Our Conscience Points Us to True Freedom

COMMENTARY: The dignity of the human person, inherent to all without exception, lies at the core of a correct exercise of our freedom.

For the Christian, suffering has meaning as it calls forth such virtues as compassion, perseverance, sacrifice and ultimately love.
For the Christian, suffering has meaning as it calls forth such virtues as compassion, perseverance, sacrifice and ultimately love. (photo: inimalGraphic / Shutterstock)

“Choice” is a byword of our secular age. For many, it has become integral to their concept of freedom. In one respect, choice is essential to our shared humanity — it is a way of pointing to our inherent free will. But the oracles of our secular age go far beyond describing the human person as having agency. Rather, they proclaim that we are all radically autonomous individuals, self-fulfilling and sovereign with the freedom to pursue any course of action. 

Yet this sort of radical autonomy is not freedom. At best, it leads to an unfocussed and rudderless life in which we are at the whim of our passions and desires. At worst, it leads to enslavement to those same passions and desires. This understanding of choice is a disordered one because it regards choice itself as the highest good while giving little or no attention to the thing chosen.

This disordered understanding of freedom was rejected by ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, who speaks of choice and human reason in his Nicomachean Ethics (VI.ii.5): 

“… the human being, as an originator of action, is a union of desire and intellect … [t]he attainment of truth is then the function of both the intellectual parts of the soul. Therefore, their respective virtues are those dispositions which will best qualify them to attain truth.”

In other words, our human reason is ordered when it pursues and attains truth. True freedom has a goal; it is not rudderless. The ultimate aim of our free will is to do the good, to do what is true. And that good, according to Aristotle, is that which promotes human flourishing. In a Christian understanding of free will, to do the good is to pursue that which upholds human dignity and leads us toward union with God. 

The dignity of the human person, inherent to all without exception, lies at the core of a correct exercise of our freedom. It also shapes profoundly how we interact with each other. Our dignity radiates outward no matter our ethnic origins; physical or mental abilities; or political, social or economic views. We must always recognize the dignity of the person before us because in them we see ourselves reflected: a person with immeasurable gifts, with strengths and weaknesses, with joys and sorrows, with hopes and fears. 

If we are honest with ourselves, we also recognize that we can all misuse our freedom and direct it toward wrong actions, often gravely wrong, which injure others and violate their dignity. But does this mean we can separate the irredeemably bad among us from those who can do no wrong? No, all of us have the capacity to do good and evil. Pursuit of the good reflects the inherent goodness that our human dignity reveals; it is ordered. Pursuit of evil is a denial of our true selves and disordered. We know this at the deepest level of ourselves. Pressing upon all of us is the question of how to distinguish good from evil as a first critical step to choosing the good. 

That question brings to the fore that indispensable aspect of the human person classically referred to as conscience. How well formed it is depends, in part, upon our moral foundation. As the American Thomistic philosopher J. Budziszewski has persuasively argued in his book What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Ignatius Press, 2004), there is a common moral ground among all humanity founded upon a deep conscience within each of us. 

This common moral ground exposes today’s relativist illusion that that moral truth does not exist. Let us take the example of rights of conscience for physicians who, in seeking to do what is true and good, refuse to participate in or to refer patients for euthanasia. Despite the continued appeal of relativism, taking innocent life is still nearly universally condemned, even if a person is suffering. 

For the Christian, suffering has meaning as it calls forth such virtues as compassion, perseverance, sacrifice and ultimately love. To mitigate suffering is compassionate; to kill an innocent person is not, even if to mitigate suffering. As Budziszewski argues:

“(h)owever rude it may be these days to say so, there are some moral truths that we all really know — truths which a normal human being is unable not to know. They are a universal possession, an emblem of rational mind … that doesn’t mean that we know them with unfailing, perfect clarity, or that we have reasoned out their remotest implications: we don’t, and we haven’t.” 

When we commit a wrong, do we not feel a pang in our deepest selves, perhaps not immediately, that we have done wrong? Likewise, when we have been wronged by someone else, perhaps when someone has stolen something from us or has brought a false accusation against us, does not something within us summon us to assert vigorously the truth? What about when we are called to commit an act that we believe to be wrong? 

To go against our conscience can have a profoundly negative effect on us as it leads us to violate our deeply held beliefs. For the physician compelled to refer a patient for euthanasia or assist a mother in procuring an abortion, the result can be deep anguish if his conscience guides him to refuse. His position, or his license to practice, may hang in the balance in these circumstances. Physicians and other medical professionals should not be subjected to such an ultimatum — forced to choose between their conscience and their profession. This is why the protection of conscience rights for medical professionals is so critical: It preserves freedom of conscience, a freedom that we all must enjoy as human beings no matter what our vocation in life.

St. John Henry Newman in writing on conscience to the Duke of Norfolk in 1874 illustrated what remains true today, that our conscience is our “moral governor” and that conscience “has rights because it has duties.” We must be able to navigate our lives with our conscience intact so that we might fulfill the duty of our free will, or human choice: to choose that which is good and true.

Andrew P.W. Bennett, Ph.D., is a deacon in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Eparchy of Toronto and Eastern Canada. He is senior fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute based in Washington, D.C. He is also the director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute and Cardus’ director of faith community engagement based in Canada.