(Evolutionary Ethics, Part II)

And I will place within them as a guide

My Umpire CONSCIENCE

                              – Milton, Paradise Lost (III: 194-5)

St Thomas AquinasWhat is Conscience?  And where does it come from?

Is it built into us, as a basic bit of human nature?  Perhaps Darwin got it right when he said, “any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts,… would inevitably acquire a moral sense of conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed as in man.”[1] On this view, conscience might be merely a word we give to the natural feelings we have when we confront certain types of choices requiring us to choose between selfish behavior and behavior that cares more for other members of our species.

Or it could be that God deliberately stitched conscience into our human fabric, as Milton implied in his poem above.  Both these views have been around for a long time-Milton’s since before the rise of medieval philosophy, and Darwin’s since…, well, since before Darwin. 

In philosophy there is a long-standing tradition of presuming that conscience is built into our human nature, akin to the faculty of reason, and that conscience serves as a kind of moral compass which we use to discern the right direction from the wrong.  Aquinas (1224/6-74) gets credit for articulating this view.  He saw the conscience (conscientia) as a practical application of reason, a natural ability to make moral judgments based on our understanding of right and wrong.  For Aquinas, this conscience was not perfect; it could make mistakes, for example by faulty reasoning, or by relying on false beliefs.  The important thing for morality however, was to act in concert with reason; this was the function of conscience:

In connection with human acts the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are applied on the basis of a comparison to reason, because… a human being’s good is existing in accordance with reason, while what is bad for a human being is whatever is contrary to reason.

(Summa Theologiae IaIIae.18.5c)

This association of conscience with the judgment of reason remains very much alive among philosophers today,[2] for example Richard Swinburne sounds the same note in saying,

To be guided by one’s moral beliefs is to be guided by one’s conscience.[3]

This view of conscience seems pretty compatible with the goal of evolutionary ethics to explain morality in terms of evolutionary forces (see Part I, below).  The logic of evolutionary ethics says that morality must provide some advantage in terms of survival of the fittest, in order to give a competitive advantage to individuals having genetic instincts for moral behavior. Such an evolutionary force would naturally favor survival of those individuals who had an innate moral reason, in other words, conscientia.   Thus moral reason, conscientia, would become a genetically favored trait. 

Of course this was not what Aquinas had in mind 750 years ago.  Aquinas seems to have been more concerned with accommodating the Bible than with accommodating evolution.  The challenge he faced is that the word conscientia does not appear in the Bible; rather, the Bible uses the Greek word syneidesis in the New Testament, and this is the word most English Bibles translate as “conscience.”[4]  This biblical word for conscience is much more complicated than the philosophical ideal of practical moral reason represented by conscientia. In order to avoid the complexity of the biblical word perhaps, Aquinas stuck with philosophical terms.  He had to employ another Latin word not found in the Bible, synderesis, to explain his theory of moral reasoning. This word refers to the understanding of moral truth as universal natural laws.  By analogy, we could simplify Aquinas and the medieval philosophers who followed him by saying that synderesis is like knowing true north, and the human faculty of conscientia is like our ability to find our way in the woods.

For Aquinas, the absolute moral truths involved in the operation of synderesis came from God.  For evolutionary ethics, they come from nature.  Other than that, the philosophy of conscientia seems to work pretty well in both cases.  The basic premise is that there are fundamental ethical principles that lead to survival, and the built-in function of the human conscience (conscientia) is to make reasonable judgments about how to apply those fundamental ethical principles.[5]

Yet, there remains a disconnect between Aquinas’ view and the view of evolutionary ethics.  The problem is that Aquinas notices the tendency of moral reason to error.  He calls such an error an “act of  will against reason.”[6]  This happens when people act in ways that go against their conscience, whether in the sense of defective moral reasoning (underdeveloped conscientia), or in the case of misapplying moral truths (synderesis).  

These errors present a challenge for evolutionary ethics, in that such errors would presumably be eliminated from the gene pool over time.  Perhaps we have just not waited long enough for nature to take its course. 

[rev. 21/11/07]


[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, second edition, John Murray, London, 1875, p. 98.

[2] This premium on reason seems to be an important idea for philosophers over the millennia, and I suspect this may be because they tend to be people who are quite good at it, or at least good at teaching it.  I have a nagging suspicion in my more cynical moments that this might be a bit like footballers teaching skill on the pitch as an ultimate good (of course, there is some truth to both these schools of thought.)

[3] Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 13.

[4] For example, Hebrews 9:14-” How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death,?? so that we may serve the living God!”

[5] Unfortunately, Aquinas never fully explained how conscientia and synderesis relate to one another, as Swinburne rightly acknowledges, op. cit., p. 39.

[6] Summa Theologiae IaIIae.19.5.

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