The Claims of Conscience and the End of the Liberal Era

Normally, when we attempt to refute one of the many egregious errors of our own time and of the, sometimes distant, past, we find ourselves adopting, at least in a theoretical way, the attitude and mindset of those who possess the ideas which we are trying to refute. Although laced with danger, it is unavoidable due to the fact that ideas, like all culture and science, are in the minds of men. They are, therefore, never far from a will which shape the world around it according to the model of these ideas. Philosophical and theological ideas can, also, "infuse" meaning into all of the various realities which arise in the conscious experience of man. This infusion of meaning is itself a perversion of the normal operation of the intellect, since the proper function of the intellect is not to "infuse" a meaning into an, otherwise, meaningless reality, but rather, to discern the inner essence of the thing itself. This essence, then, provides us with an understanding of the thing and its relationship to the cosmic whole. The most basic distinction between a true philosophical conceptual scheme and a false one is that a false one "creates" the conscious world experienced, whereas a true one enables the conscious mind to "live," in an intentional and intellectual way, the world itself. A false philosophy creates the world which it loves, true philosophy loves the world as it has been created.

The question which I raise is this. Have we adopted, unwittingly, the attitude generated by liberalism's foundational concept, that of the "autonomy of man." Do we analyze our own times and attempt to predict the course of events with, what I will call, the "religious liberty mentality?" Why the "religious liberty mentality?" Since the belief that all men have a natural right to adopt and practice any "religion" they man gravitate towards, and that the free exercise of that "right" is the most essential element of the person's "self-constitution," assumes that the ultimate goals in human life are capable of being arbitrarily chosen. This mentality, also, assumes that one may personally designate the consequences which are to follow upon one's subjective choice of a "religion." With regard to the course of history, the RLM (religious liberty mentality) sees only discord and concord between men with differing or similar outlooks, interests, and beliefs. All is based upon choice, and, often, the choices and intentions of men conflict. When trying to forecast what will happen in human history in the near or distant future, the RLM will analyze the forces at work, their relative strengths and weaknesses. To discern the shape of the future, the RLM would forecast election results, outcomes of Senatorial trials, the shifting military and strategic balance between the great powers, the likely movements of financial markets, Federal Reserve policy, potential "advances" in the ecumenical dialogue, etc. All of these, of course, being the results of free human choice. Utopia or cataclysm may be the result of these choices, but which ever future is realized it will have as its cause human voluntariness.

The Fixity of Human Nature vs. Autonomy

There is absolutely no doubt that those who possess a non-liberal understanding of the world, see around them, in our state, our society, in the institutional structure of the Church, in their place of work, and, often, within their own families the decay, if not the total disappearance, of the mores, social customs, dogmatic beliefs, standards of civilized behavior, and the perennial understanding of the purpose and meaning of human life, which was part of the very substance of every Christian society for the past 1,500 years. We are asking ourselves, how bad can the situation become? When will the groups, individuals, ideologies and heresies which power this downward spiral of our civilization meet their demise. When will psychological, moral, and spiritual health be restored to the commonweal? What non-liberals are really wondering is when the "unnatural," contrived, often bizarre society methodically constructed and shaped since the French Revolution of 1789 run its course. What we ought be asking ourselves, however, is the question as to when such a society based upon liberty of worship, of self-expression, of self-determination, of equality, will implode. Implosion is a consequence of nature's spontaneous recognition of vacuity. Some momentous event must trigger that natural reaction. What convinces us that such an implosion is in the offing, is the fact that the liberal understanding of man has produced a society which is discordant with the fundamentals of human nature. It is for this reason, limiting ourselves now to the purely philosophical perspective, that we can surmise that the liberal era is almost over. If we should look at the situation with the RLM, considering "competing life-styles," "religious affiliations," opinions, and ideological positions, we would have to despair of the chances of victory for the traditionalist world-view. There is almost nothing on the socio-political or religious horizon which would point to a restoration of non-liberal normality. The numbers, the money, and the propaganda are overwhelmingly against us. This unfortunate, but unquestionable, fact is so deeply embedded in our presumptions concerning the future that we can hardly imagine a society which would not be based upon the fundamental tenets of liberalism.

We have stated that the nature of man himself stands in the way of a complete and long-term triumph of liberalism in human society. What is it about the fixity of human nature, human inclinations, and the principles of human action which make such a liberal transformation of man impossible? Ironically, the fixity is found in the very realities which the liberals themselves have based their system on: human nature, law, and conscience.

An examination of these human realities, in the light of the teachings of St. Thomas, will not only tell us what is wrong with the liberal conception of man, but, also, it will provide us with evidence in support of the thesis that the liberal era cannot last.

Man's Orientation to the Good

One of the most basic objections which liberalism has to the traditional understanding of man is its rejection of the idea that man's action, intention, or desire have a structure and fixed orientation which is not subject to the determination of free human choice. In tandem with this rejection, is their rejection of the primary teaching of classical Christian anthropology, that all men have the same last end to which all are ordered by the very fact that they possess human nature. The classical Thomistic teaching was never that all men necessarily attain the final end (finis ultimis) of human life, but that all men are meant to attain that end.1 Here we can, also, speak of an ordination of man to a specific goal or end. This ordination to a specific final end is not chosen or posited by a free human act, nor is the end itself chosen by a conscious act of man. This is reiterated by St. Thomas when he speaks of prudence as a virtue of the practical intellect which concerns itself with means necessary to attain the ultimate and remote goal of human life. Prudence concerns itself with choosing the means to the end, since the end itself is not chosen.2 For the two great philosophers of the teleological tradition in philosophy, Aristotle and St. Thomas, the end of human life, eudaimonia and beatitudo respectively, was that which was will when anything else was willed. For both philosophers, this state of being was a state of perfected human activity realized when there was an intellectual grasp of the highest and most perfect intelligible object, namely God. The identification of this one goal of human existence was not arbitrary on the part of either philosopher. If logically followed as a conclusion from an analysis of the hierarchical structure of human acts and the powers of the human soul. It was a conclusion, also derived from a consideration of the very structure and directionality of human acts.

"Now a certain order is to be found in those things that appear in our apprehension. For that which, before aught else, falls under apprehension is "being", [ens] the notion of which is included in all things whatsoever a man apprehends [cuius intellectus includuditur in omnibus quaecumque quis apprehendit]...Now, as being is the first thing that falls under the apprehension simply, so the good [bonum] is the first thing that falls under the apprehension of practical reason, which is directed to action, since every agent acts for an end under the aspect of good."3

Just as it is obvious that there is a certain ordering of the basic biological functions of man towards the production of certain effects, the total sum of which make for the health of the entire bodily organism, so too is there an ordering and intentionality with regard to man's conscious choices. St. Thomas denominates those acts of the human agent which are nonrational, and therefore not the result of conscious human choice as "acts of man" (actus hominis), while those action which are the result of conscious human choice are referred to as "human acts" (actus humani). The "acts of man" to which St. Thomas refers, can be placed within the category of those ordered activities and movements of all natural organic bodies as they "seek" to maintain the "good" of their own lives. This natural ordering of living things is taken as a given by both empirical science and common-sense experience. This order of nature towards its own self-preservation and flourishing was taken as so obvious by St. Thomas that he used it as the subject matter for the 5th of his five proofs of the existence of God.4

The fixed, ordered, and predetermined character of what St. Thomas refers to as the "sensitive appetite" (appetitus sensitivus), or that appetite by which man and other living animals strive to maintain their bodily existence through the attainment of that which is physically satisfying, is incontrovertible. Moreover, since the maintenance of bodily existence is the most basic requirement, can there be any questioning of the fact that those things which allow for this self–maintenance can be understood as "goods." Clearly it is "good" for us to maintain our lives.5

Let us assume for the moment that the denizens of radical human autonomy, etymologically rendered as "self–legislation," would accept the fact that these physically and biologically determined actus homini are beyond the scope of that which can be determined and structured by human choice. There is not one liberal who does not eat, drink, or incline towards sexual intercourse. Indeed, the last of these is, apparently, the sole good protected by the liberal constitution's "right to privacy." Only something which is seen as basically "good," would need to be "protected." What the liberal would refuse to recognize, however, is that the free human will, which even the liberal must recognize, is not ordered toward the good of itself merely nor the good of one particular power of man, but to the "good of the whole man" (ad totum hominem).6

The Will as Rational Appetite

It has been the idea of the utter indetermination of the will, which implicit mainstay of the liberal ideology for the past 200 years. As contemporary American jurisprudence has shown, the primary, existentially determining, act of man is that of "choice." It is the individual will's ability scan a range of "options," intellectual, religious, occupational, ideological, political, social, and economic, which is the act which must be protected with the full powers of judicial system. In fact, what is the liberal legal system other than a governmental attempt to keep others from infringing upon that "right" to "chose" among "options." Not only must the will, assuming the liberal would grant that man has definite faculties, have a constitutionally protected "right" to choose among immediate individual options, but the autonomous will must have the right to order those options into some type of personal hierarchical whole, which would then constitute her/his life. The underlying assumption of all liberal jurisprudence is that the "final end," the "goal" towards which individual men direct all their actions, is, also, a matter of personal choice. The liberal state, in its mode as executor of the laws, is given the task of juggling the "pins" of the aggregates of individual options which "are" the legal personas in a liberal society. The goal is to keep the pins from colliding with each other and, therefore, ending the mid-air liberal experiment.

What the liberals forget, in their analysis of the will and choice, is that the will is not simply presented by the mind with understood options for choice. Rather, the mind is present with "goods," which claim our attention because they have some relationship to pre-determined, fixed human appetite. The will is not merely intellectually presented with a choice, but it is drawn to that choice as that which can satisfy some particular desire of man. Not merely one part of man, but the whole man. The fact that the will chooses among goods, indicates that the power choosing the goods is drawn to specific goods on account of a determinant ontological (i.e., having to do with the make up of a being) structure. The liberal is half correct when s⁄he states that this is a good "for me," since, without being aware of it, s⁄he admits thereby that this is a specific good, desired by a specific aspect of the person, and it is desired by a certain type of being. Even choice presupposes determinate order and structure, along with predetermined desire. The autonomous man find that the fortress of his will is manned by "the enemy," a nature which was made and determined by Another. If this Other is the source the will and the goods which are desired by the will, He must then be Himself both supreme will and the fullness of goodness. To get this far in the process of reasoning is to cease to be a liberal.

Synderesis: The First Habit of Practical Reason

It is not only that the liberal view of human nature rejects the reality of a fixed end for man and, hence, a requirement that the "means" of life be necessarily ordered to that end, they, also, portray human action itself as being in itself amoral until the action is invested with personal meaning and significance by the agent. Properly human actions (actus humani) only take on a moral character (i.e., they are denominated as "good" or "evil"), when the individual choices of the agent are understood to either conform to the agent's own subjective project or fail to conform to that subjective project. Rather than being good or evil from the very initiation of the act, it is only when the person makes a subjective judgment about the act, that it becomes "good" or "bad."

If an act is good or evil at the very first, man cannot consider himself to be a self-legislator. His own act would be praiseworthy or worthy of condemnation from the very start. It would be an indication that there is a standard determining what is good and what is evil which exists prior to any human evaluation. What would be even worse for liberal anthropology, would be a fundamental, inalterable, unavoidable orientation towards the moral good and away for moral evil which would be an essential accompaniment of human nature. This would mean that man is meant to conform to a certain pre–given order of things; those acts which do conform would therefore be "good." Moreover, we might even speak about the yearning of our nature to do the good and reject what is evil. When we do what is evil or act, evaluate situations, or order our lives prescinding from consideration of objective moral norms, we violate our nature, the same nature which enables us to act in the first place. The sinner and the liberal act against that which makes them be what they are.

The first thing which must be considered when we seek to demonstrate why the "autonomous man" is not actually autonomous at all, is a habit of the practical intellect which Scholasticism referred to as Synderesis. Synderesis is a habit unlike most other habits of the human soul. It is different because most habits, being acquired by consistent action, are perfections or defects of what St. Thomas and Aristotle refer to as "secondary nature," or that habitual way of being which rational creatures acquire after a series of acts of a similar nature. These habits can be of a positive or a negative type. Justice and injustice are both habits of the soul, one positive and in accord with our nature and one negative and contrary to our nature. One is not just or unjust by nature but by acquired habit.

According to St. Thomas, however, there are habits which a man has as a consequence of his very nature, his so-called "first nature."7 They are divided up into those of the speculative intellect (i.e., those functions of the human intellect which attain knowledge for its own sake) and those of the practical intellect (i.e., those functions of the human intellect which attain knowledge so as to direct it towards action. The natural (i.e., not acquired) habit which orders and establishes the ratio of activity for the speculative intellect is called the "understanding of principles."8 The first and most fundamental principle which is "held" by the speculative understanding is the principle of non-contradiction, a thing cannot be and not be in the same manner at the same time. This holds true for all assertions of fact. If we asserted "A" and then "not A" at the same time, we would be opting out of the rational universe. Here, at the very initiation of human thought, we see that when the relativistic liberal says "this is true for me, but the opposite may be true for you," he doesn't really believe it. Indeed, what St. Thomas is saying is that he cannot really believe it. The relativist has a problem in his will, which causes a problem in his intellect.

The habit which holds the principles of all practical human activity, is known as synderesis. According to St. Thomas, "Synderesis is not a power but a habit. The human act of reasoning, since it is a certain movement, proceeds from the understanding of certain things - namely, those which are naturally known without any investigation on the part of reason, as from an immovable principle - and ends also at understanding, inasmuch as, by means of those principles naturally known of themselves, we judge of those things we have discovered by reasoning...We have bestowed on us not only speculative principles by practical principles...the practical principles bestowed upon us by nature do not belong to a special power but to a special natural habit, which we call synderesis. Thus synderesis is said to incite to good and murmur at evil, inasmuch as we proceed from first principles to discover and judge that which we have discovered."9

First Principle of Practical Reason

The primary practical principle "held" by the habit of synderesis, and which itself implicitly contains all the precepts of the natural law both primary and secondary,10 is that "the good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided"11 (Bonum est faciendum et prosequendum et malum vitandum). What we notice immediately about the First Principle of Practical Reason (Fppr), is that it reads not as a statement of possibility (lex indicans), but rather, as an imperative. Another aspect of this first and foundational moral imperative, is that contained within it is a careful distinction between the ontological good and the moral good. The distinction is important. A free moral agent, and, of course, that is the only kind of moral agent, can act against the Fppr. He cannot, however, fail to will or choose a thing which is ontologically good. Those are the only things which exist! They are "good" precisely because they exit.

We cannot catch the liberal by pointing out to him the distinction between the moral and the ontological good. Example, to will the good of peace is one thing, to will it at the expense of the life of your nagging wife is quite another. To will a good, does not make your action good. The liberal can simply avoid this implication of the Fppr, by simply denying the moral dimension which the Fppr gives to all human acts. The liberal would simply indicate that he is choosing one of the many "goods" that are set before him. He would simply treat the Fppr as if it were a lex indicans, an hors d'oeuvre tray of "pleasing choices."

The way to show the liberal that he is engaging in a performative contradiction (i.e., his very actions deny the principles upon which those actions are based), is to indicate to him the relationship between the moral and the ontological good, between the "ought" and the "is." In this regard, the liberal fails to realize that he is a part of a community of created goods and of beings who can will the good. The freedom or lack of determination which allows him to choose a particular good out of the many, is dependent upon an ordination to the good in commune (i.e., the common good of the whole). He would not choose a partial good, unless there were some natural ordination to the perfect and complete good. Here is where the moral imperative of the Fppr appears. To will a good which would serve to divert one from attainment of the greatest good, as this is specified by the insight of reason, would be to explicitly or implicitly reject the call to perfection, which is the most overriding "call" of the First Principle. To reject the call to perfection of the Fppr by failing to act for and choose what is morally good, is to voluntarily negate our very reason for acting in the first place. We seek partial goods in order to be completed in the ultimate good. Otherwise, there is no reason to seek any goods. The moral obligation of the Fppr, is really an obligation to achieve the completion of our being and nature which is in accord with right reason. The Nietzschean dictum "Become who you are!," Thomisticly understood, is not that far from the truth.

Qualms of Conscience

"Conscience," rather than being something opposed to or independent of the obligation to "do good and avoid evil," is actually the act by which this first practical principle is applied to concrete moral acts, within the diverse circumstances in which man finds himself. Conscience, from cum alio scientia, according to St. Thomas, "is said to witness, to bind or incite and also to accuse, torment, or rebuke."12


1  Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II, QQ. 1–5. This is the so-called "Treatise on Happiness."[Back]

2  ST, II-II, Q. 47, Art. 6.[Back]

3  ST, I-II, Q. 94, Art. 2.[Back]

4  ST, I, Q. 2, Art. 3.[Back]

5  ST, I, Q. 59, Art. 1.[Back]

6  ST, I-II, Q. 10, Art. 1.[Back]

7  ST, I, Q. 79, Art. 12.[Back]

8  Ibid.[Back]

9  Ibid.[Back]

10  ST, I-II, Q. 94, Art. 2, ad 2.[Back]

11  Ibid.[Back]

12  ST, I, Q. 79, Art. 13.[Back]