I believe that we have a serious obligation to follow our conscience, and we also have a serious obligation to make sure we understand its demands. The etymology of the word is telling, “con” means with and “science” means knowledge. So literally the person who acts in accord with his or her conscience acts “with knowledge”.
History testifies to those who have made great sacrifices as a result of their “conscientious objections”. One such example was a lawyer in the 16th century named Thomas More. He ultimately lost his head because the king of his day could not respect his freedom of conscience.
In the document that is intended to relate to all people of good will, it is with some irony I note that paragraph 1776 (by chance a year that most Americans are somewhat familiar), expresses an understanding of the Moral Conscience:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary…..[CCC n.1776]
The grave difficulty today is that many people do not believe that anything can truly be judged to be evil. People of common sense obviously recognize that there are things that are right and wrong. Who in their right mind would justify child abuse, rape, or murder of the innocent? Sadly in the past vast segments of various populations saw human slavery as acceptable and many tolerated the extermination of millions of Jews and dissidents from a host of atheistic regimes. Governments have made bad decisions in the past, from institutionalized discrimination through enslavement to the innocent unborn child who is denied the right to life.
Far too often people in authority want to suggest that “intention” is what really matters, but this cannot be a condition to run a society or somehow see “intention” as the way to determine guilt in a criminal circumstance. If a person chooses to drink too much, get behind the wheel of a car and then causes a fatal accident, he or she was likely not intending to kill someone that night. They still are obliged to take responsibility for there extremely poor judgement.
As a civilized society we have obligations towards one another. Good laws are always aimed at protecting the rights and dignity of others. I certainly should have the right to shadowbox, but if someone’s face is in the path of my shadowboxing, I have no right to hit them. My right ends where the personal space of another begins. Society will be well served when others acknowledge this basic dignity of the individual and how those rights are limited when one attempts to impose one’s desire or feeling at the expense of another’s.