Handling Issues of Conscience
The Newman Rambler (Spring/Summer 1999, Vol. 3, No. 2)
Reproduced with permission
The following lecture was the both the 1999 Newman Lecture on the
Idea of the University, for the Newman Centre, and the 1999 Beatty
Memorial Lecture, for the College of Education, at McGill University.
I assume . . .that you agree with me that students
have a conscience. Yet haven't we . . . been earnestly telling students for
several generations that they have no such thing? . . .To put the matter in
the simplest terms, we must choose between two tales about conscience. One
is that there is such a thing, the other is that there isn't.
With my topic, "Handling Issues of Conscience in the Academy," I have a
certain puzzlement about where to begin. Of course, the modern Academy
enters into many activities and allows itself to be drawn into many
entanglements. You might therefore expect a discussion about issues of
conscience in curriculum design, issues of conscience in faculty governance,
issues of conscience in scholarly research - - or even in higher education
financing, or in the relationship of the Academy with Government. Any of
these might be good topics. However, I will adopt the convenient assumption
that I should discuss a matter that I know something about, and so my topic
will be issues of conscience that arise in university teaching.
Where in teaching might these issues be supposed to arise? Presumably in
teaching those sensitive subjects where the conscientious convictions of
different students, or of students and teachers, are likely to come into
conflict. We all know what these sensitive subjects are supposed to be:
feminism, homosexuality, multiculturalism, euthanasia, abortion - - I'm sure
you can complete the list for yourselves.
I confess, though, that I have a problem with this way of thinking. To
speak of a student's conscientious convictions is to suppose that he has a
conscience. I believe he does, but let us take a moment to remember what
conscience is, or what it was once supposed to be. In the language of the
Bible, conscience is the interior witness which accuses us when we have done
wrong and approves when we have done right; it is a reminder of the law
written by God on every heart (Romans 2:14-15). In the language of natural
law, conscience is the built-in habitus or inclination of the created
human intellect by virtue of which we know the first principles of practical
reason; it is the participation of the rational creature in the eternal law.
(Summa Theologica I-11, Q.91, art.2, Q.94, art.1) These two ways of
speaking are complementary. They share the belief in certain fundamental
precepts of morality that are not only right for all, but at some level
even known to all, conscience being the faculty by which we know them.
I assume, because you have asked me to examine of issues of conscience,
that you agree with me that students have a conscience. Yet haven't we - - I
mean the collective we, the Academy - - haven't we been earnestly telling
students for several generations that they have no such thing? Freudians
have said there is no conscience but only superego, behaviorists that there
is no conscience but only inhibitions. Anthropologists have said there is no
conscience but only mores, sociologists that there is no conscience but only
socialization. Now at last come those Johnnie-come-latelies, the
postmodernists, telling the students that there is no conscience but only
narratives. These ways of speaking share the belief that nothing
is known to everyone - - least of all, fixed moral principles! What
superego, inhibitions, mores, socialization, and narratives have in common
is that they leave us with nothing in common. The reason is that they are
not written on the heart by God, not built into the created intellect, but
merely pumped in from the outside by parents, teachers, policemen,
propagandists, and behavioral conditioners, to serve their various private
To put the matter in the simplest terms, we must choose between two tales
about conscience. One is that there is such a thing, the other is that there
isn't. Now I mentioned that I have a problem with speaking about issues of
conscience. You may think that I have already described it by drawing
attention to the question of whether conscience exists. No, that was merely
to set the stage. The problem is that it is difficult to make sense of
issues of conscience - - meaning a clash of conscientious
convictions - - under either hypothesis, whether the hypothesis that
conscience is real or the hypothesis that it is not.
I'm sure you see why it is hard to make sense of the clash in the latter
case. If there is no conscience, then there are no conscientious
convictions, and if there are no conscientious convictions, then obviously
conscientious convictions cannot clash. What may look like a clash of
conscientious convictions will always be a mere clash of inhibitions, or of
narratives, or of conditioned reflexes or some such thing. There is nothing
of moral interest here; the only question is the empirical one: who shall
have power to indoctrinate. But it is almost as hard to make sense of a
clash of conscientious convictions in the former case - - that is, if
conscience does exist. Conscience, remember, is the interior witness to
principles which are the same for all. But if they are the same for all,
then how can mine clash with yours? You understand the dilemma? According to
one story, there can be a clash but it is not conscientious; according to
the other, there is a conscience but its convictions cannot clash.
This is a very old riddle, and it was both posed and solved, if you will
believe me, in the later middle ages. We are all accustomed to
distinguishing between the conscious and subconscious mind. Well, the
Scholastic philosophers did not put it that way, but they made a similar
distinction. They had two words for conscience, not just one, reflecting a
real difference between two aspects of the mind. For conscience in the sense
in which we have been speaking, they used a late Greek word, synderesis.
Besides synderesis, though, there is conscience in another sense,
which they called conscientia. Forgive me, but you must remember
these definitions. Synderesis is the interior witness to universal
basic moral law, the deep structure of moral reasoning, and it cannot err.
Conscientia is the surface structure of moral reasoning, the working
out of applications and conclusions from the universal basic
moral law, and it can err. In fact it can err in at least four
different ways: through insufficient experience; through insufficient skill
in reasoning; through inattention; or through the perversion of reasoning -
- a broad category including perversion by passion, by corrupt habit, by
corrupt custom, by congenitally impaired disposition, by depraved ideology,
and by self-deception - - the latter corresponding to the case where we
pretend to ourselves that we don't know what we really do know, either about
the facts, or about the rule itself.
You see the situation. The knowledge of the universal basic moral laws
which lies in synderesis cannot err and so does not allow for
clashes. But the conclusions and applications from this law which lie in
conscientia do err and so do allow for clashes. Even so, a clash in
conscientious convictions - - convictions derived by conscientia - -
is fundamentally different from a mere clash in inhibitions or narratives or
what have you, because beneath these convictions there is something
gripping, profound, and true, however it may have been twisted and falsified
on its dark and winding path into present awareness. In order to take the
idea of a clash of conscientious convictions seriously - - in order to
believe that they pertain to conscience, but at the same time that they can
clash - - I think we have to adopt some such account as this.
Let us say, then, that an "issue of conscience" is a clash of just this
sort: a disagreement which arises from an error, not in synderesis,
but in conscientia; a disagreement which arises because even though
the universal basic moral principles are both right for all and at some
level known to all, at least one of the parties has a distorted
understanding of their applications and conclusions. I hope you will forgive
me for having taken such a long time to work that out. The payoff, the
consolation, is this: we are finally ready to consider how issues of
conscience might be handled in the Academy.
Many educators believe that the right way to handle issues of conscience
is to be neutral among competing convictions. I disagree, because there is
no such thing as neutrality. As Joseph Boyle has observed, any ground on
which conflicts between moral perspectives can be arbitrated "will in fact
be some moral perspective and the illusion that it is neutral will
have the effect of disregarding [some] moral views[.]" (Joseph Boyle, "A
Catholic Perspective on Morality and the Law," Journal of Law and
Religion 1 (1983) 233-34) To put this another way, neutralism is merely
bad-faith authoritarianism. It is a dishonest way of advancing a moral view
by pretending to have no moral view.
The question of neutrality has been profoundly obscured by the mistake of
confusing neutrality with objectivity. A most interesting point is that this
mistake is made by both "modernists" and "postmodernists." Modernists assume
(1) that neutrality and objectivity are the same thing, (2) that objectivity
is possible, and therefore (3) that neutrality is possible too
Postmodernists assume (1) that neutrality and objectivity are the same
thing, (2) that neutrality is not possible, and therefore, (3) that
objectivity is not possible either.
A plague on both their houses. I suggest the premodern view that
neutrality and objectivity are not the same, and that objectivity is
possible but neutrality is not. To be neutral, if that were possible, would
be to have no presuppositions whatsoever. To be objective is to have
certain presuppositions, along with the manners that allow us to keep
faith with them. We presuppose that we exist, that our students exist, and
that we exist in a really existing world. We presuppose that perception is
not wholly illusion, and that the consequent relation - - "if this, then
that" - - does correspond to something in reality. We presuppose that
nothing can both be and not be in the same sense at the same time. We
presuppose that good is to be done and truth is to be known. We presuppose
that we should never directly intend harm to anyone. And so forth. In the
language of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, we presuppose the inescapable
first principles of practical and theoretical reasoning and the conclusions
which flow immediately from them. In the language of the Bible, we
presuppose those things which the Creator has made plain even to those who
reject the more particular revelations of Scripture. In saying these things
are plain, of course, I do not mean that we cannot deny them. I only mean
that we can't not know them, whether we admit that we know them or
not. They cannot be proven, of course, but they do not depend on proof,
because, like axioms in geometry, they are that on which the proofs
I said earlier that objectivity means not only having these
presuppositions, but also having the manners that allow us to keep faith
with them. What manners? Oh, you know the ones I mean: manners like letting
the other fellow speak.
Because neutrality is impossible, I suggest a different way to handle
issues of conscience in the Academy - - a way which is admittedly not
neutral, but which is, I think, objective. The key is to remember the
conclusion we reached before: an issue of conscience is a disagreement which
arises because at least one of the parties has taken a false step somewhere
along the way from synderesis to conscientia; somewhere along
the way from the knowledge of universal basic moral principles that are both
right for all and at some level known to all, to beliefs about their
applications and conclusions. If this is true, then at bottom, handling
issues of conscience means handling the problem of error and specifically,
error in conscientia.
If the real problem is error, then we can imagine two different ways of
handling it. One is attacking its symptoms, the other attacking its causes.
Attacking the symptoms, of course, would mean attacking the errors
themselves. Although this is sometimes appropriate in the classroom, as an
exclusive methodology of teaching, it would leave something to be desired.
In the first place, it would require that the teachers themselves be
error-free. In the second, it would offer no assurance that corrected errors
would not simply be replaced by new ones.
Attacking the causes might be more promising. We saw previously that the
causes of erroneous conscientia, erroneous applications and
conclusions from universal basic moral law, include such things as
insufficient experience, insufficient skill in reasoning, inattention, and
perversion of reasoning. Let's take each of these in turn.
The obvious solution to the first cause of erroneous conscientia,
insufficient experience, is experience. It was for this reason that the
ancient thinkers thought certain subjects should be delayed until the years
of youth had passed - - say, until the age of thirty-five. Needless to say,
we do not follow this advice, but it might be better if we did. True, the
ancient philosophers wrote in an aristocratic social order in which an adult
of the leisure class could afford to take up a new study, yet their insight
survives transposition into our own time and place. Consider: the typical
university liberal arts student of our day is unmarried, dependent on his
parents, and thinks of his last birthday as a long time ago. Somehow we
expect him to chatter about such matters as sexual ethics and family policy
before he has begun a family, economic justice before he has paid taxes or
labored for his bread, and the lessons of history before he has discovered
his mortality. Such a plan is well adapted to the production of clever men
and women, but hardly to the formation of wise ones.
The obvious solution to the second cause of erroneous conscientia,
insufficient skill in reasoning, is training in practical logic. I do not
mean training in abstract philosophical logic, which has become a discipline
for specialists. Rather, I mean acquiring the habits of orderly thought.
Here the outlook is brighter, because we can begin to teach these habits as
early as puberty. The mystery is why we cannot take the trouble to do it. We
expect far too much of our young people in some ways, yet far too little in
others. Nineteen-year-olds on the parental dole are encouraged to speculate
about Plato's proposals for the abolition of the family, yet not one in ten
has been taught what an argument ad hominem is and why it should be
avoided. Some of our colleagues even teach them to commit the common
fallacies. "Whatever a man says is sexist," "whatever a white says is
racist," "whatever a rational thinker says is logocentric" - - that sort of
The obvious solution to the third cause of erroneous conscientia,
inattention, is attention. The wisest ethical teachers and thinkers have not
built elaborate deductive systems from flights of fancy like a presocial
state of nature. Rather, they have appealed to everyday knowledge we already
have but do not notice. This includes not only the knowledge of universal
basic moral law, but also some matters of nearly universal experience. For
instance, hedonists may say that pleasure is the greatest good, but in real
life everyone discovers that mere satisfaction doesn't satisfy. Anyone who
finds hedonism a plausible theory despite this fact is inattentive. He
hasn't connected the dots. The good teacher helps connect them. That is why
Aristotle always began his ethical inquiries by cross-examining common
opinion. Now it may seem that we follow Aristotle's method, because we are
always asking our students what they think. In reality that is a parody of
his method. Common opinion means not the opinions of the moment among
the young of a single generation, but the opinions widely shared or widely
reputed wise throughout all generations. Despite, or because of, what is
misleadingly called multiculturalism, our students know little beyond their
own time and place. We could do much better.
As to the fourth cause of erroneous conscientia, perversion of
reasoning, there is no obvious solution, because the problem lies not only
in the intellect but in the desires, the emotions, and the will. This is why
Aristotle, who had the luxury of choice, refused to accept students who had
not been well brought-up. His reasoning was that habits of virtue must come
first, otherwise the theory of the virtues will not be understood. For
example, you cannot expect a young person to follow a discussion of
self-control - - of when to partake of a pleasure and when to abstain - -
unless, under the discipline of others, he has already been habituated to
the acts that self-control requires. He may think that he knows what you are
talking about, but he doesn't. He will want to argue about things that are
not in doubt, like the geometry student who wants to know why
parallel lines don't meet. Perhaps, he reasons, we just haven't extended
them enough. If this kind of objection is indulged, then no time is left to
consider the things that really are in doubt.
For another way reasoning can be perverted, remember what we said
previously about conscience in the sense of synderesis, of knowledge
of the universal basic principles of moral law. All of us have done things
that are gravely wrong. If it is really true that the foundational
principles of the moral law are not only right for all but at some level
known to all, then the conscience of the offender is inevitably burdened.
Ideally, guilty knowledge leads to repentance. In a person of weak
character, however, such knowledge is more often suppressed. The offender
tells himself that he doesn't know what he really does know. We tend to
think that suppressed knowledge is the same as weakened knowledge with
weakened power over behavior. On the contrary, pressing down guilty
knowledge doesn't make it weak any more than pressing down a wildcat makes
it docile. One of the possible results is a terrible urge to rationalize the
evil deed, even to recruit others to join in it. One doesn't become confused
about wrong and therefore start committing it; rather he commits wrong,
knows it is wrong, and therefore finds a way to confuse and reassure himself
about it. My personal conviction is that half of the issues of conscience in
the Academy have their origin right here.
What then can we do to ameliorate the perversion of reasoning in the
Academy? I am not sure, but while we are looking for ways to make things
better it would be good to avoid making them worse. One thing this means is
taking the students' conscience in the sense of conscientia a little
less seriously, but taking their conscience in the sense of synderesis
a good deal more seriously. I remarked at the outset that for several
generations we have been drumming into students that they have no
synderesis. And do you know what? Some of them finally believe us.
Please understand me: we haven't destroyed their synderesis.
Synderesis is indestructible. " As to those general principles," said
Thomas Aquinas, "the natural law, in the abstract, can nowise be blotted out
from men's hearts." But at the same time that they know the general
principles, they convince themselves that they do not. This is the very kind
of perversion of reasoning that we were considering earlier, but with this
difference: it is practised not to suppress a single burning point of guilt,
but as a total system of thought. The mind becomes double.
Here is what I mean by the double mind. You see, because the fellow
doesn't believe in synderesis, he is a relativist. If he could be a
relativist all the way down, his synderesis would be killed and he
would not think in moral terms at all. He would neither make nor acknowledge
moral demands. But because synderesis is alive and active after all,
he cannot be a relativist all the way down. Consequently, his very
relativism expresses itself in moral form. This is how it thinks:
(I) there are no moral duties and no moral rights;
(2) therefore no one has a right to make moral demands of me;
(3) people do make moral demands of me;
(4) these demands must be unreasonable;
(5) unreasonable demands are unjust;
(6) those who are making them are wrong;
(7) they have a duty to desist;
(8) I have a right to demand it of them.
Putting all of this together, we see that other people have all the
duties, and the student has all the rights. Because they think the same way,
clash is inevitable. You can get a lot of issues of conscience from a state
of mind like that. And then the other cycle begins: guilt, suppression,
What does it mean in these circumstances to take conscientia less
seriously and synderesis more so? It means mocking relativism. It
means blowing the whistle on self-deception. And it means honoring the
experience of honest guilt. To illustrate these three principles I will
close with three stories.
Mocking relativism. One day a student approached me after class.
He reminded me that I had mentioned moral law during the lecture, then said
"Last semester I learned that there isn't any moral law. Every society makes
up its own right and wrong, its own good and bad, its own fair and unfair -
- and each one makes up something different."
I answered, "It's a relief to hear you say that, because I'm lazy and I
hate grading papers. At the end of the semester I'll be able to save myself
some work by giving you an F without looking at your papers at all. Since
you don't believe in moral standards like fairness that are true for
everyone, I know you won't object. "
He shot me a startled glance - - then admitted that there are true moral
standards after all.
Blowing the whistle on self deception. "Morals are all relative
anyway," said a student to one of my colleagues. "How do we even know that
murder is wrong?"
My colleague answered the student's question with another: "Are you in
real doubt about the wrong of murder?"
"Many people might say it was alright, " the student replied.
"But I'm not asking other people," pressed my colleague. " Are you at
this moment in any real doubt about murder being wrong for everyone? "
There was a long silence. "No," said the student; "no, I'm not."
"Good," my colleague answered. "Then we needn't waste time on morals
being relative. Let's talk about something you really are in doubt about." A
moment passed while the lesson sank in - - and the student agreed.
Honoring honest guilt. I often assign Aristotle's Ethics. A quiet
young man came to my office one day and said, "Professor, I've got to tell
you that I'm getting scared."
I asked him, "Why are you scared?"
He replied, "Because you're scaring me. I'm shaking."
I asked him, "'How am I doing that!"
He replied, "It's Aristotle. In this book of his he keeps talking about
I asked him, "So?"
He replied, "It's making me realize that I don't lead a virtuous life.
And I'm shaking."
So we spoke of the grace of God.
The Newman Rambler is published semi-annually by the Newman Centre
of McGill University. Visit the Centre's website at