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The Conscience between Vision and Illusion

By P. Engelbert Recktenwald

“His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths,” so reads the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council and the CCC (No. 1776). This statement already gives us an idea of how highly the Church regards the dignity of the human person. This dignity is related to his call to moral greatness. In his conscience, man experiences the absolute claim of the good and the reprehensibility of evil. The value of his character depends on his behavior in relation to this claim. “The moral value of a person begins at the point when he is prepared to give his life for his convictions,” said General Hennig von Tresckow, who out of Christian sentiment took part in Stauffenberg’s conspiracy against Hitler on July 20, 1944, costing him his life. Behind this statement lies the conviction that moral value is even greater and more important than one’s own life. This is only comprehensible when the absolute claim of the good is understood to be a consequence of the absolute holiness of God. Only if God exists is this claim so firmly anchored in reality that we need not fear falling for an illusion when we acknowledge it.

There are attempts in the realm of philosophy to turn the tables and to declare atheism to be the condition of possibility for true morality. A perfect example of this is given in Winfried Schröder’s book “Moralischer Nihilismus” (Moral Nihilism). Schröder esteems the radical 17th and 18th century philosophers of the Enlightenment, who sought to cleanse morality from the lower motives of the Christians, who, by having their eyes set on the heavenly reward, pollute their own motivation. Theonomous morality, which submits to the will of God for the sake of reward must be replaced by an autonomous morality, which enables man to “submit his decisions only to his insight into the morally right or the laws of his conscience.” In this way, atheism, according to Schröder, leads not to the destruction of morality but to its purification. “Only the atheist,” he declares in blatant agreement with the philosophers of the Enlightenment, “can acknowledge the normative force of the moral laws without mixing them with extra-moral motives” (p. 154 ff).

This distinction between moral and extra-moral motives is significant. It is Kant, who, based on this distinction, definitively separated morality from the pursuit of happiness and hence from all eudaimonistic rationales. Man only acts morally when he acts out of duty, that is, out of respect for the law, which he in turn discerns by reason. According to his categorical imperative, the absolute ought is a fact of reason. The dignity of man is shown by the fact that he has a conscience, that is, in his ability to let his actions be directed by moral law by virtue of reason, rather than motivated by inclinations, interests and sensual drives. This is what is meant by autonomy in the sense Kant intends. In this autonomy Kant sees the “basis of the dignity of human nature and every reasonable nature” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals).

But the history of philosophy shows that this autonomy all too soon turned into a degrading heteronomy of the conscience. For Nietzsche the conscience is a symptom of disease which spoils man’s pleasure in committing cruelty. “Seeing suffering feels good, causing suffering feels even better.” Real greatness, to which man is called, lies beyond good and evil. The conscience is only an obstacle to achieving it. For Hitler, the conscience was a Jewish invention. Freud saw it as an external authority of control, because as the super-ego it represents the internalization of paternal authority. But the conscience was especially done away with when the natural sciences began to take over the business of the Enlightenment. They declared the conscience to be a product of our genes, a result of evolution. It drives us, therefore, by means of the biologically conditioned fiction of good and evil to altruistic - that is, moral - behavior, as this serves to maintain the species. For Richard Dawkins the moral sense is “built into our brains, like our sexual instinct or our fear of heights.” So the conscience belongs not to reason, but rather to the sphere of instinct. It does not provide us with insight into reality, but steers us blindly according to the survival interests of our genes. Acting from conscience becomes the opposite of acting from insight.

Added to this is a trend in philosophy which yields to the methods of natural science the scepter of sovereignty over the interpretation of the world in its entirety. “The world is as natural science says it is” says the philosopher W. V. Quine (1908 – 2000). One calls this philosophical trend naturalism. It eliminates everything which does not fit into the grid of scientific method. Natural scientists can examine human brains, but not the human conscience. They can handle dealing with sensory data, but not with moral values. There are no measuring instruments to measure moral values. As a consequence, from the standpoint of naturalism, morality does not belong to reality. Precisely because moral norms are merely the content of the conscience, they must be regarded as relative, claim philosophers such as Norbert Hoerster. They have no objective validity.

Consequently, the conscience is no longer the guarantor of human autonomy, but instead becomes itself the object of enlightenment. As soon as its verdict stands in the way of our enlightened interests, there is no longer any reason to follow it. For morality is, in reality, as asserted by the biologists E. O. Wilson and M. Ruse “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes.”

If the result of this enlightenment is that we are left with only an interest-based system of ethics, then Tresckow’s act of sacrificing his life for a good cause, mentioned at the beginning of this article, appears to be foolishness. The moral value of which he speaks does not even exist. Wilson effectively attempts to expose such self-sacrifice as a biological mechanism which serves hidden egoistic drives.

If the atheist worldview cannot accommodate objective, predetermined values and norms which truly – and not only seemingly – bind our conscience, then it also does not bode well for the heroic atheistic morality which Schröder is so enthusiastic about. What does he put in the place of the heavenly bliss of the Christians? Not, for instance, Kant’s respect for the law, but rather earthly happiness: “Freeing morality from religious premises and giving it a solid foundation in the pursuit of happiness and in each individual’s interest in a stable community was the first priority of the radical philosophers of the Enlightenment.” Here the pursuit of happiness suddenly appears to be a solid foundation of morality, while it is denounced for the Christian as causing its contamination. In this way, Schröder manages to contradict himself within a few sentences. He reveals himself to be a representative of an interest-based system of ethics and therefore of a morality which is precisely not autonomous, as autonomy consists in the “renunciation of all interest” (Kant). Therefore, although he rejects the motive of happiness as being extra-moral in his criticism of Christianity, he must yet allow the question of what he understands by a moral motive; at the same time, he is unable to offer any other motive for atheistic ethics.

Properly understood, Kant’s autonomy of morals is, on the other hand, indeed realized in Christian ethics, namely in the teaching on the love of God for God’s own sake. In this love, the sheer morality of reward is transcended. We ought not to love God purely out of self-interest, but rather for his own sake, i. e. because He earns our love based on His endless goodness. According to Catholic teaching, we are enabled to do this by means of the divine virtue of love, although apparently far too few Christians make us of this ability. The fact that this love is possible is shown to us by St. Francis de Sales, who in the crisis of his youth believed himself to be damned and yet in spite of this still managed to make the heroic decision to love God as much as possible – at least in this life. When the New Testament teaches that perfect love drives out fear, it addresses precisely the triumph over a mere morality of reward. The explication of this triumph rose to fame in Fénelon’s teaching on pure love, in which Spaemann rightly sees a forerunner of Kant’s categorical imperative. But even the approach of St. Anselm of Canterbury, for whom an action is only good when the intention of the agent is the rightness of the will for the sake of rightness, had already contained the concept of an autonomous morality. In contrast to Kant, this rightness, as the highest moral value, is anchored in reality, i. e., in God, who in a certain sense personifies this rightness.

Kant lacks this anchoring. For him, the categorical imperative is a fact of reason. This reason is set before each individual person in a general sense. However, for Kant the only place in which this reason is real is the individual person. The same is true of the will. When he speaks of the self-legislation of the will, he admittedly does not mean the freedom of the individual will to legislate however he pleases. But as he does not acknowledge any will which is immanent in the categorical imperative while being transcendent of the person, nothing remains for him but to claim that the human will is both subject to the law and the author of the law (as in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals). In this way, his talk of autonomy receives a fatal ambiguity. It can be understood not only as an independence of every extra-moral drive, but also as the denial of an anchor in absolute reality, being therefore itself helplessly exposed to the aforementioned fall into heteronomy. Or in other words: if Kant views reason as the source of normativity, then the claim of the categorical imperative depends on the ontological state of reason. His remarks hardly allow for a conclusion other than that it is merely the structure of “limited reason” which provides the origin and the “system location” of the categorical imperative, as for example the Kant interpreter Peter Baumanns writes (P. Baumanns, Kants Ethik, Würzburg 2000, p. 40). If then reason is also merely understood to be a random product of evolution, as in naturalism, the path is free for unmasking the conscience and all morality. The evolutionarily conditioned contingency of reason destroys the non-contingency of the fact of reason, that is, of moral law.

Ultimately, it is only God who can guarantee the ontological status which morality claims to have on our conscience. For this reason the Council clearly rejects the idea of self-legislation when it teaches: “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil…” (Gaudium et Spes). This would only indicate a heteronomy in the sense of a theonomous morality, if the essence of good were dependent on the will of God. In reality though, it holds that the good, e. g. love of neighbor, is not good because God wants it, but rather God wants it because it is good. Cruelty, deceit and murder are not evil because God has forbidden them, but rather God forbids them because they are evil. We do not obey a God of arbitrariness, but rather we discover in our conscience the world of values in their inner meaningfulness and the morally good as the highest, self-justifying value. But it is precisely because this value as we experience it in the conscience is anchored in the nature of God, who is goodness personified, that we are, by means of our obedience to the good, elevated beyond ourselves to a divine perfection which lies above our own powers.

Man stands in the middle between God and the material world. On his own, he cannot maintain this position in the middle. Either he is drawn upwards or he falls downwards. He is drawn upwards through obedience to the unconditional claim of the good which illumines his conscience as a reflection of divine glory. In this deification he finds the perfection of his dignity. In an atheistic worldview, there is no reality in which the claim of the good is grounded. As soon as one mistrusts this claim, autonomy turns into heteronomy and the conscience becomes an illusion machine. The naturalization process, which often begins with the reinterpretation of morality, finally ends in the doctrine of the behaviorist F. Skinner, that man is merely a physical system.


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