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CONSCIENCE , as commonly understood, is the faculty within us that decides on the moral quality of our thoughts, words, and acts. It makes us conscious of the worth of our deeds and gives rise to a pleasurable feeling if they are good and to a painful one if they are evil.

Origin of the Notion

Three articulations of human experience appear to be at the basis of the Western notion of conscience: the Hebrew scriptures, the writings of Cicero, and the writings of Paul.

Hebrew scriptures

In the Hebrew scriptures God is presented as someone who knows and evaluates our entire being. Psalm 139 develops the theme:

O Lord, thou has searched me and known me! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Ps. 139:12, 910, 2324)

The pious psalmist is confident that the divine scrutiny will vindicate him. Others, the enemies of Israel, are the wicked ones who will be found wanting. (See also Job 34:2123.)

The idea of divine omniscient scrutiny leads, however, to vigorous self-scrutiny: "the spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all his innermost parts" (Prv. 20:27). The prophet Jeremiah is appalled by what he sees when he looks inside himself:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? "I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings." (Jer. 17:910)

But, here again, the prophet is confident that God is his refuge (see vv. 1718). That God, not the self, judges the self is good news: the Strong One who sees me all (in my interiority as well as my outward acts) is a good protector, and I am safe in his hands.

Writings of Cicero

Cicero uses conscientia in another sense, to refer to an internal moral authority on important issues. Most of the time conscience is consciousness of something, agreeable consciousness of one or many good deeds (Orationes Philippicae 1.9; Res publica 6.8) or disagreeable consciousness of a trespass (Tusculanae disputationes 4.45, where he speaks metaphorically of the bite of conscience). He speaks with zeal of the force of this inner testimony: "Great is the power of conscience, great for bliss or for bane" (Pro Milone 61; see also De natura deorum 3.85, where it is specified that the workings of conscience unfold without our having to assume divine design). Some passages speak of bad conscience as if it were the internalization of a disapproval voiced by others or by public opinion in general (In Catilinam 3.25; Tusculanae 4.45). Good conscience, however, is presented as independent of public opinion. (Here, he speaks mainly of his own.) Cicero, for instance, has a good conscience about withdrawing from public life and devoting himself to writing (Epistulae ad Atticum 12.28.2) and is determined never to stray from the straight path of conscience. In such cases conscience is referred to without stating what it is consciousness of. While one text stresses to the juror that he should follow his conscience alone but that he should also take comfort from the fact that he is not alone in his judging (Pro Cluentio 159), most texts make the good conscience a rather isolated self-approval. A stunning metaphor states that no theater, no audience offers an applause that has more authority than that of conscience (Tusculanae 2.64). Finally, we should note that Cicero speaks of conscience in a rhetorical context and with moralizing intent; he inveighs against evil men, commends good ones, and voices his assurance of his own worth.

Writings of Paul

In the New Testament, Paul uses the notion of conscience (Gr., suneidēsis ) as he finds it in everyday speech and common moral reflections. He puts forward his own unshakable good conscience (Rom. 9:1, 2 Cor. 1:2; see also Acts 23:1); he urges respect for the conscience of others, especially when that conscience is weak and judges matters erroneously (1 Cor. 8:7, 8:10); he appeals to conscience (2 Cor. 4:2); he allows that in evil people conscience is corrupted (Ti. 1:15). Romans 2:15 launched a momentous new understanding of it: conscience is a witness within all men, including pagans; it states what the law of God requires (it is "the law written in their hearts"), and it accuses all men. So far, Paul speaks of suneidēsis very much like Philo (who speaks mainly of elenchos, "reproof"). The Jewish philosopher found in all men a "true man" who should be ruler and king, who is a judge and umpire, a silent witness or accuser. Human beings live thus with a court of law inside them, and they should behave in such a way as to keep their internal judge pleased. Philo, like Paul, sees this internal authority as a gift of God, but he also accepts immanent views of it (Wallis, 1975).

But there is in Paul something else that is peculiar to him and was to prove very influential on all subsequent developments. Though he seems to have had a morally rather robust conscience, not haunted by feelings of guilt (Stendahl, 1976), Paul frequently wrote in a manner that revealed a troubled self-consciousness. He feels pain at not being acknowledged for what he is (Gal. 1:10); a physical handicap humbles him (2 Cor. 12:7). We thus find in his writing a new sort of literary voice: a self-consciousness bruised by despairing self-humiliation. His will is divided; his body does not obey him; his urgent convictions are challenged by adversaries, his life's work nearly overthrown. Under his pen, all this is not trivial autobiographical detail but is made to reflect a cosmic crisis. Paul feels that he and others are caught in the transition between a passing age and a new dispensation. His inner troubles interiorize the death of Christ. Still caught up in the age that is passing, he feels impotent, worthless; but this conviction of despair is considered by him to be a form of suffering through which heand, he believes, all menmust pass before they can share in new life with the risen Christ (Altizer, 1983). Inner pains are thus inevitable birth pangs. A subtle shift has occurred: the notion that God welcomes a contrite heart (Ps. 34:18) is in the process of becoming indistinguishable from the notion that God likesor requiresa broken heart. In Romans, conscience, the accuser, caught up in an eschatological drama, always convicts (3:9, 7:1520). Good conscience before God means surrender of what men call good conscience. This eschatological turmoil gives to Paul's writings on conscience a ring very different from Philo's serene utterances.

Historical Developments

The church fathers adopt the notion of conscience as an inner voice of divine origin. The assumption is that all human beings have it, and only Christians obey it and thus please God. The firmness of the Christians' conscience enables them to obey God rather than men, live as people who do not belong to this world, and accept martyrdom with joy. Augustine compares conscience to a tribunal in the mind and speaks of it with a tone of restive introspection. He thus confirms the blending, initiated by Paul, of the three notions of divine judgment, moral self-evaluation, and the troubled forays into the hidden recesses of one's heart. A classic passage links the three realities with the Latin conscientia:

"What O Lord could be hidden from you, even if I wanted not to confess it, since the abyss of human conscience is naked before your eyes? I should only be hiding you to me, not me from you. Now that my tears testify how disgusted I am with myself, you only are my light and please me; you are the object of my love and desire. I am ashamed of myself so that I cast myself aside to choose you and want to please myself or you only through you." (Confessions 10.2.2)

That God knows the self is a source of comfort that overcomes the intense discomfort the introspective self feels. The misery of self-rejection seems to be the necessary price to be paid before one reaches divine acceptance.

The Middle Ages use the notion of conscience primarily to elaborate a theory of moral judgment. In their systematic construction, the Scholastics use two terms to designate two functions. Synderesis (the word probably appears first as an erroneous reading; medieval ignorance of Greek let it become established) is the faculty that knows the moral law; it remained unaffected by the fall. The Franciscan school makes of it a potentia affectiva, namely a disposition of the heart. The Dominicans make of it a sort of cognition; it exists in the reason. Conscientia applies the moral law to concrete cases. It is a habitus of the practical intellect, say the Franciscans; an act, according to the Dominicans, which applies knowledge to action. To Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) synderesis decides; it always orients us to the good. Conscientia controls; we can set it aside. When it functions, conscientia is a witness; it says what we have done or not done. It binds or motivates; it says what we should or should not do. Finally, it excuses or accuses; it tells us whether what we have done was well or not well done. While synderesis cannot err, conscientia, a sort of decree of the mind, is fallible (Summa theologiae 1.79.1213). Conscience now is no longer an occasional voice at important moments, but a concomitant of all morally relevant action.

Medieval theologians also examine whether one is obligated to follow an erroneous conscience. It is allowed that some consciences are invincibly erroneous, that is, their error cannot be overcome by the use of moral diligence or thorough study. Even in these circumstances the self must obey conscience. Romans 14:23 is the norm: whatever is not from faith is deemed sinful. One must, however, at all times seek to correct one's conscience by instruction. Thomas Aquinas teaches that to hold in contempt the dictates of an erroneous conscience is a mortal sin and that conscience binds, even when it contradicts the precepts of a superior, if it endures.

This intellectual clarification is accompanied by a system of practical guidance. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council made it an obligation for all Christians to confess their sins and receive the sacrament once a year. This came to be known as the tribunal of conscience. A practice was required and an occasion offered: the self had to embark upon intellectual deliberation on its behavior and could obtain expert advice or counsel. Benjamin Nelson (1981) described this system of spiritual direction under a threefold heading: conscience, casuistry, and the cure of souls. The individual, like all men, is obligated by the universal moral law. Like some other men, he has peculiar dilemmas related to his age, his class, his role in life; casuistry studies these cases of conscience and enlightens the individual by drawing upon the experience of those whose lot is comparable. Finally, the individual is unlike everyone else; he has his own sorrows and fears; his soul needs to be ministered to in a therapeutic way and comforted. The system reaped behavioral fruit: the lives of Western Christians were progressively ordered in conformity with Christian moral principles. Consciences were slowly educated. Fear of divine judgment loomed large among the motivational forces. While the theologians' synderesis and conscientia were purely moral principles, the pastoral tribunal of conscience often functioned in an atmosphere of religious anguish: God would be angry if sins were not confessed and corrected. His searching of the hearts was felt to be a perilous affair; sinners were threatened with outright condemnation.

While canon lawyers instituted the tribunal of conscience and while pastors appealed to or pounded on individual consciences, the national monarchies and the royal law of France and England developed in such a way as to give an increasing social relevance to the notion of moral conscience. Frenchmen in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries began to be aware of themselves as one people, living together civilly in a good land under the rule of a just and Christian king. This emergence of national consciousness came simultaneously with urbanization, with an increased practice of prudence and courtesy in social relations (the arts of peace), and with the rise of an ethics of intention, such as that discussed by Abelard (10791142). Now new collective representations give expression to a shared will to live together for the sake of peace and to the happy sense of forming together a good society. The sense of the sacred has begun to shift from a largely supernatural realm to the national Christian society that provides a good, secure life. A sacred bond now unites the righteous king and the loyal people. And a man can now encounter people he has never seen before (and with whom no one in his village has ever had dealings) and still have civil relations: strangers are conscious at the outset of belonging to the same people. In England, the old Aristotelian notion of equity is introduced into the royal law: law is said always to aim at justice and to be corrigible whenever principles of equity are violated, for instance, whenever the helpless are dealt with unfairly, or whenever widows and orphans are oppressed. Correction is said to be introduced "for the sake of conscience." In France and in England, society can henceforth be said to have a collective and civil conscience, to be sensitive to the moral demands of common peace and universal justice, to visualize royal power as not simply heroic but merciful as well. (This Western confidence that human beings can collectively govern themselves well is reflected in Calvin's Institutes 2.2.13.)

The stage is now set for the great crises and transformations of the sixteenth century. For the first time conscience has become a culturally central, crucial notion among Christians. The three notions of it we originally identified now merge to define the problem: the man of conscience is "spiritual," he lives "before God"; he is also moral and has obligations to his fellow men; he has a rapport with himself and feels condemned or saved. The Protestant Reformation saw itself as a defender of conscience. The word became one of its most militant terms.

The reformers spoke of conscience as being oppressed by the medieval system. While considering itself obliged to obey "the pope's commandments," conscience saw itself weighed down by the burden of bad and illegitimate laws of human origin, which it was impossible to obey. There was anguish in trying to obey and anguish in disobedience because of the nagging sense of fearsome consequences. Luther articulated his own scrupulous monastic experience of anguish over every action and involuntary impulse by indentifying with Paul. He vibrated in unison, he thought, with Paul's and Augustine's autobiographical statements. Conscience and the law jointly accused him and brought him death. (Unlike Paul, Luther was under the yoke of bad law; identifying with Paul, he overlooked the difference in the objective content of the laws.) The monk Luther, however, was not alone. Henry VIII, a Catholic king, was afraid his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was sterile because it had been cursed by God. (Catherine had been engaged to Henry's brother; even though the brother was dead, the marriage was incestuous by canonical if not dynastic rules.) Was his conscience genuinely troubled or was his second marriage expedient or self-indulgent? (It is significant that the issue is still debated.)

In any case, the medieval burden of being trapped by a guilty conscience was thrown off by many who broke their vows or changed their lifestyles. The religious authorities' guiding conscience had ceased to be credible in the eyes of many of the people of God. Most theological reformers also rejected the very principle of trying to please God with deeds (works); no action was conceivable that could give man a joyful conscience before God. Thus the Protestant Reformation also rejected the whole system of the tribunal of conscience. Freed by grace, living in faith, the Christian immediately receives a good conscience from his God. He thus recaptures the sense of the covenant found in the Hebrew scriptures: that God can fathom our hearts and that he alone judges us once again becomes good news. We are not accountable to ecclesiastical authorities, and they should not haunt our consciences and enrich themselves at our expense. Thus with good consciences, redeemed Christians walk straight in the paths of righteousness. Activities of public reform persuade these Christians that they are indeed setting up a more moral order. For its part, the Roman Catholic Church maintains the system of casuistry and cure of souls. But in time, with a more saintly clergy, the authority of the spiritual directors is restored. Consciences are again more guided than tyrannized.

It must be seen that the Protestant Reformation fostered a new Western assurance of conscience. Conscience became safe, certain. The system of casuistry was dealing in probabilities, constantly weighing pros and cons, and every authority was liable to be overthrown by other authorities. The civil conscience was also always open to correction. Reading his Bible, the Protestant Christian gained subjective certainty once and for all: he was God's child and his path was straight. (The sixteenth century began many moves toward certainty: the Protestant Reformation gave subjective assurance and the scientific revolution began to give objective certainty; Galileo did not weigh the relative merits of authorities; he knew for sure. See Nelson, 1981.) Luther's conscience is lyrical: he is ultimately safe in God's arms and above pleasing men or worrying about their opinions. All the reformers agree: he who has faith has good conscience. No human forum can accuse him. Conscience has nothing to do with a man's dealing among his fellow men but only with his reception of divine forgiveness. Paul Tillich (1948) coined the term transmoral conscience to refer to this notion of man's innerness as it meets God. Calvin is clear: conscience must not be confused with "police." Its business is not with men but with God (Institutes 3.19.1516; 4.10.3). It must be unhappy at first. "It is necessary that conscience drive our misery home to us before we can have some sense of God" (Institutes 1.1.1 and 4.19.1516). While Calvin as an elect does not let others challenge his own conscience, he openly distrusts the conscience of others: "Nothing is more common, just as nothing is easier than to boast of faith and a good conscience" (Neal, 1972). The notion of conscience as a subjective absolute is reinforced by the practice of religious privatism: sins are remitted by private confession to God, without confession to a fellow human being or reparation to the victim. With Calvin, the assurance of conscience among the elect is coupled with a particularly vigorous moral action in the world. The concept that had been used to detach the individual from the world now presides over the conscientious effort to shape the world according to the Christian's moral aspirations. The stage is set for the polemics in which Protestants blame Catholics for the erroneous precepts they impose on conscience, and Catholics blame Protestants for their unbridled "conscientious" energies.

The sixteenth century witnessed also the rise of a fresh, vigorous articulation of conscience in the civil tradition. Surrounded by wars waged for the sake of conscience, the French moralist Montaigne (15331592) inaugurated the art of writing for oneself the story of an observant, rigorously honest conscience (Brunschwicg, 1953). Both moral and introspective, this conscience ponders the actions of the self and of others and looks at the relations and roles the self is involved in. Self-critical, open to instruction and correction from those who have experience of the world, this conscience treasures selected friendships and enjoys a measure of self-acceptance. It holds on to the few truths and rare marks of humanity it believes itself to be capable of. The dramas of acceptance and rejection at the hands of the biblical God recede in the background. Front stage belongs to the dramas of human likes and dislikes. Descartes (15961650) puts an analysis of conscience at the center of his philosophy. In his case, conscience is troubled or disturbed by the experience of its fallibility and by the idea of the infinite; the goodness of God provides decisive reassurance on both points. In the ambit of French civilization, conscience will henceforth keep these crucial characteristics: it is autonomous, moral, and social, somewhat skeptical, worldly wise, and it has a modest but firm pride.

The authority of conscience receives its fullest religious legitimacy in the theory of inner light common to many seventeenth-century English sects. Instead of being an act of interpretation of a law, this conscience is an absolute and final insight. It is also British philosophy that gave to moral conscience its most ample philosophical underpinnings. The theory of moral sense identifies the consciousness of right and wrong with the voice of an inner moral law (the unwritten, inborn law of which Cicero spoke in Pro Milone 10). Inner voices or feelings are described as edicts of one's conscience. L. Butler (16921752; Sermons ) affirms that it has a natural authority; it is the voice of God within us. Conscience has become a faculty of the mind that judges immediately and finally on moral matters. In the Middle Ages conscience was a function: people had more or less of it, and tried more or less to exercise it. With the reformers it was a fact of spiritual life: people had a troubled or a joyful one; it became an individual organyou have your conscience and I have mine, just as each of us has his own stomach. This conscience was said to be infallible and generally philanthropic. It was also inviolate. No serious conflicts of conscience were foreseen. The stage was set for the good conscience of the West to be applied in colonial expansion. All human beings have conscience, it was thought. Western Christians liberated what they deemed to be inferior races from the fears to which their idolatrous and superstitious consciences were prone; they established liberty of conscience (freedom of religion) wherever they ruled, and they did all this without violating consciences. Being most developed, the Western consciences helped others develop too. Western expansion was optimistically expected to moralize the world.

Modern Conflict between Conscience and Consciousness

Theoreticians declare what conscience always says to the inner man. Conscience may in fact behave according to theory; but also it might not. Or, more commonly, the individual realizes that what conscience pronounces clashes with some other inner state he is aware of at a given moment. Distinctions need to be made among the voices in one's inner debate. Luther translated the medieval conscientia with das Gewissen. Two centuries later, Christian Wolff (16791754), the founder of German philosophy, translated the conscientia of the Cartesians with das Bewusstsein. In sixteenth-century English, conscience can denote authoritative, secure moral conscience or simple, trivial consciousness. (The French language still uses la conscience to speak both of the moral rationales the self fully accepts and of fleeting mental events.) With the eighteenth century, the sense of a separation between conscience and consciousness became widespread. While moral beings naively went on believing in their stable, good, unerring conscience, literature (the novel especially) increasingly explored the chasm between conscience and the vagaries of consciousness. The semiblind yet massive good conscience of the modern theoreticians of conscience and their followers could now become manifest. Moralists became aware of time, of the necessary distinction between what is abiding and what is transitory in a man's sense of himself. Conscience then came to be seen as a firm statement that the self utters before others or privately, a plea entered in a public or inner forum. Like consciousness, conscience is an event; but unlike it, it is also a moral discourse, a public claim. Hence, the critical question: is this discourse fully aware of the actualities of the case? Is conscience conscious? (Engelberg, 1972).

Nineteenth-century probings ordinarily shared the conviction that human beings should always be as fully conscious as possible, with actions completely lucid and deliberate. Rousseau (17121778) believed he could derive norms for political life from the assumption that politics consists of free, conscious, virtuous interaction among autonomous, independent individuals. (He even believed the whole of social life could consist of such interaction.) Kant (17241804) pursued the point with theoretical thoroughness. All moral action proceeds from good will and is conscientious. Das Gewissen never errs. It is "the moral faculty of judgment, passing judgment upon itself a state of consciousness which is itself a duty" (Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone 4.2.4). With each action, the individual should reflect and proceed only if he is sure that this action obeys the dictates of conscience. The consequence does not escape Hegel (17701833): consciences will be in conflict, each vibrating with its assurance, each alone in its certainty of obeying the moral law (Despland, 1975). Far from being a reliable guide, conscience now appears to be potentially immoral arrogance.

The nineteenth century is full of denigrations of conscience. The poet William Blake (17571827) is sarcastic: "Conscience in those that have it is unequivocal" ("Annotations to Watson"). Goethe (17491832) commends an alternative: Faust heals himself, grows by purging himself of conscience (he does not let himself be crippled by the episode with Marguerite) and ever widening his consciousness. Nietzsche (18441900) attempts to show that conscience only imitates ready-made values; the hard human task is to embody knowledge in ourselves, to create conscious values; and consciousness is not given gratis.

But the claims of conscience remain tenacious even in the post-Romantic age. Conscience, however, becomes more tragic, more solitary. Rare are those who see in it the workings of an other-regarding instinct. To Kierkegaard (18131855), the inwardness of conscience is demonic: more conscience means more consciousness and deeper despair. Such is also the case in Dostoevskii's Notes from the Underground (1864): conscience has become an obsessive inner court; the self is the accuser, the accused, the judge, and the executioner. In a bizarre extension of Paul's and Luther's autobiographical pages, self-consciousness merges into compulsive self-humiliation, with no redemption in sight. Conscience is no longer active knowledge immersed in the social flow of life but purely retrospective, solitary self-condemnation, or entirely fearful anticipation.

More balanced statements of this construction are found in the writings of Coleridge (17721834) and Conrad (18571924). The poet-critic Coleridge stresses that conscience no longer acts "with the ease and uniformity of instinct"; rather, consciousness is the problem. In Lord Jim, Conrad shows us his protagonist haunted by a conscience that prevents his awareness of the good new life he has built for himself, while in Heart of Darkness we see Kurtz surrendering conscience and letting his consciousness be flooded by instinctual experience. Without conscience, Kurtz is all awareness and lacks an interpreter; he stands thus naked before horror.

Application of the Notion to the Study of Religious and Ethical Systems

Hindu and Buddhist philosophies have very articulate and complex theories of consciousness. All religious traditions have notions of moral law and moral judgment. All encourage reflectivity and offer conceptual tools and practical techniques for self-evaluation. But the notion of conscience as internal organ is not found outside of Christianity. As commonly understood, it is peculiar to the West. The generalization of the tribunal of conscience, the universal legal requirement for annual confession and penance, is a uniquely Western phenomenon. Westerners seem to have taken on a special burden of responsibility. (This was probably not particularly helpful morally.) I must have a vision of myselfof my vocation, for instancefor which I alone will be accountable. Consider, for instance, the notion of conscience found in the writings of the German existentialist philosopher Heidegger (18891976): that there is an objectless call of conscience that summons us, not to be in a particular manner, but to choose in what manner we shall be. The wars against guilty thoughts and the self-condemnatory forays into self-consciousness seem also linked to the unique history of Western man (the Gnostic and the celibate monastic episodes being probably particularly influential). Recall that most of the decisive articulations of conscience were autobiographical statements focusing on inner turmoils.

Nineteenth-century founders of the science of religion used the idea of evolution of conscience to bridge the gap between themselves, the Western scholars able and desirous to know all mankind, and the people they studied, whose outlook was perceived as regional, if not primitive. So they wrote about the dawn of conscience in the ancient Near East and about the various stages of conscience reached in non-Christian religions. The moral and religious dignity of man was commonly tied to the functioning of this individual organ. The evolutionary view was self-serving and is now discarded, but it had the merit of affirming a commonality among all humankind.

Articles on conscience in James Hastings's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (vol. 4, 1911) illustrate this stage of scholarship. There is a polemic against the nascent sociological reductionist view that sees in conscience an interiorization of social rules. A lengthy article seeks to establish the Jewish view of conscience. The article is not in the least embarrassed by the fact that rabbinic Judaism has no such notion. (For a respected account of Jewish morality, see Neusner, 1981: the will has some power to affect the world, and its intention should be good.) Attempts to find everywhere notions of conscience comparable to the Western one have now largely been abandoned. Current influential works in the discipline of comparative religious ethics have no recourse to it (Little and Twiss, 1978; Bird, 1981). In contrast, the concept is important in current philosophical ethics (Childress, 1979).

Anthropological and Theological Considerations

Etymology may once again be suggestive. Conscience is "knowledge-with," that is, a shared knowledge of something. The foundational experience is the awareness that somebody else is aware of what I have done; I have been seen, and I know that he knows, and I know that he knows that I know that he knows. There is, for a fleeting moment, a shared awareness between us. There is intelligence in the birth of conscience: the other can be a clever accomplice or an articulate critic. But there is also co-feeling: my action is endorsed or disapproved of. The mutual awareness is not just mental. There is also compassion: he knows how it feels to do what I have done, and I know how it feels to observe this being done. Conscience, then, is not just a matter of sight and scrutiny; there is also sensitivity and heart in it. And if conscience makes us potentially morally liable, it makes us also aware of potential moral support.

After this initial point, conscience becomes an interpretive activity. Thus, I own my act and articulate its meaning, serenely, aggressively, or defensively. But while I interpret, others (the initial fellow-feeler or some third party) also interpret. My interpretation will be happy and secure if it agrees in detail or broadly with a wider community of interpretation. It was the merit of the medieval "domestication" of conscience (Lehmann, 1963) that an authoritative, plausible community was always near. Conscience was the court of first instance to adjudicate the worth of my action, and it was the court of last instance. But there was guidance from intermediate courts, which could function in a human manner, with intellectual stability and a measure of understanding. It was the weakness of the Kantian theory that conscience became the only (first and last) tribunal. (Paul had had the good sense to admit that God, not his conscience, judges him. See 1 Corinthians 4:4.) Kant prepared the "decline and fall" of conscience: solitary conscience is either hostile to self and cruel, or self-righteous and insensitive to others. Freud (18561939) could only spell out the irrelevance and uselessness of this conscience (Lehmann, 1963).

The interpretive activity of conscience must therefore always be an account to the other, to others. De Jaucourt (Encyclopédie, 1765) emphasized quite soundly that what is important about conscience is the quality of the reasons it can put forward. Hegel saw quite correctly that, to be moral, an action must be owned and expressed: it must be said that it is from conscience. Accountability before somebody else (the one or those affected, or an ideal observer) is intrinsic to morality; the effort of persuasion directed toward others in their otherness is bound with the aspiration to worth. The self needs to be at least symbolically endorsed by others, to be supported at least in words. It is the utmost hypocrisy to claim that conscience can judge itself with skill and authority. Conscience does not produce a private hell or heaven but a public person. When conscience is alive it evaluates the action of the self as part of a continuing moral action (and interaction and further interaction). It is a diseased conscience that carries out nothing but introspective, retrospective self-appraisal. The healthy conscience lives in the present. (In the moment of conscience, consciousness becomes conscious of its past social unconsciousness, and moves on.) And conscience lives in the presence of another human being or beings. It forges an intention, takes an initiative, faces others with a proposal, issues forth in a public act (Jankélévitch, 1933, 1950). Wise and foolish consciences, happy and unhappy ones, are not immobile, self-enclosed realities. They are stages in conscious histories. Healthy consciences share their stories. Each narrates old stories and listens to old stories: in the process, a new story is shared and action shaped. It takes a story to account for one's conscience, and it takes a shared, ongoing story for conscience to formand enjoy formingaction.

On the interreligious scene today, it is to be wished that dialogue and encounter shall proceed from conscience. And the notion of conscience may well beor becomepart of the account that each will give to the other of his or her own humanity. Such meeting of consciences cannot occur without the labor of consciousness: each trying to communicate over a period of time what he is aware of.

Any attempt in the West to develop a theologically relevant notion of conscience must overcome two traditional tendencies. First of all, religious conscience should be purged of its tendency to reject the fellowship of men and become absorbed in the private dialogue of the soul with God. Conscience, wrote Luther, is the place where we must live with God as man and wife (Lectures on Psalms 3.593.2829). It must also heal itself of the tendency to assume that God will love us if we hate ourselves. From Augustine on, the notion has persisted that to lay bare before God our innermost hearts, admit we find there utter corruption, and profess to feel pain will miraculously turn a bad conscience into a good one. Such self-serving self-humiliation is either an insincere act or an abject one. Self-torture does not make man morally better. A bad conscience may prevent worse sins, but it never brings joy.

A reconstruction might proceed from the biblical sense that conscience and heart are interchangeable. Conscience is then constituted by the hearing ofor sensitivity toa call, a commandment. The idea of conscience can be built on what happens in an encounter between persons, rather than on the notion of a moral experience. Such a notion mistakenly assumes that a moral subject is already established, before hearing the claims of the other; one might recall here that Paul told the Corinthians not to advance their own (strong) consciences but to heed the (weaker) consciences of others. What is heard in the depths of the encounter with the widows, the orphans, and the poor of the land is the infinite call of vast human need. Within the compass of being, there are persons who are not beings; that is, they are not beings one should simply adapt oneself to or exercise power on. In each person there is also an infinite with which one can and should talk, in lucid awareness of one's own strength. The primal condition of conscious human freedom is to be unfree because claimed by the presence of a weaker other. He who is conscious of the nature of ordinary human relations has just put food in his mouth and a roof over his head: he has time to think. The mere fact of his respite makes him infinitely liable to those who are still hungry. And the infinite that meets us in other concrete human beings is an infinity of demands that cannot be answered by a mere rule of what is right and sufficient; it is also an infinity of stories that cannot be reduced to one plot. Thus there is in every other being an excess of possibilities over the possibilities that are inherent in me; something new should result from our encounter. Scripture affirms that God meets us in the lowest among our brethren. Only in these meetings are found the birthplace of morality and the voice of God. (See the analyses of Lévinas, presented in Smith, 1983.) Kierkegaard praised the faith that clung to the divine promise and readied itself to disobey the law. In contrast, Emmanuel Lévinas urges us to give up the hope of a warm rapport with God and love the law instead, austerely. This is what God requires; what we (both we the strong and we the weak) most need in order to fulfill God's requirement are some firm exterior rules of justice (Lévinas, 1976, pp. 189193).

See Also

Christian Ethics; Conversion; Morality and Religion; Religious Experience; Sin and Guilt; Theology, article on Christian Theology.


Altizer, Thomas J. J. "Paul and the Birth of Self-Consciousness." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 51 (September 1983): 359370.

Bird, Frederick. "Paradigms and Parameters for the Comparative Study of Religious and Ideological Ethics." Journal of Religious Ethics 9 (Fall 1981): 157185.

Brunschwicg, Léon. Le progrès de la conscience dans la philosophie occidentale (1927). 2d ed. 2 vols. Paris, 1953.

Childress, James F. "Appeals to Conscience." Ethics 89 (July 1979): 315335.

Despland, Michel. "Can Conscience Be Hypocritical? The Contrasting Analyses of Kant and Hegel." Harvard Theological Review 68 (JulyOctober 1975): 357370.

Engelberg, Edward. The Unknown Distance: From Consciousness to Conscience, Goethe to Camus. Cambridge, Mass., 1972.

Jankélévitch, Vladimir. La mauvaise conscience (1933). Paris, 1982.

Jankélévitch, Vladimir. L'ironie ou la bonne conscience. 2d ed. Paris, 1950.

Lehmann, Paul L. Ethics in a Christian Context. New York, 1963.

Lévinas, Emmanuel. Difficile liberté. 2d ed. Paris, 1976.

Little, David L., and Sumner Twiss, Jr. Comparative Religious Ethics. New York, 1978.

Neal, J. R. "Conscience in the Reformation Period." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1972.

Nelson, Benjamin. On the Roads to Modernity. Totowa, N.J., 1981.

Neusner, Jacob. Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah. Chicago, 1981.

Smith, Steven G. The Argument to the Other: Reason beyond Reason in the Thought of Karl Barth and Emmanuel Lévinas. Chico, Calif., 1983.

Stendahl, Krister. "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West." In Paul among Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays. Philadelphia, 1976.

Tillich, Paul. "The Transmoral Conscience." In The Protestant Era. Chicago, 1948.

Wallis, R. T. The Idea of Conscience in Philo of Alexandria. Berkeley, 1975.

New Sources

Adler, Jacob. The Urgings of Conscience: A Theory of Punishment. Philadelphia, 1992.

Hall, Amy Laura. "Self-Deception, Confusion, and Salvation in Fear and Trembling with Works of Love." Journal of Religious Ethics 28, no. 1 (2000): 3761.

Hammond, Guy. "Conscience in Public and Private." In Religion in a Pluralistic Age: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Philosophical Theology, edited by Donald A. Crosby and Charley D. Hardwick, pp. 173187. New York, 2001.

Hoose, Jayne, ed. Conscience in World Religions. Notre Dame, Ind., 1999.

McLaren, John, and Harold Coward, eds. Religious Conscience, the State, and the Law: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Significance. Albany, 1999.

Redmond, Walter. "Conscience as Moral Judgment: The Probabilist Blending of the Logics of Knowledge and Responsibility." Journal of Religious Ethics 26 (1998): 389405.

Rittgers, Ronald K. The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.

Zachman, Randall C. The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Minneapolis, 1993.

Michel Despland (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 23 2018


This article deals with conscience (1) in its general concept; (2) in its treatment in the Bible; and (3) in its theological analysis.


The treatment of conscience is difficult insofar as it presupposes a certain form of self-experience, without which access, in the strict sense, to the phenomenon itself, as it expresses itself in various ways, is not possible. Yet, in general, the experience mentioned can be analyzed with some precision, since the bonds and relations that give concreteness and possibility to human existence and life are of such a nature that men consider themselves responsible, i.e., they must give an accounting for what they think and do. Therefore, the knowledge of a prescribed order is presupposed, and toward this man adopts a positive or negative attitude. Since this knowledge, on the basis of mythical, personal, and universal experience, does not need to be regarded as reflective in origin, the phenomenon of conscience can be present without a formally defined sphere, i.e., without a name being assigned to it. In such cases, formal analysis of human conduct is required, and especially an analysis of guilt conscience, in order to establish the nature of conscience in the given instance.

University of the Phenomenon. Actually, no culture has yet been found in which conscience is not recognized as a fact, orin the present ageas at least a problem. Generally among early peoples, expressions such as "heart" and "loins" appear instead of the word conscience, but they are used to indicate the innermost nature of man. An ancient Egyptian text reads: "The heart is an excellent witness," and one must not transgress against its words; "he must stand in fear of departing from its guidance." The divine world order is often employed for conscience; among the Hindus, e.g., it is regarded as "the invisible God who dwells within us." The world order can be represented, as in classical antiquity, also in individual figures, who, reflecting moral awareness of the order that has been impaired or destroyed, are interpreted as the avenging powers employed by the highest divinity (for example, the Erinyes or Eumenides, Furies, and Nemesis).

Formal Recognition of Conscience. In the light of the establishment of the phenomenon of conscience as a presupposed knowledge in respect to the meaning and truth of God, the world, and man, but not yet based on reflection, conscience as "reflective knowledge" must make its appearance by name as soon as the universal validity of knowledge without reflection is questioned. This happened in ancient Greece in the age of the Sophists, when an opposition of φύσις and νόμος (nature and law) was stressed, and when Socrates spoke of his indwelling δαίμονιον (divine monitor). Conscience then received a name, συνείδησις (the scholastic synderesis), a term signifying self-consciousness in its role of making moral judgments. It became the substance and sphere of knowledge in respect to human action, the spiritual-ethical world order, and the existentially experienced correlation of both, either as agreement or difference. Conscience is shared knowledge, referring clearly to the whole, to which man as a morally acting individual (choice of the good) knows that he is responsible, and in a concrete way.

Since feeling and will play a significant role in the application of conscience to human action, conscience is more affirmative than consciousness and abstract knowledge. There can and must be a good and bad conscience, one that is active not only after the deed but also before and during it, because in this kind of knowledge man as a whole, i.e., as an ethical being, is continuously present. Seneca expresses this thought when he speaks of a holy spirit dwelling in man, "an observer and watcher of good and evil in us" (Epist. 41.1).

Christianity, naturally, not only took up the question of conscience, but also developed the concept further and defined it more precisely in both theory and practice by its teaching on the virtues. As the numerous manuals of moral theology indicate, it has continued its task along the same lines.

Conscience in Modern Thought. In the process of secularization that characterizes modern times, conscience has received a special position, since the nature and image of man has been affected in a special way. Kant still thought of conscience, although understood as autonomous, as the "consciousness of an interior court of justice in man" fichte, as the immediate consciousness of definite human duties, the "oracle of the eternal World." But empiricism gave it a psychological interpretation, and Darwin and his school evaluated it from the viewpoint of evolution. H. spencer, the sociological school of durkheim, and the English Functionalist School all derived it from sociological conditions and needs. F. nietzsche saw in conscience a mark of the degeneration of civilization and created the idea of a superman without a conscience. S. freud regarded conscience as the suppression of the libido. Finally, materialism considered that its deeper meaning was to be sought in its role as a factor in the general process of evolution.

This devaluation of conscience was opposed in the 19th century in part by the romantics, but especially by J. H. newman and S. Kierkegaard. It is owing to the latter in particular that conscience came to be understood as a phenomenon sui generis. As a consequence, philosophy in the 20th century has been concerned with giving justice to the phenomenon of conscience. For M. scheler, conscience means not only the capability of moral evaluation but also at the same time serves as a functional guide for action. For N. hartmann, it is the "basic form of primary value consciousness." M. Heidegger sees in it the "call of care" that keeps existence from the impersonal "Man," in that it waits for the "voice of being." K. Jaspers understands by conscience that voice speaking to man "which is man himself." The role of conscience in depth psychology was discovered especially by C. G. jung and J. A. Caruso.

Significance of Conscience. As the locus of freedom and the intersecting point of mental experiences, conscience has significance not only for philosophy and theology but also for the practical conduct of life, and therefore for the formation of man in the personal and public sphere. Its importance is all the greater, since in conscience the unity of man with himself and with mankind is procured, his personal nature guaranteed, and responsibility for himself, his fellow men, and civilization in general is established. Conscience, which always points to ultimate unity of theory and practice in the ethicoreligious fulfillment of life, can, it is true, be viewed from the concrete situation of action as purely autonomous; but, when viewed from the total nature of existence, it must be understood as heteronomous. If the image-concept of man is assumed, there are found united in conscience both the constitution of its image from the beginning and its independence from its content to its innermost connection. Conscience, therefore, really does not emerge at a given stage, but is already always present in plastic form. Objective heteronomous world order and value order, as regards conscience, are therefore completely compatible with its ultimateand in this sense autonomouscompetence respecting a concrete situation. Conscience, so understood, is the place where man becomes himself, since here the invisible God becomes present for him. Therefore it is proper to the true nature of conscience, with constant effort and submissively, to align itself on what confronts it as claim from the nature of man and his historyfor example, the requirement of faith.

Bibliography: j. stelzenberger, "Gewissen," h. fries, ed., Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, 2 v. (Munich 196263) 1:519528. e. wolf, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 2:155057, with copious bibliography. h. hÄfner, ibid. 4:864867, with bibliography. j. h. hyslop et al., j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 4:3047, older bibliography. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philsophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 1:555559, with bibliography. g. ermecke and j. p. michael, Staatslexikon, ed. gÖrresgesellschaft, 8 v. (6th, new and enlarged ed. Freiburg 195763) 3:496951, with bibliography. j. h. breasted, The Dawn of Conscience (New York 1934). l. brunschvicg, Le progrès de la conscience dans la philosophie occidentale, 2 v. (2d ed. Paris 1953). m. hollenbach, Sein und Gewissen (Baden 1954). h. kuhn, Begegnung mit dem Sein (Tübingen 1954). h. hÄfner, Schulderleben und Gewissen (Stuttgart 1956). h. j. scholler, Die Freiheit des Gewissens (Berlin 1958).

[w. duprÉ]


The concept of conscience as a kind of other self, a critical voice within one assessing the morality of a concrete situation, finds its clearest Biblical expression in St. Paul. Neither the Old Testament nor the other books of the New Testament treat the subject in any detail.

In the Old Testament and Judaism. Indeed, there is only one certain mention of the word conscience (συνείδησις) in the entire Old Testament (Wis 17.11), and that in a book much influenced by Hellenistic ideas. The word and all the nuances it suggests are more typical of a Greek than of a Hebrew mode of thought. But however theocentric, unreflective, and lacking in introspection the Israelites might have been, they were not unaware of that universal human phenomenon, the experiencing of peace when one has done good or of remorse when one has done evil. Perhaps nowhere else in world literature is remorse of conscience so superbly described as in the recounting of the reaction of Adam and Eve to their disobeying God (Gn 3.711).

In the intertestamental period and in the rabbinical literature there are some indications of a developing theory of conscience. But the general tenor of Jewish thought was that of an excessive emphasis on the external act. The paramount importance of one's internal motivation was increasingly neglected. As a result, cultic and ethical activity tended to become increasingly formalistic and to be judged solely on the basis of their external conformity with the Law and its traditional interpretation.

In the New Testament. The Gospels nowhere employ any specific term for conscience, but their spirit is essentially different from that of the rabbinical writings. This spirit lays emphasis, not on the external action, but on the heart, the interior disposition from which it proceeds (Mt 15.720; Lk 11.3942). It insists on the need for purity of intention and bolsters that insistence with a repeated reminder of the omniscience of the transcendent God (Mt 6.1, 4, 6, 18, 33). It is that spirit that animates the Pauline commentary on the Christian conscience.

The Apostle does not offer a systematic treatment of his teaching on the Christian conscience, nor is the word συνείδησις one of his favorite expressions. But he is the first New Testament writer to employ it. And whenever the word is found in the New Testament with the meaning of "conscience" each such use occurs either in a Pauline letter or in a New Testament writing influenced by St. Paul. From his usage of the term the following observations may be made. What the Law is for the Jews, conscience is for the pagans (Rom 2.1416, a passage that, together with Rom 14.12, may be said to contain the classic Christian understanding of the functioning of conscience with regard to past actions, for pagans and Christians alike). Paul can assert that his own conscience testifies to his having the purity of intention insisted upon in the Gospels (2 Cor 1.12).

In his advice to the Corinthians and the Romans Paul enunciates some of the cardinal principles pertinent to the Christian conscience in its role as regulator of one's moral activity. Whoever acts against his conscience commits sin (Rom 14.23). The conscience is the proximate, subjective norm of moral action; even when it is erroneous, it must be followed (Rom 14.14, 23). Love of God and neighbor must be the supreme regulating principle of Christian conduct and may at times require one to forego the otherwise legitimate exercise of his Christian freedom (1 Cor 8.1, 3, 9, 1113; 10.24, 2829; Rom 14.15, 2021).

The Biblical doctrine on conscience is obviously not the fully developed Christian understanding of the nature and function of conscience, but the Pauline exposition of what that conscience is and of how it ought to function in the various problems he was called upon to solve is a faithful development of an outline furnished by Jesus Himself.

Bibliography: e. schick, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:859861. e. wolf, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 2:155052. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 412415. c. a. pierce, Conscience in the New Testament (London 1955).

[e. r. callahan]


Perhaps nowhere more than in the theological and philosophical problem of the nature and structure of moral conscience is greater diversity of opinion or greater confusion of thought to be found. In modern times philosophers and theologians as well as religious writers all proclaim in one form or another the absolute supremacy of conscience in the moral life. This they do under the immediate influence of I. kant, who identified conscience with good will or good intention (see Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 1) and in any event completely subjectivized the notion and the reality, separating it in fact from the influence and guiding power of reason and reducing it to a kind of irrational imperative instinct (see The Metaphysics of Morals 2.12B), and under the more remote but nonetheless profound influence of nominal ism. As a term and concept and as a reality conscience has pertained not only to the field of theoretical and philosophical analysis but also, and perhaps even primarily, to the sphere of folklore or popular wisdom. When an attempt is made to define conscience strictly, its dignity, absolute binding force, and freedom are taken for granted and conscience itself is reduced to a sort of blind instinct that easily becomes the subjective cover for moral cowardice and for innumerable crimes committed in the name of that noble thing called moral conscience or even in the name of Christian conscience.

It is commonly maintained that conscience is the subjective individual consciousness of that which is objectively good or evil, right or wrong; it is the reaction of the human ego vis-à-vis its moral behavior, and as such it is the emotionally conditioned knowledge of the worth or worthlessness of that behavior. Conscience, then, has been reduced to (or, in the minds of some moralists, elevated to) being that faculty by which one is able to judge the goodness or sinfulness of one's actions, by which one is able to determine whether such or such an action is gravely or lightly sinful, and, as a consequence, by which one is able to determine whether any given action in any given circumstances is or is not permitted by the law. An extreme form of this absolutizing of conscience made its appearance in the middle of the 17th century in the atheistic movement begun by a student of Protestant theology, Matthias Knutsen, founder of the socalled conscientarii.

In this unwarranted restriction of the function of conscience to determining between the sinfulness or righteousness of one's actions, between their lawfulness or unlawfulness, conscience itself has been emptied of its true nobility and greatness. From being truly the voice of God for an individual and the real guarantee that his life is anchored in God and in the law of Christ, or, as the Germans so pithily put it, of the Gottund Christusbezogenheit, of one's life, it becomes the jealous guardian of one's own petty subjective whims and fancies. Such was not St. Paul's conception of conscience or the notion of conscience found either in Scripture or in the teaching of the early Church Fathers; such was not the idea of conscience held in honor universally among theologians right up to the 17th century and still defended and propounded by a small minority.

C. A. Pierce in his splendid study of conscience in the New Testament, having pointed out the complex structure of conscience and the various subjective elements (both noetical and emotional) that go to make it up or are presupposed to it, remarks judiciously that to erect any one of these elements into an infallible criterion of right or wrong is "woefully to mislead and in any case utterly to distort the conception of the New Testament" (125126). Most unfortunately, this is what has happened both in Catholic and in non-Catholic theology since the 17th century. It would be true to say that Catholic moral theology has been more profoundly affected by this distortion of the true notion of conscience than corresponding non-Catholic teaching. There were ever non-Catholic theologians to react against this state of affairs, as witness the great Caroline theologians in England (Robert Sanderson and others). Catholic theologians introduced the new conception into moral theology and then fore-stalled all criticism of it by distinguishing moral theology from ascetical and mystical teaching, thereby unwittingly severing moral theology from its roots and reducing it, too, to a mere shadow of its former noble self.

However, neither this transformation in the notion of conscience nor the true traditional meaning of the term conscience in Christian theology can be properly grasped except by examining the origin of the term and concept and by tracing its development in the history of both profane and Christian thought. The distorted notion of conscience has become so ingrained in common thought that there is danger of reading into the term as used in ancient times (in both sacred and profane literature) the meaning that it has come to have today. Hence the importance of considering the history of the notion of conscience if one wishes to arrive at a proper understanding of it and of its many forms. Any attempt to define or explain and analyze conscience a priori, is, from the nature of the case, doomed to failure.

History of the Term. St. Paul may be rightly considered the author or originator of a systematic teaching, either philosophical or theological, on conscience. He introduced the term and the idea into Christian moral teaching, taking it over from the popular (probably Stoic) philosophy of his time and giving it a new and fuller meaning that it retained up to the 17th century, in spite of many contrary tendencies.

Greek. The term conscience or, better, its Greek correspondent συνείδησις, of which it is the direct translation, is first found in a fragment of Democritus of Abdera toward the middle of the 5th century b.c. It is there used in the specifically moral sense of consciousness of evil life or behavior (συνείδησις τ[symbol omitted]ς κακοπραγμοσύνης) as distinct from the mere psychological sense of consciousness of the fact of doing or having done something, mere consciousness of self, and as distinct from the nonmoral consciousness of the hardships of life (see H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch, ed. W. Kranz 2:206207). This is the first-known meaning of the Greek term, and though not the only one, it remained the predominant one up to the period of the New Testament. It was a popular term used in the language of the people to express a very simple idea and a very simple fact of daily experience, namely, the sure knowledge that all men have within and with themselves (hence συνείδησις, con-scientia ) of the moral quality of their actions and in a special way (precisely because more easily discerned) of the moral quality of their evil actions. However, one does not find, nor should one expect to find, a fully developed notion, worked out in a philosophical or religious context. Such elaborations came much later and very gradually. It should be noted, however, that conscience in the fragment of Democritus was what later became known as a consequent evil conscience, that is, a consciousness of evil action already performed. The explicit notion of either good or antecedent conscience is of much later origin.

Latin. In Latin literature conscientia occurs quite frequently in pre-Christian times, and the notion is much more developed than in corresponding Greek literature. The concept of both antecedent conscience and good conscience as the cause of interior peace and joy is found quite commonly in the writings of the Stoics, especially in the works of Cicero and Seneca. Cicero declared that the consciousness of a life well spent and the remembrance of numerous deeds well done (note that the conscientia bene actae vitae and the multorum benefactorum recordatio are here obviously identified) is the cause of the greatest joy (iucundissima estDe Senectute 3.9). Elsewhere he clearly brings out both the antecedent and the religious character of conscience. "On the deeds of evil-doers there usually follow first of all suspicion, next gossip and rumour, then the accuser and the judge. Many wrong-doers have even turned evidence against themselves. And even should any think themselves wellfenced and fortified against detection by their fellow-men (contra hominum conscientiam ), they still dread the eye of the gods (deorum [conscientiam ] horrent ) and are convinced that the pangs of anxiety night and day gnawing at their hearts are sent by the gods to punish them" (De finibus bonorum et malorum 1.16). An impressive exhortation addressed by Seneca to his young friend Lucilius brings out in a most striking manner the notion of antecedent and consequent conscience, the notion of good and evil conscience, and finally the notion of conscience as the voice of God within man: "You are doing an excellent and salutary thing if, as you write to me, you strive perseveringly to attain to that health of mind and outlook (ad bonam mentem ) which it is foolish to desire or wish for, seeing that you can acquire it by your own efforts. It is not a matter of raising hands to heaven nor of beseeching some temple-keeper to give us access to the sanctuary as if in that way we would be more easily heard: God is near you, he is with you, he is within. Thus do I say, Lucilius: a sacred and august spirit resides within us and takes stock of our good and evil actions and is the guardian or avenger of our deeds (sacer intra nos spiritus sedet, malorum bonorumque nostrorum observator et custos ). Just as he is treated by us so does he treat us" (Letter 41.1).

Old Testament. There is no Hebrew word corresponding exactly to conscientia or συνείδησις. In the Septuagint the term συνείδησις is found two or perhaps three times (Eccl 10.20; Wis 17.10; Sir 42.18), all of very late date. However, even if the word is missing in the Old Testament, the reality of what is meant by conscience as a fact of universal human experience and as a special experience of the people chosen to enter into special contact with Yahweh is present. It is found in the terms "loins" and "heart" (kelâyo waléb ), which are frequently coupled together and signify the inward man made by and known only to God and thus constitute the veritable seat of conscience (cf. Ps 7.10; 25.2; Jer 11.20; 17.10; 20.12 and passim ) under the watchful eye of God (cf. 1 Sm 16.7; Ps 138). Here three things must be noted: first, for the chosen people, ever conscious of Yahweh and of His law, the voice of conscience, that is, the reaction or feelings of the heart and loins, of the whole inner man, was the voice of Yahweh, their God, and was the answer, in praise or in reproach, on the part of rational man, to His law. Thus conscience for them was intimately linked with the alliance and was essentially conditioned by it. Second, while there was insistence on the concept of consequent conscience that upbraids each one for his evil actions and for his transgressions of Yahweh's law, there was, however, mention also at least implicitly of antecedent and of good conscience, which puts man at peace with himself and with Yahweh, because his life is judged to be in accordance with the demands of the alliance between the people and their God. Third, in the Old Testament conscience, that is, the feelings and the sure knowledge of the heart and the loins, was in no wise set up as an inviolable criterion of one's life and actions. On the contrary, its whole activity was radically conditioned by the objective exigencies of the alliance and by true subjective loyalty to it. It should be remarked here that the priests and the scribes were not slow in exteriorizing, legalizing, and depersonalizing the law of Yahweh by smothering it, as it were, in their own interpretations and traditions. Against this corruptive process the Prophets reacted violently and, in the name of Yahweh and against the priests, recalled the people to a true and inward communion with their God and to a true understanding of His law, which vivifies.

New Testament. It is against this background that one must understand the teaching of the New Testament on conscience. The term is not found in the Gospels, with the exception of one mention in an interpolated text of Jn8.9. But it is met some 30 times in the rest of the New Testament: 20 times in the Epistles of St. Paul, 5 times in the Epistle to the Hebrews, three times in the first Epistle of St. Peter and twice in the Acts of the Apostles. Whereas the Gospels retain the terminology of the Old Testament and of the Jews in general (heart, cf. Mt 15.1820; Mk 6.52), St. Paul and the other New Testament authors took over the term συνείδησις, which they found in the Hellenistic culture of the day both as a popular concept and even as a technical term in the writings of the Stoics. There is no reason why they and, in a special way, St. Paul should not have met it in the oral traditions of the Greek Stoics and in the variety of meanings indicated above. However that may be, the fact is that St. Paul took over the term in order to express most appropriately and most fully a central and very complex reality of the Christian moral message. Without a detailed analysis of texts, the three following points should be carefully noted in order to attain to a proper understanding of the real nobility of the Christian conscience and of its full meaning in the Christian context and tradition, as well as of its dependencies and essential limitations.

The first all-important point to be noted is that for the New Testament authors consciencesyneidesis meant a consciousness of the true moral content of human life founded on faith (πίστις) insofar as this faith is conceived as a personal engagement with God coloring man's whole outlook on all of realityon God, on man, and on the cosmos itself and all that happens in it (cf. Rom 14.1, 23; 13.5; 1 Pt 2.19). In this sense conscience syneidesis meant very much more than a simple subjective judgment about one's actions. It implied the whole inner religious attitude of man, his whole concept of the world and of human life as seen through the eyes of faith, that is, ultimately through the eyes of God and through the infallible knowledge of God. It might truly be said that, for the authors of the New Testament, Christian conscience was nothing more than the specifically Christian Weltanschauung, which in the individual always governs and conditions his reactions to reality and events.

The second point is that in the work of applying this new Christian attitude to the business of daily living, conscience, being a spontaneous reaction of the "new creature" (that is, man re-created and regenerated by grace and living faith) to daily events, frequently needs the corrective of mature consideration of and deliberation on all the varied and changing elements and circumstances of every human action. In other words, it needs the practical guidance of Christian wisdom in the matter of the Christian life. Over and above a good conscience, a wise and prudent evaluation of every human situation, which takes into account not only the demands of the acting individual but also all the exigencies of Christian intersubjectivity and of true Christian charity, is absolutely necessary; and even then it is only in fear and trembling that the Christian works out his salvation (cf. Phil 2.12) and thus attains gradually to the fullness of growth in Christ (cf. Eph4.13). A very clear example of the existential relation between the applied conscience of him who is born anew in Christ and the corrective power of prudent and wise deliberation is found in St. Paul (1 Cor 8.713;10.2730).

The final point is that in the New Testament and especially in the teaching of St. Paul conscience is identified with faith, not on the level of application to action, but on that of the general outlook on things mentioned above (see Rom 14.1, 23). All that we do and all that happens to us and all that we are called upon by the circumstances of life to bear must be judged in the light of faith, that is, with reference to God, to His all-wise providence, and to His law, because God spoke to men and became man in Christ in order to teach men how to live and how to order their lives in God and in Christ (cf. Rom 13.5; 1 Cor 14.4), which is only another way of saying in order to redeem and save men. This explains the statement of St. Peter that "this is indeed a grace, if for consciousness of God (δι συνείδησιν θεο[symbol omitted]) anyone endures sorrows, suffering unjustly" (1 Pt 2.19; see also 1 Jn 3.1922), that is, if one endures in the conviction that he is in the all-seeing and solicitous care of God.

This point (the identification of conscience with faith) is all the more striking when it is recalled that in later centuries almost all the great theologians identified faith with synderesis on the level of supernatural life (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, In 2 Sent., 41.1.1; Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 10.4 ad 2; In 1 Sent. prol. 5) and saw consequently in Christian conscience the application of practical faith to the business of everyday living in Christ (cf. Summa theologiae 1a, 79.12, 13, especially ad 3). And in this very precise and theologically exact sense, conscience became known as the voice of God within man, not an autonomous and purely subjective judgment, but an attitude rooted ultimately in the word of God or in faith and in the sure guidance of divine wisdom and infused prudence.

Patristic and Scholastic. Such is the legacy that the early Fathers received and handed on to posterity. It continued in the common teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church in both the East and the West. It should be noted, however, that there was always present the temptation and the tendency (as in the Old Testament) to externalize, to legalize, and to depersonalize the reality of conscience. This danger was more readily present and more acutely felt in the Western Church, where the legal-minded Romans set the tone and determined in great measure the teaching and the organization of Christian ecclesial life. It would, however, be quite incorrect to say that the moral teaching of the Western Church quickly developed into a type of casuistry, while the Oriental Church remained true to the spirit of Christian freedom found in the New Testament. That would be a gross over-simplification of things and a quite unwarranted generalization.

In spite of difficulties and dangers, the Western Church and Western moral teaching ever remained true to the authentic spirit of the New Law. A typical example is that of St. Thomas, who achieved a scientific synthesis of revealed moral teaching, changing it from a simple, direct, and indeed most efficacious moral catechesis to a moral science and rigid analysis. His most brilliant insight was to see in faith the synderesis or intellect (nous ) of his predecessors and in conscience the spontaneous or quasi-instinctive reaction or application of this attitude (under the all-pervading impulse of charity) to the business of daily living, allowing at the same time for the possibility, if properly understood, of identifying conscience with faith, from which it primarily flows (see Summa theologiae 1a, 79.13 ad 3; In epist. ad Rom 14.3. 114041; for the notion of conscience as a spontaneous or quasi-instinctive reaction, see Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 64.5; 64.7; 142.3 ad 2). There are obvious differences in this matter between the East and West, but there is no question of opposition. It is rather a matter of emphasis: the one more social and communautaire, the other more individualistic and personal; the one insisting on the part to be played by each member in and for the Christian community, the other insisting more on the personal competence and perfection of each member of the community. The elements found in the New Testament are fully preserved in both East and West. It is true, certainly, that a tendency toward a kind of legalistic casuistry may be traced in the West, but the great theologians of the Western tradition were ever on their guard against it.

After the Reformation. With the religious upheaval of the 16th century, when the structure of the Western Church was shaken to its foundations and when, under the still powerful influence of nominalism, the principles of personal freedom and private judgment were being introduced as the guiding principles of moral living, the Church was faced with a completely new situation. Then appeared, toward the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, a number of epoch-making and classical juridicomoral treatises on law, right, and justice (Francisco de toledo, gregory of valenica, L. lessi us, Gabriel vÁzquez, F. suÁrez, and others), which laid the foundations of the modern treatise on justice and exercised a most profound influence on the whole future structure of moral teaching in the Western Church. The traditional notion of prudence and practical personal wisdom, which plays such an important role in Pauline moral teaching, was set aside almost completely and its place taken by a legalistically and casuistically conditioned conscience, put forward now as the ultimate and inviolable norm of moral living. With an overinsistence on the juridical order of things all sense and feeling were lost for the radical subordination of man's life and being to an objective and divine order of things; and at the same time, as a necessary consequence, the true meaning of real personal creative activity realized in the mystery of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity in the dynamism of knowledge and love was forgotten. This reversal of values gave rise to a strange paradox seldom pointed out, but one that should, on no account, be missed or overlooked. On the one side, the ultimate rule of morality became something completely subjective. The all-important condition for good moral action was no longer correspondence with objective reality and the law of God, author of that reality, but rather the subjective good faith or good intention of the individual, whether his moral judgment was objectively right or wrong, true or false. Provided the intention is good, whether the judgment is right or wrong, it is equally the voice of God for the person acting. This is the direct antithesis of traditional moral teaching in the Western Church (cf., for instance, St. Thomas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 19.5, 6). On the other hand, concrete human activity became completely mechanized and impersonalized through the mechanization of the judgment of conscience, which came to mean nothing more and nothing better than weighing opinions that the individual does not share personally and does not ever live existentially. Thus all sense of the real meaning of creative activity (cf. St. Thomas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 5.7; 6 prol.; In 2 Sent. 34.1.3), which alone can contribute efficaciously to the fulfillment of human life and being, is almost completely lost.

On the level of the so-called spiritual life, a remedy for this state of affairs was sought in the development of a new theological discipline, ascetical and mystical theology, a higher type of moral teaching reserved for the chosen few. There was, then, in the course of the 17th century, a strange shifting of perspective, so that conscience came to mean something it had never meant in the whole of pagan or Christian tradition. Severed from its roots in living practical faith and dependent now on the precepts of positive law and the varying opinions of theologians, conscience inevitably lost its true meaning and was robbed of its true nobility. One could perhaps put the difference this way: whereas the moral teaching of the whole Christian tradition up to the 17th century insisted on the inalienable right of objective truth and of the exigencies of the objective and divine order of things, the new moral teaching, based on a new and legalized notion of conscience, insisted either on security (tutiorism) or on the freedom of the individual in the face of the law (laxism). And in this way Christian moral teaching came to lose its true existential character.

A strong reaction to this situation appeared among both Catholics and non-Catholics. On the Catholic side the reaction has continued (or better, has been taken up seriously and intensified) until modern times and has been so pressed that the danger exists of falling into quite another extreme by insisting on the primacy of love or charity in moral theology and by leaving out of account altogether that practical wisdom of prudence, through which alone charity can be existentially mediated into the daily life of each Christian. On the non-Catholic side there was an immediate reaction on the part of the great Caroline theologians in England, who maintained, not without foundation, that they and not their Catholic counterparts on the Continent were the true successors of St. Thomas and the whole authentic tradition of Christian moral teaching.

Systematic Exposition. In the light of what has been said above, a balanced systematic exposition of the nature and structure and division of conscience and, in a special way in the context of moral theology, of Christian conscience (cf. Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 13:94 for perhaps the first use of this term) can be worked out without much difficulty.

Conscience began as a popular idea; that is, it belonged to the store of human knowledge, common to all people and to all classes. Fundamentally it has remained such. The term was used to express a variety of mutually cognate concepts and realities from consciousness, self-consciousness, conscientiousness, etc., to the knowledge one has within himself of the specific human (and moral) quality of one's life and actions, whether they are in keeping with the true human dignity of man or not, whether they are worthy of being displayed openly before the critical eyes of one's fellowmen or not. In this last sense it signifies moral conscience as distinct from all its psychological forms. In the Old Testament this moral conscience, expressed in the reaction of the inner man to life and all its vicissitudes, is intimately bound up with the alliance, with God's choice of the Israelites and with His law, given to them as a guide to life and action. In other words, conscience in the Old Testament took on a specifically religious character, which it retained under the New Alliance, with, however, certain important differences. For the New Law, or Alliance, was primarily and fundamentally the grace of the Holy Spirit penetrating every fiber of man's being and transforming it into something divine, a new creation. This new creation, divinized and redeemed man, has a new and transformed consciousness of realityof God, first of all, and then of himself and of the cosmos in relation to God (cf. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ch. 1, 2, 4). This new consciousness is rooted ultimately in the transformation of human nature by grace, but it comes to act in the reality of faith, which, in its fullness, is the full, personal, and conscious commitment of the human person to God and to Christ the Redeemer. It should be immediately obvious that faith is much more than a mere assent to revealed mysteries; it is also the full acceptance of a way of life worthy of redeemed and divinized man. It must be manifest, too, that faith is fundamentally the Christian's Weltanschauung, or outlook on reality, and consequently the fundamental source of his every reaction to reality. This reaction itself is most frequently called "conscience," but St. Paul and the whole Christian tradition down to St. Thomas saw no difficulty in understanding conscience as faith itself. But in order that man's reaction to concrete reality and events be worthy of one who is called to be a son and a friend of God, his heart and will must be informed with love for the God who calls man to Himself and reveals to him His law as a guide to life and with love for God-made-Man, who died to redeem him. This love of God and of the Redeemer, Christ, implies necessarily a loyal observance of God's law and of Christ's will (cf. Jn 14.15, 21; 1 Jn 5.2; 2 Jn 1.6) as manifested and communicated in Scripture and tradition and in the teaching of the Church, which was instituted by Christ as the guardian of Christian morals and life.

In the business of Christian daily living, with its infinite variety of changing situations and circumstances, it is clearly not sufficient to rely on a spontaneous reaction alone as a guide. For from the very nature of things, this may be faulty and in error on many heads (cf. St. Thomas, De ver. 17.2). The corrective of counsel and deliberation, ordained toward fitting Christian living to all the demands of human life, is necessary. In other words, over and above conscience, practical wisdom, also called prudence or discretion in the Christian tradition, is of vital importance. Without this wisdom, which on the one side looks to the objective and divine order of things and on the other is always in the service of charity, mediating it realistically and truly into the flux of life, conscience alone would frequently lead man astray.

In brief résumé: the sources of Christian conscience are grace, faith, and charity; and its most efficacious guardian and corrective, preserving it from pitfalls and forming it to full human maturity, is Christian practical wisdom, or prudence. It follows, then, that the most apt means toward forming a true Christian conscience, enlightened and sure and true, is growth in the spirit of faith and charity and the daily practice of true Christian discretion. This safeguards the true existential character of the Christian life and hinders conscience from exercising, when wrongly understood, a purely subjective tyranny in the lives of Christians.

Bibliography: Of the prolific literature on conscience, the following studies are especially relevant to this article or have full, upto-date bibliography. e. schick et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:859867. a. chollet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. 15 v. (Paris 190350) 3.1:115674. c. maurer, g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 7:897918. e. wolf, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 2:155057. p. delhaye, La Conscience morale du chrétien (Paris 1963). j. stelzenberger, Syneidesis, conscientia, Gewissen (Paderborn 1963). g. de lagarde, La Naissance de l'esprit laïque au déclin du moyen âge 6, L'Individualisme ockhamiste: Le Morale et le droit (Paris 1946). c. a. pierce, Conscience in the New Testament (London 1955). h. r. mcadoo, The Structure of Caroline Moral Theology (London 1949). t. wood, English Casuistical Divinity during the 17th Century (London 1952). g. leclercq, La Conscience du chrétien (Paris 1947).

[c. williams]


views updated May 29 2018



Matters of conscience arise with some frequency in bioethics. A health professional may cite considerations of conscience in declining to perform or participate in a certain procedure. A patient may refuse a particular treatment on grounds of conscience. And new or unanticipated circumstances may create conflicts of conscience for patients and health professionals alike. What do we mean by "conscience" in these and related contexts? Is conscience an internal moral sense sufficient for distinguishing right from wrong? Is the "voice" of conscience simply the echo of parental and social prohibitions? Or does conscience differ in important ways from either of these? How much weight should be given in ethical reflection to claims of conscience? To what extent and for what reasons should health professionals compromise personal convenience, institutional efficiency, or medical effectiveness in order to respect individual conscience, their own or their patients'?

Three Conceptions of Conscience

The idea of conscience has a long and complex history (D'Arcy, 1961; Mount). The word "conscience" derives from the Latin conscientia, introduced by Christian Scholastics. Most generally, it refers to conscious awareness of the moral quality of some past or contemplated action and the disposition to be so aware (conscientiousness). In what follows we consider three main conceptions: (1) conscience as an inner sense that distinguishes right acts from wrong;(2) conscience as the internalization of parental and social norms; and (3) conscience as the exercise and expression of a reflective sense of integrity.

MORAL SENSE. Conscience is sometimes conceived as an internal moral sense sufficient for distinguishing right from wrong. The reliability of this inner sense is usually attributed to its divine origin, its reflection of our true nature, or some combination of the two. There are, however, difficulties with this conception.

Consider, first, a variation of an argument developed by Plato in his Euthyphro. Is what makes an act right the fact that it is endorsed by one's conscience? Or does conscience recommend a certain course of conduct because it is right? If the former, the promptings of conscience appear to be arbitrary. Whatever is urged by a person's conscience would, in this view, be right. There would be no way to assess the deliverances of conscience or to compare the consciences of, say, Hitler and Mother Teresa. If, on the other hand, conscience directs us to perform certain acts because they are right, it cannot be the principal source of moral knowledge. We must, in this event, have prior, independent criteria of rightness and wrongness that allow us to distinguish those acts that should be recommended by conscience from those that should not—in which case conscience is not sufficient to guide conduct.

A related difficulty is the prevalence of conflicts of conscience, both within persons and between them. Such conflicts are especially pronounced in bioethics, where advances in knowledge and technology confront us with unprecedented, consequential choices ranging well beyond our ethical traditions. The limitations of conscience, if it is conceived as a sufficient guide to moral decision making, may not be so noticeable in static, homogenous, insular cultures and subcultures. But where new circumstances require members of pluralistic societies to come to some agreement on bioethical questions, appeals to an internal, self-validating sense of right and wrong are apt to generate more heat than light.

INTERNALIZED SOCIAL NORMS. The most plausible explanation for the limitations of conscience in resolving ethical conflicts is that the "voice" of conscience is simply the echo of social and parental admonitions impressed upon the developing psyches of young children (i.e., the Freudian superego). Whatever its psychological and developmental significance, conscience so conceived has little normative import. That we have certain moral compunctions as a result of our socialization does little to establish their validity. We are bound by the voice of conscience only if we can provide independent justification of its dictates. It is the adequacy of the justification, not the persistence of the voice, that carries moral authority. Conceived as internalized social norms, then, conscience plays no direct role in ethical deliberation.

SENSE OF INTEGRITY. "I couldn't live with myself if I were [or were not] to perform the abortion in these circumstances." "I can no longer participate in this treatment plan in good conscience." "How could I continue to think of myself as a Jehovah's Witness if I were to consent to the blood transfusion?" Each of these sentences expresses an appeal to conscience that is neither a deliverance of an internal moral sense nor an internalization of an external social norm. What is expressed in each case is the culmination of conscientious reflection about the relationship between a certain course of action and a particular conception of the self. So understood, appeals to conscience are closely connected to reflective concern with one's integrity. The focus is not so much on the objective or universal rightness or wrongness of a particular act as on the consequences for the self of one's performing it.

There is something absurd, Gilbert Ryle has observed, in saying "My conscience says that you ought to do this or ought not to have done that" (Ryle, p. 31). I may be troubled by your wrongdoing, but unless I have advised or assisted you, or culpably failed to prevent you from performing the act in question, my conscience will be clear. The same is not true, however, about those of my acts that I have determined, for one reason or another, were or would be morally wrong. Having judged a certain act to be wrong, an appeal to conscience stresses the added wrongness of my performing it. Appeals to conscience therefore presuppose a prior determination of the rightness or wrongness of an act (Childress, 1979). Moreover, one may or may not extend the standards one employs in making this assessment to others in similar situations. If, for example, the standards are universalizable principles of respect for persons, justice, or beneficence, one will maintain that anyone would do wrong in performing the act in question. But if one's standards are grounded in religious convictions, personal ideals, or a particular worldview and way of life, one may not hold everyone else to them. What is at stake in all such appeals is one's wholeness or integrity as a person.


"It would be better for me, " Socrates says in the Gorgias, "that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me" (Arendt, 1971, p. 439). One cannot lead a good and meaningful life, Socrates suggests, unless the self is reasonably unified or integrated—unless, that is, one's words and deeds cohere with one's basic, identity-conferring, moral, religious, and philosophical convictions. Hence the importance of critical reflection on one's life as a whole. The words, deeds, and convictions of an unexamined life are unlikely to be sufficiently integrated to constitute a singular life—let alone one worth living.

Conscience should not, therefore, be conceived as a faculty or component of the self. It is, rather, the voice of one's self as a whole, understood temporally—as having a beginning, a middle, and an end—as well as at a particular moment. Operating retrospectively, what Christian tradition calls "judicial" conscience makes judgments about past conduct. Operating prospectively, what the same tradition calls "legislative" conscience anticipates whether a prospective utterance or course of action is likely to be at odds with one's most basic ethical convictions (D'Arcy, 1961). In each case, the signal that something is wrong—that one's integrity has been, is currently, or would be compromised—is an actual or anticipatory feeling of guilt, shame, or remorse.

Consider, in this connection, the words of AleksandrN. Chikunov, a veteran of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, as he explains sharing his experience with young soldiers called to Moscow to suppress democratic reforms during the abortive coup of August 1991: "I entered Prague in 1968 and I still have an ill conscience about it. I was a soldier then, like these guys. We were also sent like they are now, to defend the achievements of socialism. Twenty-three years have passed, and I still have an ill conscience" (New York Times, August 20, 1991, p. A13). Here Chikunov draws upon the lessons of his "ill" judicial conscience to inform and alert the legislative consciences of the young soldiers. His motivation, it seems, is not only to spare them the pangs of an ill conscience but also to help heal his own (and thus to heal himself).

The authority and sanctions of conscience are, Mr. Chikunov suggests, self-imposed. No external source can create or directly relieve a troubled conscience. Nor may we easily rationalize or evade its judgments. "Other judges, " as D'Arcy points out, "may be venal or partial or fallible; not so the verdict of conscience" (D'Arcy, 1961, p. 8). The oppressiveness of a guilty conscience is due in part to its identity with the self.

Conscience in Bioethics

Three factors contribute to the prevalence of appeals to conscience in bioethics: (1) bioethical decision making often involves our deepest identity-conferring convictions about the nature and meaning of creating, sustaining, and ending life; (2) healthcare professionals and patients and their families will occasionally have radically differing beliefs about such matters; and (3) the complexity of modern healthcare often requires agreement and cooperation on a single course of action.

CONFLICTS OF CONSCIENCE. Conflicts of conscience arise not only between individuals but also within them. Consider a physician whose patient, suffering greatly from the ravages of the last stages of a terminal illness, is also a longtime friend. The patient requests the physician to provide both the substance and the instruction for taking his own life. The physician finds herself torn. On the one hand, her conception of medicine and professional identity is incompatible with what appears to be physician-assisted suicide. On the other hand, the bonds of friendship and her natural sympathies strongly incline her to accede to her patient's request. The situation has, as a result, precipitated a crisis of conscience, and the physician must engage in what Charles Taylor has called "strong evaluation"—reflection about the self by the self in ways that engage and attempt to restructure one's deepest and most fundamental convictions (Taylor). Such reflection manifests an admirable concern for wholeness or integrity.

CONSCIENTIOUS REFUSAL. From Socrates to Sir Thomas More to Henry David Thoreau, individuals have appealed to conscience in refusing to comply with a wide range of legal or socially mandated directives. In some cases such noncompliance may be covert and evasive—for example, a physician's providing contraceptive information to married couples in Connecticut before that state's anticontraceptive law was declared unconstitutional (Childress, 1985). In most cases, however, health professionals and patients give reasons of conscience in openly seeking personal exemption from certain standard practices.

Physicians may appeal to conscience in refusing to do procedures that are both legal and performed by their colleagues. Consider an obstetrician's refusal to perform a legal abortion or a pediatrician's refusal to prescribe human growth hormone for short, but normal, children at the behest of their anxious parents. In each case the physician's decision may be based on moral convictions or personal ideals. The obstetrician need not believe that abortion ought to be illegal or that women who request, or physicians who perform, abortions are deeply immoral. The pediatrician may neither urge the legal prohibition of administering human growth hormone to short, but normal, children nor regard parents who request this treatment, or other pediatricians who administer it, as unethical. Both agree, however, that it would be a violation of conscience—a betrayal of their deepest personal convictions about life or the nature of medicine—if they were to perform the act in question.

Similarly, nurses appeal to conscience in seeking exemption from procedures or care plans that threaten their sense of integrity. For example, a nurse may conscientiously refuse to follow a physician's directive to remove medically administered hydration and nutrition from a patient in a persistent vegetative state. Regardless of the act's legality, the family's concurrence, and the physician's directive, given her deepest identity-conferring convictions about the nature and value of life, the nurse may be unable to carry out the action. Her reasoning, she might add, is not strong enough to condemn others who believe differently; but as for herself, she must refrain.

Patients, too, may appeal to conscience in refusing forms of medical treatment. When informed, mentally competent Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood transfusions on religious grounds, they do not at the same time urge that blood transfusions be legally prohibited, nor do they condemn those who gratefully accept blood transfusions. What they want is not so much respect for the content of their particular convictions as much as respect for their consciences. The same is true of other patients who refuse or request certain forms of treatment on the basis of fundamental moral and religious convictions.

Respect for Conscience

Respect for conscience is a corollary of the principle of respect for persons. To respect another as a person is, insofar as possible, to respect the expression and exercise, if not the content, of a person's most fundamental convictions. A society's respect for individual conscience may extend not only to religious toleration but also, for example, to exempting conscripted pacifists from direct participation in war.

In the biomedical context, respect for conscience may be inconvenient, inefficient, or detrimental to medical outcomes. Still, it must always be taken seriously and often should prevail. In some cases, respect for conscience may be balanced with biomedical goals. At a certain level of abstraction, the purpose of healthcare is strikingly similar to that of protecting individual conscience. Although healthcare is usually focused on the body, emphasis on informed consent implies that the principal function of medicine is the health or wholeness of the patient as a person. Yet a person's sense of health or wholeness may also be threatened by what the former Soviet soldier, Aleksandr Chikunov, revealingly called an "ill" conscience. The values underlying appeals to conscience within the healthcare system are not, therefore, radically at odds with the values underlying medical and nursing care. In each case the aim is to preserve or restore personal wholeness. Insofar, then, as appeals to conscience and the healthcare system share a fundamental commitment to preserving and restoring personal wholeness or integrity, we ought in cases of conflict to seek some sort of balance or accommodation between them.

Health professionals who refuse, withdraw, or dissociate themselves from certain practices or procedures on grounds of conscience may well be among the more thoughtful and effective members of a healthcare team. Thus a healthcare institution intent on retaining such nurses and physicians has prudential as well as ethical grounds for accommodating their claims of conscience even at the cost of some inconvenience or expense. Respect for conscience requires going to greater lengths for patients, however, than it does for healthcare professionals. This is in part because an individual's role as a healthcare professional is voluntary in a way that being a patient is not. It is one thing, for example, to respect a Jehovah's Witness patient's conscientious refusal of a blood transfusion; it is quite another to respect the conscientious refusal of a physician who is a Jehovah's Witness to administer blood transfusions. An individual whose moral or religious convictions are incompatible with a common, essential type of healthcare has no business seeking a position in which such care is a routine expectation.

Problems and Limits

At least two important questions remain. First, how do we distinguish genuine claims of conscience from claims serving as smoke screens for laziness, cowardice, distaste for certain procedures, or dislike or prejudice toward certain patients? Second, given that a genuine act of conscience may be morally wrong, should individuals always (or always be permitted to) follow their conscience?

GENUINENESS. Understanding the nature and justification of conscientious refusal allows us to distinguish genuine from spurious or self-deceived appeals to conscience. In assessing the authenticity of such appeals we may, for example, inquire into (1) the underlying values and the extent to which they constitute a core component of the individual's identity; (2) the depth of the individual's reflective consideration of the issue; and (3) the likelihood that he or she will experience guilt, shame, or a loss of self-respect by performing the act in question. Such criteria have been employed with reasonable success by the U.S. Selective Service System in identifying those whose deep and longstanding moral convictions forbid direct participation in war. They can be used with similar success in identifying genuine appeals to conscience in the healthcare setting (Benjamin and Curtis).

CONSCIENTIOUS BUT WRONG. Conscience is not an infallible guide to conduct. Even those who attend carefully to matters of integrity and who critically examine their basic convictions may, at a later date, judge some of their conscientious acts as wrong. Should one, then, always follow one's conscience? If by "conscience" we mean the exercise and expression of good-faith efforts to integrate conduct with reflective ethical conviction, the answer is "yes." Following conscience is obligatory, even if one's act turns out to be wrong, because one is doing what one reflectively believes to be right. Conversely, deliberately acting contrary to conscience is blameworthy, even if one's act turns out to be right, because one is doing what one reflectively believes to be wrong.

We must therefore distinguish the character of an agent from the rightness of a particular act. That an act is required by conscience entails neither that it is right nor that others must endorse the agent's convictions or permit the act to occur. It is difficult, for example, to question the character of Jehovah's Witness parents when they conscientiously refuse to consent to a life-saving blood transfusion for a young child. Yet if we have good reasons for believing that withholding the transfusion would be seriously wrong, we may try to persuade the parents to consent and, if necessary, seek a court order mandating treatment. Distinguishing the conscientiousness of the parents from our judgment of the act, though not eliminating the difficult question of whether, and if so, how, to intervene, enables us to attend more adequately to its complexity.

martin benjamin (1995)

SEE ALSO: Autonomy; Conscience, Rights of; Emotions; Ethics, Religion and Morality; Freedom and Free Will; Human Dignity; Human Nature; Principlism; Profession and Professional Ethics


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Childress, James F. 1979. "Appeals to Conscience." Ethics 89(4): 315–335.

Childress, James F. 1985. "Civil Disobedience, Conscientious Objection, and Evasive Noncompliance: A Framework for the Analysis and Assessment of Illegal Actions in Health Care." Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 10(1): 63–83.

D'Arcy, Eric. 1961. Conscience and Its Right to Freedom. New York: Sheed and Ward.

D'Arcy, Eric. 1977. "Conscience." Journal of Medical Ethics 3(2): 98–99.

Fuss, Peter. 1964. "Conscience." Ethics 74(2): 111–120.

Garnett, A. Campbell. 1966. "Conscience and Conscientiousness." In Insight and Vision: Essays in Philosophy in Honor of Radoslav Andrea Tsanoff, pp. 71–83, ed. Konstantin Kolenda. San Antonio: Trinity University Press.

Gillon, Raanan. 1984. "Conscience, Virtue, Integrity, and Medical Ethics." Journal of Medical Ethics 10(4): 171–172.

May, Larry. 1983. "On Conscience." American Philosophical Quarterly 20(1): 57–67.

McGuire, Martin. 1963. "On Conscience." Journal of Philosophy 60(10): 253–263.

Mount, Eric, Jr. 1969. Conscience and Responsibility. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press.

Ryle, Gilbert. 1940. "Conscience and Moral Convictions." Analysis 7: 31–39.

Taylor, Charles. 1976. "Responsibility for Self." In The Identities of Persons, pp. 281–299, ed. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wand, Bernard. 1961. "The Content and Function of Conscience." Journal of Philosophy 58(24): 765–772.


views updated May 08 2018


Doubtless from the earliest times in which groups established social customs, or mores, and enforced them, members of such groups who were tempted to violate these mores could almost feel the disapproval of their fellows and hear in their own minds a protesting outcry, perhaps some primitive equivalent of "No!" or "Don't!" In the early eighteenth century such inner voices or feelings were described as edicts of one's moral sense or of one's "conscience." This kind of account of these restraining influences became explicit with the development of faculty psychology, which involved the view that there are different faculties of the human mind responsible for different capacities or abilities which the mind seems to exhibit. Reason was thought of as the rational faculty, emotion as a passional one, and volition as a faculty that enables us to reach decisions and make choices. The moral faculty was thought by some, the earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, for example, to operate through feelings. For instance, a feeling of repugnance would tend to be aroused by the thought of doing anything immoralanything in violation of the moresand a feeling of approval by the thought of acting virtuously.

In contrast with this moral-sense type of theory, Samuel Clarke and Richard Price, among others, thought that it must be something akin to reason or the understanding which enabled us to distinguish right from wrong. Joseph Butler termed this faculty of the mind "conscience," and in more recent times this term has become the common one.

Modern behaviorists, to be sure, would not write of conscience as a mental faculty; they refer instead to "learned modes of reaction to stimuli." When one has been conditioned to respond in certain standard ways which are widely and strongly approved, one tends to find that one can break with such approved behavioral norms only after a genuine struggle and a stiff volitional conflict. In any case, whether we speak of the voice of conscience or of the voice of our group or of learned blockage and interference patterns, we often find that there are inhibitions to be overcome before we can break with the mores of our peers.

It has been suggested that a policeman, upholding the law, functions as a kind of government-supported externalized conscience. His mere presence in uniform suffices to warn us not to break, for example, the speed law that we are already bending a bit. Even animals below the human level can be trained to feel the force of such an externalized conscience. Cats, for example, can be trained not to sleep on the couch when humans are in the room. But it is difficult, to say the least, to teach them not to do so when no human observer is present to their senses. With human children and adults, by contrast, it is possible to develop an internalized conscience, which, even in the absence of all enforcers, will remind them, and even stimulate them strongly, not to do certain prohibited actions and to do certain required ones. The driver who stops his car at red traffic lights only when he sees or suspects that an officer is nearby has, like the cat, only an externalized conscience about this type of act, whereas one who habitually stops is, as we say, acting conscientiouslyobeying, perhaps unconsciously, his internalized conscience.

That "the voice of conscience" is often effective seems clear, but it is also clear that it can and often does lose its effectiveness. A dutiful son may well adopt many of the mores of his father for a time and then gradually abandon them. If a person persists in violating his conscience, it will grow decrepit, bother him less and less effectively, and it may soon cease to deter him at all.

Conscience as a Reliable Guide

As children many of us were taught that the voice of conscience is the voice of God and, hence, completely reliable. Some would claim, in more sophisticated terms, that although God gave us free will and does not infringe upon our freedom of choice, he nevertheless continues to lend us moral support. He gives us, through conscience, a means for distinguishing right from wrong. If we follow the guidance of conscience, we shall do our duty and act rightly. If we act contrary to its deliverances, we shall surely act wrongly.

There are, however, many difficulties with this kind of account and, indeed, with any other which claims that conscience is a sufficient guide to moral conduct.

First, the consciences of different people, whether members of the same or of different societies, often differ radically. Conscientious objectors to war and volunteers for wartime service usually disagree strongly as to the rightness of a given war. Cannibals do not share the conscientious objections to eating human flesh that vegetarians do, and both these groups differ from those who feel it is morally permissible to eat animal but not human flesh.

Second, there seem to be exceptions to all the edicts of conscience. Even within groups whose members share, say, a conscientious prescription against deliberately taking a human life, the exceptions that the various consciences allow to individuals vary greatly from one person to another. Lev Tolstoy, and presumably some Quakers, would insist that his conscience forbids the taking of a human life under any conditions. By contrast, although many of us verbally would fully accept the commandment not to kill, we would be likely in practice to find ourselves approving some acts of killing, for example in self-defense or in defense of others, and disapproving of some avoidances of killing, for example in a very deserving mercy case.

Third, conscience fails to provide guidance for many important and even some crucial moral questions. Many problems that we confront are so complex that we frankly have very little idea, and certainly no confirmed judgment or deliverance of conscience, as to which alternative is most worthy of being chosen. In many such cases, where getting adequate knowledge in the time available before a decision must be reached is impossible, we know in advance that we would be only too happy to do what is right if we could identify, with some reasonable degree of probability, the right alternative. A situation of this sort must frequently arise for people who cannot pass the decision on to someone else. The president of the United States, for example, cannot avoid the responsibility for important decisions that must be madevery often on vastly less evidence than he would like to have. Similarly, there are many difficult problems to be decided by those of us who are less highly placed, problems where the decision will not indeed be world-shaking but where it will affect a number of lives in important ways. We often sweat with the desire to solve a difficult problem in the right way but are unable, in the time available before a decision must be taken, to find out which way is the right way. In complicated cases the relatively simple prescriptions of conscience tend to prove quite inadequate.

It is not that the prescriptions of our conscience are worthless; they are often of value in reminding us of the moral views which have been taken by other members of our peer group. Awareness also of the edicts that spring from the consciences of others with different backgrounds not infrequently throws light on our own problem. But in complicated and novel cases, the edict of another's conscience cannot provide us with certain knowledge as to what ought to be done.

Sources of Deliverances of Conscience

Psychologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists have gathered empirical evidence as to various sources of the deliverances of conscience. Many of the edicts of our conscience seem to have come to us while we still rested at our mother's knee. These were usually simple in form but quite effective for many years. Others came from our fathers, from teachers, from preachers, from lecturers and writers, from friends whom we respected. This wide variety of the sources of the edicts that now emanate apparently from our own consciences explains many things about them: their vagueness, their variability, their changing authority over us. As suggested by behaviorists, at least some of them rest on conditioned responses instilled in us at an early age by repetitions we no longer remember.

Examination of a particular edict of conscience throws significant light on "our inner voices." Suppose we warn our sons, ages four and six, to stay off a railway trestle near our home. We say with great emphasis, "Never go out on that trestle, no matter what." One day the younger boy pursues his gay red ball onto the trestle. The older boy rushes to him and pulls him off the trestle just before a train crosses it. Will we punish him for breaking our "absolute" rule? Obviously not. Our consciously instilled rule, now a command of conscience, has its values, positive and negative. It needs supplementation as soon as increasing maturity permits rational consideration. And to this phase anyone who has attained knowledge and discretion should surely move on.

Universalizability of Moral Prescriptions

Since the edicts of conscience have pedestrian empirical sources and are subject to exceptions, it was natural for Immanuel Kant to insist, through his categorical imperative, that every valid moral principle must hold universally: "So act that you can will the maxim or principle of your action to be a universal law, binding on the will of every rational being." This requirement has two facets. First, for an act to be moral it must be done not on whim or impulse or as a mere reflex response to stimuli, but in accordance with some moral principle or maxim. Second, this principle must be one that the agent is willing to have universally adopted. This requirement that a person should act only on a principle that he is willing to have universally adopted seems to introduce undesirable psychological factors that might tend to vary radically from one person to the next. Thus, a pessimist like Arthur Schopenhauer might approve of universal suicide and be willing to have everyone else do so, whereas an optimist might be willing to have everyone work toward increasing the population. Such a formulation of the universalizability principle would thus lead to incompatible moral edicts.

To eliminate such psychological factors and to state the principle in a way closer to Kant's intent, Richard M. Hare urges that a moral principle, to be applicable to a person A, must also be applicable in like circumstances to any similar person B. Although Hare's intent seems clear, he does not specify the degree of similarity required. Complete identity would make the principle useless. On the other hand, it seems clear that Hare was not suggesting, for example, that because it is right for A to make love to his wife, it is also proper that B, who is like A in various respects, should also make love to Mrs. A. Perhaps the universalizability thesis is best stated as follows: If it is right for A to do an act of kind X in a set of circumstances C, then it is right for any B who is like A in all relevant respects to do an act of kind X in circumstances like C in all relevant respects. So stated, the principle is analytically and thus necessarily true. But whether we can ever know in practice that both sets of circumstances and both agents are alike in all relevant respects is highly doubtful. It would be difficult, if not impossible, even to specify these respects. But we do know what is meant by this prescription, and we sometimes know with a fair degree of probability that the required likenesses are present.

Because the universalizability principle is analytic, it is necessarily true. But it is an "If then " statement: If A should do X in C, then B should do Y in D, where the similarities between A and B, C and D, and X and Y meet the requirements previously mentioned. Quite aside from the difficulties of knowing whether or not these requirements are met, the statement tells us only that if its antecedent is true, its consequent is also true. But to know the antecedent to be truethat A ought to do X in C we must turn to experience for an answer. To know anything to be good on the whole, we must know if its existence (or occurrence) is preferable to its nonexistence. To know any act to be right, we must know that no possible alternative is preferable to it. Such preferability presupposes empirical knowledge of values. The possibility of such knowledge is a matter of controversy, but many, including the present writer, believe it to be attainable.

See also Behaviorism; Butler, Joseph; Clarke, Samuel; Emotion; Hare, Richard M.; Hutcheson, Francis; Kant, Immanuel; Moral Motivation; Moral Rules and Principles; Price, Richard; Reason; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper); Tolstoy, Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich; Volition.


works of historical interest

Aquinas, Thomas, Saint. "Conscience, Question 17, Articles 15," and "Synderesis, Question 16, Articles 13." In Truth (Quaestiones Disputate de Veritate), translated by J. V. McGlynn. Chicago: H. Regnery, 19521954.

Balguy, John. The Foundation of Moral Goodness. London: John Pemberton, Part I, 1728; Part II, 1729.

Baylor, Michael G. Action and Person: Conscience in Late Scholasticism and the Young Luther. (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, 20) Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977.

Butler, Joseph. Five Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel and a Dissertation upon the Nature of Virtue. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983.

Cicero. De Finibus. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914.

Cicero. De Natura Deorum. Translated by H. McGregor. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1972.

Clarke, Samuel. A Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion and the Truth and Certainty of the Christian Revelation, 2nd corrected ed. London: Knapton, 1706.

Hutcheson, Francis. An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. London, 1725.

Jonsen, Albert, and Stephen Toulmin. The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Kant, Immanuel. The Moral Law, or Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated with analysis and notes by H. J. Paton. London: Hutchinson, 1948.

Potts, Timothy C. Conscience in Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Price, Richard. A Review of the Principal Questions and Difficulties in Morals. London, 1758.

Shaftesbury, 3d Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper). An Inquiry concerning Virtue or Merit. London: Bell, Castle, and Buckley, 1699.

more recent works

Andrew, Edward G. Conscience and Its Critics. Protestant Conscience, Enlightenment Reason, and Modern Subjectivity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

Broad, C. D. "Some Reflections on Moral-Sense Theories in Ethics." PAS 45 (19441945): 131186.

Fingarette, Herbert. Self-Deception. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1969.

Hoose, Jayne, editor. Conscience in World Religions. Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Hursthouse, Rosalindk Gavin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn, editors. Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory: Essays in Honour of Philippa Foot. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Jacobs, Jonathan. Choosing Character. Responsibility for Vice and Virtue. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. "Conscience as Principled Responsibility: On the Philosophy of Stage Six." In Conscience: An Interdisciplinary View, edited by Gerhard Zecha and Paul Weingartner. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1987.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. Essays on Moral Development, Vol. 1: The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.

Langston, Douglas C. Conscience and Other Virtues. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Nussbaum, Martha. The Fragility of Goodness. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Raphael, D. Daiches. The Moral Sense. London: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Ross, W. David. Foundations of Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939.

Ross, W. David. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.

Ryle, Gilbert. "Conscience and Moral Convictions." In Conscience, edited by John Donnelly and Leonard Lyons. Staten Island NY: Alba House, 1973.

Slote, Michael. From Morality to Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Smith, T. V. Beyond Conscience. A Critical Examination of Various Doctrines of Conscience. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1934.

Charles A. Baylis (1967)

Bibliography updated by William O'Neill (2005)


views updated May 18 2018

124. Conscience

  1. Aidos ancient Greek personification of conscience. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 14]
  2. Clamence haunted by guilt because he failed to respond when aware that a girl had jumped or fallen into the Seine. [Fr. Lit.: Camus The Fall ]
  3. Cricket, Jiminy dapper mite guides the callow Pinocchio. [Am. Cinema: Pinocchio in Disney Films, 3237]
  4. Elder Statesman, The Lord Claverton ponders the shame of his past, personified by ghosts of his victims. [Br. Drama: T. S. Eliot The Elder Statesman in Magill IV, 262]
  5. Godunov, Boris Tsar suffers pangs of conscience for having murdered the Tsarevitch in order to seize the throne. [Russ. Drama and Opera: Boris Godunov ]
  6. Karamazov, Ivan guilt for wishing his fathers death culminates in hallucinatory conversations with the Devil. [Russ. Lit.: Dostoevsky The Brothers Karamazov ]
  7. Solness, Halyard plagued by awareness of his past ruthlessness and the guilt of defying Gods will. [Nor. Drama: Ibsen The Master Builder in Magill II, 643]
  8. Valdes and Cornelius Good Angel and Evil Angel; symbolize Faustuss inner conflict. [Br. Lit.: Doctor Faustus ]
  9. Wilson, William his Doppelganger irrupts at occasions of duplicity. [Am. Lit.: William Wilson in Portable Poe, 5782]


views updated May 21 2018

conscience a clean conscience is a good pillow there are a number of traditional ways of expressing the notion that a clear conscience enables its possessor to sleep soundly, even, as a well-attested variant claims, through a thunderstorm (as in Shakespeare's Macbeth, ‘I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies, And sleep in spite of thunder.’ The saying is recorded from the early 18th century.
conscience makes cowards of us all awareness of guilt makes it difficult to face a situation resulting from it. The saying, recorded from the early 17th century, comes originally from Shakespeare's Hamlet, ‘Conscience does make cowards of us all.’ In Richard III (1594), one of the murderers of Clarence, asked ‘Where's thy conscience now?’, replies, ‘I'll not meddle with it—it makes a man a coward.’
prisoner of conscience a person detained or imprisoned because of his or her religious or political beliefs; the term is recorded from the early 1960s, and is particularly associated with the campaigns of Amnesty International.


views updated May 21 2018

con·science / ˈkänchəns/ • n. an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one's behavior: he had a guilty conscience about his desires.PHRASES: in (good) conscience by any reasonable standard; by all that is fair: they have in conscience done all they could.on one's conscience weighing heavily and guiltily on one's mind.DERIVATIVES: con·science·less adj.


views updated Jun 08 2018


The moral dimension of human consciousness, the means by which humans modify instinctual drives to conform to laws and moral codes.

Sigmund Freud viewed the conscience as one of two components of the superego , the other being the ego-ideal. In this scheme, the conscience prevents people from doing things that are morally wrong, and the ego-ideal motivates people to do things that are considered morally right. This theory suggests that the conscience is developed by parents, who convey their beliefs to their children. They in turn internalize these moral codes by a process of identification with a parent.

Other psychologists have proposed different theories about the development of the conscience.

See also Moral development

Further Reading

Weissbud, Bernice. "How Kids Develop a Conscience." Parents' Magazine (December 1991): 156.


views updated Jun 27 2018

conscience XIII. — (O)F. — L. conscientia privity of knowledge, consciousness, f. conscīre know or be privy with (another or oneself); see CON- and SCIENCE.
So conscientious XVII. conscionable conscientious, scrupulous, XVI. f. †conscions, var. of conscience, + -ABLE; now familiar in unconscionable, conscious †privy to a thing with another or within oneself; aware of. XVII. f. L. conscius, f. CON- + *sci-, base of scīre know.


views updated May 29 2018

Conscience: see ETHICS (CHRISTIANITY).