…The Scholastic philosophers had two words for conscience, not just one, reflecting a real difference between two aspects of the mind. Synderesis is the interior witness to universal basic moral law, the deep structure of moral reasoning, and it cannot err. Conscientia is the surface structure of moral reasoning, the working out of applications and conclusions from the universal basic moral law, and it can err. In fact it can err in at least four different ways…..
What does it mean to take conscientia less seriously and synderesis more so?…It means mocking relativism. It means blowing the whistle on self-deception. And it means honoring the experience of honest guilt. To illustrate these three principles I will close with three stories.
One day a student approached me after class. He reminded me that I had mentioned moral law during the lecture, then said “Last semester I learned that there isn’t any moral law. Every society makes up its own right and wrong, its own good and bad, its own fair and unfair — and each one makes up something different.”
I answered, “It’s a relief to hear you say that, because I’m lazy and I hate grading papers. At the end of the semester I’ll be able to save myself some work by giving you an F without looking at your papers at all. Since you don’t believe in moral standards like fairness that are true for everyone, I know you won’t object.”
He shot me a startled glance — then admitted that there are true moral standards after all.
Blowing the whistle on self deception
“Morals are all relative anyway,” said a student to one of my colleagues. “How do we even know that murder is wrong?”
My colleague answered the student’s question with another: “Are you in real doubt about the wrong of murder?”
“Many people might say it was alright,” the student replied.
“But I’m not asking other people,” pressed my colleague. ” Are you at this moment in any real doubt about murder being wrong for everyone?”
There was a long silence. “No,” said the student; “no, I’m not.”
“Good,” my colleague answered. “Then we needn’t waste time on morals being relative.
Let’s talk about something you really are in doubt about.” A moment passed while the lesson sank in — and the student agreed.
Honoring honest guilt
I often assign Aristotle’s Ethics.
A quiet young man came to my office one day and said, “Professor, I’ve got to tell you that I’m getting scared.”
I asked him, “Why are you scared?”
He replied, “Because you’re scaring me. I’m shaking.”
I asked him, “‘How am I doing that!”
He replied, “It’s Aristotle. In this book of his he keeps talking about virtue.”
I asked him, “So?”
He replied, “It’s making me realize that I don’t lead a virtuous life. And I’m shaking.”
So we spoke of the grace of God.