Volume > Issue > Engaging the Morally Unconscious Person

Engaging the Morally Unconscious Person


By Christopher M. Reilly | November 2023
Christopher M. Reilly is a candidate for Doctor of Theology and holds graduate degrees in philosophy, theology, and public affairs. He lives in the Washington, D.C., region.

Advocates of the pro-life ethic can do more to understand those who promote or tolerate practices such as abortion, abortion-inducing contraceptives, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide. The ancient military advice of Sun Tzu to know one’s adversary as well as oneself applies here, and not for purely strategic reasons; we might consider Oscar Wilde’s playful counsel that nothing gets under a rival’s skin more than forgiveness. Still, if we fail to understand our interlocutors’ patterns of moral reasoning, we cannot easily forgive, and we most certainly cannot debate amicably across the dinner table.

Dismissing every anti-life utterance as self-interested and rhetorical distortion will not improve pro-life evangelization or convert hearts and minds. Most certainly there are people and corporations who have chosen an evil path and blatant self-interest in their domination of the most vulnerable in our society, and we must assertively oppose them. But, perhaps more importantly, mischaracterizing a large majority of the anti-life population will likely alienate the very persons we hope to persuade and will reinforce the perception of irreconcilable differences. How, then, can we achieve honest insight into anti-life attitudes while retaining the firm conviction that such mindsets are gravely mistaken?

Such attitudes are characteristic of what Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) called the “morally unconscious person,” the kind of individual who teeters casually and heedlessly on a precipice above the depths of a more conscious evil, who meets our pleas to return to a respect for life with blank stares, amusement, sullen grumbles, or even outright resentment. Von Hildebrand’s description can be found in his classic work Christian Ethics (1953; republished in 2020 as Ethics), in which he observes that the morally unconscious person has not decided to be a bad actor; rather, he often perceives and responds to moral values by performing good deeds for others, is sensitive to social norms like politeness and tolerance, and can appreciate non-moral values like the beauty in a sunrise. Still, this kind of half-hearted congeniality is inspired more by a “general antipathy to immorality” than by an affirmative embrace of the moral values needed for appropriate actions and attitudes. The virtuous behavior of a morally unconscious person appears to be, in a sense, “accidental.”

The key to moral unconsciousness in all its forms is, according to von Hildebrand, a lack of a “superactual will to be morally good,” which is a steady, intentional commitment to goodness in its pure form. The morally unconscious person “has not taken a conscious definitive position” or “grasped the ultimate seriousness” of moral values but instead has relinquished his freedom to decisively embrace or reject goodness itself. In this vein, we might describe anti-life attitudes as founded on a casual or hazy attitude toward the good of human life, which, in turn, derives from a lack of will to acknowledge and joyfully orient one’s life toward the highest principle of goodness (which those in the Judeo-Christian tradition know as God Himself).

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