BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (064) — Does man need a moral navigation system?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

We have seen the need for moral norms which arise from and are required by our nature: the natural (moral) law. It is a law which can be known by reason and can be shown to be reasonable. This natural moral code is confirmed and further clarified by divinely-revealed law (divine positive law) which, moreover, invites man to aim for a higher goal, a goal that surpasses his nature, a super-natural goal: holiness.

The moral law (natural and revealed) is an objective reference point for moral actions, but unlike the law of nature that governs non-rational beings necessarily, the moral law needs to be accepted and internalized by each person. Each of us needs a subjective standard because each one is free, each one is responsible. That subjective standard is called “conscience.”

Conscience is like a moral navigation system. But just as a ship’s or a plane’s navigation system needs some external reference point (at least at the beginning) and a destination, the conscience also needs external objective standards (the natural law and the divine positive or revealed law) to help a man navigate through life.

Conscience is a judgment made by the intellect. It is not only a feeling or an intuition. It is something rational. Thus, we can apply to the conscience what we have studied about our intellect.

To judge correctly we need to be informed and formed. The lack of information is ignorance. Ignorance is a defect of the intellect, and is a defect of the conscience as well. That ignorance can be about the following:

(1) ignorance about the action, which can be further distinguished as follows:

(1.1) the nature of an action (e.g., Am I “stealing” or “borrowing”? Am I simply “telling the truth,” or “telling the truth and harming someone’s reputation at the same time?”), and about the morality of that action (“Is this action good or bad?”).

(1.2) my intention in doing the action — many times our intentions are a mix of good and not-so-good;

(1.3) the circumstances surrounding the action: the “who,” “where,” “when,” “how.”

(2) Ignorance of the moral law. Just as the intellect cannot invent or make up its own knowledge, conscience is a judgment based on an external standard or norm: the (natural and revealed) moral law. To make a correct judgment, we need to know what the standards require.

Does ignorance excuse one from responsibility? We have seen (Bite-Size Philosophy 48) that responsibility arises from a free act, and a free act requires knowledge. If a person does not fully know the nature, or intention, or circumstances, or the morality of his action, his ignorance may attenuate or eliminate responsibility for his action.
A person acting in ignorance may be blameworthy depending on whether his ignorance is (1) vincible or culpable; or (2) invincible or inculpable. What is the difference?

As the name indicates, vincible ignorance can be overcome, because the person is intellectually able to grasp the principles involved. If that ignorance is due to the lack of effort, the ignorance is culpable. “This is the case when a man ‘takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin’ [Gaudium et Spes 16]. In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1791).

On the other hand, invincible ignorance exonerates the person from responsibility, and is also thus called inculpable. Invincible ignorance may also exist in persons with great intellectual capacity, because it may happen that they have been wrongly taught by persons whom they highly respected and whose teachings they adhere to.