Recently I listened to a talk given by Professor John Haldane to students at the University of St Andrews, entitled The Philosophical Legacy of Pope John Paul II. It’s well worth listening to, especially if you want to hear what Suggs’ cousin in law has to say about the previous pope’s philosophical strengths and limitations. Anyhow, at the end of his talk was a question time, and one of the students asked him about the teaching on conscience presented in John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor. In his response Haldane made some off the cuff remarks I found so stimulating that I decided to make a more or less accurate typescript (which captures the feel of his rhythms of speech). Here it is:
[A]cting in conscience is acting authentically. It is acting in accord with your own encounter with self. But compatible with that is false conscience. Your conscience can be badly formed, because you might be the subject, I suppose you might say the victim, of bad education. Or the world in which you grew up may have been a brutalized world. So the only values that you encountered were disvalues, negative values, as a result of which you might have formed a view of the world that was a very dark view of the world; or you might have been subject to various psychological pressures or influences and so on, as a result of which your understanding of what it is to be a self is perverse. It’s authentic, but it’s false. So you’re acting in conscience, i.e. in authenticity to the discovered subject, but the discovered subject is a malformed subject as a result of these influences and such like.
Now that’s the counterpart, where Thomas Aquinas says you’re obliged to act according to conscience, but you’re guilty if your conscience is a bad conscience. So you can be in the following dilemma: Whatever you do, you’ll have done the wrong thing, because if you act according to conscience, and your conscience is a badly formed conscience you’ll do the wrong thing. If you don’t act according to your conscience you’ll act inauthentically, and so you’ll do the wrong thing. So there’s an obligation to be authentic, or to act according to conscience, but your conscience isn’t bound to be a good conscience.
Now it’s extremely important, for example, in the debates of the 1960’s, particularly in the area of sexual ethics, but not exclusively there, where people said things like: ‘Well the Church teaches that you should act in accordance with your conscience, so this is a matter for conscience’, whether it be a matter of contraception, or whatever else it might be, ‘it’s a matter for conscience’. That’s true. But everything is a matter for conscience. All ethical action is ultimately a matter for conscience. When people say ‘It’s a matter for conscience’, what they meant was ‘if I feel it’s right, it’s right’. That’s not what the doctrine of conscience is. The doctrine of conscience is: You are obliged to act out of your reflective best self-understanding of what it is right to do. You’re obliged to do what you believe is right to do. But that doesn’t mean that what you do is right. So you can be acting fully in accord with your conscience and doing the wrong thing. And that was Aquinas’ great…he thought that was part of the tragedy of sin, that actually the great effect of sin is that it creates more sin, because actually when you get into sin then whatever you do you’ll do wrong, because your conscience is corrupted and so on...so acting in accordance with conscience doesn’t mean that what you do is right.
I mean conscience isn’t some sort of funny voice in your head. I mean it means your best reflective understanding of what you ought to do. It’s, as it were, reflecting upon what you believe, what you understand about the situation, and so on…acting authentically with your best reflective understanding. But this why false moral theology, if I can put it that way, false teaching in general, is particularly pernicious. Because in the name of the teaching authority that would guide and govern people’s lives it promulgates false understandings. People have a duty…it is certainly reasonable for people to defer to what they recognize as authorities, but now this authority is corrupting you effectively by telling you the wrong thing, then look what position they put you in: whatever you do, you’ll do the wrong thing. Because if you don’t act in accordance with your best understanding, your conscience, you’ll have done the wrong thing, and if you do act in accord with a falsely informed conscience you’ll do the wrong thing.
Now what I would say, however, in case this seems too depressing, is that what would be said here is this: If you act in accord with a false conscience, a badly formed conscience, for which you are not yourself culpable, I mean you’re not responsible for having a badly formed conscience, you’re badly brought up, badly taught, people told you false things at school, then the subjective culpability is diminished.
Conscience does not constitute the rightness of an act, conscience is meant to reveal the rightness of an act. If it tells you that something is right which as it turns out is not right, that just shows that it is a false conscience. So it is not the teaching of the church that something is right if it’s done in accord with conscience. The teaching of the church is that it is wrong to act at odds with your conscience, but acting in accord with conscience doesn’t make what you do right.
Haldane’s off the cuff remarks present, as far as I can tell, a similar approach to that St Paul takes in 1 Corinthians 4:4 ‘My conscience is clear (RSV: I am not aware of anything against myself), but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me’. Haldane’s exposition certainly makes me think about my pastoral responsibility to keep my teaching pure.