With the midterm elections in full swing, we’re once again hearing the slogan (from both the Left and the Right): Vote your conscience. But what does this really mean? And how and why should we follow this advice?
As any good philosophical enterprise must begin with the definition of terms, and since conscience is very often invoked but seldom delineated, let’s clarify just what this faculty is. After examining the true essence of conscience, then we can discuss whether or not we should vote our consciences and why.
What is the Conscience? Two Basic Views
To approach this question, it is helpful to turn to St. Pope John Paul II, whose feast the Catholic Church celebrated earlier this week. Among his many memorable teachings, Pope JPII left us a profound meditation on the nature and purpose of conscience in his encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor.1 The following remarks are based largely on his thought, along with some of my own reflections on the topic.2
John Paul II identifies two fundamental – and fundamentally opposed – views of what the conscience is. The first is what we can call the “traditional” view, which basically says that the conscience is a faculty of the mind which discerns what is objectively right from what is objectively wrong, and holds us accountable to general moral norms which guide (or ought to guide) our actions.3
The second and newer view, which is radically divergent to the traditional understanding, is what the pope calls the “creative understanding of moral conscience”. It is essential to explore this newer position in some detail as it is ubiquitous in our culture and political discourse, and is responsible for a fair bit of confusion and mischief.
The “Creative” Understanding of the Moral Conscience
The creative understanding of conscience arose in reaction against and contradistinction to the traditional view. The promoters of this position argued that in former times moralists had reduced conscience to mere “casuistry”, i.e. the application of general ethical norms to particular situations and the cold calculation of the “correct” course of action in light of those norms.
The ethicists arguing in this way claimed that general norms can never sufficiently account for all the “uniqueness and particularity” of concrete situations, and therefore they can never be an adequate guide to an individual’s moral decision making.4 In other words real life is too messy and complicated for “morality” – construed in terms of general principles and commandments – to be really useful in a person’s actual lived moral experience. What matters is the decision, which must be reached in the person’s own subjectivity, with sincerity and authenticity, and therefore without coercion. Once the decision is made it must be considered inviolable, and essentially uncriticizable, so long as it has been reached “sincerely”. The private judgment of man’s conscience is accorded something of a sacred character. Another man in the same circumstances might reach a different conclusion, but that is only natural as he is a different man. We should not expect moral consensus, except insofar as we must all agree on the invincible nature of the dictates of a person’s conscience. In other words conscience cannot err. Truth and falsehood are not applicable categories in any discussion of conscience.
This is essentially to claim that conscience itself is the arbiter – rather than the discoverer – of right and wrong.
It’s clear that this understanding of conscience may be easily conflated with one’s own ego. For the judgments of conscience, on this view, are practically indistinguishable from a person’s desires. According to this creative understanding, my conscience simply becomes the mirror in which I read the true desires of my heart, and to hell with you if you disagree. It’s not difficult to see how this is a recipe for mayhem. Followed to its logical conclusion, this view undermines any sense of objective morality, and yields the rotten fruit of individualistic moral relativism. Indeed this is exactly where we have arrived as a culture when we speak of “my truth” and “your truth”, “true for you but not true for me”, etc.
This undermining of the very foundations of morality is a feature and not a bug of the liberalism that the West has largely embraced for the past few centuries. By “liberalism” I do not mean leftist progressivism as it is typically understood in American political discourse, but rather the deeper anthropological assumptions that underlie both the Left and the Right ends of our contemporary political spectrum. Indeed I would argue that the creative understanding of conscience is derived directly from these liberal anthropological assumptions, particularly from the liberal concept of freedom.
The “Traditional” Understanding of the Moral Conscience
The traditional understanding of conscience is subtler and more demanding than the newer creative view. The older view holds that the moral conscience is a faculty of the intellect which first of all discovers moral truths as general norms, and then applies those principles to particular situations to deliver practical judgments about right and wrong ways of being in the world.
It is important to note that “conscience” here denotes two distinct yet related functions. The first function is the ascertainment of objectively true moral principles. The second function is the application of those principles to concrete situations so as to read those situations through the lens of moral norms, rendering practical judgments about what one ought to do or not do.
This view assumes that 1) objective reality has a genuine moral dimension, i.e. that “right” and “wrong” are words with ontological significance, and 2) that human beings are the kinds of creatures endowed with the capacity to know and understand the ethical contours of being.
It follows from this that conscience can err. For no matter how certain one’s general moral principles, one’s grasp of particular circumstances will always be limited due to the inherent complexity of life and the world. Alternatively, though one may have a precise grasp on a given concrete situation, one’s moral principles may be warped by ideology or by habits of personal sin, causing one’s moral discernment to be flawed.
Hence the judgments of conscience are and always will be fallible. It further follows that we need a training of conscience, a formation in objective moral goods. We must be nourished and formed by true goodness, true beauty, by the very splendor of the Truth, as the opening line of the holy father’s encyclical puts it.
Should we Vote our Conscience?
In light of the foregoing analysis and definition, should we vote our consciences? Clearly, this depends on which definition of conscience is being invoked.
Voting one’s conscience, traditionally construed, would entail that voters engage in a process of sustained moral reasoning before going to the polls. This deliberation would include, at least, judging candidates, propositions, and titles according to objective moral norms, and reasoning from those norms to one’s ballot decisions. One’s ballot decisions would not reflect one’s preferences per se, but rather what one has discerned to be objectively good.
Voting one’s conscience, creatively construed, would more likely have voters “look within” to discern how they “feel” about a given candidate or issue, and then pull the lever accordingly. I have recently seen a get-the-vote-out campaign that actually read “vote with your heart, not your wallet.” My own conscience precludes my endorsement of this sentiment and all like unto it. Heart, as the deepest center of the person, traditionally connotes something much closer to conscience, but in contemporary American English it tends to connote a superficial emotionalism.
It should have long since been clear that I am an avid proponent of the traditionalist view of conscience. Hence, with the proper distinctions in place, I most heartily encourage all voters, Vote your conscience! But note carefully that this does not mean voting your feelings, and still less your political ideology. It means first of all forming your conscience according to objective moral truths, studying the issues and candidates to be voted on, and applying your well formed moral principles to those issues and candidates prior to casting your ballot.
As a traditionalist I would go further and say that if you fail to form your conscience and do not engage in the requisite moral reasoning, and yet persist in exercising your democratic rights, you have in fact failed to vote your conscience. Even worse, if you have merely played the game of partisan politics and voted “straight ticket” according to your preferred ideology, you have not even used your conscience, and have abdicated your responsibility as a citizen and a moral agent.5
All of this will strike many as hard, and indeed it is. As C.S. Lewis well put the matter: “There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is as hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do.”6
So go vote your conscience! Just make sure it’s well formed first.
- For a brief overview and introduction to this important papal encyclical, see my post Jesus the Cornerstone – An Introduction to Veritatis Splendor.
- Cf. Veritatis Splendor, especially ⁋ 54-64.
- This view can be found articulated, with some slight variations, in most of the world’s religions and philosophies. It may justly be considered part of the perennial tradition of human wisdom, and it is a view which the magisterium of the Catholic Church has consistently upheld.
- Cf. Veritatis Splendor, ⁋ 55.
- N.b.: If a person has engaged in deep moral reflection and become convinced that voting “straight ticket” is indeed what their conscience bids them to do, then these comments obviously do not apply. I know Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians who vote straight ticket, and yet I know that they have exerted considerable energy and effort to reach their positions. I may disagree with their conclusion and might argue with them about it, but I am not addressing them here. I am addressing the hordes of voters who clearly vote straight ticket without such reflection.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.