Thirteen years ago, when I started writing this column for America, two of my early offerings dealt with the strategic function of conscience in our ethical lives. As the years have gone by, and especially during the past year with its increased polarization of moral positions in church and society, I am more convinced than ever that we need a clear understanding of just what conscience is and how it functions.
Although there is a range of opinions concerning what conscience is—from an inner voice, a feeling or a sense of shame to the internalized values of parents or culture—I propose that the most effective account is the one offered by St. Thomas Aquinas: Conscience is a particular kind of judgment, a moral judgment, by which we apply our knowledge of good and evil to practical action.
As a practical moral judgment, conscience takes the form: “I ought to do X.” Aquinas points out that when I make such a judgment, I should follow it. But acting on my conscience is not enough. Like any other kind of judgment—business, artistic, scientific or athletic—we base our moral judgments not only on principles but on evidence, data and information. A judgment made without data, evidence or information is a foolish one indeed. Thus, Aquinas thought it is as important to inform one’s conscience properly as it is to follow it. If I refuse to look at evidence or information in forming my moral judgment, I am actually refusing to act morally.
It is this second point that seems most neglected in ethical discourse today. There is little doubt that various religions, nation states and philosophies hold different ethical principles. But whether one’s principles are based on duty, the will of God, submission to Allah, happiness, liberty or the common good, such principles are empty if they are not applied to the specifics of evidence, information and data.
Unfortunately, it is the resistance to evidence and information that marks so much of our present moral discourse. That is why the “marketplace” of ideas, or the “public square” has become so segmented and rigid.
In the world of politics and media, we find an increasing segmentation not only of markets but of convictions as well. Information is edited and selected to conform to the conviction of the viewer or the voter. Thus, information no longer informs or challenges one’s moral judgement; it only confirms opinion, whether that opinion is warranted or not. Spend one evening comparing the programs offered by MSNBC and Fox News. Compare Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz with Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Whom do they ridicule? What is their presumed moral universe? What information do they never consider? If we listen to only one side of these polarities, we are not forming our judgment, we are propagandizing it.
No matter what the issue, competing ideologies offer plenty of moral judgments; but there is little willingness to address data or information offered by the opposition. Undocumented immigration, tax reform, the Free Gaza movement, the Gulf Coast oil disaster, the financial crisis, all generate fierce opinion. But it is almost impossible to find any polarized antagonist willing to examine carefully data or arguments that challenge ideology.
In the church, things are just as segmented. I regularly receive messages by e-mail from the right and left. Both sides seem totally certain, but they are also totally ignorant of the arguments and evidence on the other side. As Aquinas would say, a conscience may be certain; but that does not mean it is correct. So think of the issues: abortion, global warming, President Obama, the health care bill, immigration reform, the wars in the Persian Gulf. Do you find any true engagement of the issues? Or do you find only assertions?
As for those who aspire to form the consciences of Catholic believers, they too must do more than make pronouncements. They must engage the evidence and data offered by those who dissent from their opinion.
To refuse to inspect hostile data or listen to challenging information is to reveal a conscience that has capitulated to ideology.
If a nation or church forms its people to accept assertions blindly, without supporting evidence, it will form a community not of moral agents but of menaces. They may be sincere, but they will be sincerely dangerous.