Thomistic Philosophy Page
What is conscience according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, and why is it important?
For Aquinas, conscience is the act of applying our knowledge of good and evil to what we do (or might do). So in order to (naturally) know what is a good action or a bad one, one needs to understand how things are naturally ordered by God -- primarily what human nature is, and what things it needs and deserves. This order which dictates what is good or evil behavior is called the Natural Law by Aquinas. God can and does also supernaturally reveal what is and is not in accordance with his will, e.g. the Ten Commandments and Christ's Two Great Commandments. One also needs to apply this knowledge to what one does, and so one needs to be free to act in accordance with what one knows to be the Divine order of things, or not. Our conscience is our realization that what we might do or have done is good or not, but it is not the actual doing or the choosing. On a technical note, for Aquinas conscience is the act of understanding what is right and wrong, though the name may be applied by extension to a habit or power of performing this act of understanding. The virtue of making correct judgments about right or wrong, i.e. appropriate exercises of conscience, is called prudence.
The reason that this is important is that one cannot do the right thing if one does not know what the right thing is. So, if someone has problems with their conscience, it does not seem appropriate to blame them. Children do not have fully formed consciences, and do not always understand what is the right thing to do. If a child does wrong because he or she didn't know any better, or because he or she thought it was the right thing to do, we do not (or should not) blame and punish him or her. Aquinas therefore believes that not only is one excused from wrongdoing if one's conscience is in error, one also is bound to do the wrong thing if one's conscience tells one that it is the RIGHT thing to do. He also believes that one has a duty to have a well-formed conscience, one that knows what the right thing to do is. Even though an erring conscious excuses one from doing wrong, one may have done wrong in letting one's conscience fall into error.
If you care to read Aquinas on the conscience, you can see Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 79, a. 13 - Whether conscience is a power. Aquinas' treatment on natural law can be found in ST I-II, q. 92 + ff. I also have an essay in which I try to explain natural law on my web site. (Aquinas on Natural Law.) An overview of ethics, e.g. McInerny's Ethica Thomistica (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982) should also prove useful.
What value does our conscience hold when answering questions of faith? As a Catholic can I morally disregard the stated view of the church if my conscience leads me to an opposing viewpoint. You can use a position on birth control as an example.
Is this an assignment? I'll give a reply anyway, since I think this is an important thing for people to understand. For Aquinas, every conscience binds, even an erring one. This means that if there is something that you believe you cannot do (after having taken care to form your conscience as well as you can), even if the Church commands it, then you cannot do it without committing a sin. Likewise, if there is something you believe you must do, even if the Church forbids it, then you must do it or else commit a sin. The command of one's conscience to do or not do something against what the Church directs has to be pretty strong in order to fit what Aquinas is talking about. I doubt if many people disobey the Church's prohibition on artificial contraception because they have sought to develop a well-formed conscience and this conscience is telling them that they must take the pill. Though an erring conscience binds, an erring conscience does not simply mean one does not have to obey any authority; it is not a license to "disregard" anything. Conscience is an authority, and, in the end, it is what one has to obey. (Of course it is not possible for a person to believe that she herself has an erring conscience; it is the nature of a conscience (both erring and true) to believe that it is true).
Joseph M. Magee, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1996-2013 Joseph M. Magee, Ph.D. - Last Updated 11/23/13