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CONSCIENCE. When your intelligence don’t tell you something ain’t right, your conscience gives you a tap you on the shoulder and says ‘Hold on’. If it don’t, you’re a snake.— Elvis Presley, American rock 'n' roll icon (1935-1977)

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When your intelligence don’t tell you something ain’t right, your conscience gives you a tap you on the shoulder and says ‘Hold on’. If it don’t, you’re a snake.— Elvis Presley, American rock 'n' roll icon (1935-1977)

  • Conscience is God’s presence in man.— Emmanuel Swedenborg, Swedish-American spiritualist (1688-1772)
  • Reason often makes mistakes but conscience never does.— Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw), American writer and humourist (1818-1885)
  • When considering the nature and function of conscience there are four questions to keep in mind:
  • What is conscience?
  • Where does conscience come from?
  • Is conscience innate or acquired?
  • What is its function in ethical decision making?
  • What is conscience?
  • A moral faculty or feeling prompting us to see that certain actions are morally right or wrong.
  • Conscience can prompt people in different directions.
  • We consider it to be a reliable guide but it lacks consistency and can lead people to perform terrible actions.
  • Augustine of Hippo 334-430
  • Thomas Aquinas 1224–1274
  • Joseph Butler 1692–1752
  • John Henry Newman 1801–1890
  • Sigmund Freud 1856–1939
  • Jean Piaget 1896-1980
  • Erich Fromm 1900–1980
  • Lawrence Kohlberg 1927–1987
religious views
Religious views
  • Biblical teaching
  • Augustine
  • Thomas Aquinas
  • Joseph Butler
  • John Henry Newman
secular views
Secular Views
  • Jean Piaget
  • Erich Fromm
  • Lawrence Kohlberg
  • Sigmund Freud
religious views8
Religious Views
  • These views rely on an intuitionist approach – conscience is innate and comes from God
  • The Bible – ‘the law written on the heart’
biblical teaching
Biblical teaching
  • It is assumed by some biblical writers and early Christian teachers that our conscience is God-given. This view is put clearly in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
  • ‘When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts…’ (Romans 2:14-15a)
  • Conscience is the voice of God speaking to us
  • All people aim for what is good and sin is falling short of God’s ideals, but sometimes even following conscience we will get it wrong.

Conscience for Aquinas has 2 essential parts:

Synderesis – the use of right reason by which we learn basic moral principles and understand that we have to do good and avoid evil.

Conscientia– the actual judgement or decision we make that leads us to act.

  • Does Aquinas’ rationalistic approach consider revelation that comes directly from God?
  • wrote that the most crucial thing which distinguished women and men from the animal world was the possession of the faculty of reflection or conscience.
  • So being human involves being moral.
  • Conscience is a person’s God-given guide to right conduct and its demands must therefore always be followed.

Conscience comes from God and must be obeyed

Conscience will harmonise self love and benevolence

  • the consequence of an action is not what makes it right or wrong as that has already happened
  • the purpose of conscience is to guide a person into a way of life that will make them happy
  • conscience will harmonise self-love and benevolence – this may take some sorting out and so in moral dilemmas we may be uncertain what to do
  • conscience controls human nature
  • Conscience is the voice of God
  • ‘If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear.’

The human personality consists of three areas:

  • the superego – the set of moral controls given to us by outside influences. It is our moral code or conscience and is often in conflict with the Id.
  • the ego – the conscious self, the part seem by the outside world.
  • id – the unconscious self, the part of the mind containing basic drives and repressed memories. It is amoral, has no concerns about right and wrong and is only concerned with itself.
  • Conscience is most clearly connected with the sense of guilt that we feel when we go against our conscience. Conscience then is simply a construct of the mind.
  • In religious people this would be in response to perceptions of God.
  • In non-religious people it would be their responses to externally imposed authority.
  • The content of our consciences are shaped by our experiences
  • The superego internalises the disapproval of others and creates the guilty conscience
  • A child’s moral sense develops and the ability to reason morally depends on cognitive development.

Two stages of moral development:

  • Heteronomous morality (between the ages of 5 and 10 years) when the conscience is still immature, rules are not to be broken and punishment is expected if a rule is broken. The consequences of an action will show if it is right or wrong.
  • Autonomous morality (10+) when children develop their own rules and understand how rules operate in and help society. The move towards autonomous morality occurs when the child is less dependant on others for moral authority.
  • Identified stages of moral development which he believed individuals had to follow in sequence.
  • People move from:
  • behaving in socially acceptable ways because they are told to do so by authority figures and want to gain approval,
  • to keeping the law
  • to caring for others
  • and finally respect for universal principles and the demands of an individual conscience.
    • Kohlberg felt that most adults never got beyond keeping the law.
fromm authoritarian conscience
Fromm– Authoritarian Conscience
  • all humans are influenced by external authorities which apply rules and punishments for breaking them
  • these are internalised by the individual
  • a guilty conscience is a result of displeasing the authority
  • disobedience produces guilt which makes us more submissive to the authority
fromm humanistic conscience
Fromm – Humanistic Conscience
  • Fromm’s views changed over time
  • He saw the humanistic conscience as being much healthier as it assesses and evaluates our behaviour.
  • We use it to judge how successful we are as people.
  • We use our own discoveries in life and the teachings and example of others to give us personal integrity and moral honesty.
  • This is the opposite to the slavish obedience and conformity of the authoritarian conscience.
other views of conscience
Other views of conscience
  • Vincent MacNamara – conscience is an awareness or attitude – seeing goodness and truth as important
  • Richard Gula – conscience is a way of seeing the world and responding through the choices we make
  • Daniel Maguire – conscience is discerning the best moral choice. This involves reason, but also shared experiences of the past and of culture, as well as our personal experiences.
  • For Christians conscience is often regarded as the voice of God. However, this raises some serious questions:
  • If we always knew that what our conscience told us to do was God’s command then we would never make mistakes
  • However, we do make mistakes
  • If we can’t hear God properly – whose fault is it?
  • Christians often have disagreements over moral issues such as abortion.
  • So are things not as clear cut as ‘the voice of God’ definition of conscience suggests?
  • Many atheists claim that conscience is important to them.
  • Such claims do not rely upon God.
  • For atheists, agnostics and humanists, conscience is part of being human and there is no need to involve God when moral decisions have to be made.
  • Conscience appears to be a universal part of human moral living.
  • Conscience implies personal responsibility:

“And perhaps a little demythologising may be in order, for conscience is not a still small voice, not bells, nor a blind stab in the dark; it is simply me coming to a decision. When I say ‘my conscience tells me’ all I am really saying is ‘I think’.” (Jack Mahoney – Seeking the Spirit)

  • Is it innate or acquired?
  • Or both?