KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Can conscience have enemies if we don’t even agree on what conscience is?
ROBERT P. GEORGE: Sure. But one’s identification of the enemies of conscience will depend on one’s view of what conscience is. Today, many on the Left and even some on the Right imagine that “conscience” is a matter of sorting through one’s feelings to see whether one would feel badly about doing something — badly enough, that is, that one would prefer the option of not doing it. Where one strongly desires to do something, and especially where one sees some advantage to oneself in doing it, “conscience,” understood in this way, tends to be reliably permissive. If one wants to do something badly enough, “conscience” can pretty much be counted on to produce a “permission slip” — especially if one can manage to conceptualize the conduct in question as purely “self-regarding.”
The distinction between liberty and license — a distinction critical to the thought of the founders of our nation and the architects of our Constitution — loses its intelligibility, and those who defend traditional notions of morality, virtue and the common good come to be perceived and derided as reactionaries, and even “bigots” and “haters.”
Authentic conscience is not a writer of permission slips to act on feelings or desires. It is one’s last best judgment — an unsentimentally self-critical judgment — informed by critical reason and reflective faith of one’s strict duties, one’s feelings or desires to the contrary notwithstanding. Authentic conscience governs — passes judgment on — feelings and desires; it is not reducible to them, and it is not in the business of licensing us to act on them.
Today, the enemies of conscience trample on those sacred rights in a wide variety of ways — everything from the odious Department of Health and Human Services abortion-drug and contraception mandates to the abuse of anti-discrimination laws to drive religiously affiliated adoption services out of business or to harass caterers, florists and others who cannot, in conscience, provide their services for ceremonies they judge to be immoral. Another way that they assault conscience is by stigmatizing as a bigot anyone who dissents from their views on morally divisive issues.
CMDA Senior Vice President Gene Rudd, MD: "Notice George’s comment, 'If one wants to do something badly enough, "conscience" can pretty much be counted on to produce a "permission slip."' Of course he is speaking of the dangers of a poorly formed conscience.
"C.S. Lewis addresses this well in The Abolition of Man. Lewis rejects the view that all judgments are subjective. He explains how moral truth and values are supported objectively. He goes on to show how moral values (conscience) must be taught to each generation lest society slip into anarchy. Lewis illustrates using the body. The head provides reasoning. The stomach represents our passions (the carnal man). But something is needed between them for proper stature – the chest. The chest represents the moral values instilled in us by a rightly structured family, church and society. 'Men without chests' are dangerous.
"George is right, 'Authentic conscience is not a writer of permission slips to act on feelings or desires.' An authentic, God-honoring conscience must be formed within each of us. While we can still learn this as adults, it best occurs at the formative time of our lives, in the home. Are we training our families to have such a conscience? We cannot depend on society, or even the church, to do that for us."