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Theory in detail
The Bible and Conscience
The Old Testament has no word for `conscience', but it does speak of the true heart that interiorizes the divine
law. Some Old Testament figures experience God calling them to live his will or Law at other times they
experience him probing or judging their hearts. Jesus taught his followers to have a pure heart:
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God. Matthew 5:8
What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean', but what comes out of his mouth, that is what
makes him 'unclean' ... the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man
'unclean'. Matthew 15:11,18
This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence
whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if
our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God. 1 John 3:1921
Paul uses the term often translated as 'conscience' and 'heart' to describe the human ability to
know and choose the good. He taught that all people, whether or not they are Christians, know what is right
and wrong. He said it is written on our hearts:
When outsiders who have never heard of God's law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by
their obedience. They show that God's law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into
the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God's yes and no, right and
wrong. (Romans 2:14,15, The Message). More Translations
For Paul, conscience is the universal knowledge of God's law, an inner guiding of our external behaviour. Our
conscience can be corrupted, but through Christ's redeeming love, and the action of the Holy Spirit, we can 'put
on the mind of Christ'.
Aquinas held reason in the highest esteem. He said "Reason in man is rather like God in the world." Most
famously, Aquinas claimed:
To disparage the dictate of reason is equivalent to condemning the command of God.
Augustine had used the term 'synderesis' to mean an innate knowledge of right and wrong. He held that this
was faulty, due to the fall, and that Christians should look to the authority of the Church and Scripture. Aquinas
disagreed, holding that conscience has binding force.
Aquinas thought that practical reason, through reflection on human nature, can determine primary moral
principles (which he called the 'Primary Precepts'). Our 'conscience' then derives secondary principles
('Secondary Precepts') which are applied. As we practice balancing our needs against the needs of others, we
synderesis an innate knowledge of human nature and primary precepts through practical reason
conscientia deriving secondary precepts, and applying them
prudence the virtue of rightreasoning in moral matters, balancing ours and others' needs
As with Paul, Aquinas said that a person's conscience could err (go wrong), either 'invincibly', through no fault
of their own, or 'vincibly' through our own fault. For example, if I give money to a man who is begging on the
streets, I have good intentions, but my actions are actually unhelpful. If I had considered my actions carefully, I
would have seen that I wasn't helping him to improve his situation if anything, my actions would keep him on
the streets longer. I erred 'vincibly', as I would have done differently if I'd thought about it.
Imagine if I'd given the money instead to a homeless charity, who would be able to help this man to find
accommodation, help conquering his addictions etc. A much better thing to do. However, I did not know that
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Supporting the charity was actually the
wrong thing to do, but I couldn't have known this I erred or got it wrong 'invincibly' it wasn't my fault.
A different example the bombing of Dresden. The British government terror bombed Dresden, killing up to
60,000 innocent people. This is a vincible error, as they should have known it was wrong it was their fault,
and they are responsible for what happened.
However, consider a bomb dropped on a weapons factory.…read more
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Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into afterdinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing)
I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.
Newman was merely saying, like Butler and Aquinas before him, that the conscience should have ultimate
Freud was a psychiatrist most famous for founding the psychoanalytic school of psychology.…read more