DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L012-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

To have a conscience involves being conscious of the moral quality of what one has done, or intends to do. There are several elements under the idea of conscience. First, conscience can signify those very moral convictions persons cleave to most firmly and judge themselves by. Second, the notion may cover the faculty by which we come to know moral truths (assuming there to be such) and apply them to ourselves. Third, conscience can be said to concern the examination by a person of the morality of their desires, actions and so on. Finally, conscience can involve guilt: one can suffer from a ‘bad conscience’. In the Christian tradition, conscience can be viewed as ‘the voice of God within’ each of us. Several of these aspects of conscience are expressed in Milton’s lines from Paradise Lost, when God says: ‘And I will place within them as a guide/My umpire Conscience’ (III: 194–5).

There are many elements comprehended under the idea of conscience, and it is sensible to consider these separately since they do not always occur together. First, someone’s conscience may be considered to comprise those fundamental moral convictions by keeping to which they retain a sense of their moral integrity and decency as people. In this sense something is ‘a matter of conscience’, or raises ‘questions of conscience’, if it touches on such central personal principles. According to this signification, different people can have markedly different consciences, but, it would be argued, we should still respect each person’s conscience since to force them to violate the demands of their conscience is to force them to give up their sense of their own integrity. This line of argument may be resisted, however. We are told that some Nazis saw carrying out the extermination programme as a matter of conscience. To force them not to do this does not seem to involve a moral problem. In reply, it can be said that only consciences which are ‘enlightened’ require respect. The question whether conscience can be enlightened, or fallible and perverted, leads on to a second strand in thinking about conscience.

According to this strand, a person’s conscience comprises their capacity to come to acquire moral standards for their own conduct; or, more specifically, their capacity to come to know moral truths (see Moral knowledge §1). This sense, strictly more basic than conscientia itself, is referred to as synderesis or synteresis by Aquinas (Summa theologiae), by which he means the power to grasp fundamental moral principles, a power supposedly common to all persons and one which, if functioning appropriately, results in our all knowing the same basic principles. However these very basic principles (such as ‘Do good’ and ‘Eschew evil’) are too general to help us know how to act in particular circumstances. We require also a capacity to derive more concrete principles which will give us moral guidance, and a capacity to apply these appropriately to our own circumstances. These two secondary functions are the province of conscience strictly understood, according to Aquinas. Errors in conscience can arise in deriving these more specific rules of conduct or in their application even if synderesis is held to be infallible. Questions can arise, analogous to those referred to earlier, about whether it is better to follow one’s conscience even though it may prove to be fallible or to violate one’s conscience which, if it is erroneous, may then mean one ends up doing the right thing. Talk of a ‘perverted’ conscience may mean that a person’s ultimate convictions are judged to be perverse, as in the first strand identified; or that their capacity to know good from evil, in general or in the particular case, has been distorted or corrupted.

Building on the above, we may note a third emphasis in the idea of conscience, to do with the care, intensity and frequency with which someone examines the moral credentials of their desires, feelings, actions and omissions. Someone may have an ‘overworked’ or ‘oversensitive’ conscience, by making too much a matter of moral self-scrutiny or by being too scrupulous about any and every moral doubt which may arise (if one can be overscrupulous about such things). On the other hand, a person’s conscience may be ‘fast asleep’ and need ‘awakening’ or ‘quickening’, as in the famous painting by Holman Hunt, ‘The Awakening Conscience’ (1852). They do not lack a conscience, but rather the will or disposition to use it. Joseph Butler (1726), in a sensitive and important discussion of the moral significance of conscience, emphasized that conscience sometimes ‘without being consulted, without being advised with, magisterially exerts itself’ (Sermon II) (see Butler, J. §§2–4). I take this to mean that sometimes without, or against, our will or deliberate intention we find ourselves judging our own intentions and deeds critically and in condemnation. This thought leads on to the last aspect of conscience to be considered.

A person may first become aware that they have done something they feel to be wrong or wicked through experiencing feelings of uneasiness, guilt, or a vague sense of oppression. It may take some thought to discover what deed these feelings attach to, but they can be regarded as central manifestations of having a ‘bad conscience’ about it. Feelings of remorse, shame, dismay, torment and guilt, all forms of self-punishment following from self-condemnation, are major elements in the functioning of conscience. A clear, easy or happy conscience does not usually bring self-congratulatory feelings with it (that would be more like self-righteousness), merely the absence of the pains of a troubled conscience. Popular morality likes to believe that no-one can escape from the toils of a guilty conscience in the end if they commit some terrible deed, however hard they try.

The self-punitive strand in conscience has particularly attracted the attention of psychoanalysts including Freud (1930). Some people can be crippled in their capacity for active life by the savagery and relentlessness of self-punitive guilt incident to, say, feeling aggressive or sexual impulses. Freud held that children ‘internalize’ powerful parental figures as part of their development and, in doing so, can subject themselves to very severe judgments felt to be emanating from these figures. The ‘super-ego’ thus conceived can confront and harangue the child’s ego, and inhibit its expression (see Freud, S. §8; Psychoanalysis, post-Freudian §2). To gain relief from such savage self-censure is not, of course, to become amoral or conscienceless; it is simply to adopt a less punitive attitude to moral endeavour.

It has been argued that moral regulation via the medium of an inner witness, self-judgment and self-punishment, is not so central to all cultures as it has been to our own. Some anthropologists contrast ‘guilt’ cultures with ‘shame’ cultures; in the latter it is fear of public exposure and loss of ‘face’ which is the principal vehicle of moral regulation (see Moral sentiments §3).

It is inappropriate to ask which of the above four aspects of conscience comprises its essence or makes up what it ‘really’ is. In different contexts one or more of these aspects may be in view and it is more important to appreciate the variety of elements here than it is to determine which of them is definitive of conscience.

Citing this article:
Dent, Nicholas. Conscience, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L012-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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