Saturday, October 18, 2008

Knowing Right from Wrong

It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

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Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Knowing Right from Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience

FaithWords (September 18, 2008)


Thomas D. Williams, LC, ThD, is Vatican Analyst for CBS News and a professor of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. He has also worked extensively for NBC News and Britain's Sky News, covering church and ethical issues, including the final illness and death of Pope John Paul II, the 2005 papal conclave, and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Father Williams also regularly appeared in the MSNBC series The Ethical Edge and is author of several books and dozens of articles, both scholarly and popular.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $19.99

Hardcover: 224 pages

Publisher: FaithWords (September 18, 2008)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0446582018

ISBN-13: 978-0446582018


That Still, Small Voice:

The Idea of Christian Conscience

Like so many morality tales, The Adventures of Pinocchio talks about growing up. Growing up, in this context, doesn’t just mean getting older—it means getting better. Master storyteller Carlo Collodi paints a portrait of a wooden marionette who longs to be a real boy, but to do so he must first become good. Pinocchio keeps straying from the right path, betrayed by false friends and his own weakness of character. By his constant wanderings and thoughtlessness he causes great suffering to others, especially his poor father, the woodcarver Geppetto.

Fortunately, early in his adventures Pinocchio meets an important figure who will accompany him with wise counsel. In the 1883 Italian original, Collodi calls this wise voice the grillo parlante (“talking cricket”) rechristened “Jiminy Cricket” by Walt Disney in his 1940 animated film. In the movie version, the figure of Jiminy Cricket becomes explicitly identified with Pinocchio’s conscience. Look how Disney introduces Pinocchio to the idea:

Blue Fairy: Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish, and someday you will be a real boy.

Pinocchio: A real boy!

Jiminy Cricket: That won’t be easy.

Blue Fairy: You must learn to choose between right and wrong.

Pinocchio: Right and wrong? But how will I know?

Jiminy Cricket: How’ll he know!

Blue Fairy: Your conscience will tell you.

Pinocchio: What are a conscience?

Jiminy Cricket: What are a conscience! I’ll tell ya! A conscience is that still, small voice people won’t listen to. That’s just the trouble with the world today.

Shortly afterward, Jiminy Cricket formally gets enlisted as Pinocchio’s conscience. The Blue Fairy has Jiminy Cricket kneel before her, as she pronounces these words: “I dub you Pinocchio’s Conscience, Lord High Keeper of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong, Counselor in moments of temptation and Guide along the straight and narrow path. Arise, Sir Jiminy Cricket.”

Despite Pinocchio’s initial enthusiasm about having his very own conscience, he soon gets distracted with offers of theater and Pleasure Island, which seem far more attractive than school and homework. The cricket—his conscience—seems little more than a bothersome nuisance, keeping him from more agreeable pursuits. Pinocchio even takes ridicule for listening to his conscience. Here’s how Disney describes the meeting between Pinocchio’s irresponsible friend Lampwick and Jiminy Cricket:

Lampwick: [picks up Jiminy] Hey, who’s the beetle?

Jiminy Cricket: Put me down!

Pinocchio: He’s my conscience. He tells me what’s right and wrong.

Lampwick: What? You mean to tell me you take orders from a grasshopper?

Though simplistically portrayed, Pinocchio’s struggles are something all of us can identify with. We all have heard the voice of conscience, urging us to do the right thing. Sometimes we listen, sometimes we don’t. We resent its nagging, but we recognize that it is right. Sometimes we wish we could simply turn it off or at least adjust it to fit our whims and appetites. And we, too, may wonder, Why should I take orders from a grasshopper?

My own epiphany of conscience happened in the fifth grade. My homeroom teacher was a man named Mr. Cruse—one of the few male teachers in my Catholic grade school. Despite his notorious temper I liked him a lot and learned much from him. He was, however, someone to be reckoned with. He took no guff from the students and commanded respect.

One day during gym period, two other boys and I clambered up on top of a row of freestanding metal lockers in the boys’ locker room to gain access to the windows. Down below, on the red brick patio, we spied a few students engaged in conversation. We called out to them and proceeded to remove our navy blue uniform neckties and toss them down to our accomplices below.

Somewhere in the midst of this childish game of toss-the-ties, Mr. Cruse appeared out of nowhere, like a specter conjured up from the netherworld. He reached up and grabbed me by the collar, hauling me down from the lockers as if I were a bag of nacho chips and swinging me solidly into the opposite row of lockers with a sharp bang. He glared at me and barked: “Were you spitting and throwing things out the window?”

“No, I wasn’t,” I whimpered.

He then moved on to the other two and the whole scene quickly dissipated. For some reason, however, more than self-justification or the embarrassment of getting caught in our actions, I felt profound remorse for having lied to Mr. Cruse. It is true that I hadn’t spat out the window, but I had most certainly thrown something.

For the next few days, the feeling of having done wrong gnawed at me, until finally I got up the nerve to approach Mr. Cruse at school to apologize. “I just wanted to tell you that I am very sorry because I lied to you the other day in the locker room,” I said. “I did throw my tie out the window.”

Mr. Cruse responded, “That’s okay. . . . And I’m sorry I got so mad at you.” And that was the end of that particular crisis of conscience.

Not nearly all my bouts of conscience have ended so favorably. Often my responses to the urgings of conscience have simply been to put off the good I know I should do or to ignore them completely. Yet fortunately, conscience is still there, like a glowing ember that refuses to go out, reminding me and calling me to be my best self (and to write books about it). The moral life is a continual struggle to be true to what we are called to be. In this ongoing battle, where would we be without conscience?

A Guide to Goodness

Conscience is indeed, as Jiminy Cricket proclaimed, a guide, and a very insistent one at that. But where does it lead us? Not just to efficiency or productivity, but to goodness. Conscience provides more than a pragmatic calculus of costs and benefits, pointing to the most successful outcome. In fact, it often impels us to do things that apparently promise only woe. It judges not the efficiency of our actions, but their moral quality, their “goodness” or “badness.” When our consciences admonish us for telling a lie, they don’t fault us for the outcome of the lie (getting away with it or getting caught, the shame we avoid by lying, etc.). They judge the act of lying itself and reprimand us for engaging in a wrong action.

This moral judgment is more important than we may think. It affects not only our productivity or outward success, but our very quality as human beings. Being good means succeeding in humanity. A morally bad person is like a blind chauffeur, or a crippled piano player, or a tone-deaf singer. Just as eyesight is essential to a chauffeur’s trade, moral goodness is the key to our “trade” as human beings. A lack of goodness is not just some random defect or privation, but the absence of the most essential element of what we are. Like Pinocchio, who became a real boy only when he learned to be good, we cannot flourish as human persons unless we, too, become good. That’s where conscience steps in.

But what does it mean for a person to be good? “Good” is more than what appeals to me, what I find to be pleasant or useful. Something is good when it flourishes, when it is fully what it was meant to be. By extension, something is “good for me” when it helps me to be what I am meant to be. In philosophical terms, goodness is the perfection of nature. A good watch does what a watch should do; it keeps time accurately. A good watch may or may not have diamond studs, or a fine leather band, or bear the name of Patek Philippe. No matter how well adorned or finely crafted, a watch that does not keep time is not a good watch.

So what can be said about a good person? What quality makes or breaks a person as good or bad? It is not intelligence, good looks, social graces, or economic status. If we are told that “Laura is a good person,” what do we really know about her? We cannot infer that she is a world-class figure skater, an accomplished opera singer, stunningly attractive, or an expert cryptographer. What we do know is that she is unselfish, honest, loyal, generous, and kind. In other words, we know that she is morally good. If we fail at moral goodness, we have failed at humanity. Nothing else can make up for it. Lots of money, a brilliant career, recognized accomplishments—none of these means anything if we are not good. Goodness is not accessory to who we are; it determines who we are as persons.

Regardless of the abundance (or dearth) of other qualities and talents, moral goodness always tips the balance, qualifying someone as good or bad as a person. Let’s take an extreme example to illustrate this. What if, for instance, we were to draw up a “human values report card” for Adolf Hitler? It might look something like this:


Bravery B

Leadership A

Intelligence B+

Willpower A+

Oratory A+

Grooming C-

Moral goodness * F

Value as a person F

Despite Hitler’s high marks in other areas, his final grade as a person reflects his moral life. Moral goodness stands head and shoulders above all the other values we may possess. It is more important to be good than to be smart. It is more important to be good than to be beautiful. Moral goodness is even more important than health, wealth, and popularity. When we do good, we are behaving in accordance with the truth of our being. We are what we were meant to be. Wrongdoing, on the other hand, is the denial of this truth of being; it is moral falsehood. Conscience reminds us of truth—not abstract truth but the truth of who we should be and what we need to do to get there.

Recognizing the importance of goodness helps us appreciate the value of conscience. Conscience directs our actions to the pursuit of good—a good that attracts what is most noble in us. Certain choices make me a better person; others detract from my goodness. All of us have experienced that natural tendency that urges us with the force of a mandate to do good and avoid evil. This compelling interior inclination was not taught to us by anyone (though much of its content is learned—for example, that we should be humble, generous, or poor in spirit). At the same time we are free to accept it or ignore it. What is this elusive concept we call conscience? Where does it come from?

Moral Sense and Practical Judgment

According to some, conscience is the awareness of a moral dimension to one’s conduct together with the urge to prefer right over wrong. Others would say that conscience is conformity to one’s own sense of right conduct. Still others speak of a practical judgment regarding the moral quality of our actions or the voice of God in the soul. When we stop to examine the nature of conscience, several qualities emerge.

1. Conscience Is More Than a Feeling

We usually feel good after doing what is right and feel bad after doing what is wrong, but conscience itself is not the feeling. Many activities produce feelings, but the activities themselves are not feelings. We may feel good playing the saxophone or attending a birthday party, but music and parties are not feelings. We don’t feel too good sitting in the dentist’s chair, but a dentist’s chair is not a feeling either. A feeling is the result of something else—an effect. In the moral sphere, when we know we have done wrong we often feel guilty, but guilt and conscience are two separate things. Conscience may make us aware of our guilt, which in turn can make us feel guilty, but conscience is not guilt.

Conscience is an act of reason rather than a feeling. In fact, it is a part of reason itself, not a distinct faculty. Conscience is the mind thinking morally, evaluating the goodness or badness of our actions. The judgments of conscience are not isolated moral intuitions, but reasoned conclusions, even when they happen instantaneously. Sometimes these judgments emerge so spontaneously that they seem more like instincts or feelings than rational judgments. But if we look more closely, we realize such judgments are the result of habits of reason. Remember what Agatha Christie’s wonderful sleuth, Hercule Poirot, says about such intuition:

But what is often called an intuition is really an impression based on logical deduction or experience. When an expert feels that there is something wrong about a picture or a piece of furniture or the signature on a cheque he is really basing that feeling on a host of small signs and details. He has no need to go into them minutely—his experience obviates that—the net result is the definite impression that something is wrong. But it is not a guess, it is an impression based on experience. (The ABC Murders, italics added)

When you feel bad after criticizing a good friend behind her back, your conscience is judging your action in the light of moral principles. It tells you that you have done wrong: You should be true to your friends. It is wrong to betray them. In reality this process is often immediate and moral judgments become second nature, but they continue to be rational judgments. You don’t just feel as if you’ve done wrong—you know it.

This important distinction between reason and feelings can save us from some common errors. Sometimes we could think that since we don’t feel bad about certain actions they must not be wrong, even though we know they violate basic principles of right behavior. We may even experience a feeling of power or accomplishment, for instance, after taking revenge on our enemy. Other times we can feel terrible, even guilty, even when we know we have behaved properly. A young lady who breaks off a relationship with a young man as soon as she is certain he is not right for her may feel like a heel, while in reality she is doing the right thing by saving him from a tougher heartbreak later.

2. Conscience Involves Moral Judgment

As we can see from the example about backbiting, conscience takes a general norm or principle (It is wrong to betray one’s friends) and applies it to a concrete action (I just betrayed my friend behind her back) to conclude with a moral judgment (I have done wrong). The principles applied are moral principles, that is, they refer to right and wrong. They may be as simple as the Golden Rule, which urges us to treat others as we would like to be treated, or as specific as a principle, such as “Christians should always go to church on Sundays.”

Since everyone has a conscience, everyone—Christians and non-Christians alike—have moral principles they refer to, perhaps without realizing it. Everyone evaluates his conduct by some standard, some ideal. Perhaps for some the universal moral code may culminate in “Do no harm” or even “It is evil to smoke” or “Always recycle,” yet even here they make their moral judgments based on these general norms. The only way we can judge the moral quality of our actions is through their conformity or nonconformity to some more general principle.

Conscience’s moral judgment itself, however, no longer occurs at the level of a principle, but at the level of a personal choice. In other words, conscience doesn’t stop at acknowledging general moral norms but applies them to specific actions. It is my free and deliberate choices that form the matter of conscience’s judgments. Conscience itself is not a choice, but the evaluation of a choice as morally good or bad. Where there is no personal freedom, there is no responsibility. Where there is no responsibility, there can be no praise or blame. It is my free choices—the good ones and the bad—that conscience addresses.

3. Christian Conscience Is Interpersonal

For Christians, the awareness that we have done wrong affects not only our moral character, but our relationship with God. We know that when conscience tugs us in a certain direction or judges our actions after the fact, God has not been foreign to this process. Our choices do not occur in an isolation chamber. The Holy Spirit enlightens our consciences and calls to mind what he expects from us, while also giving us strength to do the right thing. God accompanies us throughout and urges us to greater love and virtue. Thus our obedience or disobedience to conscience is a response we make to God himself and directly affects our relationship with him.

Conscience evaluates our decisions not only in terms of abstract right and wrong, or by their conformity to “right reason,” but far more specifically and importantly in relation to what the Lord wants from us. “God’s will” becomes an overriding criterion for determining what we should do and for judging whether or not we have done it. When conscience urges us forward, it does so by insisting: This is what God wants from you!

Awareness of this relationship enhances our effort to follow conscience. Legend has it that when it came time for Saint Peter to suffer martyrdom in Rome, he became frightened and left town. Jesus appeared to him, approaching on the road in the opposite direction. Peter asked, “Where are you going, Lord?” (in Latin, “Quo vadis, Domine?”). Jesus replied, “I am going up to Rome to be crucified again.” Peter was overcome and turned right back to Rome to face the fate awaiting him. To this day the church of Quo Vadis stands along the Appian Way at the location of the alleged meeting.

Where conscience fails in fear, it often succeeds in love.

To say that a Christian’s conscience is interpersonal does not mean that this interpersonal dimension is lacking for non-Christians, but it may not be explicit or recognized. What non-Christians may interpret as the “voice of reason” or simple human integrity, Christians understand to include the quiet involvement of the Holy Spirit, who is active in the lives of all persons, urging them to goodness and drawing them to himself. Even without knowing it, a person who strives to be true to conscience inevitably comes closer to God.

Ethical Eyesight

Conscience is to the soul what the eyes are to the body. It lets in light and allows us to see things as they really are. Our eyes reveal the physical properties of things, while conscience unveils the moral quality of our actions. Conscience, like eyesight, is personal and intimate, but objective. It is personal in the same way that seeing is personal. We all see the same thing, but we see it in our own way.

Ten persons with healthy eyes will recognize that the American flag is red, white, and blue and adorned with stars and stripes. If a fellow comes along saying it is green, yellow, and chartreuse and features giraffes and triangles, we would immediately conclude our friend was suffering from impaired vision (if not worse). Conscience, too, looks at moral reality and communicates what it sees. If conscience is sound, it will communicate moral truth.

If a person’s cornea is deformed, he may see things as taller and thinner than they actually are. Without an operation or corrective lenses, he will never be able to judge distance, depth, or form correctly. Some art historians suggest, for example, that the elongated figures of El Greco’s paintings are due to a visual dysfunction rather than a revolutionary artistic technique. The same can happen with our consciences. If they get bent out of shape, we will judge our actions in a distorted way—things that are wrong will seem right, while things that are right may appear wrong.

Today conscience is often glorified as an unerring guide of conduct, the single undisputable reference point for good and evil: “This is a personal matter between me and my conscience.” “You follow your conscience, I will follow mine.” “As long as it is okay according to your conscience, it is all right.” But there is a problem with this way of thinking. Just as our eyes don’t impose form on what we see, but simply recognize the form that is there, so too conscience doesn’t determine right and wrong, it merely acknowledges it.

Though conscience judges, it doesn’t create good and bad, any more than my eyes create the reality they are seeing. I cannot make a bad action good by simply declaring it to be so. My conscience is not the ultimate foundation of moral value. It gauges my actions according to an objective order of right and wrong that transcends it. Otherwise, conscience would possess no moral authority in our lives, since, as the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis notes, “Those who create conscience cannot be subject to conscience themselves.”

In the case of human inventions, we write rules for the game. But in the case of right and wrong, there are fixed standards. The willful killing of an innocent person—to take an obvious example—is always morally wrong, and it is up to us to conform ourselves to this standard instead of conforming the standard to our opinions or preferences.

In the depths of our consciences we recognize the existence of a law we did not write, but which we feel we must obey. We have the power to choose right or wrong—but we do not have the power to declare what is right and wrong and have it be so. We can decide we do not need oxygen, but after a minute or so our bodies will remind us that they were not consulted in the decision. We could decree that rat poison is healthy, but if we eat it we are buying a one-way ticket to the county morgue. Certain things are the way they are despite our opinions or personal wishes, and this is true in our moral lives as well.

There is, of course, plenty of grey in the moral landscape. Sometimes there may be more than one right road. Moreover, many issues we feel strongly about may not even be “moral” questions at all. A teenager who wears his hair too long or sports a tattoo may appall his mother and father, but at the heart of it, there is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about hair length or body adornments (the obedience of a child to his parents, of course, is another matter). Here, too, conscience helps us to distinguish between moral imperatives and simple social mores or questions of etiquette. Not every practical question is a moral matter, and many times our deliberations may revolve more around clarifying our own tastes and priorities than the application of ethical principles.

Many true moral quandaries themselves do not admit of an easy, black-and-white answer. Take the area of bioethics. Especially today, with the dizzying advances of the medical sciences, the sheer number of variables makes many moral problems so complex that a slight shift in circumstances may substantially change the moral conclusion. Furthermore, the radical differences of opinion found even among ethical “experts” may make us legitimately wonder whether a right or wrong answer even exists, let alone whether we can find it.

Yet even in the midst of all the grey, conscience continues to prod us toward conscientious moral decisions. It won’t allow us to abdicate our ethical responsibility just because the answers do not immediately emerge with pristine clarity. We are called to be good, both in the simple decisions of every day, and in the anguished choices that decisively shape our lives.

The Gift of Conscience

Regardless of their simplicity or complexity, right and wrong are not arbitrary but reasonable. The moral law is not the invention of some whimsical lawgiver. Fairness, for example, is good—really good. It is good because it is good. God did not sit down one day to invent the Ten Commandments in order to make our lives difficult, but in order to show us the path to goodness and happiness. God does not command honesty, justice, temperance, and religion because he feels like it, but because they are truly good for us. He loves us, and the moral law we discover within us is his gift to us. What is morally good is also really good for us. Our ability to distinguish right from wrong—conscience—is the precious tool we have to choose well, and to build a good life.

Our consciences guide us in much the same way a compass helps a ship stay on course. A compass indicates north, south, east and west. If the compass is true, all the helmsman need do is follow the arrow north and he will be sure of sailing north. If the compass is faulty, it may read north for what is actually southeast. Instead of going to Nova Scotia, he may wind up in Havana. That is, he will be subjectively correct but objectively in error. For the sailor who really wants to reach his destination, a well-tuned compass is essential. For a person who truly wants to be good, a well-tuned conscience is indispensable.

Even though conscience often seems more like a ball and chain than wings, if we really think about it, conscience—especially for a Christian—is one of the most precious gifts we have received. Conscience provides a sure guide for the use of our freedom. It allows us to become the persons we were meant to be. And when we stray from the right path, conscience calls us back and shows us the path. It opens the door to conversion and repentance.

Having examined in broad strokes what conscience is, we now turn to what conscience does. How and when does it act? What are its scope and limitations? Can conscience err, and if so, how does this come about? We will examine these questions more closely in the next chapter.

Questions for Study and Discussion

1. In what sense does conscience guide us to success? It what sense does it guide us to failure?

2. What is the defining mark of humanity? What does it mean to have succeeded in being a person?

3. Is it more important to be smart or to be good? Why?

4. How is wrongdoing like falsehood? In what way is every sin a “lie”?

5. Conscience often seems like a feeling—we feel good when we do the right thing and bad when we don’t. In what sense is conscience more than just a feeling?

6. What does it mean to say that conscience is essentially “interpersonal”?

7. Is there always a morally right thing to do in every situation?

Questions for Personal Reflection

1. What is the first time you can vividly recall your conscience reproaching you for doing wrong or urging you to do right? How old were you? What were the circumstances?

2. Do you consider conscience to be a gift? Are you grateful for it? Or does it seem more trouble than it’s worth?

3. Is being a morally good person the most important thing to you, or is some other ideal more important?

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