TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 4: Some Mistaken Theories of Moral Principles

Question A: Are judgments of conscience mere expressions of moral feelings?

1. As we saw (3‑A), children learn to feel guilt and distinguish acceptable and unacceptable behavior even before they are old enough to make judgments of conscience and choices. This childish sense of the required and the forbidden is superego. Some people reduce conscience to superego; judgments of conscience, in their view, are no more than expressions of internalized pressures.2

2. Although no Catholic theologian denies that there is moral truth, much popular opinion, reflected in the modern confusion already criticized (3‑G), implies such a denial. There is also something close to a denial of moral truth in the current tendency to devalue careful reflection upon moral issues and substitute, as a moral guide, a sense of being at peace with oneself or in agreement with others.

3. Some philosophers have in fact defended the view that there is no moral truth. Influenced by psychological theories such as Freud’s, they lay great emphasis on the fact that morality does involve feelings and they argue from people’s frequent use of moral language—for example, “That’s unfair!”—simply to express their feelings.3

4. This philosophical view has some plausibility because disagreements about what is right and wrong are often hard to resolve. In science, disagreements can generally be settled by experimentation and logic. When it comes to profound moral disagreements, however, experience and logic by themselves settle nothing, since the question at issue is always what ought to be, not what is. Thus it can seem that morality is a matter of taste, and that there is nothing beyond the superego to serve as a guide or monitor of behavior.

5. Nonetheless, this view must be rejected. If correct, it would leave no room for moral reflection, moral teaching, or even reasoned dissent on moral issues. It is plainly incompatible with Catholic teaching, for it would undercut the Catholic conception of a conscience which can be really correct or really mistaken. That conception is grounded in a still deeper truth of faith—that the created order of things embodies meanings and values placed there by a wise and loving creator. As was explained (3‑B), according to the Catholic understanding of conscience these meanings and values, spontaneously understood by human beings, are for them a law written in their hearts (see GS 16).

6. Difficulties in settling moral disputes bring out the special character of moral principles, which are neither matters of fact nor logical requirements. But these difficulties do not show that there are no moral truths. Agreement is sometimes reached in moral disputes. People admit that their previous judgments were in error and correct them. Such admissions would make no sense if conscience were nothing more than superego. It is also worth noticing that agreement is not always easily come by in fields other than morality. Psychologists, economists, and physicists also have their seemingly unresolvable differences, but no one concludes from this that there are no truths of psychology, economics, and physics.

2. See Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), 70–92, esp. 83, where conscience is reduced to superego as function to inferred faculty.

3. The most important statement of the emotive theory in the philosophical literature: C. L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944). For a summary of arguments against emotivism, see Richard B. Brandt, Ethical Theory: The Problems of Normative and Critical Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1959), 225–31, bibliography (items marked “criticism”), 239–40.