I. Definition

Conscience is a faculty of the mind that motivates us to act morally—or at least according to our most deeply held values.  Most say it is a form of intuition and uses emotion, although others have argued that it should be shaped by reason.  It is a private experience, and a form of self-knowledge; from one’s conscience one can learn one’s own values and morals.  This is the root of the word, from the latin con-scientia, perhaps translatable as “together-with-knowing” – to be together with one’s knowledge (of morality).

Yet, conscience has been thought by many to be informed by an objective morality, with divine, transcendental, or natural sources.  Even in our society, where we ostensibly recognize the cultural and personal relativity of morality, conscience is granted a special status, with laws protecting the rights of doctors and others not to violate their consciences.  So, conscience is private, subjective, and culturally relative, but carries legal and political weight.

There are many different ideas about conscience—religious, philosophical, scientific, legal, and popular:

  • Religious: in most religions, the morality that informs conscience does or should come from either God, or an enlightened mind. Religions differ as to whether conscience is thought of mainly as a punisher (e.g. Catholic) or as a virtue to be cultivated (e.g. Protestant, Buddhist).
  • Philosophical: many philosophers have written that a truly moral conscience requires the exercise of reason; others have claimed that it is an intuition of objective moral truth. Pre-modern philosophers tended to believe in a natural and objective morality informing conscience—something like a truly moral instinct.  Modern philosophers tend to recognize the cultural and individual relativity of morality, and many present arguments based on scientific theories about mind, evolution, and society.
  • Scientific: such as theories in evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and sociology.
  • Legal: Our society seems to recognize “freedom of conscience” – that we should be free to obey our consciences – within limits. Considering that we don’t have a clear or unified philosophy of conscience, this raises legal, political, and social issues.
  • Popular: Our everyday notions of conscience are philosophically interesting. Consider that conscience is a part of us opposing actions that we ourselves apparently already consider immoral, but are in danger of doing anyway.  It seems a little paradoxical.  Why do we need a conscience? Evolutionary theory most likely has the answer (see “History” section)

Thought about conscience is so diverse and complex that a comprehensive treatment is not possible. This seems another paradox about conscience; we know it most intimately in ourselves, but there is no consensus about where it comes from, or how much it should be respected.


II. Controversies about Conscience

Freedom of conscience is part of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, and the laws of many nations.  Yet we have reason to question the idea.  Former Nazi generals have told interviewers that they acted with a clear conscience, because their actions were sanctioned by their leadership and society.  This would be consistent with ideas about conscience as a social instinct, but not necessarily an altruistic one as Darwin thought—perhaps conscience merely urges us to conform with the mores of our society or belief-systems.

Freedom of conscience is problematic because it’s perfectly possible for people’s consciences to insist on actions that most of consider harmful to other human beings—such as refusing to vaccinate their children.

There are several traditional arguments in favor of freedom of conscience:

  • The argument from hypocrisy or ineffectiveness: Most people agree that it is impossible to change a person’s conscience from the outside; therefore, not granting freedom of conscience means requiring people to act contrary to their beliefs, which seems wrong. This was a reason to consider persecuting heretics ineffective from the medieval Catholic point of view; but Aquinas and others then justified it for other reasons.

However, the argument from hypocrisy can be turned around; if you can’t change a person’s conscience, then they still have freedom of conscience, even if you force them to behave in a certain way.

  • The argument from ignorance: This is based on the recognition of relativism and subjectivism. If our consciences don’t give us objective moral guidance, then you can’t assume that yours is right and another’s wrong, therefore you don’t have a right to deny them freedom of conscience.
  • The argument from legitimization: John Stuart Mill argued that it is best for society if all people express their convictions freely, for that will make it possible, through comparison and debate, to better approach truth.

However, none of these arguments completely addresses the conflicts between freedom of conscience and public well-being.  Some might say that a doctor who refuses to perform a life-saving operation out of conscience should be charged with negligence or even manslaughter.  While others might feel that performing the operation is murder. The precise limits of freedom of conscience are still an open debate with profound consequences.


III. Quotes about Conscience

Quotation #1:

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

This quote seems to represent the way most of us naturally think of conscience—assuming that conscience is always right, as if it’s a direct line to God or some other source of objective moral knowledge.  This also implies that it is right to obey conscience even if opposes one’s social and legal environment.  One the one hand, these could be incorrect and dangerous assumptions; on the other, we could never change injustice in our society, like Dr. King, without sometimes trusting conscience over social norms.

Quotation #2:

“[T]he infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.” ― Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays

Bertrand Russel cuts to the heart of the problem with everyday notions about the sacred truth of conscience.  People who were certain they knew the moral truth and followed their conscience have included members of the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusaders, the Nazis, and most terrorists.  Such people did indeed invent hell!

Quotation #3:

“A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.” ― Mark Twain

This one speaks for itself!


IV. Types of Conscience

There are no ‘types of conscience’ recognized by philosophers except ‘critical conscience’ which means the application of critical reasoning to ethical decisions.  Many religious web-pages list their own types of conscience, in light of their beliefs.

Conscience versus Sociopathy

Sociopaths are, arguably, individuals with no conscience.  They are also defined as incapable of feeling empathy, guilt, fear, or shame at hurting others or violating any notion of morality.  Interestingly, psychologists say that sociopaths understand morality and may even agree with the moral values of their society.  They lack only the brain connection between those values and the emotions that would prevent them from hurting others, enabling them to act without remorse.  Most experts claim that it is an incurable condition and neuroscientific research shows concrete differences between normal and sociopathic brains.  Ironically, then sociopaths seem to be evidence that a capacity for conscience is innate in normal humans.


V. History of Conscience

Before cultural relativity and subjectivism came into vogue during the 20th century, conscience was considered a source of objective moral knowledge by almost everyone, however in different senses in different cultures.  In ancient Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, knowledge of good and evil was thought to be the natural long-term result of practicing moral action and correct contemplation–in Hindu thought, through the accumulation of good karma, in Buddhist and Taoist thought, through purification of the heart and mind. Moral knowledge in these belief-systems was an aspect of enlightened mind—true knowledge of the nature of self and reality. Ironically though, each belief system had different ideas about the content of this truth, and morality.  In Hinduism, it was primarily about self-sacrifice, in Buddhism compassion, and in Taoism, harmony with society and nature.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam represented a very different conception, arguably.  All three religions are supposed to accept the story of Genesis which says that man’s acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil was a fall from grace, ‘original sin.’  Therefore, according to some interpretations, following one’s own intuitions is more likely a source of sin than morality.  Instead, obedience to God’s law is thought the only true morality.  This would mean that true conscience is knowledge of God’s law, whether that comes directly from God, or through obedience to scripture or clergy; all these possibilities—direct revelation, scripture, and obedience to authorities–have been claimed as the source of moral knowledge in these religions.  However, in practice, these religions also teach purification of the mind to attain true conscience; where Eastern religions teach that a pure mind allows the truth to emerge from within one’s own consciousness, most versions of the Abrahamic religions see a pure mind as a prerequisite for receiving God’s truth.

Greek and Roman thought emphasized reason and knowledge in making moral decisions, a tradition beginning with Aristotle’s ideas about the development of virtuous character and wisdom through reason and practice.  This is also true of Judaism, known for its Talmud, a body of writing devoted to interpreting scripture and applying it to ethical issues through rational analysis and debate.

Despite the emphasis on blind obedience in Christianity, medieval Christian philosophers developed a theory of conscience with a strong role for both intuition and reasoning.  St. Bonaventure and St. Aquinas wrote of synderesis – a divine spark of moral knowledge – which could only come to a mind which had been cultivated by reason and contemplation to overcome the distortions and corruption of social conditioning.

In the 17th century, Spinoza similarly wrote that it was necessary to practice and develop reason to transcend socially conditioned emotions and perceptions.  However instead of positing a diving spark as the source of moral truth, Spinoza said that if you view problems from the perspective of eternity, with a peaceful mind, you will perceive moral truth.   Kant also regarded critical reasoning as an important element of conscience, believing that moral truth could be evaluated objectively in light of his ‘categorical imperative.’  Other 18th century philosophers believed that conscience was purely intuitive, excluding reason, but like Kant, many of them also believed in the objectivity of the moral truth informing conscience.

From the 18th century on, increasing numbers of philosophers spoke for pragmatic and relativistic ideas about conscience.  John Locke wrote about how a moral conscience might oppose the laws of the state, and Thomas Hobbes insisted that opinions based on conscience could easily be wrong or in contradiction to other people’s consciences.  So, these and other philosophers also advocated for a ‘critical conscience’–and some skepticism about the dictates of conscience in general.

In the 19th century, Darwin hypothesized that conscience evolved to resolve conflicts between instincts, such as between instincts for self-preservation and instincts to protect and cooperate with other human beings.

In the 20th century, Freud analyzed conscience as an effect of the super-ego; as we grow up, natural instincts such as aggression and sexual desire must be frequently frustrated, and even punished, by parents and peers, in order for us to develop into well-adjusted members of society.  This process creates the super-ego, where we internalize the beliefs, implicit or explicit, about right and wrong in our culture and the super-ego causes us to feel guilt or anxiety when we violate them.

Where Darwin said that conscience evolved to resolve inner conflicts, other more recent evolutionary psychologists suggest that it evolved to motivate altruistic behavior, which is now thought to be evolutionarily adaptive for social creatures.

Few today would claim that conscience is a source of objective morality, divine, transcendental or otherwise, since it is obvious that two people’s consciences or religions can dictate opposing moralities—such as pro-choice and pro-life.   Therefore, philosophers today are more concerned with exploring the consequences of this relativity of conscience, especially since people still seem to think of conscience as objectively true, sacred, and inviolable. Which leads naturally to our controversy – “freedom of conscience.”


VI. Conscience in Pop Culture

Example #1: Pinocchio

In this clip from the old Disney Pinocchio film, Jiminy Cricket gives the boy who would be human a lecture and song about conscience with the message “always let your conscience be your guide.”  Although that message implies relying on intuitive conscience, it’s interesting that the Cricket first tries to explain something like ‘critical conscience’ to Pinocchio before giving up in confusion and falling back on a traditional Christian notion of conscience—resistance to temptation.

Example #2: Emperor’s New Groove

This scene from the Emperor’s New Groove nicely dramatizes one of the most popular conceptions of conscience in our society—the devil and angel on your shoulders.  This colorful and compelling image seems to imply that true morality consists of righteousness. While following the one that “rocks” is the evil one.  However, instead of emphasizing good vs evil, they both just confuse the guy and he ends up dismissing them both.


Which of the following is an undisputed property of conscience?





Which of the following have people believed to be the source of conscience?





Who believed that true moral intuition depended on cultivating one’s mind?





Which best describes the Catholic notion of conscience?





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