The Death of Conscience (Part 1)

Shadia B. Drury

The voice of conscience is widely considered a noble guide to moral conduct, but not everyone agrees that it is reliable. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” whose philosophy became the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, did not totally trust conscience as a guide to action. He thought that conscience was intimately connected to the rational faculty, and that if the latter was corrupted, conscience would no longer be a reliable guide. Therefore, acting in accordance with conscience does not necessarily mean doing the right thing. People can commit terrible crimes without feeling any pangs of conscience. Why? Human reason, as the primary guide to right action, tells us what is right and wrong, and conscience inclines us to do good, according to this assessment. But reason can be mistaken. A poor education, evil doctrines, and malicious propaganda can undermine the rational faculty and lead people to do terrible things in good conscience.

As a victim of a Catholic education, Thomas Aquinas succumbed to the very pitfall he warned against. He imbibed pernicious doctrines that led him to defend the evils of the Inquisition in good conscience. Rationally speaking, the “heretics” targeted by the Inquisition were innocent people—they were law-abiding citizens, good neighbors, and, on most accounts, better Christians than the pope. Failing to recognize that the massacre of innocent people is wrong is the sort of moral blindness that amounts to the virtual death of conscience. In other words, Aquinas suffered from the very condition that he was astute enough to diagnose.

Nevertheless, I share the Thomist view of conscience. People will act decently as long as they are fortunate enough to have a tolerably good education that develops their rational capacities. The rest will come naturally. The upshot of the matter is that people often act badly out of intellectual error, not wickedness. It is worth noting that this view flies in the face of the Christian emphasis on human depravity and original sin. The Christian view of evil regards evil as attractive, especially in view of our depraved or fallen nature. In other words, the Christian view considers human wickedness to be gratuitous—as if it had no end beyond itself.

In truth, the love of evil as an end in itself is an aberration; it is the exception rather than the rule. Such strange anomalies are the subjects of fascinating novels such as A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. In the novel, the crimes of the protagonist are gratuitous—they have absolutely no purpose apart from his enjoyment. Such crimes are an oddity worthy of literary exploration. Normal people commit crimes in pursuit of some real or imagined good—they rob a bank for the money; they burn heretics to secure the salvation of everyone else; they massacre the ruling classes for the sake of the revolution and the bliss of future generations.

Interestingly, the worst atrocities do not spring from the usual vices—pride, profits, greed, selfishness, or love of pleasure. The most shocking crimes have their source in a selfless devotion to a grand vision. The worst crimes are inspired by misguided idealism. The human appetite for something pure, pristine, and perfect is the source of the problem. It arouses a longing to destroy everything that stands in the way of attaining the dreamed-of perfection. It inclines human beings to understand every obstacle to their dream as evil. It fills them with a self-righteous desire to exterminate evil. It encourages them to see the world in dualistic terms: those who are not with us are against us; those who are not with us are allied with evil. Everyone who does not share their vision becomes a potential victim of their “justice.”

In reality, most conflicts in the world are not conflicts between good and evil but between competing, and sometimes mutually exclusive, conceptions of the good. However, religious thinkers such as Aquinas tend to be dualistic thinkers. They ally their religion with all the good things in the world; meanwhile, everything that opposes their beloved faith is painted in the blackest colors. Aquinas went so far as to dismiss the righteousness of unbelievers as worthless in the sight of God.

Unfortunately, secular thinkers are not totally immune from the lure of dualistic thinking. They are often tempted to ally religion with all the evils of the world. But despite the many horrors inflicted by religion, some religious people live decent and upright lives. Some people have been inspired by their religions to do great things, such as fight against slavery, promote civil rights, create the Red Cross, or establish the Social Gospel movement. William Wilberforce (1759–1833) was a British politician who was inspired by his faith to abolish slavery; in 1833, a month after his death, Parliament passed a bill that ended slavery throughout the British Empire. James Shaver Woodsworth (1874–1942) was a Methodist minister who was influenced by the Social Gospel movement (which championed labor and welfare causes) and became the parliamentary leader of the CCF (Canadian Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) in 1932. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was a Baptist minister who was moved by his faith to lead the civil rights movement against racial discrimination and injustice in America. As these examples show, religion cannot simply be dismissed as pure evil or the ally of all the evils in the world. Life is not that simple. It is impossible to bundle all the good things in the world on one side of the ledger and all the evil things on the other. If this were the case, our choices would be easy, because people are naturally inclined toward the good.

So what, then, is the source of all the evil in the world? I venture to suggest that the human inability to accept a flawed and imperfect world and the longing for a world of perfection and justice (either here on Earth or in the beyond) are at the heart of the problem. Whether secular or religious, the dream of escaping to a better world or remaking this world inflames the sort of zealotry and madness that justify the most fiendish crimes. In both cases, the results are tragic. However, religiously inspired crime is unsurpassed in malignity and moral blindness.

Religion is akin to a mind-altering or hallucinogenic drug—in small doses it may be harmless (or even beneficial) but in large doses lethal. There are several reasons for this. First, the otherworldly sensibility that religion encourages makes it seem as if death, suffering, and destruction in this world are of no consequence. This is particularly true of Islam and Christianity. Second, the belief in the gratuitous wickedness of humanity makes it seem as if no amount of horror inflicted on human beings is undeserved. This is particularly true of Christianity. Third, and most significantly, religion (in lethal doses) undermines the rational faculty and leads, for all practical purposes, to the death of conscience. Ghastly deeds can then be carried out in good conscience. In the absence of any pangs of conscience, wickedness reaches new heights. In the next installment of this essay, I will show that the death of conscience made the Dominican Inquisitors morally inferior to secular villains such as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) or Heinrich Himmler. In an age of religious resurgence, the death of conscience is a menace that we cannot afford to ignore.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

The voice of conscience is widely considered a noble guide to moral conduct, but not everyone agrees that it is reliable. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” whose philosophy became the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, did not totally trust conscience as a guide to action. He thought that conscience was intimately connected to the …

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