The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 1:48:46

Subjectivity and conscience

Katie van Schaijik, Nov 07, 2016

The other day I put up a short post on Facebook that generated some unexpected responses.

One of the misunderstandings about conscience that I've seen going around lately is the idea that if it's "formed correctly," it will come to the same conclusion in a practical question (such as whether or not to vote for Trump) as every other well-formed conscience.

It isn't true. Conscience is highly individual, and it's informed not only by the objective moral law and religious authority, but by everything in our subjectivity—our particular grasp of history, law, and politics, say; our experiences, sensibilities, taste, thoughts, impressions, temperament, feelings, etc.

All of that gets consulted—at least implicitly—when we make a conscientious decision in the concrete realm.

What surprised me is that the point seemed completely novel to many of my friends. I thought I was simply re-stating a basic tenet of Catholic moral theology, and yet many even highly educated Catholic friends viewed the idea as startling. Some found it helpful and illuminating; others saw it as dangerously subjectivistic.

For me it was a fresh experience of how far we have to go as a Church in terms of fully absorbing and appropriating the developments of our day regarding the priority of subjectivity.

As a way of helping toward that end, I want to try make the point more concrete.

Suppose I were a recovering alcoholic who has spent decades hanging out in “recovery rooms” and working a 12-step program. Having dealt with it so much of it in my life, I’ve become a kind of expert on addiction and its effects on human personality, behavior and relations. I’ve learned, for instance, that addicts lie. They lie to themselves, their loved ones, colleagues and associates, everyone. They lie even when they think they’re telling the truth, because they are out of touch with themselves and with reality.

I think I see in Trump all the earmarks of an active addict. Maybe it’s not drugs or alcohol. Maybe it’s money or power or sex or the limelight, or some combination of those. It doesn’t matter. He acts like an addict; he talks like an addict; he lies like an addict.

So, for example, when he says, “I’m prolife! I’m going to appoint conservative justices!” the very same week he’s saying, “Of course I didn’t grope her; she’s too ugly,” he sounds to me exactly like an alcoholic saying “I love AA! Terrific group. Great people” while downing shots of tequila and slurring his words. 

I don’t think, “Maybe I was wrong about Trump; maybe he’ll do great things for our cause!” I think something more like, “I hope to God the voters aren’t fooled by him. I hope to God they don’t put that walking disaster in the White House.”  

Now suppose I’m talking to a friend who’s not an alcoholic. She’s never worked a twelve step program or dealt with the effects of addiction in her personal life. Suppose she says to me, “I think we should take Trump at his word. That seems the most reasonable and appropriate thing to do, since, in charity, we ought to give people the benefit of the doubt. He says he’s pro-life; Hillary’s definitely pro-abortion; it’s a no-brainer.”

I don’t think to myself, “She’s better informed in Catholic moral teaching than I am, so I should go with her judgment.” I think something more like, “She’s clearly not familiar with addiction. I’m afraid she’s in for quite the reality check.” I may refrain from saying that out loud, because I sense it won’t do any good, or because “Live and let live.” Instead I say, “Well, I respect your opinion, but that’s not how I see it. I can’t in conscience vote for that man. I think he could be even worse for our country and our cause than Hillary.”

The difference between us isn’t on the level of facts or objective moral law. We have the same set of objective facts available to us; we have the same commitment to moral norms. The difference between us has every thing to do with subjectivity—our respective sets of lived experience.

Upholding the dignity of persons entails, first of all, recognizing that each one is a unique and unrepeatable subject—a center of experience. It means respecting their freedom and responsibility as individuals.