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The Bible and Conscience
The Old Testament speaks of the true heart that interiorizes the divine law.. 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
Paul uses the term - often translated as 'conscience' and 'heart' - to describe the
human ability to know and choose the good. He said right from wrong is written on our
"When outsiders who have never heard of God's law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm
its truth by their obedience" - Romans 2:14, 15, The Message
Aquinas said "Reason in man is rather like God in the world."
He 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 develop Prudence.
As with Paul, Aquinas said that a person's conscience could go wrong, either 'invincibly',
through no fault of their own, or 'vincibly' - through our own fault.
To Aquinas, conscience isn't a 'feeling' in your heart, like the guilt you feel when confronted
with a homeless man. It is the process of reasoning, moving from the Primary Precepts
(such as 'It is right to protect and preserve the innocent') to secondary precepts (such as 'It is
wrong to give money to people who beg on the streets').
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Butler was a Bishop in the Church of England. He believed, as Aquinas did, that
we have a God-given ability to reason.
Butler would say that we must listen to our conscience because it allows us to act
as a moral judge.
It is an ability to use reason to weigh up factors in a moral decision.…read more
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Freud was a psychiatrist.
Two key aspects of his approach are the assertion that sexual desire is the prime
motivating drive in all humans, and the importance of the unconscious mind.
Freud's theory of the conscience is entirely at odds with all of the positions
He saw the conscience as part of the unconscious mind, and believed that it
arose as a result of bad experiences early in life, as well as disapproval from parents
and society.…read more