Overview of the conscience topic.


God-given Conscience


  • Either at conception God gave us conscience or it was imparted to us at some stage later on 
  • For some philosophers, conscience is the tool through which God speaks to them (Butler, Newman, St Augustine)
  • For others it is the ability to reason and determine what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' that comes from God and which is our conscience (Aquinas, St Paul)
  • Conscience is a gift that is required in order for humans to be moral

St Augustine of Hippo saw conscience as the voice of God speaking to us from within. Following our conscience helps us become closer to God.  

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Innate Conscience

Innate within us:

  • Conscience doesn't depend on our experiences or any sort of social conditioning or learning
  • Instead, inside each human there is a conscience that was either part of us when we were created or is part of how our brain is wired due to evolution
  • However, if we all have the the same conscience, why do we not all agree on the same moral values
  • Aquinas believed that even though conscience is innate, it still requires instruction and training
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Conscience instilled by society

Instilled by society:

  • Conscience is a result of society's expectations upon us
  • Something is acceptable if society in general accepts it, therefore our conscience will generally accept these ideas of morality, reflecting society's rules and values
  • The culture in which we are raised plays a large part in the development of our moral reasoning
  • Georg Hegel said that we make our judgements according to the conscience that society formed
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Conscience created by our parents

Instilled by our parents:

  • For most of us, our values and morals originate in our upbringing
  • Morally, we are the products of our parents
  • Piaget's development theory suggests that around the age of ten we accept the morallity of what our parents teach us
  • Even after this age our moral decisions are influenced by the moral awareness instilled by our parents
  • Sociologists also argue that the concept of conscience is significantly reinforced by our upbringing
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Conscience instilled by authority figures

Instilled by authority:

  • Our conscience is formed and moulded by the authority figures we encounter
  • They provide role models for us concerning what is 'right' and 'wrong'
  • This influence can have both positive and negative effects which can explain why people do acts perceived 'wrong' or 'bad'
  • Many serial killers or paedophiles would claim that their reasoning and motivation for the acts they commit  and who they have become are due to negative authority figures in their early years
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Thomas Aquinas

Conscience is the power of reason:

  • Conscience isn't an inner knowledge of right and wrong, but a device or faculty for distinguishing right from wrong actions
  • People basically tend to the good and away from evil (the synderesis rule)
  • Conscience is 'reason malking right decisions'
  • There are two parts to making moral decisions:
    • synderesis is right reason, an awareness of the moral principle to do good and avoid evil
    • conscientia distinguishes between right and wrong and makes moral decisions
  • It is a sin not to follow your conscience
  • When people do evil they are following an apparent good - their conscience is mistaken
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Joseph Butler

Intuitive conscience:

  • Conscience is the final moral decision maker
  • God-given - not the word of God
  • It distinguishes between approval and disapproval of human action
  • Humans are influenced by two basis principles, self-love and benevolence
  • Conscience directs us towards benevolence and away from self-love
  • It is 'our natural guide, the guide assigned us by the Auther of our nature'
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Sigmund Freud

Conscience as guilt:

  • The human psyche is inspired by powerful instinctive desires which have to be satisfied
  • Children learn that the world restricts these desires
  • Humans create the 'ego', which takes account of the realities of the world and society
  • A 'super-ego' internalises and reflects anger and disapproval of others
  • A guilty conscience is created which grows into a life and power of its own, irrespective of the rational thought and reflection of the individual
  • The mature and healthy conscience is the ego's reflection about the best way of achieving integrity
  • The immature conscience (the super-ego) is a mass of feelings of guilt
  • The psychological account of conscience is modern, but can undermine both of the pervious religious views   
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J.H. Newman

'I toast the Pope, but I toast conscience first':

  • Agreed with Aquinas - conscience is the ability to appreciate and apply moral principles
  • However, his approach was more Intuitive - much like Butler
  • When someone is following their conscience they are to an extent following a divine law as given by God
  • Conscience is God's voice giving us moral direction - conscience is more than a sense of reason
  • Conscience detects the truth that already exists
  • You must follow your conscience as it is the divine law
  • Guilt is the consequence of not obeying the voice of God
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J. Piaget

The developmental conscience:

  • Before the age of ten children take their morality from their parents/carers
  • Between the age of 10 and 5 moral rules are seen as inflexible/absolute
  • From the age of 10+ rules a recognised as flexible/to benefit society
  • After this stage their own moral reasoning becomes more prominent due to increasing awareness of morality and society around them
  • This is due to the child's cognitive development
  • Development of conscience is something that is learned from external influences but is also naturally occuring


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Erich Fromm

Instilled by authority:

  • Conscience comes form those around us who exert their authority over us
  • Authority figures have the power to reward us when we do something that by their ethical code is 'right' and punish us when we do something that by their ethical code is 'wrong'
  • This results in us 'picking up' on what actions/behaviours/consequences benefit us and those that don't - this creates our conscience
  • A guilty conscience is a result of displeasing those in authority, therefore we fear some sort of rejection from them - Fromm called this authoritiarian conscience
  • Fromm's perspective on conscience changed over time
  • He said that our conscience enables us to assess our success as a human by evaluating our behaviour according to the examples of others, which enables us to develop traits such as integrity and honesty
  • Fromm called this the humanistic consience - sometimes referring to it as 'the real conscience' or 'a reaction of ourselves to ourselves' 
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Problems with conscience


  • Conscience can be influneced by our emotions or emotional attachments which can cause us to make moral decisions that are subjective and possibly morally dubious
  • Is it necessary to detach our emotions when making decisions according to conscience? 
  • Otherwise will what we do merely be what we think is 'right'?

Exceptions to conscience:

  • Some psychologists are suggesting that some people have no conscience
  • They say that the Moors Murderers or the James Bulgar killers did not have any conscience
  • If conscience comes from God, why do some people not appear to have one?
  • If the conscience is developed through childhood, why do some people not possess this inner moral sense?
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Vicki Hellard


Thanks!! Excellent summary of conscience!! 

Charlotte Tyler





yaaaaay <3

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