A Matter of Conscience
Right and wrong and the presidential election.


As Catholic Church leaders are increasingly talking about the faithful’s responsibilities when voting, Fr. Thomas D. Williams has provided a guide for not just this but all important decisions. He talked to National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez about his new book, Knowing Right from Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: The topic of conscience seems like old hat. What’s new about your book?

FR. THOMAS WILLIAMS: We hear and use the word “conscience” more than ever, but few terms are more poorly understood.

For some, conscience is just a bothersome superego that we need to slough off as we get older and learn to think for ourselves.

For others, conscience is a pass for doing as we please. If I make a decision “in conscience,” woe to anyone who questions my choice!

For still others, conscience is a “feeling” about what is right or wrong, with no real anchor in reason or moral truth.

LOPEZ: I gather that none of these ideas is correct?

That’s right. Simply put, conscience is our mind thinking morally. It is the human ability to reason not just logically or pragmatically, but according to the categories of right and wrong, and of good, better and best. It is practical moral knowledge, and not guilt feelings or intuition.

When confronted with decisions with a moral edge, conscience offers a judgment about what should be done. When you see someone drop a $20 bill on the ground and you know that you could pick it up and pocket it without anyone noticing, you are faced with a choice. Pragmatically, you could use the money, and you know that you could get away with it. Logically, you could figure out the best way to pick up the bill without drawing attention to yourself. But morally you know that it would be wrong to do so. Conscience applies general principles like “it’s wrong to steal” to real-life circumstances, like a choice between taking a twenty-dollar bill or giving it back to its owner.

A “person of conscience” is someone who regularly takes into account the moral angle of his or her actions, and makes it a priority. When “doing the right thing” trumps acting for personal gain or avoiding uncomfortable consequences, then we have a person of conscience.

Any other misconceptions that need correcting?

FR. WILLIAMS: We often think of conscience only in a negative light, like that alarm bell that sounds whenever we do something wrong. But the positive role of conscience is just as important. It pushes us to become better people, to pursue excellence and to move beyond our comfort zone.

I compare conscience to an athletic “coach.” Where we are used to thinking of conscience as a referee, watching our every move to catch us when we slip up, we need to start thinking of conscience as a coach, who wants the best from us and for us. The coach isn’t only fixated on the rules of the game, but cares more about the meaning of the game, and the excellence of our performance. Conscience is like that.

LOPEZ: You write that “Conscience reminds us of truth.” But can there be only one truth? One McCain and Obama supporters can believe in?

FR. WILLIAMS: Of course there is only one truth, but sometimes there are several ways to get there. For example, I would assume that all Americans value world peace, and justice, and healthcare, and marriage and the advancement of the poor. On these basic principles — that involve moral truths — we can agree. There may be profound disagreement, on the other hand, regarding the best and most effective means of promoting them. Here a legitimate diversity can exist, without necessarily compromising moral truth.

Sometimes, however, our divisions run deeper, and touch on basic moral principles. Here there can be only one truth, and if divisions exist, someone is necessarily right and someone else wrong. If you say that all human beings enjoy equal dignity and should be treated with equal regard and respect, and I say that certain humans are inferior to others and therefore not entitled to the same treatment, we have reached an impasse. One of us is right and one of us is wrong.

Sometimes, too, certain choices might involve doing something wrong with a good intention. We may choose to do something we know is evil, in the hope that it will bring about some future good. When we compromise in this way, we end up eating away at our moral sense, because right and wrong become simply a question of utility rather than of principle. Everything becomes relative, and nothing is forbidden, if the benefits are high enough.

LOPEZ: You say that conscience doesn’t come factory-ready, but must be formed. How does this come about?

FR. WILLIAMS: Just as human intelligence needs to be trained, and content provided, so too with conscience. No one is born knowing the multiplication tables or the periodic table of the elements. We need to be taught how to read and write, to add and subtract, and we also need education concerning good and evil. We have the natural ability for it, but we need to learn to think morally, and we need moral reference points in order to evaluate our actions. Some of these we receive from our families, some from our churches and religious traditions, some from history and experience.

What is a “conscience voter”? How do you vote your conscience?

FR. WILLIAMS: I would describe a conscience voter as someone who puts moral issues ahead of merely practical matters. This shows itself at different levels.

First, a conscience voter votes! He or she recognizes a moral duty to participate in the democratic process. A conscience voter makes an effort to be informed on the important issues and to get to know the candidates, so that he or she can vote responsibly (and not, for instance, based on superficial questions like which candidate looks better on television…)

Second, a conscience voter votes for a person of conscience. A well-trained technocrat devoid of moral sense or ethical character makes for a bad leader. Conscience voters look not only for an intelligent candidate, but even more so for a morally good, principled candidate. Stalin was intelligent; Hitler was intelligent; but where did that get the Soviet Union or Germany? Conscience voters will look for a person who embodies the character that the nation should embody: honesty, integrity, courage, humility, justice, care for the weakest and most vulnerable, and so forth.

Third, a conscience voter casts a vote for the good of society as a whole, and not merely based on self-interest. Though certain policies might benefit me (or harm me) personally, I cannot allow that to be the determining factor of my vote. The good of society also means the good of future generations, and not the short-term good of the next four years.

Fourth, a conscience voter attributes different importance to different issues and gives greater weight to fundamental moral questions. Some issues are non-negotiable; others are important; others are less important.

LOPEZ: Talk of “non-negotiables” leads us into the thorny and divisive question of “single-issue” voting? How does conscience enter into this question?

Let’s face it, we all believe in single-issue voting; we only disagree on when to apply it. No one disagrees that certain issues carry so much weight that they make or break a candidate’s suitableness to govern. As I see it, the practical question in this election revolves around abortion, and whether it constitutes such an overriding issue.