It is plausible that we have duties of conscience arising from inculpable mistakes about what we should do. I shall assume this and argue that culpable mistakes also yield duties of conscience.
Here are two cases.
- Fred hires a neurologist to brainwash him into a state which will make him think the next day that it is his duty to embezzle money from his employer. The neurologist succeeds. The next day Fred conscientiously believes he has a duty to embezzle money from his employer. But he refrains from doing so out of fear of being caught.
- Sally hires a neurologist to brainwash her into which will make him think the next day that it is her duty to embezzle money from her employer. The neurologist fails. But that night, completely coincidentally, a rogue neurologist breaks into her home and while she's sleeping successfully brainwashes her into that very state the first neurologist failed to brainwash her into. The next day Sally conscientiously believes she has a duty to embezzle money from her employer. But she refrains from doing so out of fear of being caught. There are no further relevant differences between Sally's case and Fred's.
Fred is responsible for his conscience being mistaken. Sally is not responsible for that. Granted, Sally is culpable for trying to make her conscience be mistaken, but she is no more responsible for the mistaken conscience than the attempted murderer is responsible when her intended victim is coincidentally killed by someone else.
If inculpably mistaken conscience gives rise to duties, Sally has a duty of conscience to embezzle, and she fails in her duty. She thus acted immorally on both days: on the first day she acted immorally by asking to be brainwashed and on the second day she acted immorally by refusing to obey her conscience.
- If culpably mistaken conscience does not give rise to duties, then Fred has not violated a duty of conscience by refraining from embezzling, while Sally has.
But on the other hand, Fred and Sally have made all the same relevant decisions in the same subjective states. The only possibly relevant difference is entirely outside of them--namely, whether the neurologist that they actually hired is in fact the neurologist who brainwashed them. But the whole point of the idea of duties of conscience is to honor the subjective component in duty, and so if Fred and Sally's relevant decisions are all relevantly alike, Fred and Sally will also be alike in whether they've violated a duty of conscience. Hence:
- If Sally has violated a duty of conscience by refraining from embezzling, so has Fred.
- Culpably mistaken conscience gives rise to duties.
Now let's turn the case about. Suppose that both Fred and Sally follow their respective mistaken consciences and therefore embezzle. What should we say? Should we say that they did nothing wrong? It seems we shouldn't say that they did nothing wrong, for if they did nothing wrong then their consciences weren't mistaken, which they were. So let's accept (though I have a long-shot idea that I've talked about elsewhere that might get out of this) that they both did wrong. Thus, as in Mark Murphy's account of conscience, they were in the unhappy position that whatever they did would be wrong: by embezzling they defraud their employer and by not embezzling they violate their conscience.
But what about their culpability? Since Sally's case is one of inculpable ignorance, we have to say that Sally is not culpable for the embezzlement. Let's further suppose Sally and Fred's reasons for having themselves brainwashed were to get themselves to embezzle. Thus Sally is guilty of entering on a course of action intended to lead to embezzlement--basically, attempted embezzlement. But she's not guilty of embezzlement. What about Fred? He is certainly responsible for the embezzlement: it was intentionally caused by his immoral action of hiring the neurologist. But I am inclined to think that this is an effect-responsibility ("liability" is a good word) rather than action-culpability. Fred is responsible for the embezzlement in the way that one is responsible for the intended effects of one's culpable actions, in this case the action of hiring a brainwasher, but he isn't culpable for it in the central sense of culpability. (Compare: Suppose that instead of hiring a neurologist to brainwash himself, he hired the second brainwasher in Sally's case. Then Fred wouldn't be action-culpable for Sally's embezzlement, since one is only action-culpable for what one does, but only responsible for her embezzlement as an intended effect of his action.) Sally lacks that responsibility for the effect--the embezzlement--because her plan to get herself to embezzle the money failed as the embezzlement was caused by the rogue neurologist.
In terms of moral culpability for their actions, in the modified case where they conscientiously embezzle, Fred and Sally are, I think, exactly on par. Each is morally culpable precisely for hiring the neurologist, and that's all. That may seem like it gets them off the hook too easily, but it does not: they did something very bad in hiring the brainwasher. So, if I'm right, they are on par if they both conscientiously embezzle and they are on par if they both violate their consciences by refusing to embezzle.