Ryan J. Lanier
Conscience has become perhaps the most controversial issues in recent decades. The debate rages over when and how someone ought to exercise the virtue of prudence in their everyday decisions. I have seen prudent decisions based on higher principles attacked in a variety of issues ranging from politics to careers to the most mundane of everyday functions. The idea that the decisions we make have an impact on what happens to us beyond this world seems to have no place in life today. Indeed, any appeal to conscience tends to lead one to be condemned as a fool or have their opinions disregarded offhand. This unfortunate reality degrades one of the most important human capacities and rejects any notion that man is bound by a higher authority. Such a state of existence puts man’s soul in a precarious situation. When we lose our sense of conscience, what is left to keep us from falling from the path of Grace?
Indeed, the defense rooted in conscience arises only from careful consideration and examination. Instead of a decision based on public response or career advancement, the conscientious decision sets out to determine what is best for the soul. Consequently, such a decision often runs counter to the best utilitarian option. A decision made based on conscience opens the door to criticism and a loss of public respect or career opportunities. At the same time, however, a prudent use of conscience assures the preservation of both personal and moral integrity. Such a move places the preservation of the soul and moral health above earthly benefit. In the end, the decision to act counter to the party line or to turn down opportunities for career advancement arises more from a desire to preserve moral health than to gain recognition or public acclaim.
The battleground of partisan politics and the public forum has become the primary place where conscience is disallowed. The domination of ideology has forced any sense of a higher foundation of political ideals out of the conversation. In fact, the existence of ideology prevents the possibility for any conscientious objection. Within the rigid framework of the ideologue, no room for dissent exists. Thus, conscience becomes impossible. Perhaps the best examples come from the two dominant political parties in the United States today. Thanks to rigid adherence to the ideology of the Democratic Party, a self-professed Catholic President-Elect rejects the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. On the other end of the spectrum, virtually every elected Republican in the nation continue to fall over themselves to appease a failed demagogue and his petty fringe conspiracies. To speak against abortion on the left or to point out the disaster of a candidate on the right immediately makes one persona non grata.
My issue with the move to quash any dissent within these ideological bubbles arises not as much from their desire to maintain orthodoxy. A common vision, after all, forms a necessary part of any successful political movement. Rather, the problem comes when those in power seek to ignore, cast out, or openly assail those who appeal to a higher authority in their dissent. It is one thing to disagree with someone. It is quite another, however, to disregard their views purely because they cite a higher moral duty in their decision to dissent.
Of all areas, that of politics finds itself most in need of the very people that it casts out. Among the multitude of issues that arises with the echo-chamber of ideology is the eventual collapse that comes from a lack of outside views. Such a collapse will only become greater and more severe upon the exclusion of moral objectors. Ideology can neither exists in communion with a moral framework nor long survive without it. Indeed, as the ideologue is starved of a moral foundation, he will quickly find himself in a losing position, whether in this world or the next.
Ultimately, however, it seems that the individual of conscience has no place in the world of politics. Indeed, history is full of examples of figures rejected by society for their adherence to conscience. This unfortunate reality shows the dominance of ideology and the inability for other voices to be heard. In order to enter the city of politics, one must leave higher principles at the gates and consent to a life lived on purely utilitarian motives.
Politics, however, is not the sole sphere in which challenges to conscience arise. In all walks of life, individuals find themselves under pressure to conform to the societal standard or face exclusion. Decisions that require a balance of conscience arise in everything from career decisions to where and how we choose to receive an education. For example, students are told the importance of receiving an “employable” degree, regardless of their own goals and ambitions. Likewise, those considering a career in law are encouraged to apply to the school that will provide them with the greatest return, rather than that with the greatest fit.
The assertion that all decisions in life must be based on career advancement and monetary success leaves no room for a life lived in accord with moral standards. Indeed, career advancement tends to require great sacrifice. To climb up the next rung of the ladder, ethical lines may have to be crossed. To attend the school necessary to receive the six-figure job, one might have to give up the higher standards that they live by.
Among the most prominent examples of the loss of morals in the educational sphere comes from the rejection of truth dominant in American academia today. In order to achieve the grades needed to move on to the next level, students across the nation have to sacrifice their values in the name of social justice. Such a rejection of values undercuts the formation of conscience and opens the door to an amoral society with no room for conscience.
Thus, our educational systems open the door to the rejection of conscience. When we teach our children that moral systems do not matter and hold society back from progress, the need for a system of conscience declines. Similarly, when society places value on unchecked ambition above all else, room for morals further declines. The aim of human existence shifts from a focus on the higher things to the promotion of the mundane. When we lower our eyes, we lose any sense of the need to respect a higher power. If a paycheck and societal prestige becomes the sole purpose of life, conscience becomes obsolete.
The true importance of conscience comes not in the necessity for dissent from the societal norm, however. While a different voice remains important at all times, the debate over conscience ultimately concerns the status of the human soul. Indeed, without a well-established and well-formed conscience, man cannot live well. When we insist that others act contrary to their consciences, we are asking them to reject their adherence to a higher law. To object to political candidates or careers on moral grounds is not a stand on abstract principles. Rather, it is a defense rooted in the protection of the soul.
Due to the seriousness that accompanies a conscientious objection, such a position must not be lightly disregarded. Indeed, an appeal to conscience to remove oneself from a moral duty must not be taken lightly. Prudence requires that any decision based on conscience be made with caution.
Just as the decision to object on the grounds of conscience should not be taken lightly, so too must the drive to reject the conscientious defense. While it may appear inconvenient to some, the state of the soul of the objector must be taken under consideration. An outright rejection of a protest rooted in conscience shows a lack of concern for the spiritual health of the objector.
Ultimately, conscience matters because the health of the soul matters. If we live in accord with the natural law, we open the door to participation in heavenly glory. If, however, we choose to commit to the mundane and reduce ourselves to groveling to achieve societal advancement, we commit our souls to eternal condemnation. The existence of a well-formed conscience exercised with prudence allows man to rise above the depravity in which we live and participate in a higher life.
In a letter to his daughter Margaret Roper while imprisoned in the Tower of London for his refusal to sign the Oath of Succession, Thomas More wrote that he did not aim “to pin my soul at another man’s back.” In an exercise of conscience, the decisions and beliefs of one man do not bind another. Just because I may refuse to participate in an election or kowtow to elitism in my career plans does not mean that someone else must follow my path. Indeed, like More, I would never ask someone to follow my path on the basis of my conscience, and I never have. Indeed, each person’s conscience is their own to form and not mine to judge.
All that I ask of others is that they seek to emulate the example of More. The objection from conscience is not one to be taken lightly or to be cited without cause. Indeed, issues of conscience strike directly at the state of the soul. To act contrary to a well-formed conscience puts the soul in peril and risks eternal damnation.
Thus, the best defense of conscience arises from its individuality. Unlike the ideologue, the conscientious individual does not bind others to his single set of rules. Rather, he helps to point his fellow man in the right direction while letting them reach their own conclusions. This is the beauty of conscience. You maintain the ability to develop your conscience and principles yourself. Yes, a properly formed conscience must not run counter to the laws of God, but the individual must fully discover the truth of those principles himself. No other man can provide a complete and detailed outline that all others have to follow.
This does not, however, invite moral relativism. An appeal to conscience does not provide one with the ability to define their own principles and set out to live by them. Conscience is not Justice Anthony Kennedy’s “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Decisions made on this ground should rightly be rejected. At the same time, however, principles truly rooted in a desire to prudently live in accord with the natural law must be respected. Indeed, when the moral position in rejected, it is the critic of conscience who calls for moral relativism, not the conscientious objector.
Like More, the conscientious objector must not judge any other man by his conscience. Not all people reach the same conclusions in the same way. Just as the critic possesses an obligation to consider the conscience of the objector, so to does the objector have an obligation to consider the soul of the critic. Here More’s example rings true once again. Although he firmly believed that he could not take the Oath of Succession due to its recognition of the English monarch as the head of the Church, he refused to condemn anyone who did take the oath. In the end, he recognized the potential that those who took the Oath made their decisions based on well-formed conscience. More, however, chose to rely on the belief that Christ “shall set his holy hand upon me, and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.” Indeed, what is conscience but an appeal to Christ for defense in times of tribulation?
In our world today, the only thing that matters is personal advancement and adherence to the status quo, conscience be damned. From politics to careers to how we live our daily lives, any sense that we ought to live in accord with a higher law is met only scorn and contempt. Only the fool, we are told, holds onto such irrational principles. Thus, the conscientious objector finds himself faced with two choices: conform to the majority opinion or be degraded, discarded, and disgraced.
While it may be convenient to condemn the moral objector as a starry-eyed idealist or as out of touch with reality, a distinction between conscience and personal distaste must be made. While protests rooted in personal distaste or a purely subjective basis can be rightly condemned, a moral qualm requires more cautious consideration. Unlike the argument from personal distaste, a prudential decision rooted in conscience arises from a defense of the soul. It cannot be distilled to who the best candidate is to win an election or what move will provide the most benefits to one’s career. In the end, the preservation of the soul remains the most important goal. In the end, all will be judged on the purity of our souls, not on how we voted or how much money we make.
None of this goes to say that politics and human society has become so corrupted that the conscientious individual must retreat from society. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Such a decision would be imprudent and immoral. Both the world of politics and that of careers finds itself in dire need of people willing to act in accord with higher principles. Perfection can never be accomplished among men. The prudent individual must recognize his obligation to enter into society at large and fulfill his role in making this earthly world the best that it can be. While it may come at great cost, the prudent individual has a moral obligation to serve the greater good. Indeed, in the words of Thomas More in Utopia, a failure to “thoroughly eradicate corrupt opinions or cure long standing evils is still no reason to abandon the commonwealth, deserting the ship in the storm because you cannot control the winds.”
Ultimately, the best defense of conscience comes in a defense of the soul. While a decision to stick to the principle of conscience may make us social outcasts, it might be the best choice one can make. For indeed, “what profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
About the Author
Ryan Lanier is the Editor-in-Chief of American Discourse.