BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (65) — When are we obliged to obey our conscience?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

We have seen how man needs an internal moral “navigational system” — the conscience — and how ignorance can affect it. Should we follow our conscience all the time? If not, under what conditions are we obliged to follow it? Today we will examine the factors we need to take into account to answer these questions.

We can divide these factors into three: (1) with respect to the judgment of the conscience (whether the conscience judges correctly or falsely); (2) with respect to the firmness of assent (whether the conscience is certain, holds an opinion, or is doubtful — see Bite-Size Philosophy 57); (3) with respect to the firmness of its command (whether it allows, or suggests, or commands, or prohibits). Let us look at these in greater detail.

(1) Correct or erroneous judgment. Let us recall that the intellect has three operations: simple apprehension, judgment and reasoning (cf Bite-Size Philosophy 7). When simple apprehension fails, we call it “ignorance” (cf Bite-Size Philosophy 64). When judgment and reasoning fail, we call it “error.” When the conscience judges that something is good even if in reality it is bad, or judges that something is bad when it is actually good, we call it a “false” or “erroneous” conscience (e.g., a student may think he is “doing research” but is actually plagiarizing someone else’s work; a doctor may think he is helping someone “die with dignity” when he is actually killing an innocent person). But when a conscience judges bad as “bad,” and good as “good,” we call it a “true,” “right,” or “correct” conscience. What is the reference point for determining whether the judgment is right or wrong? The moral law (cf Bite-Size Philosophy 62 & 63).

(2) Firmness of assent (cf Bite-Size Philosophy 57). (2.1) Certainty. This is the case where one is firmly convinced about an action or its morality. To reach certainty, we need to study and reflect on the case and the moral principles related to it. (2.2) Opinion. This attitude is a tentative attitude. One is inclined to think that something is good, or is bad, but he is open to the possibility that he may be wrong. In important matters, a person may have to inquire further so that he reaches greater certainty before acting. (2.3) Doubt. A person in doubt has not yet made a judgment. It is never licit to act with a doubtful conscience. It would be equivalent to saying, “I don’t care whether I do good or evil.” One has to clarify the doubt before acting. Here we see how important it is for one to be informed about what he is doing and be formed on the correct moral principles.

(3) Firmness of the command. The conscience may allow, or suggest, or command, or prohibit. An important rule to keep in mind is that a person is obliged to obey his conscience when its judgment is certain (not merely holding an opinion or is doubtful) and when it commands or prohibits (not merely allows, or suggests). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no 1790) teaches: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.”