Sunday, 6 January 2013

A2 Religious Studies: Conscience

Before talking about the main four people to do with conscience (Aquinas, Butler, Freud & Newman), I'll get the following quotes out of the way because they don't necessarily fit anywhere else.

"Conscience doesn't keep you from doing anything wrong; just from enjoying it"
That's a quote by King Stanislas I. Exam-wise, this quote could be used to support the theory that conscience is almost Freudian; we know we shouldn't always carry it out due to social norms, yet secretly we sort of want to - the conscience acts as a sort of moral barrier.

"Individual conscience must have the final word"
Peter Vardy is arguing a point similar to Butler's - that we should always follow our conscience.

"A good conscience is an invention of the devil"
This quote was originally from Schweitzer, but Fletcher once quoted it and argued that, in true Situation Ethics style, conscience tells us the loving thing to do.


Obviously, the Bible states that conscience is God-given and that through conscience we all have the ability to work out right from wrong. By following our conscience, we are following the Divine Law.

In Romans, the law is referred to as being

"written on the hearts of men"
 This suggests that law needn't be written down (and isn't for the Gentiles) because people know right from wrong naturally.

There is, however, a huge problem here not just with Biblical teachings but many religious teachings in general when it comes to conscience. Whose conscience should be followed? A conflict of conscience can be a huge issue in the real world, suggesting that perhaps it should not always be followed.

For example, if the child of two Jehovah's Witnesses was in desperate need of a blood transfusion and a doctor was able to override the decision of the parents, whose conscience should be followed? Who is right?


Aquinas called the conscience

"The faculty of reason making moral decisions"
and, like many Christians, described it as the natural ability to see the difference between good and bad. He also, arguably naively, said that everyone aims to be good and to avoid evil.

Automatically there are two huge weaknesses:

  • how do we define 'good'? Is it really objective?
  • do all people really aim to be good? 
Aquinas states that we're not born inherently knowing the difference between right and wrong. He describes conscience as a device that allows us to do such a thing. The device, of course, comes from God.

Aquinas said that we aim to do good by using our reasoning - if we use our reasoning correctly, we will gradually come to know what is good. He then introduced the concept of synderesis. He defined synderesis as our constant repetition of the use of right reason.

Thinking of synderesis as a library of reason can be easier. If you think of synderesis as a library, it's empty when you're born. As you grow up and practise reason continuously, the synderesis library slowly fills up with books, until you know all the books in the library off by heart.

Synderesis, Aquinas says, is just one part of what conscience is. The other is conscientia, which is basically the application of synderesis to ethical issues. It's one thing to have a library full of books you know, but it's another to be able to talk about those books in an exam when they're not in front of you. That's conscientia - the application of the library to real life problems.

The synderesis library is what informs the conscientia, which comes together to create the conscience.

However, Aquinas is fair here and acknowledges that people do - and will - make mistakes. Some people may make mistakes intentionally (explained later) but Aquinas also accepted that people will make mistakes accidentally, such as

  1. making a mistake on the path from synderesis to conscientia
  2. incorrect use of synderesis
With 2, Aquinas argues that even if people do the wrong thing, they are still sort of following their conscience. Their conscience is wrong, yes, but they are following what it tells them.

Aquinas uses this to explain why people do bad things; many of them appear to be following their conscience and that is because their conscience has made a mistake. Or that person may be deliberately ignoring their conscience, which is going against the Divine Law and basically ignoring God - which Aquinas obviously wouldn't be happy about.

However, although we make mistakes from time to time (Who doesn't? Aquinas, apparently), Aquinas still maintains that

"it is always right to follow your conscience."
This is because the conscience is the best thing we've got when it comes to making moral decisions. It isn't flawless but it is far superior to anything else we could use, so we should always utilise it despite the small risk of something going a bit wrong. Plus it's God-given, so Aquinas would argue you sort of have to follow it, otherwise God won't be impressed.


Also a Christian, Butler refers to conscience as

"our natural guide"
and a
"principle of reflection."
Like Aquinas, he states that conscience is the final moral decision maker and comes from God. He also agrees with Aquinas that it should always be followed.

Butler also refers to conscience manifesting itself as

"approval and disapproval of actions... this principle in man is conscience."
He likes talking about principles and reflection. What Butler means is that the fact we reflect on our own behaviour shows the existence of conscience. This is arguably a strength of Butler's argument because it's concurrent with humanity - we do reflect on our decisions, and so Butler's point may appeal to many people.

Butler states that the conscience is automatic and unconscious, saying it

"magisterially exerts itself without being consulted."
It is powerful and happens without our permission; we can't tell our conscience to shut up, and it may nag at us for a long time after we've done something wrong.

Like Aquinas, Butler said that following your conscience is following the Divine Law. Conscience is the perfect balance between benevolence and self-love (which, he argues, are inherent in all humans). Beneath benevolence and self-love lie our drives: our passions and desires which we can't control but can hold off.

Butler states that the conscience is so powerful that if it could, it would

"absolutely govern the world"
He said that conscience judges the rightness and wrongness of an action or thought irrespective of what we want to think. Because it comes from God, it doesn't consider our desires and seeks only what is good. It can only tell us what to do, though - it doesn't have the power to force us to act in one way or another otherwise free will would be out of the question.

The biggest difference between Butler and Aquinas is that Butler argues our conscience doesn't make mistakes and is completely flawless.  Because there is no human input (unlike Aquinas's definition, whereby by take the tool of reason and chisel it to form a conscience), the conscience cannot be wrong in any way.

The only way evil is done is if people actively choose to ignore the conscience. Butler said this was a wicked act, and even said that disobeying conscience is morally worse than the act in which conscience is ignored.

To rephrase that with an example, if a paedophile abused a child, Butler would argue that the paedophile disobeying his conscience is a worse crime than him/her abusing the child. From the perspective of a human in the 21st century, this can of course be heavily criticised.


Freud is quite different to the first two, and rejects the idea of conscience being God-given. Freud said that the conscience is socially/psychologically created in order to stop ourselves from carrying out our base desires. Because society restricts us from doing certain things, the conscience is created to control any weird desires people may have.

Freud rejected the idea of a soul and said we can feel the conscience through guilt.

"Dreams are the road to the unconscious mind."
The unconscious mind, Freud states, is where our desires are.

He splits the conscience up into three parts:

  1. Super Ego - a blank slate at birth which has moral commands and restrictions written upon it by others as we grow up and learn to understand the world. Influences include parents and peers
  2. Id/physical needs - the place in our minds that deals with passions and desires
  3. Ego - the balance of the two, a moral moderator, the messenger between two extremes. The ego aims to satisfy the id in a way which appeals to the social norms as dictated by the super ego
Unlike Aquinas, Freud rejects reason and accepts that using the conscience isn't rational by any means. This is a good point to attack if asked whether we should trust our conscience; if Freud says the conscience isn't rational, surely there must be a better option.

Instead of putting forward the idea of an objective, God-given conscience, Freud argues that consciences are subjective and individual, which accounts for the cultural problem that Aquinas and Butler face. 


Similar to Butler in many ways, Newman describes the conscience as a

"messenger from God"
Newman argues that the conscience is literally God's word. He says that it detects but does not invent (whereas Aquinas says the conscience invents).

Newman took influence from Augustine. Augustine said the conscience was like God whispering to us - not shouting or ordering, just whispering and guiding. Augustine said

"Return to your conscience (...), see God as your witness."
Newman, like Butler, gave an example of how the conscience manifests itself:

"If we are frightened at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies there is One to whom we are responsible."
He also said this memorable quote:

"I salute the Pope, but I salute conscience first."


Piaget says that there are two types of conscience:

  1. Immature conscience (ages 5-10)
  2. Mature conscience (ages 11+)
The immature conscience, he says, is to do with the guilty feelings which come with discipline when we are children. It has little to do with the rational importance of an action, for all we do is seek the approval of others. It is consequentialist and Piaget refers to it as heteronomous morality.

The mature conscience, though, is outward-looking. It challenges and questions things and we form our own rules. This, Piaget says, is a more autonomous morality


The selection of people discussed here are not necessary for the exam, but may be helpful for certain questions. Also, a good name-drop does no harm.


Kohlberg agrees with Piaget, and notes six stages of moral development that must be followed in sequence to fashion one's conscience:

  1. we are told what to do
  2. we aim to seek approval
  3. we aim to keep the law intact
  4. we aim to care for others
  5. we aim to respect universal principles
  6. we aim to respect the demands of an individual conscience

Fromm had two ideas concerning conscience. Firstly, he spoke of the authoritarian conscience. This refers to consciences ruled by external authorities which, if you disobey, will punish you and result in a guilty conscience. So a year 7 at LSST may feel guilty because they wore black gloves instead of navy gloves - however they only have a guilty conscience because the authoritarian status of the school demands them to feel guilty, when we all in fact know that it's nothing to feel guilty about because it's not important, and is just a way for the school to make itself feel powerful.

Fromm says that God may be the example of an authoritarian figure - if we disobey Him, we feel guilty. He gives the example of Nazi Germany, whereby consciences were manipulated to make many Germans feel guilty if they helped the Jews.

Later, Fromm took on a more humanistic approach, whereby he said the conscience assesses our success and leads us to realise our full potential. He said that experience gives us moral honesty.

 Timothy O'Connell

O'Connell says that the conscience works on three levels:

  1. our sense of responsibility for who we are and what we become
  2. our obligation to do what is good
  3. the concrete judgement we make to ensure good is achieved
O'Connell says that step 3 is infallible and must be followed, but he accepts that people will disagree with step 3 regarding what is good, and so states that at step 2 wrong judgements may be made. O'Connell states that morals are found through experience, not any internal or external law(s).

Daniel Maguire

Maguire agrees with O'Connell, and adds that conscience is also shaped by experiences and culture. He also accepts that some of our values can be shaped by loss, tragedy and imagination.

Vernon Ruland

Ruland tries to find a 'via media' (middle road) between rationalism and Divine Command. He views a moral decision as a reflection of 

"ethics of loyal scrutiny"
which is enriched by many sources of moral and religious wisdom. It is not exclusive to Christianity, however; conscience is the interpretation of the voice of a God.

Vincent MacNamara

MacNamara is probably the best of the modern day ethicists to talk about in an exam. He says the conscience is not a voice, as Newman argues, but an attitude. He criticises Aquinas for referring to it as a 'faculty' we possess.

Life is a moral path, MacNamara says, and it is up to us how we follow it. The attitude of our conscience shouldn't revolve around pleasure and profit. His belief is arguably quite similar to a virtue ethics approach, and he says that

"It is not so much that I have a conscience as that I am a conscience"
Richard Gula

Gula says it is misleading to view conscience as a series of laws. He said that communities which influence how we see the world determine how our conscience works.




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