It is indisputable that one must always follow a clear verdict of conscience, or at least that one may not act against such a verdict. But it is quite a different matter to assume that the verdict of conscience (or what one takes to be such a verdict) is always correct, i.e., infallible—for if that were so, it would mean that there is no truth, at least in matters of morality and religion, which are the foundations of our very existence.
Since verdicts of conscience contradict one another, there would exist only a truth of the subject, which would be reduced to the truthfulness of that subject. No door or window would lead out of the individual subject into the totality or into that which is shared with other subjects. If we think this through, we realize that this would also mean that there is no genuine freedom and that the supposed verdicts of conscience were mere reflexes to antecedent social circumstances.
This reflection surely shows that the proposed antithesis between freedom and authority leaves out something important and that there must be something deeper than this if freedom and human existence itself are to have a meaning.
This shows that the question about conscience leads us to the core of the moral problem and, hence, to the question of human existence itself.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 76-7
Reflection – Ratzinger is leaping along here at great speed, capacious and world-class intellect that he is, and it is just possible that some reading the above passage are not quite following his thought (hence, the existence of this blog!).
So to do a bit of slow-motion instant replay: first, it is the unanimous view of our moral tradition that one must follow one’s conscience, even if it is in fact erroneous. If I sincerely believe it is morally wrong to eat meat, I must not eat meat! If I sincerely believe I would sin if I failed to floss my teeth every day, then floss I must. Conscience must be obeyed.
But conscience can be wrong—this is the key point. If all we say is that the only salient moral principle is to follow one’s conscience, and that is the beginning and end of the matter, we are indeed locked in a radical individualism. There is, then, no morally significant universe outside of my own being and its determinations.
If there is nothing to say except ‘follow your conscience’, then that degrades immediately and necessarily into ‘do what you want!’ But if all there is to say is ‘do what you want’, and there is no relevant information about what should be done to inform our choices, then we are indeed locked in a world without freedom.
Why is that? Because all we can do is whatever we want to do. The great irony is that this is not freedom at all. If all there is to do is whatever we want to do, then we are utter slaves to our desires, and a little reflection is all that is needed to show us that our desires in any situation are formed entirely by our physical urges and our social conditioning. We are thus slaves to our bodies and to society and it dictates.
Remember—all this flows immediately and with strict logical necessity from the fundamental modern stance that says ‘no one can tell me what to do!’ The rejection of the concept of moral authority, of a teaching authority in moral matters. We saw yesterday that the infallible conscience theory leads to the exalting of serial killers and sociopaths as moral exemplars; today we see that it actually means the total destruction of any real freedom. The very theory that was supposed to secure human freedom against the tyranny of the Church instead reduces us to automatons chained to our physio-sociological programming.
Oops, I did it again, to quote the immortal words of Britney Spears. I must have taken a wrong turn at
, to quote the immortal words of Bugs Bunny. Our reasoning has gone wrong, and this wrong reasoning strikes at the very heart of our human existence, its value and meaning. This is why questions of conscience and its violation by the state are so crucial. Albuquerque
Hey, I know—let’s see if this Joseph Ratzinger fella can help us put it right! Until tomorrow…