illustrates the difference between negative and affirmative obligations.  Consider a law requiring Christian physicians or hospitals to perform, or, at least, refer for abortions.  Now, what this law would demand is strictly excluded by a negative norm; no Christian physician or hospital could, in conscience, perform or refer for an abortion.  The norm applies to everyone and applies to everyone in the same way.  The only way to fulfill its requirements is by refusing to comply with the law.

Now, let us consider a different sort of unjust law, the one we already have, namely, a national policy which, while requiring no one to perform or participate in abortions (though the public funding of abortion by certain states requires people to materially cooperate in abortions in ways that, at least, raise a question) fails to protect the right to life of unborn children and severely restricts pro-life efforts to dissuade women from aborting them.  The norms to which conscience adverts here are the closely related affirmative obligations to stand with the victims of injustice and to foster the common good.  To fulfill our obligations under these norms, we must combat the injustice of legal abortion and abortion funding and work for laws which respect the profound and equal worth and dignity of women and their unborn children.  But these affirmative obligations, unlike negative ones, can be fulfilled by different people in different ways.  Everyone has an obligation to support the pro-life cause, and to pray for its success, but depending on people’s circumstances, commitments, opportunities, talents, and abilities, different people can legitimately support the cause in different ways and with different levels of involvement.

More Than a Moral Minimum

No one should conclude from this legitimate relativity, however, that his or her own responsibilities in the face of the grave injustice of our abortion laws is a matter of moral indifference.  Our duties under the relevant affirmative norms are relative to our individual circumstances, but, given my circumstances or yours, you or I may be strictly bound in conscience to make a particular, and possibly quite substantial, contribution to the cause of justice for the unborn.  Our duties in conscience, though particular to each of us as individuals, may be no more optional in this case, than in the case of negative norms.  Even when it comes to affirmative norms, conscience is a stern monitor.

Moreover, as Christians who must discern the requirements of conscience in light of the Gospel, each of us must consider that he or she is called by Christ himself to do more than merely meet the moral minimum of the natural law.  One way or another, the Lord calls each of us to self-sacrificing love.  Recall the story we heard from St. Matthew’s Gospel:

A young man came and knelt before Jesus asking him “Good Teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life?”  Jesus replied, “. . . You know the commandments:  You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.”  The young man replied, I have kept all of these from my childhood.  At this, Jesus looked at him with love and said, “There is one thing more you must do; go and sell what you have and give to the poor then come and follow me.”  Upon hearing this, the young man’s face fell, and he went away sad for he had many possessions.

The story of the rich young man reveals just how stern a monitor Christian conscience can be.  Although, the challenge for the young man was to sacrifice his riches for the gospel, for each of us it may be something else.  Perhaps in the cause of justice for the unborn (or some other just cause) we are called by Christ to risk reputation, social respectability, prospects for career advancement, friends or family, health or comfort.  Each of us must pray and reflect upon our own unique circumstances, opportunities, talents, and abilities in making the judgment of conscience required of us in the matter.

It is in “the depths of conscience” (to quote the fathers of the Second Vatican Council) that we discern the specific content of Christ’s call to each of us to “go and sell what you have, then come and follow me.”  For no two of us are the implications of Christ’s call precisely the same.  So each of us must discern these implications for himself.  For some, Christ’s call is to a life of prayerful contemplation; for others it is a call to dramatic, even heroic, public witness.

In no one’s case, however, is it easy to accept Christ’s call; for each of us, in his own way, has “many possessions.”  Even the most upright among us will be tempted to say, “But I have kept the commandments; I have met the obligations of the moral law, both negative and affirmative; is that not enough?”  The Gospel’s answer is “No, that is not enough.”  There is one thing more; and that one thing takes us beyond the law to the imitation of Christ’s own sacrificial love.  Let no one who hears Our Lord’s call forget, however, that God does not fail to provide the grace each of us needs to follow Christ, wherever he leads—-even to the cross.  Recall that after the rich young man “went away sad,” Jesus horrified his disciples by remarking that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  “How, then,” the disciples asked, “can anyone be saved?”  “For men,” Jesus replied, “this is not possible.  But nothing is impossible for God.”

With faith, then, that God will provide, let us, each in his own way—having discerned his obligations in conscience in light of his own unique circumstances, opportunities, and talents—go and sell what he has, and then come and follow Christ.  Of none of us let it be said that, upon hearing the Lord’s call, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

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