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Conscience: Is “probably good” ever good enough?


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 11/24/20

We should learn how to evaluate moral probabilities
This is a continuation of our series on learning to read the (conscience) manual. (See Part 1 on the conscience manual here; Part 2 on conscience and feelings here; Part 3 on kinds of conscience here; Part 4 on moral certainty here; Part 5 on doubtful consciences here)

Imagine overhearing the following siblings named “Scruplio” and “Prudentia”:

SCRUPLIO: Stop! Grandpa said not to use his tools without his permission first!

PRUDENTIA: But his workshop is on fire! I’m sure he won’t mind if we use his fire extinguisher!

SCRUPLIO: Not without asking first. Mommy told us we have to do what Grandpa says.

PRUDENTIA: What if Grandpa told us to go jump in the lake?

Meanwhile, Grandpa’s workshop burns down.

While using the fire extinguisher is obviously right, explaining that to people who are prone toward narrow definitions and broad anxieties can be a challenge. Could Grandpa have really intended that his workshop be allowed to burn down rather than have the grandchildren use the fire extinguisher without permission?

That apparently silly question highlights a difficulty faced by all who would reach moral maturity, namely, what to do when an obligation is doubtful. In such cases, we may be guided by this principle: A doubtful law does not bind.

That principle applies when we’re in doubt about whether or not we’re under a moral obligation. We may use this principle in two contexts:

  1. I doubt whether a particular moral law exists;
  2. I doubt whether a particular moral law applies to my concrete case.

Regarding the first context, Jesuit Father Austin Fagothey offers a useful illustration: “I may doubt whether the game laws forbid me to shoot a deer on my farm … Does any law exist, applicable to my case, which certainly forbids me? If the direct method fails to prove any, then I am morally justified in doing these things on the principle that a doubtful obligation does not bind.”

For a law to be binding, it must be reliably promulgated (in other words, it would be a contradiction for a law to be secret). Also, the authority of the one imposing the law must have the right to do so (for example, I haven’t the authority to announce that “Henceforth all right-handed people must give 10% of their income to left-handed people like myself upon request”). 

Regarding the second context, let’s review the story at the start of this essay. It can scarcely be believed that Grandpa’s stricture against using his tools without permission preclude using the fire extinguisher without permission in order to save his workshop.

If there’s no clear obligation or prohibition, we may take a course of action that is probably morally sound. How “probable” does “probable” have to be before an uncertain conscience may licitly act?

This is where moralists begin to disagree, and ethics shifts on the spectrum away from science towards art. In these cases, a moral agent is concerned with finding whether a relevant moral law exists, or that the moral law in question doesn’t apply to his particular case. The heart of the matter is this: How certain must a moral agent be in order to be morally satisfied that either the relevant moral law does not exist or not apply in his case? 

Absent certainty, there are only probabilities. The moral tradition recognizes five degrees of probability: 

  1. Certainly or nearly so Tutiorism
  2. More probable Proabiliorism
  3. Equally probable Equiprobabilism 
  4. Solidly probable Probabilism
  5. Barely possible Laxism

We can eliminate #1 as being too stringent and #5 as irresponsible. #3 is too severe in theory and in practice. On the theoretical level, there is no point in demanding equal reasons for and against the moral law in question. On the practical level, most people do not have the time or capacity for such exacting reasoning for every moral decision. If #3 is to be dismissed as too severe, then #2 is precluded, for it is even more severe than #3. That leaves us with #4, probabilism.

As usual, Father Fagothey is succinct: “Solid probability means that an opinion is really and truly probable … it is sufficient to have a few or even one weighty argument in its favor, although the arguments against it may be stronger.” On this view, listing and evaluating every argument for and against an action—which is often impossible—is unnecessary. A solidly probable argument will suffice.

At this point in our series of reflections on conscience, we see how far we have come from pronouncements purporting to be from “conscience” being prefaced with the words, “I just feel…” That’s not morally adequate, that’s not morally mature, and that’s not conscience. Some moral matters are truly and always black and white, that is, some actions are always required and some are always forbidden. Other moral actions, at least some of the time, are legitimately gray. Conscience can help one to discern black, white and gray, and then act accordingly.

When I write next, I will wrap up this series on reading the (conscience) manual. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.


Read more:
10 Ways to sharpen your conscience

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