(Note: I’m presenting an argument in this post and I think I have the right answer, but I’m not 100% beyond a shadow of a doubt sure. I’m inviting friendly debate because I really am seeking the truth.) How many times have you heard this statement: It doesn’t feel wrong, so it’s right. Maybe you’ve even said it. But let’s think about it some more. If it doesn’t feel wrong, then does that really mean that it’s right? I’ve been pondering this problem for a while and I have some thoughts I’d like to share with you, to bounce off of you, and you can let me know what you think, whether you agree or disagree, whether you find these ideas helpful or not. And we’ll go from there. Alright? Okay, let’s go then.
An experience I had a few weeks ago comes to mind. I had company from out-of-town staying with me and they wanted to check their email, but I don’t have internet access at home. Or rather, I don’t have an account. But one of my guests discovered that other people in the neighborhood do have internet access and he suggested that I just use theirs.
“Didn’t you know you could do that?” He asked, somewhat surprised at my apparent “ignorance”.
“Well, yes. I’ve noticed their systems listed as available wireless networks when I was using my own wireless router.”
“Then why don’t you just log on using theirs?”
“Because that would be stealing,” his wife chimed in.
“Precisely,” I said, somewhat surprised at his apparent ignorance.
“It’s not stealing. The signals are just floating around out there. It doesn’t bother me at all to use them. Not at all.” A smug smile slid into place on his face.
“I’m not sure that the fact that it doesn’t bother you actually makes it right to do it.” Well, at least, I thought, he isn’t picking on me for being Catholic. That’s a relief. Sort of.
“I don’t see any problem with it.”
Was he arguing with me? Or himself?
He proceeded to use the internet and apparently it did not bother him. I even signed on to check some messages myself. When he came into the room and discovered me online, he was elated. A little too elated. “Awright, I corrupted you!”
I felt suddenly dirty, as if I had fallen into a muddy puddle. I signed off and shut down the laptop. And I haven’t done that again. When I said it was wrong, I was right. When I went along, I was wrong.
So here’s a question for you: If he thought it was okay to “use” the signal that was “just floating around out there”, then why was he so glad that he had “corrupted” me, to use his own words? What is the difference between his conscience and mine? And his wife’s too, if you recall; she’s the one who said it was stealing. So she knew and I knew, but he didn’t. Or said he didn’t. But did his own words belie that? Why would he consider that he had corrupted me unless he actually did know that it was stealing, but had chosen to ignore that fact and do it anyway because it suited him to do so?
I have another example. This one comes from a different kind of experience. I’ve known a few people who have diabetes. If you know anyone who suffers from this, then you know how careful they have to be about their circulation, especially in their extremities. Numbness in fingers, hands, toes, and feet can lead to serious trouble, injury and even death. Burns and cuts are particularly dangerous. A numb finger or toe does not feel pain and does not send a warning signal to the brain, enabling the person to take steps to avoid further danger or to handle danger already present.
Are you catching my drift?
Your conscience is like that warning that lets you know that danger is present, that warns you to take steps to protect yourself. Now our central nervous system takes care of physical pain and signals for us. Even so, we are taught, most of us as young children, to avoid such things as open flames and electric eyes on stoves. And most of us, I hope, are taught when we are young the difference between right and wrong. But I think that there are very many people who in recent years have convinced themselves—and others—that there is no real right and wrong, no truth that can be known, that all we have to do is follow our own way and do what we want to do because we are free and freedom means having the power to do just as you please.
Really? Does it? Does freedom mean unlimited freedom? And truth, is there really no truth? Is it impossible to know the truth? Do these sound like sound teachings? Sound philosophy? Does this sound like the thinking of someone who has a properly formed conscience?
Ah, and now we are getting at what is precisely the problem: People are attempting to follow their consciences having neglected to first form those consciences. Unlike our bodies which function largely on their own, with some input and training from us and parents and the like, our consciences must be formed by someone else, someone whose own conscience is already formed. Left to ourselves, we will grow and develop much like animals.
But, wait! There are those who tell us everyday that animals are exactly what we are!
Yes, they do. And they are wrong. Dead wrong. We do share a lot in common with the animals. Our physical nature, our bodies, much of our form, we do share. But that isn’t all we are. If you see only with your physical eyes, the physical is all you will see. But man is endowed with a higher vision, a higher way of seeing that no animal can even imagine. Reason separates human from animal. (And I’m using a capital R there even though you can’t tell it since the word began the sentence.) And Reason isn’t all that separates us. I don’t imagine there are any animals sitting around right now, thinking, reasoning and imagining how to build a space telescope or how to deal with the problem of conservation of human habitats.
(And tell me, while I’m thinking about it: how is it that the people who insist that we’re just animals like the other animals also insist that we human animals have an obligation, a duty, to save the other animals? Why doesn’t some other animal have an obligation to save us, huh? Clearly, those people know very well that we are different, far different from any of the animals on this planet. It’s just another example of people wanting to believe whatever they want to believe while ignoring the truth, no matter how clear it is.)
Formation comes from without. No one forms a conscience on his own in a vacuum. We don’t teach ourselves language. If a child is raised from infancy in a place removed from people, say, surrounded by animals, he will not develop language on his own. He will not talk. He may make guttural sounds, but he will not develop words and language. These things are learned from other humans and passed on to other humans. They are learned in families and larger groups. We are taught how to use words, how to speak, how to identify objects and things and ideas and safety and danger, and when to stand and when to run, and how to tell right from wrong.
Animals don’t know right from wrong. They may know that if they make a mess in the house, they’re going to get yelled at or thrown out into the backyard, but they don’t have an understanding of the moral difference between right and wrong, and certainly they don’t understand good and evil. Some people don’t seem to understand that either. Some animals do seem to sense when someone has evil intentions toward someone they (the animals) identify as theirs. But then there are cases of thoroughly despicable and evil people having pets who are loyal to them no matter what. So even that loyalty, in the end, only gives further evidence of that lack of discernment about good and evil that man has. Or can have. Or should have. Needs to have…
We’ll be exploring further in the days to come what conscience means, and formation of conscience, in other posts. Until then you can learn more in the Catechism of the Catholic Church*. As always, comments are welcome and thank you for reading. Peace be with you.
*The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a treasury of knowledge, of sound doctrine and moral and social teaching. Start there and with the Bible, which the Catechism references throughout, along with the Fathers of the Church, Church Councils down through the ages, and much much more. The Catechism is a precious gift. I carry a mass market paperback copy with me everywhere I go, along with my personal-size study Bible.
A Treasury of Catholic Doctrine
Catholic Moral Teaching