5.1. Morality and knowledge: conscience

The material of the preceding chapter dealt, really, with the easy part about making moral choices. Basically, with emotions and habits, you can't deliberately let them take over and lead you into doing wrong acts; but insofar as you're not deliberately letting this happen, you can forget about them.

But our choices depend directly on the facts we know at the time we make the choice; and hence, our knowledge of the facts has direct moral relevance.

DEFINITION: Conscience is the factual information a person has about whether a given act of his is morally right or wrong.

This is an important definition. It isn't what we ordinarily think conscience is; and so pay attention to all of it.

First, conscience is factual information. It is not the way we feel about the act we are to perform (Guilt feelings are not qualms of conscience, because you can feel guilty about doing something you know is right). Feelings have nothing to do with conscience; conscience is your evidence that the act is right or wrong.

Secondly, conscience is the information you have; it is not necessarily all the information there is to know. As I said, you can only base your choice on the facts you are conscious of at the time you make the choice; and "conscience" is the name given to these facts insofar as they deal with morality. Conscience is a set of facts: the facts available to you here and now.


Conscience is not your opinion of the moral rightness or wrongness of something. It is the information on which you base knowledge.

Your opinion is the conclusion you come to based either on insufficient information (for knowledge) or on conflicting information. When information is conflicting, basing a choice on your opinion is immoral, because your conscience is not clear (as we will see shortly).

What is called "subsequent conscience" is the information you now have about an act you already performed, whatever your knowledge might have been at the time you actually made the choice.

Subsequent conscience is no necessary indication of the morality or immorality of a previous choice.

The reason for this is that (because of a calm emotional state you now have, or because you might have found out some new facts), your present knowledge of the rightness or wrongness of your act might not be the same as the knowledge you had when you made the choice; but the morality or immorality of the choice depends on the knowledge you have when you actually make the choice.

Therefore, "conscience" in the morally relevant sense means only the factual information you actually have at the time you make the choice.

It follows from this that "examinations of conscience" tend to be counterproductive. Mulling over past choices can't change them, nor can regretting them change them. Further, thinking over what you did in the past is apt to give you the impression that, because now you have information that the act is wrong, then you "must" have known it then; or it can make you think you were in control when you weren't (because theoretically you always can choose not to do something).

In a religious context, an examination of past choices done to be aware of them, admit one's sinfulness (insofar as one knows it) before the Lord, and recognize the situations to be avoided if possible in the future, can be a beneficial act. But insofar as this leads to anguish, it is not Christian; God is a God of peace, not a computer who needs the proper input or he won't forgive you.

There is a psychological problem called a "scrupulous conscience," which consists in a fear that you have been immoral or might be going to be immoral, without real evidence to back up the fear.

Remember, the Lord is not a spider waiting for you to step into his web so he can pounce. You are only morally guilty of something if you are willing to do it even if it is wrong; and to be willing, you have to have evidence (a real reason to believe) that in fact it is wrong.

The fact that it could be wrong based on evidence you don't know is obviously not evidence that it is wrong. You don't have to be concerned with such hypothetical possibilities.

Thirdly, conscience deals with a definite act, and is not knowledge about acts in general. It is the information on which you base the answer to the question, "Can I morally choose to do this here and now?"

Thus, the discussions about ethical issues in the second half of this book are not conscience, though that information can become part of your conscience if you use it to find out whether you can do some definite thing without being immoral. But this general knowledge can never be all of a person's conscience, because the conscience will also contain the specific information about the circumstances in which the act occurs.

For instance, the discussion later on abortion may help some woman answer whether she can morally choose to have an abortion. Her conscience will contain this information, plus the information about whether if she doesn't have it, both she and the baby will die, and so on. Her choice will be based on all the information she has at that time.

Fourthly, conscience deals only with moral rightness and wrongness. Information about other aspects of the act (such as whether it is silly or polite) are not part of a person's conscience.

So conscience is not the same as "consciousness." It is ONLY that aspect of consciousness that is (a) factual, and that deals with (b) the moral rightness or wrongness of (c) a given act that (d) you are thinking of doing.

RULE: The morality or immorality of a choice always depends on the conscience of the person who makes the choice.

Conscience is, as they say, the "supreme court" in moral matters.

[See also Modes, 5.1.6]

5.1.1. Clear and unclear conscience

Given that this is what conscience is, how does it operate on the morality of the choice? It is not perfectly straightforward, and so we have to make some distinctions:

DEFINITION: A clear conscience means that the person has no information that there is anything wrong with the act he is about to perform.

You may feel terribly guilty about doing something (such as informing on a drug pusher), and still have a clear conscience that this is the right thing to do. All the information you possess indicates that this is right, and you know of no facts to indicate that it is wrong.

RULE: When a person acts with a clear conscience, his choice is always moral, irrespective of the actual rightness or wrongness of the act.

A clear conscience is sometimes called a "morally certain" conscience. (Except that you can be morally certain that the act is wrong, in which case obviously your conscience is not clear in the sense above. A Clear conscience is moral certainty that the act is not wrong.)

The difference between "moral certainty" and other kinds of certainty is that you don't have to be able to prove that you are correct in your opinion. You don't have to have facts to back up your position, in other words; all that is needed is a lack of information against your position--and by information, I mean "facts you know."

Obviously, if you are morally certain that the act is wrong, it will be immoral to choose it. But it turns out that if you have information on both sides (so that you're not even morally certain of either), then you can't count on the fact that the act might be all right; your conscience is not clear.

Hence, "moral certainty," while a valid concept, introduces a complication that can be avoided by considering whether the conscience is clear or not.

I will take it that if you are morally certain that the act is wrong, your conscience is unclear. Usually, an "unclear conscience" means that you don't know whether in fact the act is right or wrong (you have some evidence on both sides). But it would be strange to say "I acted with a clear conscience" when you are certain that you did something wrong.

For our purposes, following the general usage of language, we will say that your conscience is clear only when you know that the act is morally right and have no evidence to the contrary. When you have evidence that the act is or might be in fact wrong (whether this evidence is conclusive or not), your conscience is unclear.

Another distinction that is legitimate but irrelevant is that between a "correct" and "erroneous" conscience. A correct conscience simply means that the information is accurate: you think that the act is all right and it is in fact morally right; or you think it is wrong and it is in fact wrong. When your conscience is erroneous you think the act wrong when it is in fact right, or you think it is right when it is wrong.

But since the choice is based on your information about the facts and not on the facts themselves, then what the facts actually are is irrelevant to the morality of the choice. Hence, as long as your conscience is clear, it doesn't matter whether it is correct or in error.

Some might say, "Well yes, but if you know that you don't have information and you refuse to find it, then this refusal is morally significant."

This is true; but the only way you would realize that there was morally relevant information to be had would be if you had some information that further investigation would be likely to indicate that the act is wrong. But this is the same as having information that there is or might be something wrong with the act, which means that your conscience is not clear. (A clear conscience, remember, means that you don't have any information that there is anything wrong with the act.)

The only time you have to find out additional information is (a) when you want to do the act in question, and when you have information indicating (b) that the information you have is inadequate, and (c) the further information might show that the act in question is wrong.

A woman, for instance, who thinks that it is all right to breast feed her child does not have to read a book on the moral benefits of breast feeding. The only time she would have to read up on the subject would be if she saw something indicating that there might be a danger to the child from breast feeding (there isn't one; I use this as an example).

A third distinction that is valid but both irrelevant and confusing is that between "vincible" and "invincible" ignorance. "Invincible" ignorance is ignorance that can't in practice be overcome, because you don't realize that you're ignorant. This is the same as having no information to the contrary, and so having a clear conscience or being "morally certain." "Vincible" ignorance, however, is "insincere" ignorance, where you refuse to find out the facts. Obviously, here you have to be in the situation above, where you have information that makes your conscience not clear.

The reason this is confusing is that the usual interpretation is that "invincible" ignorance excuses a person from immorality. This is true if you are "invincibly" ignorant that the act is wrong. But if you happen to be "invincibly" ignorant that it is right (i.e. morally certain that it is wrong), then your "invincible ignorance" will damn you.

With that said, forget about vincible and invincible ignorance. Your conscience's clarity or unclarity depends on the information you have, not information you could have.

5.1.2. Clearing an unclear conscience

Now let us look at an unclear conscience more closely. Your conscience is unclear, as I said, if you have any information that your act is or might be in fact morally wrong. The problematic situation, of course, is that where there's a doubt in your mind as to whether it's wrong or not. You may have a lot of evidence that says that it's perfectly all right, but there is at least one fact you know that indicates (directly or indirectly) that the act might really be wrong.

For instance, someone you know who's not a fanatic and who generally knows what he's talking about thinks that the act is wrong. This fact (that a knowledgeable person thinks the act is wrong) is an indication that he knows a fact you are ignorant of indicating that the act is wrong. This would be an indirect indication that the act is in fact wrong.

RULE: It is always immoral to choose to perform an act when your conscience is unclear.

Why is this? It follows immediately from the general rule of morality. If your conscience is unclear, you have information that the act you are about to perform might be wrong. To choose the act under these conditions is to be willing to do it if indeed it should in fact be wrong. You don't know that it isn't; and so you have to accept that you might be doing a wrong act. And, you will remember, the general moral rule is that you must never be willing to do what is wrong.

So your choice is immoral even if it is much more likely that there is nothing wrong with the act.

No matter how much more likely it is that the act is all right, if you have real information (i.e. facts) that indicate that it might be wrong, you don't know that it's not wrong; and this means that you would have to be willing to do wrong if you do the act.

How to acquire a clear conscience

Obviously, when your conscience is unclear, something must be done. How do you get from this state to having a clear conscience? It must always be possible to have a clear conscience, or morality makes no sense, because then you could be trapped into damning yourself no matter what you chose (as when it was unclear whether it was wrong to act, and also unclear whether it was wrong not to act).


A. Find out the facts.

If you want to perform the act (if it is all right to do so); or if you are in a dilemma where not performing the act might be wrong, what do you do?

For instance, a woman might think that it might be wrong to have an abortion; but she might think that it might be wrong not to have an abortion and give birth to a deformed child. Obviously, she's got to do one or the other.

The first thing that must be done in a case like this (if at all possible) is to find out what the facts are, so that the conscience can be cleared up.

The general rule of thumb here is to act the same way you act when you have a medical difficulty. In simple, straightforward cases you treat it yourself; in complicated ones, you seek the advice of a doctor, who has devoted his life to medical problems, and so who is likely to know what the facts are.

In the next section, on the act and the situation, I will give guidelines on how you can discover facts and clarify your conscience in reasonably ordinary situations. If this works, and you know you have found the real facts, then everything is fine; your conscience is now clear. (Remember, however, that this is not just coming to a conclusion which "in your opinion" is right, but that you know that there isn't any evidence against your conclusion. Ethical matters can often be very complicated indeed, and your own investigations can leave you wondering whether you have evaluated the facts properly. If this happens, your conscience is still unclear, and you must do the following:

1. Ask an expert.

In practice, when you can't honestly assure yourself that you know which course of action is in fact right, then what you do is rely on someone who has made a study of ethical matters; because that person will know what the facts are: that's his business.

Here, you don't have to know the expert's reasons. If he says that the act is all right, this is enough to clear your conscience, except in the unlikely case that you have actual information that he is (a) lying, (b) biased, or (c) misinformed about the situation. It's always possible that the expert could be misinformed or be lying to you; but this abstract possibility doesn't leave you with an unclear conscience; you have to have facts to indicate that he's actually doing this in order not to have a clear conscience.

So once the expert tells you that the act is all right, you now know that it is not immoral to choose it. Any mistake that might be made is the expert's problem, not yours.

2. Points to note on consulting an expert:

a. Who an "expert" is will be based on the information available to you at the time you are looking.

b. It would be immoral to go looking for someone you thought would tell you what you wanted to hear. You don't necessarily have to go looking in the other direction, of course; but if you actively try to find someone who will tell you that it is all right to do what you want to do, your intention is to do the act whether it is in fact right or not, and you simply want an expert's advice as an excuse to back you up. But then you are willing to do the act even if it is really wrong (or why not seek advice from some other expert?); and that choice to go looking for expert reinforcement is immoral, even if the expert's advice should happen to be correct. This is like a person who wants a doctor to tell him he has a "heart condition" and to prescribe nitroglycerine. Such a person isn't honestly trying to find out the facts about himself.

c. It would be immoral deliberately to seek advice from a less qualified expert in favor of someone who was more likely to know what the facts are, other things being equal. The idea in seeking expert advice is that you want to find out what the facts really are, not just get an expert to talk; and so you would seek the best advice available to you if you really wanted to know.

There might be reasons for seeking a less qualified expert, of course. If the matter is trivial, and the less qualified person is qualified (as far as you know) enough to be likely to know the facts, then you don't have to go out of your way to find the best advice. Or if consulting the best expert you know of would involve inordinate amounts of time and expense and so on, then only an extremely serious matter would necessitate going to the trouble.

d. If you know that recognized experts disagree on whether the type of act in question is wrong or not, then you may choose the most lenient view (i.e. the one that allows the most leeway), provided it has good authority behind it.

This is sometimes called "probabilism" or the "doubtful law." The point here is not whether your act is right or wrong, but whether a whole class of acts is right or wrong. If even experts can't figure out whether this kind of thing is right or wrong, then this indicates that the matter is so complex that no one can straighten it out. But any lawgiver who wants to be obeyed must make it possible for his subjects to know what he wants done; if he doesn't do that, he can't expect anyone to obey him. Thus, if the matter is so obscure that even experts can't figure out whether the acts in question are wrong or not, then this is the Divine Lawgiver's problem (or nature's, if you prefer); and so you can act as if there really is no obligation here, and be morally sure that it is all right to do so.

The view is called "probabilism" because in the case where the existence of an obligation is objectively unclear, any solidly probable opinion (no one can have knowledge in such a case) can be followed, for the reason given above.

NOTE: This is a bit of a dangerous rule to put into practice, however. There are all kinds of crazy people who set themselves up as ethical "experts"; and I would venture to say that if you considered any issue, you would find someone who presumably had qualifications saying that just about any act you wanted to name was all right.

So it might seem that any type of action would fall under the "doubtful law," and you could do anything. For instance, there were experts who defended slavery; there are experts today who defend abortions.

I think that before a person could legitimately feel secure in applying this rule, he would have to know the general orientation of the "expert" who says that it is all right to do some controversial act. If the expert seems to be rather strict or "orthodox" in his view of what human nature is, and he says it is all right to do some particular act, then he probably has valid reasons on his side. If, on the other hand, he is "compassionate" and just "doesn't want to burden people," then he probably is not reasoning but telling people what they want to hear--and he may be sincere in this; but the likelihood that he is stating the facts about what we really are is that much less.

There are those nowadays whose view is that being moral ought not to be difficult. They are "redefining" human nature into infinite "flexibility," and are simply not being realistic. Let their consciences save them; but follow them not.

This finding out the facts is, as the title of these guidelines said, usually called the direct method of clarifying your conscience. It is called "direct," not because you necessarily find out the facts directly (using expert advice and especially the "doubtful law" is certainly indirect), but because what you know is that the act you are to perform is all right. That is, using, say, the "doubtful law" you realize that it is all right to use legal tax "loopholes" and pay no income tax.


A. It is, of course, always moral to choose some alternative course of action that your conscience is clear about.

That is, if you don't want to be bothered investigating the issue, you don't have to (as was implied above), as long as you avoid doing the act. A person who isn't sure whether abortions are wrong or not doesn't have to investigate the issue, as long as she has no intention of having an abortion.

Suppose, however, this fails. Either you can't find an expert (either at all, or in time before you have to act), or having consulted one, you still think that he didn't understand the situation, and you went to someone else who still didn't seem to realize the real issue--and you're still in doubt as to whether the act is right or not.

NOTE that "being in doubt" here does not mean being worried about the act; it means knowing information that it might be wrong. "Doubt" is an intellectual, not an emotional thing in this case. Emotional doubt is irrelevant.

B. If and only if there is (a) no certainly right way to act and (b) there is no way to find the actual facts, then

1. Choose the course of action that seems morally safest.

That is, choose the act that seems least likely to be wrong or to involve the least wrongness. It has to be what "seems" least wrong, because you don't know it isn't wrong and you can't find out. If you do this, your conscience will be clear in this sense: you will know that you are trying to avoid what is wrong, and this is what moral choices are: unwillingness to do what is wrong.

In this case, anything you do might be wrong; and so you choose away from what (to you at the moment) is more likely to be wrong or from what seems worse, and you have assured yourself that your choice, even though you might be doing wrong is your best attempt to avoid doing wrong under the circumstances. Your choice is explicitly away from wrongness; you are unwilling to do what is wrong.

This is different from acting with an unclear conscience, because then you are willing to do what might be wrong (and you could avoid it). Here, there is no way you can avoid what might be wrong; and so you choose away from what is more likely to be wrong with the intention of avoiding wrongness.

This method of clarifying one's conscience is called the "indirect method," because you don't know whether in fact the act you chose was the one that in this situation was the morally right one. All you know is that you have the proper orientation of your will. All that is really necessary, of course, in morality, is to be unwilling to do what is wrong; which in this case you know, because, not knowing any action to be certainly right, you are choosing away from what is most likely wrong.

But, as should be obvious, this last step only works if there is no certainly right alternative and you have already tried the direct method and it has failed. The reason is that if you "take the lesser of the two evils" without trying to find out the facts, then you might be able to know what is in fact the right course of action; and if so, not to find out is to be willing to accept the possible wrongness in what you choose, even though it is the "lesser evil." But when you can't find the facts, then the choice of the "lesser evil" is not immoral, because you know you are doing the only thing that can avoid immorality.

Be very clear on this

You must never choose any wrongness. When confronted with two "evils," it is not moral to choose the lesser one just because the other is greater. And sometimes, if you know what the facts are, you have to choose a course of action (indirectly) involving greater wrong in order to avoid choosing wrong.

We will see this later. If the small wrong is the only means to avoid having tremendous wrong happen, you cannot choose it, and must unwillingly permit the greater harm.

But that applies when you know what the facts are. Let me now an example of not knowing. A woman is grabbed by a rapist, who holds a knife to her neck and says, "Lie still and let me rape you, or I'll kill you." If she lies still, she's choosing to let him rape her and is having sex with him; if she struggles, she's choosing to let him kill her. Both seem wrong to her, and obviously she can't consult anyone.

She chooses not to struggle, on the grounds that it's worse to die. She knows that she doesn't want to have sex with that man, and so she isn't choosing to have it; she just can't avoid it if she wants not to die. It would be absurd to say that the woman is choosing sex with the rapist, under these circumstances.

(Actually, if she knew the facts, she would know that this course of action is morally all right and that she is not in fact committing adultery. But we are supposing here that she doesn't know; all she knows is that she was trying to avoid doing what is bad. Her conscience is clear, even though she might not know what "a person" should do in similar circumstances, or why.)

2. In the unlikely event that all options seem equally wrong, then any one may be chosen with the intention of avoiding the wrongness of the others.

The reasoning is the same. You are choosing away from wrongness; and in this particular case, the choice does not involve choosing the possible wrongness of the alternative.

[See also Modes, 5.1.6]

5.2. Act and situation

I promised just above that I would give guidelines how you could find out for yourself what the facts are about the moral rightness or wrongness of a given act in most cases, so that you can usually clear up your own conscience. The key to doing so very often involves recognition of what is included within a choice

The choice to perform an act is a choice to perform a concrete act: that is, an act in a certain situation. The situation is what relates the act to the agent's humanity.

Obviously, if the situation relates the act to your humanity, then the situation can make the act inconsistent with what you are (and so morally wrong) or consistent and so morally right.

Sometimes the situation doesn't affect the moral character of the act at all. Studying in the library or in your dorm room doesn't make any moral difference; the point, however, is that various aspects of the situation can make the act consistent or inconsistent with you as its agent; and so certain acts cannot be morally chosen in certain situations, but can be chosen in others.

For instance, ordinarily it is not immoral to refuse to give a person fifty dollars. But if you have just bought something worth fifty dollars from him, then it would be immoral to refuse to pay him. "Well of course," you say. But this just illustrates that the situation can change the moral character of an act you are thinking of doing.

RULE: An act is not morally right unless every aspect of the situation makes it consistent with the nature of the agent; it is wrong if even one part of the situation makes it contradict any aspect of the agent in that situation.

To relate this to what we said about conscience above, you would have to have evidence that there might be some inconsistent aspect of the situation in order for you to have an unclear conscience. Most of the time, (as in paying what you owe someone) the aspect of the situation will shout at you; but there can be cases where you don't know; and these would be the times when you would have to consult an expert.

Note that the act itself (the physical act, independently of the situation) is always morally neutral; i.e. neither right nor wrong.

Before you leap to accuse me of being a "situation ethician," hear me out. Why is this? Because the act is an act performed by a human being--and so is an act a human being can perform. If a human being could not perform it consistently in any situation, then it would be physically impossible for him to do it.

Some might object that, since we are creatures of God in every situation, an act of contempt of God like the statement, "God, you are a stupid fool" is an act that we could never perform in any situation. But of course I just wrote that statement in a situation in which there is nothing morally wrong with writing it: as an example of a blasphemous statement. I couldn't write this and mean what I was writing; but that is part of the situation. The same would apply to any act.

Note that when ethicians define some acts, such as "murder" or "abortion" or "lying" as "wrong in themselves," the act they are talking about is a morally defined act, which includes part of the situation in its definition. For instance, killing a person in self-defense is not "murder"; removing a diseased uterus in which there is a fetus is not "abortion"; saying what is false in circumstances where what you intend to convey is a forceful presentation of the truth, (e.g. "What beautiful weather!" in a rainstorm) is not a lie--and so on.

I would not deny that "acts" like murder or abortion or blasphemy or lying and so on are "wrong in themselves," when they are defined in this ethical way. But I think that it makes for confusion when you say that "murder" is wrong and then say that deliberately executing a criminal is all right; because people think of murder either as "killing" or as "deliberately killing"; and this is not what the "act" called "murder" technically is, as defined by such people: they define it as deliberate unjust killing; and for various reasons say that capital punishment is not unjust.

But then I see no point in making a distinction between the "act" and the "circumstances," (which is what they call the situation), when you are including some of the circumstances in the "act" and excluding others. For instance, a killing is "unjust" when the one you kill has a right to life; but this is a circumstance (the person acted on).

Therefore, it seems to me to make more sense to define the act as the actual physical or mental act you perform irrespective of the circumstances. This is what is related to your humanity; and so in itself it is neither right nor wrong, until it gets related by some aspect of the situation.

The problem, really, with "situation ethics" is that it supposes, really, that you don't have any "given" humanity, and that the situation creates the moral status of the act, basically depending on how "lovingly" you act in that situation. Acts like lying (in which you contradict factual communication in the act of factual communication) are all right, according to them, when the "situation" makes it "better" (because it has good effects) to lie rather than tell the truth. If you take this view anything can be justified, and so there is no real morality. It then becomes "the right thing" to violate your own reality. Thus, "situation ethics," under the guise of being "loving," makes a mockery of morality and stands morality on its head.

But this should not blind us to the fact that it is the situation which connects the act to the humanity you have at the time you perform it; and hence the situation enters into, though it does not define the moral status of the act.

Now then, with that said, let me show how any aspect of the situation can change the moral character of the act. I will simply mention some aspects, but pay special attention (and give special subsections) to others.

Who performs the act. You, the agent. If you have promised to pay someone fifty dollars, then you have changed your nature into a "payer," and it is inconsistent with you to refuse to pay; while if you haven't promised and someone asks you for fifty dollars, there would be nothing wrong with refusing.

Whom you act on. When you promised to pay Jones fifty dollars, then you can't satisfy your nature as a "payer of fifty dollars" by paying Smith the money.

Where you do the act. It is all right to play your stereo in your dorm room; it can be morally wrong to play it under a hospital window.

When you do the act. Playing your stereo loudly at two in the afternoon in your dorm room is (probably) not morally wrong. Playing it at the same volume at two in the morning probably is.

How (i.e. in what manner) you do the act. Playing your stereo at two in the morning in your dorm room is all right if you use earphones or play it softly enough so no one else can hear you.

5.2.1. The motive

There are, as I said, some aspects of the situation that merit special attention and emphasis. The first of these is the motive for the act.


The terms motive, purpose, intention, goal, reason, and end all refer to the same thing; they are the effect for which the act was chosen. They are what you are trying to accomplish by the act you choose.

RULE: A wrong motive makes the choice immoral; but a good motive (or good intention) does not necessarily make the choice moral.

This is another way of saying that good intentions are necessary for morality, but they are not sufficient. You can't save an otherwise immoral choice by having a good intention; but of course you can vitiate or ruin an otherwise perfectly innocent act if you do it with an evil motive.

There is another sense of "intention" that you might find in ethics textbooks, which is the equivalent of the whole content of the choice, on the grounds that the choice "tends into" the whole concrete act it chooses. But this is an archaic sense, which is no longer used. For this book, the "intention" just means the effect you want the act to produce.)

So, for example, terrorists cannot excuse bombing bystanders on the grounds that "this will wake the country up and the terrible oppression of my people will cease." The intention is good--stopping oppression--but you are still choosing to kill people in order to achieve your good purpose; and the choice has eternal repercussions for you.

And on the other side, volunteering for overtime work on your company's computer is fine, but if you do it because you want to break into their payroll program and give yourself an unauthorized boost in salary, you have chosen to steal (This kind of stealing is called "embezzlement," of course).

[See also Modes, 3.3.6]

5.2.2. The means

Another of the aspects of the situation that affects the choice is that of the means you use to bring about the purpose you have.

RULE: A morally wrong means may never be chosen to achieve any purpose, however good.

This is what the old saw, "The end never justifies the means" says. The fact that you have a good intention or purpose, as we just saw, does not save a wrong means from being wrong, and the choice of a wrong means from being immoral.

Actually, if this were not true, then there would never be anything immoral. It can be said in general that what we want to accomplish in anything is something good: our development, our happiness, whatever. If the means to this good end either "became good" because of your good intention or were "ignorable" because of your good intention, then there would never be anything immoral. And in general, for those who try to justify acts by their good intentions, the more horrible the act, the better the intention.

Note, therefore, that even if the purpose is avoiding terrible wrong or harm, it is still immoral to choose a morally wrong means to do so--even if the wrongness in the means is insignificant in comparison.

This is the place where what I said earlier about the "lesser of the two evils" applies. Suppose you know a secret, and you are captured by the Evil Enemy, and you realize that by telling a little lie, you can save the world from nuclear war. Either you lie and the world is saved, or you refuse to speak and the whole world gets blown to smithereens. Can you lie to save the world?


And, in fact, if you do lie, you have chosen what is in fact the greater of the two evils. Why? Because you have chosen your eternal frustration: one that will never, never end; while the destruction of the world, though horrible, is finite. Eventually, the "quantity" of suffering you undergo will surpass the suffering the world undergoes in the days of its destruction.

When I was talking about choosing the morally safer course of action, I was supposing that you don't know the facts and can't discover them, and all courses of action seem bad to you. Then and only then do you know that what you are trying to do is avoid wrong. In the case where you choose a wrong means (even a "little tiny" one) for a good purpose, you know you are choosing what is wrong. There's the difference. You can't be avoiding wrong by choosing wrong.

5.2.3. Side effects

Another aspect of the situation that can lead to complications is effects of the act which you foresee will happen, but which you don't want to happen. They happen as side-effects of some act that has another effect that is your purpose. Are these part of your choice, or can you ignore them?

On the face of it, it would seem that you can't. It would be a rare person who would say that it was morally all right to excavate your back yard for a swimming pool if this would undermine the house on top of the hill behind you, and you knew this. The fact that your purpose was to build a swimming pool doesn't free you from responsibility for the destruction of your neighbor's house.

RULE: In general, if you choose an act, you are also choosing ALL of its known effects, even if they are effects that are not part of the purpose of your choice. Hence, if any side-effect is wrong, the choice is generally immoral.

Notice that I very carefully put "in general" there. This is one of the aspects of the situation that has a sort of "escape clause" in it, because the effect is not in the act itself as part of it (the way the place, time, and manner are), but is often divorced from the act in time, and may possibly not even occur, though the act occurs. Thus, for instance, your excavations might not in fact do any damage to the house above you, though you had reason to believe they would.

Before we get to how to use this "escape clause," notice that in general, you would still be willing, in the case above, to wreck the house, because you foresaw that it might happen and went ahead with doing what could bring it about. So even if the bad side-effect doesn't actually happen, in general, if you foresee that it might happen (i.e. not that you're "afraid" that it might happen, but you have actual facts leading you to think that it would), then you are willing to have it happen.

So, for instance, based on the Surgeon General's evidence, you know that smoking more than a pack of cigarettes a day is likely to give you lung cancer. If you choose to smoke this much (supposing you to be in control, now, not addicted to nicotine already), then you have to be willing to get lung cancer, even if you're not trying to and even if you never get it.


There are times when a side-effect of an act you chose can be against your will.

Take the case we saw before of the woman who is being raped. She is told, "Lie still and be quiet, or I'll kill you." If she lies still, she has sex with the rapist. If she screams or struggles, she dies. Both of these are effects of the act she chooses. Now if she chooses to lie still, one effect is that she saves her life, and the other is that the rapist has sex with her. Has she chosen the sex?

In this situation, no. Here, all she chose was to save her life; the other effect of the same act was an unchosen side-effect of the act which could not be avoided if she was to save her life; and to choose to scream (and so to die) would be worse.

We looked at this earlier as an example of the "choosing away from wrong"; and this in some circumstances can be what it is. It is traditionally called, however, the Principle of the Double Effect, and it is legitimized on the grounds that the effect is not actually part of the act, and in this special situation (rules for which we will give below) it can be kept out of the choice.

5.2.4. The Principle of the Double Effect

This principle is perhaps the most useful tool in ethics. It is not, as I said above, really a set of rules for the indirect method for clarifying your conscience (i.e. knowing you have chosen away from wrongness), because with this set of rules, you know which act is the correct act to choose when in a dilemma. In the indirect method, you don't know which act is actually the right one; you just know what you are trying to do. Here, you can tell which is morally right.

RULE: An act indirectly involving wrongness may morally be chosen if the following five conditions are met:

1. The wrongness involved must be in an effect of the act, not in any other part of the situation.

If the wrongness is in some other part of the situation, then it is there modifying the act you choose (as the time or manner would); and since you choose the act, you could not then keep the wrongness out of the choice. The effect is separate from the act itself, and hence can be separated from it mentally without "fictionalizing" the situation.

2. There must be at least one known right (good) effect in addition to the wrong one.

The idea is that you choose the act as causing the right effect, merely permitting the wrong one; your motive is the right one. If all the known effects were wrong, then why would you do it except for a wrong reason?

Of course, the reason why this is called the double effect principle is that you lump all the good effects together as one complex effect, and all the bad ones as one bad effect.

3. The right effect must not depend on any of the wrong effects.

Both the right and the wrong effects depend on the act, of course; but the point is that if the right effect depends on the wrong one, then the wrong one becomes a means for the right one (your motive), and you would have to choose it, as we saw when discussing the means.

So the two effects have to be independent of each other.

Note that this does not mean that there has to be a chance that the wrong effect might not actually happen. You might be morally certain that it will happen; but you still don't have to choose it if it isn't a means to the good effect and the other conditions are also met.

4. The wrong effect must not be a motive.

Obviously, if the wrong effect is one of the effects you want to accomplish, then you have chosen it. The point here is that you can't use a dilemma as an excuse for doing what is wrong; as the woman being raped can't want to have sex with the rapist, and think, "Well, it's rape, so that makes it all right." You have to be unwilling for the wrong effect to happen, except that it's inescapable under the circumstances.

5. The sum total of the wrong effects must not be worse than what would happen if the act were not chosen.

That is, you have the alternative of choosing this act with its bad side-effects, or of not choosing it. Suppose you didn't choose it, what would happen? If the effects of not choosing it are as bad or worse, then you can choose it (always supposing the other four conditions are met, of course). If, on the other hand, it would be less bad if you didn't choose the act, then you are choosing something which is worse than the alternative, and this is immoral.

This is usually phrased as "the good effects must equal or outweigh the bad ones." The trouble with this is that you can't measure "goods" as "better" than "non-bads." Not only are goodness and badness subjective in the last analysis, but the two are incommensurate. That is, a certain "amount" of goodness cannot "compensate" for some amount of badness. For instance, a thousand dollars (or even a million) does not really "equal" the loss of, say, a leg. There's no comparison, any more than a certain loudness of E-flat "equals" a certain shade of blue.

Let me finish off this chapter by illustrating with a couple of examples, showing how you would go about applying the rules.

Situation: You are trapped on the 50th floor of a burning building. Elevator shafts and stairways are on fire. The window is open, but there is no safety net below, and you will surely die when you hit the ground.

The alternatives are (a) jumping out the window and dying on the pavement, or (b) staying in the room and burning to death.

Take the first alternative. 1. The act is jumping out the window, which has nothing wrong with it except what will happen when you hit the ground (fulfilled). 2. The act has a good effect: you escape burning to death (fulfilled). 3. The escape from the flames does not depend on your death (the wrong effect), because it occurs before you die (fulfilled). 4. You are not trying to kill yourself, but to avoid burning to death (fulfilled). 5. It is at least as bad not to jump and to burn to death (fulfilled).

Take the other alternative. 1. The act (of staying where you are) has nothing wrong with it except what happens when the fire reaches you (fulfilled). 2. The act has a good effect: you don't die by hitting the pavement (fulfilled). 3. The avoidance of dying on the pavement doesn't depend on your death (because if the fire went out you would still achieve the good effect) (fulfilled). 4. You aren't trying to burn to death; you want to avoid dying on the pavement (fulfilled). 5. It is at least as bad to die by hitting the pavement as it is to stay in the room and die (fulfilled).

So in this case, since the two alternatives are about equal, you can choose either way.

We could add an alternative here which shows how the third rule works.

Situation: You try to get out the window and can't squeeze through. You search the room and find a pistol. You figure, "If I shoot myself, it'll be quick and less painful, and if I burn to death, it'll be slow and agonizing." Can you shoot yourself?

1. The act of pulling the trigger on a gun aimed at your head has nothing wrong with it except its effect (if there isn't a bullet in the gun, nothing bad happens) (fulfilled). 2. The act has a good effect: you don't die slowly and in agony (fulfilled). 3. Your death is what allows you to escape the agony of burning to death (not fulfilled).

So even though it would be worse to die by the fire, you can't shoot yourself to escape it, because then you would have to choose to die.

Let me now give an illustration of why you have to take the fifth rule in the sense I have mentioned it, rather than "weighing the good effects against the bad ones." No respectable ethician I know of would disagree with the conclusion I am going to reach in this illustration; but I think that logically, using "good vs. bad," you wouldn't have to come to this conclusion.

Situation: You are offered twenty million dollars if you will play a game of Russian Roulette just once: put a single bullet into a six-shooter, spin the chamber, point the gun at your head, and pull the trigger.

Alternatives: Take the bet, with a five-out of six chance of winning $20 million, and a one-in-six chance of dying. Refuse the bet, and be sure of not getting $20 million but also of staying alive.

Take the first alternative. 1. The act of taking the bet, and even the act of pulling the trigger on the gun has nothing wrong with it in itself (as we saw above in the burning building's third alternative); the only thing wrong is the effect if the bullet is in the wrong chamber (fulfilled). 2. The act has a good effect: you have a five-in-six chance of getting $20 million (fulfilled). 3. The good effect doesn't depend on your death--obviously; if you die, you don't get it (fulfilled). 4. You don't want to die; you want to live and collect the money (fulfilled). 5. But it is worse to have a one-in-six chance of dying than to be the way you are now.

You see, the comparison isn't between the likelihood of living with $20 million and the likelihood of dying; you might argue that with a five-in-six chance of living (which are pretty good odds) and that "reward" for it, it would be on balance worth the risk.

But the real comparison is between how bad it is if you take this alternative, as opposed to how bad it will be if you take the other one. Nothing bad is going to happen to you if you refuse the bet (you don't lose $20 million, because you don't have it now); you're no worse off than you are now if you refuse the bet. That is, you might just as well say that if you keep on the way you are, you "won't get" 20 billion dollars, or 20 trillion, or any sum you want to name. But this "not having" money doesn't mean you're actually losing anything. Not gaining (missing a possibility) is not the same as a loss.

Hence, since if you take the bet, you are putting your life in danger, and there is no harm coming to you in the alternative, you can't take the bet, even if you think the money is worth the risk.

I rest my case for my formulation of the fifth rule.

Important note on the fifth rule

Since "good" and "bad" are basically subjective, evaluating which alternative is "worse" will also be somewhat subjective. There is no problem with this if you alone are involved; since there are no "objective degrees" by which you can measure "badness," then you may avoid whichever seems worse to you, based on the data you have (i.e. avoiding false comparisons like the "loss" above of what you don't have to begin with).

But when harm to someone else is involved in the "bad" effect, then you must take what is generally regarded as worse in the society you are in as your view of the harm to the other person, and not impose your evaluation of what is "bad" on the other person.

That is, you might consider it "worse" to lose ten thousand dollars than to lose an eye (so that you would refuse an operation to save your eye if it cost that much); but you have to realize that another person could legitimately reason the other way; so that if you had ten thousand dollars and your son (who depended on you) needed an eye operation, you would have to pay it and let him have the operation.

Which is "really worse" in this case? The point here is that there is no truly objective answer to that question. You can make some kind of assessment by this procedure: "What acts can I not do if I didn't have the ten thousand that I can do if I have it? What acts can I not do with only one eye that I can now do with two eyes?" This will tell you what you are being deprived of in the two cases. But it is not simply the number of acts not able to be performed that constitutes the deprivation, it is the quality or importance of those acts in your life. But the importance depends on what your goals are, and how these acts reflect your goals; and your goals depend on your free choice, not on something objective.

So even though you can make an assessment of what is bad and what is worse, that assessment has an inescapable subjective component, and therefore must not be imposed upon another.

This means, of course, that absolute, cut-and-dried answers that apply to everyone are not possible in ethics.

I think it is well to be aware of this fact, and be honest about it. It does not mean that ethics is "subjective"; just that there are situations in which the subjectivity of "good" and "bad" enters, and where different people of good will will come to different conclusions.

But this does not really matter, because morality depends on the choice; and even though the choice depends on the facts you know, the real fact you have to know is that you are doing your best to avoid what is inconsistent with your reality here and now. God is not a spider who is sitting at the edge of a web of complexities waiting to pounce as soon as you make a mistake. The whole moral issue is whether you deliberately want to frustrate yourself or not; if you do, you can't use anything said here to get around the consequences of your choice--because the choice is its eternal consequences. If you don't, your attempt not to saves you from setting up a self-contradictory goal.

So even though ethical questions may be very complex and intricate, there is never anything to worry about. If you are trying honestly to do what is objectively right as far as you can see it, your mistakes will count in your favor.

This ends the general considerations of ethics.

[See also Modes, 5.1.7]

Summary of Chapter 5

Conscience is the factual information you have about whether the act you are thinking of doing is morally right or wrong. It is evidence, not opinion or feelings. The morality of a choice always depends on the conscience of the one who makes the choice.

Conscience is clear when there is no information that there is anything wrong about the act in question. When a person acts with a clear conscience, his choice is always moral, even if he is mistaken. Conscience is unclear if there are any facts which indicate that the act is or might be wrong, even if it is more likely that the act is morally right. It is always immoral to choose to perform an act which your conscience is unclear about, because then you are willing to do it even if it really is wrong, and this is to be willing to do wrong, which is immoral.

To acquire a clear conscience, the direct method is used if you want to perform the act that you are unclear about. In this case, you must first find out whether in fact the act is morally right. If you cannot do this by yourself, then you must ask an expert and follow his advice. An "expert" is one you have information is in fact an expert. It is immoral to try to find an expert who will tell you what you want to hear; your intention must be to find out the facts. It would be immoral to seek less qualified experts when more qualified ones are available, other things being equal. If recognized experts disagree on whether something is wrong or not, then you may take the most lenient view that has good authority behind it, always remembering that not everyone who calls himself an "expert" really is one. This is called the direct method of clearing your conscience, because if one of the above indicates that the act is all right, you know that it is something you can morally choose.

If you cannot discover the facts, the indirect method applies. It is always, of course, moral to choose an alternative that your conscience is clear about. But if there is no course of action that seems to be certainly right, then you may clear your conscience by taking the morally safest course of action: the one that seems least wrong or least likely to be wrong. If all alternatives seem equally bad, any one may be chosen with the intention of avoiding the wrongness of the others. This is called the "indirect method" of clearing your conscience, because you don't know whether you chose a morally right act, but you know that your will is directed away from wrongness. It is only applicable when the direct method has been tried and has failed. Choosing "the lesser" wrong when you are not in this situation would involve actually choosing wrong, and would be immoral.

To find out the facts for yourself, recognize that the choice is a choice to perform an act in a situation; and the situation relates the act to your nature. The act in itself is morally neutral, but any aspect of the situation is capable of changing its moral character by making it inconsistent with your nature. Important aspects of the situation are the motive (which is the same as the purpose, intention, goal, reason, or end for which you choose); if it is wrong, the choice is immoral; but if it is good, other aspects of the situation can still make the choice immoral. The means toward the purpose must not be wrong, because it must be chosen if the act is chosen for the purpose on which it depends. Even if the wrong means is less wrong than the purpose (which can be the avoiding of a great wrong), it must not be chosen if the purpose depends on it. Side-effects of an act (effects foreseen which are not the purpose) are ordinarily chosen along with the act, even though they are actually separate from the act itself.

The Principle of the Double Effect, however, is a way of keeping a wrong side-effect out of the choice of the act that produces it. It contains five rules: 1. The wrongness must be in an effect of the act, not in any other part of the situation. 2. There must be at least one known right effect in addition to the wrong ones. 3. The right effect must not depend on any of the wrong ones. 4. None of the wrong effects may be a motive (even a secondary motive). 5. The sum total of the wrong effects must not be worse than what would happen if the act were not chosen.

Since the last rule involves evaluating "degrees" of badness, it will have some subjectivity in it. There is no problem in this, except when the bad effect involves harm to someone else. Then a person must take the "worst case" interpretation, and not impose his own degrees of badness on another person.

This implies that absolute and objective answers to ethical problems cannot always be arrived at; but this does not really matter, because by following all the rules in this chapter, a person has cleared his conscience, and knows that his choice is not self-frustrating; and so has not brought eternal frustration on himself.

Exercises and questions for discussion

1. The Pope says you can't use contraceptives, and a Catholic says, "Well, I don't agree." Since each person has to follow his own conscience, does this mean that the person can use contraceptives?

2. A person has an abortion, thinking at the time that there is nothing wrong with this. Afterwards she sees the film The Silent Scream and realizes what she has done, and has to go into psychotherapy to deal with her guilt. Does she have a guilty conscience?

3. If conscience is knowledge, then obviously if you don't know something is wrong your conscience is clear. Wouldn't it help you to have a clear conscience, then, if you quit the course at this point, given that you might find out a lot about what you can't morally do?

4. If you're "clearing your conscience" by taking the morally safest course, knowing that even this course of action might be wrong, aren't you still willing to do what is wrong, and so still acting with an unclear conscience?

5. Doesn't taking the morally safest course in clearing your conscience mean that it's all right to do something that's a little wrong in order to avoid something that's very wrong? And doesn't this contradict the whole of morality, since we never do wrong unless we expect that by not doing it we will be worse off?

6. If any aspect of the act makes it inconsistent with your reality, then won't every act be wrong in some respect--since at the very least it uses up energy and causes wear and tear on the body, and this is harmful to the organism?

7. If you kill someone in defense of your own life, isn't his death the means toward your staying alive--and so doesn't this violate the third rule of the Double Effect?

Next (continuing in Human Conduct)
Next (continuing in The Moral Dimension of Human Economic Life)
Next (continuing in Ethics in the Health-Care Field)