Sunday, 11 October 2015

Are We Capable of Making Moral Choices?

by Sophie Locke-Cooper

Conscience is one of the most difficult concepts to define when trying to find out what it fundamentally is. Due to it being such a hard question to answer, as there is no right and wrong, which means there are many different definitions of  conscience. The most used definition is of course the dictionary’s definition; a person's moral sense of right and wrong, viewed as acting as a guide to one's behavior. However this doesn’t necessarily mean that is what conscience is. All together it makes sense that conscience isn’t a reliable guide to ethical decision making due to people acting immorally and causing suffering, which challenges people who believe your conscience is the voice of God.

St Augustine
(pictured as listening to God)
Augustine believed that conscience was a reliable guide to ethical thinking, he also believed it was a  tool for observing the law of God within human hearts and that conscience is God-given, and used by humans to understand right and wrong. He believed that seeking the ‘voice of God’ will only bring about God-like behaviour and bring us closer to God, thus concluding that humans have an innate capacity to know right from wrong. He said that God gave us all conscience but this conscience alone does not bring us to be virtuous, our will needs to be directed to the good as well, we need to gift of God’s grace for our will to be directed. So Augustine believes that God implants knowledge of right conduct in humans however we cannot act correctly without God’s grace, the motive has also got to be right, this motive will be for the love of God and the desire to be closer to God. However if conscience is the voice of God, can it be questioned? If your conscience tells you to do something wrong does this mean that God is self-deluded? It can also bring about a contradictory God, because if your conscience conflicts with someone else then God is telling the other person something opposite to what God is telling thyself, so how would you come about knowing which conscience is correct? This makes it hard to believe that is it reliable when people have different thoughts on what to do in a situation. Although Augustine would simply answer this issue with the proposal that one of them does not have the correct motive behind their conscience, i.e. one does not have the love of God or the desire to get closer to God.

St Thomas Aquinas
Yet Aquinas accepts that conscience is not reliable and that it is an innate knowledge of right conduct, conscience is the ability to distinguish good from bad depending on a particular situation. Conscience is not an innate voice but rather the power of reason which enables a person to work out what is good and what is evil. Aquinas developed the Synderesis rule which is the idea that people seek the good and seek to avoid evil; it is the right reason, an awareness of the moral principle. However Aquinas realised that working out what was good and evil was the main problem. Aquinas thought then when a person carried out an evil deed it was because they had made a mistake, they had an intention to do well but it was not a real good, so Aquinas thought it was unreliable because he accepted that people could make mistakes when making a decision or pursuing certain life choices, i.e. doing an evil deed. Aquinas stated that the Synderesis rule was never mistaken. An individual only does wrong when the conscience makes a mistake. However Aquinas’ does fail to assert that different societies have different moral laws, and so as a result conscience may vary; his proposal is too universal for a mixed moral world. Even though Aquinas does state that your conscience can be unreliable due to mistakes it does appear to underestimate the moral weakness of man, the most problematic assertion to conscience is the knowledge of knowing what is right and not being able to do it, an active conscience caught between the accepted norms of right and wrong and moral weakness at the point of action, has a destructive effect on the personality. Personally, I think Aquinas’ view is too weak and does not strongly suggest that the conscience is unreliable as it is evident that his views actually underestimate the unreliability of conscience itself. So Aquinas does believe in an informed conscience but he maintains that acting on the dictates of conscience does not guarantee rightness, it just insures that a person is morally blameless.

Cardinal Newman
John Newman on the other hand believed conscience was a messenger of God and it is God speaking to us when we face a point at which moral decision-making is needed. Newman went against it being reason and accumulated that when our conscience speaks to us it is in fact God’s voice giving us moral direction, so to Newman our conscience should be extremely reliable. He believed our conscience was a personal responsibility we have towards God, our conscience was implanted by God, and thus it is the faculty of conscience that points to God. For Newman following conscience was following the divine law, so for Newman conscience is much less rational than Aquinas’ belief, people are able to intuit what is right or wrong because conscience reveals this to them personally. However what do you do when your conscience is telling you to do something opposite to Catholic Church teachings? The principles of Newman’s ideology would say this should be impossible, as it is God talking to you so therefore it must be right, but that is not the case; people do commit bad deeds so does this mean God is telling them to go against good morals? Also Newman contradicts himself; he brings about the idea of ‘examine yourself’ which for Newman trying to say conscience is objective completely goes against this; by examining your own conscience and realising what is right in order to become a better person creates a level of subjectivity, because it is you yourself realising what is right, not God saying this is right. This critique can be supported through Newman’s own personal life; he converted to Roman Catholicism from the Church of England, in 1845. It is suggested that he did not think about his duty to his friends or supporters, so his conscience led him to a decision whereby he abandoned those closest to him. His choice was completely self-centred and it is hard to believe that God made this decision for him, which does question the reliability of Newman’s ‘A law written by God’.

Sigmund Freud
Freud, however, saw that conscience was a guilt complex on the terms that we feel guilty if we go against our conscience. Freud was able to give a psychological explanation for conscience. He developed the Oedipus complex, which involves a boy’s desire for their mother and rivalry towards to the Father. The child knows that his desires are wrong but this wish develops from the physical needs of the child’s love and affection. Freud taught that these feelings are eventually repressed into the unconscious and then form the basis for neuroses that lead to the concept of guilt, as illustrated by te construct of the super-ego; Freud formulated three things, the super-ego, the ego and the id. The super-ego is what tells you to do all the right stuff, the id is the ‘evil’ part of your conscience in which gives you incorrect desires and tells you to do something that is not socially acceptable and so the ego is what balances out the both in which what makes you carry out socially acceptable decisions. This is what supports that conscience is unreliable as sometimes the id or the super ego can at times over power, which justifies why people will do something that is wrong or overly right e.g. theft (id over empowerment) or not going out with your friends at all and always working etc.. (Super-ego over empowerment). Also Freud stated that there cannot be any definite moral code of conduct or absolute moral law as our individual conscience is shaped by our own experiences; thus we do not have God telling us what is right or we do not have strict laws that we always abide throughout our whole life, this results in why there are so many ethical codes within society. If we rebel against something Freud believed we feel guilty as a result of disobedience. What Freud is struggling with is the question of whether we are really free to make a moral choice at all. Because if our conscience shapes our moral decision making and if it comes from the unconscious promptings of our early years then surely our unconscious is the law maker not our own choices; also, it is our upbringing that hinders our conscience; this results in our decision making when we are older not our own free will. Our external rules are given by society and our internal conscience is given by our parents, it is not subjective at all, we are always trapped in the middle, so the reliability of our conscience is how it is developed with other surroundings and our upbringings, thus making it unreliable because it completely depends on how it is all shaped.

Butler rejects that conscience is unreliable, he believes that there is a basic human nature and that within nature there is a system. He argues that morality is a matter of following human nature. Butler believes in the two principles: self-love and benevolence, self-love being the interest in one’s well-being and benevolence the desire to actively seek the well-being of others. The conscience makes a formal judgement between these two interests, it behaves as a guide; he believes it is a gift from God to show the way towards good, however this process may take some sorting out and may not therefore provide immediate solutions. It is an intrinsic part of human nature and as it is from God it must be obeyed without hesitation. Conscience provides justification for behaviour and other alternatives should not be considered. If conscience says do it then it must obeyed. This is because he believed that such judgements come from God. Butler semi-heartedly rejects that conscience has anything to do with feelings and reasoning, the important point he needed to put across was that it comes from God and so must be obeyed. Collectively Butler does strongly contradict himself; at first he says that the process of conscience may take some sorting out and so may not provide immediate solutions but then he later says if conscience says do it then it must be obeyed because it comes from God, however if you can’t make immediate solutions then does this mean God is undecided when guiding this certain conscience or you can’t yet see if it is right so therefore your conscience is slightly subjective? He also believed that mistakes in conscience will not be made, but surely there will be mistakes if your conscience is still not able to make immediate solutions, he argued this by saying that not every action can be justified, well why not? Is it just a way of protecting that when you make a mistake it is because either God made a mistake or told you to do something wrong or just the pure fact that God does not have any involvement with your conscience, so realistically for Butler to assume that conscience is reliable does in fact portray evidentially that it is unreliable if your conscience is not developed at the start.

Is following one’s conscience a guarantee that one is always doing the right thing? All together there are strong sides to the argument, but the unreliability is heightened by Freud and Aquinas, that people do seek to avoid evil and we do feel guilty when we do something wrong (which is justified why by Freud) the fact that God tells us what to do can be easily flawed on the idea that people do make mistakes and people do have opposing views to certain situations, which would result in God contradicting himself. Also Karl Marx puts across that conscience is changed historically depending on the time and society that you are put in and what you are taught, this is a strong argument as different societies do have different morals and depending what era you lived in your morals would be different (due to different religions being in power at different times). This would highly question God being your conscience as people’s morals throughout society and time was considerably different. So collectively conscience being unreliable is a lot more justified and unquestionable compared to it being reliable.

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