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Chapter 3: Conscience: Knowledge of Moral Truth

Question A: What are the different senses of the word “conscience”?

1. Sometimes “conscience” is used to refer to feelings and judgments which have no direct relationship with moral truth. The feelings arising from superego and the awareness of social conventions are both often called “conscience,” but they need not correspond to moral truth.1

2. “Superego” refers to the subconscious source of one’s sense of requirement and guilt at the emotional level. This is formed by early training. The child who misbehaves experiences inner conflict, which is repugnant. As a consequence, the demands of parents and others on whom the child depends become internalized as an authority over (super) the conscious self (ego). Parents are not always reasonable, however, and the child’s own inclinations are distorted by the inherited effects of sin; thus superego tends to be rigid, nonrational, sometimes oppressive, and often irrelevant to what is truly humanly good and bad.

3. People are also aware of the requirements set by society, and they generally call violations of social conventions “wrong.” Authority at this level is located in the group. To the extent one is identified with a group, one makes its demands one’s own; to the extent one is not wholly identified with a group, one feels its demands to be impositions. Even in the latter case, though, the demands may be accepted as the price of belonging. Most social requirements have at least some basis in moral truth. Yet because various groups have interests which are not always reasonable and which often conflict with one another, social convention also is often at odds with what is truly humanly good and bad.

4. Many people of limited maturity of conscience perceive the Church’s moral teaching at the legalistic level of social convention. They do not clearly understand that it is more than a God-given body of rules one must accept in order to enjoy the benefits of Church membership. Compulsive and guilty feelings at the level of superego are also sometimes very strong in such persons.

It is unnecessary here to investigate the complex psychology of guilt feelings. The important point is that superego has to do with guilt only in a secondary and derivative sense, for it is tied to the whole premoral phase of personal development. Genuine conscience is an awareness of responsibility assessed by a judgment derived from some principle one understands in itself or accepts from a source (such as the Church’s teaching) to which one has intelligently and freely committed oneself. Once conscience is developing and the personality is being integrated in a mature way, feelings of guilt will more and more coincide with choices one knows to be wrong and will be in proportion to how serious one judges the wrong to be.

Such maturing takes time and is achieved in some areas of life more easily than others. Adolescent rebelliousness consists in part of an attempt to overcome childish principles of right and wrong, and the superego guilt which enforces them. To the extent that the superego persists without being integrated into mature morality, people remain in an adolescent posture toward all authorities. Thus many Catholics feel childish guilt when they violate the Church’s moral teaching, especially in the area of sex, and resent the Church’s authority much as rebellious adolescents resent parental authority.

This resentment shapes and colors the entire attitude of many Catholics to the Church. They fail to see moral teaching as a gift of truth; they entirely miss their responsibility to share in a common task of communicating God’s truth and love to others. They want the Church to change her teaching, for they think such a change would relieve their feelings of guilt, and they consciously or unconsciously assume that the teaching could be changed, much as a parental decision that it is time to go to bed can be changed.2

5. Conscience in a full and strict sense is an awareness of moral truth. Only at this level are moral good and evil fully understood and rightly located in the freely choosing person who confronts the reality of the world and human possibilities. Wrongdoing is seen to lie either in refusing to make the commitments and enter into the communities in which one might hope to be fulfilled, or in betraying commitments and failing to meet responsibilities once they are accepted.

6. Judgments of right and wrong by a person with a mature conscience express more than early training or awareness of what is socially required. They say what ought to be required, what one will require of oneself if one is reasonable. To think of morality as an area in which one is made to feel guilty or as a set of rules someone else imposes expresses an immature conscience. By contrast, a person of mature conscience thinks of morality as a matter of real human goodness and reasonableness. For such a person, to do what is wrong is a kind of self-mutilation.3

7. The forbidden and the permissible are not the exclusive or even primary concerns of a mature conscience. A person of mature conscience does not ask, “What is the minimum I have to do? How far can I go in doing what I please?” These questions express at least a residue of superego and social convention. Rather, a mature Christian conscience seeks to determine the implications of faith for one’s entire life: “What is the good and holy thing to do? What is Christ’s mind on this matter? How can I do God’s will in my life?” (see Mt 5.38–48; Rom 12.1–2; Phil 4.8–9; Col 3.12–17).4

One may sum up the distinction between the three senses of “conscience” as follows.

First, the superego is not really moral at all, in the sense that it offers no reason for acting as distinct from a feeling. Social convention is moral in the sense that it offers reasons for acting as distinct from nonrational determinants of action. However, at this level reasons for acting need only be grounded in one’s actual desires, not in human goods understood as valuable in themselves. By contrast, moral truth is based on reasons which are fully intelligible, not merely factual.

Second, the superego is concerned only with a certain area of behavior, namely, behavior subject to disapproval, which leads to guilt feelings. The remainder of the infant’s behavior is free. Social convention also is limited to a restricted field, namely, that in which a reason for acting is backed by a social sanction. Apart from this, choices seem morally indifferent. Moral truth in its full development is not restricted to any area of behavior, although it comes to bear only when there is some possibility of free choice.

Third, the superego is most concerned with outward performances, which can cause trouble. Social convention is primarily concerned with good intentions; the individual must accept the authority. Moral truth is concerned with integral human fulfillment, which primarily exists in existential goods—that is, in various forms of peace and harmony within persons and among them.

Fourth, the superego generates a sense of compulsion; one has to abide by its dictates or suffer the pain of violating them. Social convention generates a sense of obligation; one either abides by the rules or is criticized and cut off from what one wants. Moral truth generates responsibility; fulfillment of others and of oneself depends on oneself, and consistency with one’s own care for fulfillment requires one to act reasonably for it.

Fifth, the superego defines the self as a person of others—for example, the child of these parents. The little child tries to be like and to fit in with the parents. Conventional morality defines the self in part negatively, by efforts to be different from others, and in part affirmatively, by the set of goals it encourages one to pursue in the society—for example, the adolescent tries to accomplish certain things and to make something of himself or herself. Moral truth defines the self by commitments and communion—for example, “I am a Christian.”

Still, these three stages are not in watertight compartments. Even small children already have some understanding of basic human goods, and this understanding shapes their action. By the time they are six or eight, most children are somewhat aware that fairness is not merely a device, but something of an ideal. Conversely, the superego can and should continue to develop in all one’s personal relationships; it provides an immediate sense of the cost of being offensive to those one cares about. Similarly, conventional morality, to the extent that it is grounded in moral truth, can be incorporated in a mature conscience as the legal embodiment of norms.

1. For an introduction to psychological aspects of conscience and its development, one may study two essays in Conscience: Its Freedom and Limitations, ed. William C. Bier (New York: Fordham University Press, 1971): Dorothea Miller, “Development of the Normal Conscience,” 39–61; Robert J. Campbell, “Superego and Conscience,” 82–91. (Neither essay can be recommended without qualification from the point of view of Catholic doctrine.)

2. John W. Glaser, S.J., “Conscience and Superego: A Key Distinction,” Theological Studies, 32 (1971), 30–47, treats the distinction between conscience and superego (but does not distinguish the level of conventional morality) and some of the problems which can be generated by superego’s confusion with conscience. Unfortunately, Glaser’s treatment is marred by ambivalence toward ecclesial authority.

3. For a treatment of conscience in general along the same lines presented here, see Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979), 152–74. There are at least two differences. First, Wojtyla thinks of conscience more broadly, including not only the judgment in which one is aware of moral truth, but the process of the mind striving for truth in the sphere of values (159–61). Second, and more significantly, Wojtyla attributes to conscience the role of transforming insight into values into the force of obligation (165–66). As will be explained in chapter seven, even the principles of practical reasoning in general and of morality have of themselves a normative force, which Wojtyla does not seem sufficiently to recognize; note his remark (162) on duty and normative power, manifested in conscience, which he seems to wish to distinguish from truth itself. Wojtyla’s treatment of conscience at times—for instance, in the emphasis on striving for truth—seems insufficiently to distinguish the working of conscience as such (including the conscience of the person who disregards it) from the working of the conscience of the upright person, whose ideal moral cognition is discussed in question D.

4. Walter E. Conn, Conscience: Development and Self-Transcendence (Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1981), stresses throughout that genuine conscience is concerned with moral truth, not with conformity to mores. Summarizing the developmental psychology of Erikson, Piaget, and Kohlberg, and the philosophical theory of Bernard Lonergan, he rightly rejects minimalism and legalism in favor of a primary focus on full human development (208). Unfortunately, Conn’s work is defective in at least two respects. First, he wishes to make a contribution to theological ethics, but he pays no attention to the teaching of Scripture and Vatican II concerning conscience; against these sources, Conn denies that conscience is a principled judgment (205) and instead says: “Quite simply, conscience is the fullest expression of the personal subject’s fundamental exigence for self-transcendence” (208). Conn wishes to identify “is” and “ought” in the human person (12); he says that conscience is “the fundamental, dynamic reality of the personal subject who has committed, dedicated, indeed, surrendered her or himself to the radical demands of the human spirit” (208). Thus, he seems to leave no room for the radical moral evil of a choice against mature conscience. Second, near the end of his book, without any basis in what has preceded it, Conn gratuitously claims that ethics can best be compared to esthetics (209). On the basis of this analogy, he suggests that “because the ethical analyst realizes that decisions are made in particular situations according to the subject’s best creative understanding of the complex concreteness of the situation, he or she does not regard interpretations of general problem areas like abortion as applicable in a deductive way to particular cases, any more than a literary critic pretends to offer the author a formula on how to compose a fine poem or a first-rate novel.” Apart from the fact that critics do articulate ways guaranteed to result in wretched poetry and third-rate novels, Conn here seems to adopt a mistaken theory of moral principles (see 4‑B).