Biblical Passages that relate to conscience

  • 'For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do.' (Romans 7:19) - Paul struggles with the way his actions conflict with his inner sense of right and wrong.
  • 'So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.' (Genesis 1:27) - some see the conscience as an aspect of humanity made in the image of God, created with the ability to discern right from wrong.
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Aquinas' theological approach to conscience

  • Aquinas did not think that the conscience was an independent special facility or power capable of telling people what is right and wrong. He thought that the conscience is an aspect of human reason.
  • Aquinas thought reason is what separates us from other animals. He called this reason ratio.
  • He believed reason is a gift from God, placed in every person because everyone is made in God's image (Genesis 1:27)
  • Ration enables us to work things out and make judgements about them. 
  • Aquinas thought that within each person there is a principle called synderesis that aims to do good and avoid evil.
  • Aquinas thought that our consciences are binding because it is wrong to go against reason. He thought that we should do what we think is right and that we also have a duty to make sure our reason is well informed when we make moral decisions. 
  • People cannot be blamed if they follow their consciences when they make moral judgements based on the best of their knowledge, but people can sometimes do the wrong thing due to ignorance.
  • Ignorance is divided into vincible and invincible ignorance.
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Aquinas 2

Vincible Ignorance = is a lack of knowledge which the person could have done something about. If people do the wrong thing through ignorance when they could have informed themselves better, then they are blameworthy.

Invincible Ignorance= is the opposite. Sometimes people act in good faith and follow their consciences but they get things wrong because of ignorance of facts they could not have been expected to know anything about. They cannot be blamed for this.

Newman - "to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards." showing his belief that conscience should take priority even over the teachings of the Catholic Chuch. Responsibility for moral actions falls on the individual. (was a Cardinal)

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Criticisms of Aquinas

  • It could be argued that Aquinas does not take into account the extent to which our moral reasoning is influenced by our upbringing and our society. What seems to be conscience could be the values of society we have learned.
  • Some disagree that the conscience is the human mind making moral decisions, and think that instead it comes more directly from God (Augustine, Butler and Newman)
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Freud's psychological approach to the conscience

  • Freud believed that the conscience is not rational decision-making but comes from an inner unconscious part of our minds that has been shaped by our upbringing.
  • Freud thought that the way the mind works is closely linked to sexuality. He thought there are five stages of psychosexual development.
  • Freud identified three aspects of the human personality:

1. The Ego - manages and guides the id. The ego learns from parents and from society about behavious that is considered appropriate in different social settings. The ego manages the id's feelings of frustration when immediate gratification is not possible. The ego acts in some ways as the conscience because it remembers which actions are appropriate and inappropriate.

2. The id - is a powerful part of our personalities within us from birth.It leads us to seek pleasure and it wants immediate gratification.

3. The Super- Ego - is where the mind 'stores' moral teaching and social rules recieved from upbringing. Religious and moral feelings as well as conscience are in Freud's view related to the super-ego.

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Freud 2

  • The three aspects of the mind are not totally separate but interrelate in dynamic ways.
  • For Freud, the conscience arises from the interplay between the id, the ego and the super-ego. Our feelings about different actions arise because of the ways our minds have developed.

Fromm - developed Freud's ideas. Wrote of immature and mature conscience. The immature conscience is based on an unthinking response to feelings of guilt, whereas the mature conscience involves rational thinking and decision making.

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Criticisms of Freud

  • Freud does not consider the possibility of there being any relation between the conscience and God, he dismisses the idea of God without discussion.
  • Many thinkers believe that Freud puts too great an emphasis on human sexuality as underpinning every aspect of psychology. rather than looking at a wider range of possible influences on the human mnd.
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Similarities of Aquinas and Freud

  • Both understand the conscience as an individual making moral decisions.
  • Both think the conscience can sometimes be in opposition to whatever the majority popular view held by sociey might be.
  • Both think the conscience can be shaped and educated.
  • Both see the conscience as something other than the direct voice of God.
  • Both agree that guilt can be disruptive for humanity. Both see a link between guilt and human desires for sensual pleasure.
  • Parallels can be drawn between Aquinas' understanding of the effective operation of reason in the cultivation of synderesis in a person of good character, and Freud's understanding of the mentally healthy state of balance between the id, the ego and the super ego. Both saw the importance of balance.
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Differences between Aquinas and Freud

  • Aquinas sees the conscience as the activity of God given reason. Freud does not include the idea of God at all in his account of the conscience.
  • Aquinas sees wrongdoing in terms of sin and right and wrong in terms of the will of God. Freud does not have an idea of right and wrong in terms of absolute values, and sees them in terms of norms in society.
  • Aquinas understands guilt in terms of feelings of being to blame for moral wrongdoing (vincible ignorance). Freud sees guilt in terms of internal-conflict between different aspects of the personality.
  • Aquinas understands the conscience as the workings of the human reason when making moral decisions. Freud understands the conscience to work on a more subconscious level.
  • Aquinas sees the conscience as morally binding. In Freud's view, the conscience does not relate to any kind of absolute right and wrong but reflects the operation of the three personalities.
  • Aquinas was writing in the 13th century when people understood most aspects of the world in terms of theology. Freud was writing the the early 20th century when there has been significant advances in medicine and some development in social sciences.
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