Handling Issues of Conscience in the AcademyJ. BUDZISZEWSKI
One doesn’t become confused about wrong and therefore start committing it; rather one 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.
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 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 ends.
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.
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 themselves depend.
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.
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 thing.
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.
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:
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, rationalization, recruitment.
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.
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.
“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
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 virtue.”
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.
Budziszewski, J. “Handling Issues of Conscience in the Academy.” The Newman Rambler 3, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 1999): 2-9.
Printed with permission of The Newman Rambler. The Newman Rambler is published semi-annually by the Newman Centre of McGill University. Visit the Centre’s website at www.rc.net/montreal/newmancentre. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This 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.
Photo: Kwan Choo, ARPS
Copyright © 1999 The Newman Rambler
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.