Volume 39, Issue 2, Fall/Winter 2019
Elizabeth Sweeny Block
White Privilege and the Erroneous Conscience
Rethinking Moral Culpability and Ignorance
This paper considers the problems that unconscious racial bias and social sin more broadly pose for moral theology’s concepts of the erroneous conscience and ignorance. It argues that systemic racism prompts us to reimagine the erroneous conscience and individual culpability for ignorance. I argue that the erroneous conscience is useful in protecting human dignity in the face of error and in acknowledging the many ways we err but also problematic because it equates error with concrete action and conscious decisions and does not account for responsibility for social sin. This paper asserts that people of privilege and white persons cannot be morally innocent, but the erroneous conscience as it has been understood in the theological tradition often implies that innocence is the goal of the moral life and only holds us accountable for conscious moral actions.