Conscience In Thomas Aquinas; A Philosophical Reflection

Project and Seminar Material for Philosophy

Conscience In Thomas Aquinas; A Philosophical Reflection


Table of Contents


Chapter One

Introduction

  • 1.1 Background of the study
  • 1.2 Statement of the Problem
  • 1.3 Purpose of the Study
  • 1.4 Scope of the Study
  • 1.5 Method of Research
  • 1.6 Division of Work

Chapter Two

The Idea of Conscience Before Aquinas

  • 2.1 Ancient Era
  • 2.1.1 Pre-Christian Times
  • 2.1.2 Pauline ingenuity
  • 2.2 Medieval Era
  • 2.2.1 Synderesis: a Jeromean innovation
  • 2.2.2 Conscience and Synderesis
  • 2.3 Kinds of Conscience
  • 2.3.1 True or Correct Conscience
  • 2.3.2 Erroneous conscience
  • 2.3.2.1 Perplexed Conscience
  • 2.3.2.2 Lax Conscience
  • 2.3.2.3 Scrupulous Conscience
  • 2.3.2.4 Certain Conscience
  • 2.3.2.5 Doubtful Conscience

Chapter Three

Aquinas on Conscience

  • 3.1 Aquinas’ Idea of Man
  • 3.2 Clarification of Concepts
  • 3.3 The Obligation of Conscience
  • 3.4 The Problem of Erroneous Conscience
  • 3.5 The Relevance of Aquinas Doctrine to Man

Chapter Four

Evaluation and Conclusion

  • 4.1 Philosophical Evaluation
  • 4.2 Conclusion
  • Bibliography

Chapter One


Introduction

The modern world is characterized by violence, riots, wars, terrorism, and abortion, which constitute threats to the peaceful co-existence of men. Analysts have strived to bring out solution to the problem in their various capacities. Both the advocates of peace and terror, theists and atheists explicitly or implicitly speak and write about conscience and its place in the pursuit of particular causes. Hence the notion of conscience is a point of interest to all.

The term conscience appears in the constitutions of many nations today as well as in the official documents of the church. Civil rights activists have often used the terms “white conscience”, “public conscience” Christian conscience” and so on, as weapons of remedy against various ills and excesses of ideologies. Scholastic philosophers are themselves neither unanimous nor constant in their use of the word conscience.

This overview is nevertheless sufficient to show that conscience embodies various meanings and covers situations ranging from view of life to personal conviction, social values and objective standard of conduct for different peoples. The nature of conscience has, as a result, been variously interpreted as an interior voice, a faculty, an act of judgement, a habit, etc. The lack or absence of unanimity in the usage and interpretations of conscience by both secular and ecclesiastical writers often blur and make ambiguous its true meaning. Thus, the ordinary man is all the more perplexed with regard to its function as a norm of morality. In this light, it is an onerous task to arrive at an understanding of the nature of conscience and its obligation.

Authority irks modern man. For him, freedom is the absence of restraint. In many democratic countries, for instance, freedom becomes equated with irresponsibility. Often the basis of dissent is sought in conscience, which serves as an arsenal of defense against the demands of authority. In moral matters, the emphasis is on personal autonomy that refuses to look beyond self, for moral values and guidance. However, appeals to conscience in cases like these often result in an inability to resolve moral problems. The consequence is chaotic existence, which has become the mark of our times.

This long essay is an attempt to clarify some of the uncertainty that surrounds the word conscience using the philosophical framework of St. Thomas Aquinas.


1.1 Background of the Study

Conscience is man’s nearest guide with regard to his moral decisions on actions. Man makes a rational judgement over the actions performed or about to be performed in order to know how good or bad they are. He does this because of the natural inclination to attain happiness and satisfaction. Hence, conscience is of interest to all. Teachers make lesson on it, leaders consider it, parents address their children on it, Christians respect it; lawyers act on it; while philosophers examine it critically.

Aquinas’ attention was drawn to the issue of “conscience” as a result of the hot debate on the relationship of conscience and synderesis as well as its nature in the Middle Ages. He looked into the matter to see if there were any distinguishing features of conscience, its operation in the intellect with regard to the actions of man. He came out with the conclusion that conscience incites or binds. There is no doubt that his stand on the issue alleviated the problem to a certain extent. However, it is still subject to critical examination, because his view appears to be very subjective.

Thomas Aquinas {c. 1225-74} was born into an aristocratic family at Roccasecca in the south of Italy. He studied philosophy and theology at Cologne with and under Albert the Great. Aquinas’ best-known work is his Summa Theologia and others like Scriptum Super Sententiarum, Quaestiones Disputatae De Veritate, Summa Contra Gentiles, which he wrote around 1254 to 1273. He died on March 7, 1274 in the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova.


1.2 Statement of the Problem

A historical survey of philosophers and thinkers who delved into the problem of conscience shows that conscience and synderesis are inevitable in making moral decisions on actions. However, man cannot appreciate and appropriate this function of the human intellect without an epistemological cleansing in order to see the relationship between synderesis and conscience. Aquinas’ doctrine established that conscience has a binding force whether true or erroneous.

This means that one who yields to erroneous conscience is not free from a bad act. Does it imply that one with erroneous conscience must act wrongly? What measure could be employed to correct the error and how? The problem of a doubtful conscience entails a feeling of uncertainty about something as to the lawfulness or obligation of an action. Aquinas’ reply seems naïve: of course, “a man needs only to put aside his error for he is really not in a quandary”.


1.3 Purpose of the Study

The main objective of this work is to expose and make a philosophical reflection on Aquinas’ doctrine on conscience, his understanding of conscience and synderesis. An attempt will be made to see the relationship between Aquinas idea of conscience and man as a moral being in quest of ultimate end. I shall attempt also to contribute to resolving the problem of error and doubtful conscience, in addition to what Aquinas has said about the problem.


1.4 Scope of the Study

I am concerned in this research work with Aquinas’ teaching on antecedent conscience not consequent conscience, since only the former is a norm of morality. I am bent on finding out exactly the ‘quid’ of his antecedent moral conscience with its attendant obligation.


1.5 Method of Research

The method of research is expository and analytical since our objective is to know and understand Aquinas’ thought and it’s relevance to man as a moral being that acts for an ultimate end. The word “conscience” throughout the work is to be taken as antecedent moral conscience unless noted otherwise.


1.6 Division of Work

The work is divided into four chapters. The first chapter is the preliminary consideration of the research. The second chapter takes a look at the idea of conscience before Aquinas. The third chapter exposes Aquinas doctrine on conscience. In the fourth chapter I shall reflect on the relevance of his doctrine to man as a being with ultimate end. After that we shall conclude the essay.

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Chapter Four


Evaluation and Conclusion

The objective of this last chapter is to show that Aquinas doctrine on conscience and its obligation follows from his view of man. In this last chapter, I intend to appraise his thoughts, bringing out both the positive aspects and the limitations.


4.1 Philosophical Evaluation

There is no doubt that Aquinas has a clear theory of conscience and its obligation. By reviewing his teaching on man, it is easy to see that the significance of his doctrine on conscience can be fully appreciated in relation to his philosophical idea of man. However, he was greatly influenced by his religious convictions. Of course, he is not free from some limitations due to human error. The merits of Aquinas ideas are clear in the position he assigned to man in the universe by analyzing his essential constitution and by giving to man the quality that belongs to him by nature, his human personality with its obligations. Aquinas shows man’s life as transcending material existence and his needs, as capable of satisfaction in and by God alone. His view is quite unlike the harms perpetrated by the positivistic trends of modern studies in biology, psychology, and philosophy where man is objectified: where life loses its essential meaning when man is not seen as essentially superior to beasts and animals. Here passion rules and not reason and this lead to violation of human rights.

Aquinas opined that conscience is the application of knowledge of the first principles to concrete cases, and it always binds. But he failed to proffer what his primary precepts of natural law are and how they are related to each other. This would have obviated to a certain degree the obscurity in understanding his notion of synderesis, conscience and their affinity to the first principles. However, he makes a general statement “good must be done and evil avoided”.

According to Aquinas conscience has a moral property and this is to bind. This property flows from the nature of conscience as a dictate of reason. The will must tend towards the object precisely as it is presented to it by the intellect. Whether reason and conscience judge rightly or not, the will is obliged to follow their judgement. Hence the dictate of conscience obliges the will and binds it. As such it is binding to all kinds of conscience and brooks no condition or exception1. Thus, one is bound to obey ones conscience irrespective of the kind of conscience. How can erroneous conscience provide grist for the mills of moral rectitude? What becomes of the error in the erroneous conscience? Aquinas synthesis in this regard is nothing but less satisfactory. He could only examine whether the will involved is good or evil when it abides or is at variance with erring conscience. There was no distinct analysis of vincible and invincible kinds of erroneous conscience. Rather he says the error should be put aside. In this regard I feel that a proper formation of one’s conscience, though it is a life long project, is the moral fibre of healthy decisions on actions.

However, the reformation of vincible erroneous conscience and invincible erroneous conscience entails the consideration of some elements that help conscience in its application of principles. These elements are prudence, freedom of the will in relation to conscience, and authority. Indeed to be moral is to be conscientious; it is to act in accord with the judgement of conscience. Of course, this is not without the virtue of prudence. Prudence is a virtue that functions as a key element in the process of making a conscientious decision. C. Ekwutosi explains that “prudence enters into the field of moral virtues by pointing out the mean and suggesting ways of attaining it”2. Aquinas sees prudence as the right reason of things to be done3. Prudence is a virtue of the practical intellect, and as such an intellectual virtue. Therefore, prudence and conscience direct man in his actions.

But, there is a difference between prudence and conscience. Conscience applies the first principles provided by synderesis, to concrete instances, while prudence provides the skill, direction, and the command to move conscience to action. For instance, I believe that helping the poor is good, this is a judgement of conscience but prudence makes me to find a better means of helping the poor without any ulterior intention. It is the judgement of conscience that shows one what is morally good in a particular case but the judgement of prudence makes one to will it. It implies that the moral judgement of a prudent person has a lesser possibility of error than that of someone without the virtue of prudence. Prudence supplies the knowledge of how to act and conduct one’s life correctly in order to attain the right end. It is timely to avow here that prudence provides the panacea for the problem of the possibility of error in conscience. This means that one with vincible erroneous conscience cannot be prudent at the same time for the two are contradictory.

Aquinas failed to relate cogently the concepts of conscience and prudence and to indicate that the acquisition of the virtue of prudence could tackle the problem of error in conscience. Analogically, to the position of Aquinas with regards to the error in conscience, I agree that the error in conscience could be put aside with the application of the virtue of prudence.

Furthermore, Aquinas idea of the obligation of conscience is vitiated by his religious pedigree. No wonder he affirms that “the action by which the will is moved is by the ‘command of the ruler or governor’. The basis of this authority is from the force of the divine precept”4. This means that the sole arbiter of the functions of conscience in morality is God. As a result of this one could infer logically that one is determined in one’s actions. Having said this, the question of human freedom surfaces; is one really free when one’s actions are determined?

When one looks critically at the position of Aquinas on the binding force of conscience, no doubt one asks, what could be the relationship between one’s conscience and authorities? If the dictates of the law of the state forbid a particular action but my conscience rightly proposes it, do I obey the law or my conscience? Having said this, I will reflect on the relationship between the freedom of the will, conscience and authority.

Freedom should not be equated with irresponsibility or the possession of power to do anything one likes. Otherwise, one’s freedom might infringe on another’s, because people are inclined differently. C. Ekwutosi gave a fascinating idea of freedom:

The power to determine oneself by one’s own choices is the freedom most proper to a human being and is often referred to as positive freedom5.

Freedom is the ability to realize fully one’s potentialities as a human being. In this sense, man is an autonomous being, capable of self-determination, through his choices and decisions. One is determined by freedom when one forms one’s life through the choices and decisions one makes freely. As a result, free decisions make a person to be his true, genuine self, a realized self. Man realizes himself in the midst of alternatives by choosing to or not to perform an act. Freedom of choice refers either to the act of the will or to the object of the will. In the first sense, it entails freedom of exercise; in the second sense, it means freedom of specification. Freedom of exercise implies that the will is free to choose or not to. In other words, it is not a mere absence of action on the part of the will, but the fact that it is not compelled to act. Freedom of specification implies that having a particular objective or goal; the will is free to choose among alternatives that can lead it to its goal. For instance, I am free to study; and after I made up my mind to study, I am free to study wherever pleases me, either in the library or in my room. The free choices and decisions of man are influenced by his rational nature and this makes him master of his own acts.

In this regard, W. Wallace opines, “freedom of specification presupposes freedom of exercise and looks further to some object specifying the act to be done by the agent”6. The free will to choose or make a choice is proper to man and is often regarded as positive freedom or freedom to. However, when freedom refers to coercion or restraint from performing an act, such that the agent does not act freely in performing or not performing the action, it is called negative freedom or freedom from. Of course, respecting the law of the authorities does not imply denying one’s freedom. Rather, it helps man to protect his freedom. Freedom of choice as an expression of free will should not go against the law. Similarly, one is bound to obey one’s conscience, but at the same time, obliged to respect legitimate authorities. One cannot understand properly the role of authority involved in moral decisions without acknowledging the binding nature of conscience. In other words, authority provides the platform for grasping the objective truth by educating, guiding and instructing man. Since individuals are often seen as being blind, ignorant or corrupt, the ideal of positive freedom will normally imply coercion: the unenlightened individuals must “be forced to be free” by an authority. As a result, the conscience of man is correctly informed and nurtured through the right knowledge given by an authority. Thus, authority helps in the formation and reformation of conscience because man must appreciate the moral value of an act before he is obliged to either perform or avoid it7. In as much as the power of an authority is in consonance with the objective truth, the judgement of conscience must agree to the power of that authority. However, conscience remains the ultimate subjective standard of morality. As the Second Vatican council observed, “To obey the conscience is the very dignity of man; according to it, he will be judged”8. No wonder Aquinas acknowledged the binding force of conscience and emphasizes or warns that “the man who follows an erroneous conscience is not free from sin”9. Yet conscience must be the primary subjective norm of morality.

The philosophical expertise of Aquinas is evident in his understanding of man and his doctrine on conscience. Precisely, his understanding of man serves as a gateway to his idea of conscience and its obligation. For him, man is destined for eternal life; he has a peculiar nature that is rational and free. The powers of his soul, the laws governing his actions and moral obligation, are in accordance with his nature and destiny and to the means to attain it. Hence, his doctrine on conscience is a consistent one, in line with his view that man has a determined nature; and consequently, one specific final good and one unchanging natural law, which is disclosed in the functions of right conscience, reflecting the eternal law. The possibility of conscience in man is essentially bound up with the fact that man is a rational being, imbued with a faculty of intellection and volition. Only man, therefore, can have a conscience. This view disagrees with that of the positivists and materialists who tend to objectify man.

Aquinas should be commended for his strikingly original ideas. Notwithstanding some of the questionable areas in his doctrine, he made significant observations towards a better comprehension of the principle of man’s conscience. He probed deeply into the nature of conscience and man and brought out the necessary elements that unite them.


4.2 Conclusion

Contemporary period is replete with examples of moral disagreement. Lively moral debate is a sign of the times. There is tremendous disparity among various cultures in their judgement of what is right and what is wrong. This disagreement proves that conscience could vary from culture to culture. This shows the existence of conscience.

It is the peculiar nature of conscience that distinguishes man from brute animals. In every moral act, I contribute to making myself the kind of person I am, but we also do a particular act that affects the world in which we all live, others and me. In other words, certain things or acts are good for man while others are bad for him. That is why some people advocate for euthanasia, terrorism, abortion, contraception, corruption, etc. All such acts are perpetrated under the guise that it has long been a standard teaching of ethicists that one ought to follow one’s conscience. This question comes to mind: what if my conscience tells me that murder is good? I should be able to deduce from the Thomistic view that my conscience could be erroneous. However, one might have been misinformed on the issue of murder such that one’s reason has no option than to present the same to the will. The conscience then binds the will and then makes one will this ‘apprehended good’ by the reason. In point of fact, this has always been the springboard of moral anomalies in society.

Aquinas sees conscience as that act of applying moral principles to particular situations. He indicates that the knowledge of the moral property of conscience is always binding.

Aquinas holds that all men seek happiness; this is the last end, to embrace the truth is to posses’ happiness or subjective end of man. Every one does not have the same disposition towards the truth, people conceive different things as the truth, hence the disparity in conscience. However, one has the moral obligation to care and nurture one’s conscience as a means of attaining the final end. Since nothing is more private or profoundly of the person than the person’s conscience. This is why conscience is most fundamentally one’s awareness of moral truth of that which is truly right and good to do. Hence, conscience helps one in making judgements about one’s actions to know whether one is going towards or dissenting from attaining happiness of life.

Aquinas’ notion of man situates man a little lower than the angels. He depicts man’s life as stretching beyond material existence and his needs as capable of satisfaction. The present-day drift in morals is largely due to the lack of some objective standard of conduct. Aquinas’ teaching on conscience can be of immense help in enlightening them towards the formation of correct conscience. Thus, the quintessence of human morality is that the good must be done and the evil avoided. Of course, the fallibility of our objective judgement in no way obviates that fundamental moral obligation. Rather, it invites us to a life-long task of forming and reforming our conscience. The formation of one’s conscience is incumbent upon man because conscience as an abiding human characteristic leads to a general sense of value and an awareness of personal responsibility. To be human is to be accountable. Therefore, let us care and be responsible for our lives.

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