Although conscience may seem to be a kind of feeling, the moral demands that it makes on us reveal that its seat is in reason.
Rational standard for choice and judgment
To act according to conscience is to follow reason's lead. It is true that feelings always accompany conscience (especially bad feelings with a guilty conscience). However, we feel good or bad about what we choose to do or what we have already done because we know the choice or act to be right or wrong. Perhaps this is why the word conscience means, literally, "with knowledge."
It is always wrong for me to act against my conscience, for to do so is to do what I think to be wrong. This I must never do. However, it is not therefore the case that if I act according to my conscience, my action is necessarily good. In addition to following my conscience (always doing what I think to be good), I must also inform my conscience (constantly try to find out what really is good). When I act in accordance with an informed conscience, my action is good.
The final arbiter in our free actions is conscience. It is conscience that tells us that murder is wrong. It is conscience that reminds us to help those who are less well off. It is conscience that encourages us to work hard at school, sports, or our job rather than goof off. It is conscience that tells us that we should strive to be better and should help others to be better, too.
Feelings sometimes move us to act, but they cannot tell us how we ought to act. When we have certain feelings, we still need to ask whether or not we should follow them. If we do not ask, we will act arbitrarily. This is inconsistent with our demand that others not treat us justas they feel. For the sake of fairness and community, both sides must strive to be reasonable.
I cannot know what I should do simply by consulting my feelings, for feelings change, often very rapidly. Sometimes I feel good about myself and others; sometimes I do not. If I just follow my feelings, my actions may be extremely irrational. The question of whether my generous and kind feelings or my selfish and hateful ones should be encouraged and nurtured cannot itself be settled by feeling. Ultimately I know, not just feel, that kindness and compassion are better than persecution and hate.
Were feelings our guides, it is hard to see how any action could be wrong. There would be a kind of blanket defense: "I felt like cheating." "I felt like being lazy in school." "I felt like killing him." "I didn't feel like helping her." Immorality would be only "not doing what I felt like doing." If this is the final arbiter in our actions, there really is no arbiter at all.
"The Moral Law is not any one instinct
Montague Brown. "Conscience/Feelings." In The One-Minute Philosopher (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001) 22-23.
Reprinted with permission of Montague Brown and Sophia Institute Press.
When he's not in the classroom, the professor spends time writing, skiing on the local cross-country trails, or providing the rock-steady beat of the bass in a faculty jazz quartet. In the summer, this philosopher might be hiking in his home state of Maine or presenting a paper in Rome.
Copyright © 2001 Montague Brown
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