Conscience is an ability or faculty or sense that leads to feelings of remorse when we do things that go against our moral values, or which informs our moral judgment before performing such an action. Such feelings are not intellectually reached, though they may cause us to ‘examine our conscience’ and review those moral precepts, or perhaps resolve to avoid repeating the behavior.
Commonly used metaphors refer to the “voice of conscience” or “voice within.”
Differing Views of Conscience-
Views of conscience are not mutually exclusive, as can be seen by the quotes above, and by many other scholars. Although there is no generally accepted definition of what conscience is or what its role in ethical decision-making is, there are two main factors that determine which stance is adopted.
- Secular views ‘(including the psychological, physiological, sociological, humanitarian and authoritarian views.)’
- Religious views ‘(including the Divine Command Theory, the works of Newman, Aquinas, Butler, Bonhoeffer and so on).’
- Philosophical views ‘(including Hegel‘s Philosophy of Mind)’
Religious views of conscience-
According to some religious perspectives, your conscience is what bothers you when you do evil to your neighbor, or which informs you of the right or wrong of an action before committing it. Doing good to your neighbor doesn’t arouse the conscience to speak, but wickedness inflicted upon the innocent is sure to make the conscience scream. This is because in this world view, God has commanded all men to love their neighbor. Insofar as a man fails to do this, he breaks God’s law and thus his conscience bothers him until he confesses his sin to God and repents of that sin, clearing his conscience. If one persists in an evil way of life for a long period of time, it is referred to as having one’s conscience seared with a hot iron. A lying hypocrite is an example of someone who has ignored their conscience for so long that it fails to function.
Many churches consider following one’s conscience to be as important as, or even more important than, obeying human authority. This can sometimes lead to moral quandaries. “Do I obey my church/military/political leader, or do I follow my own sense of right and wrong?” Most churches and religious groups hold the moral teachings of their sacred texts as the highest authority in any situation. This dilemma is akin to Antigone‘s defiance of King Creon’s order, appealing to the “unwritten law” and to a “longer allegiance to the dead than to the living”; it can also be compared to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, in which he claimed that he had followed Kantian philosophy by simply “doing his job” instead of entering a state of civil disobedience .
In popular culture, the conscience is often illustrated as two entities, an angel and a devil, each taking one shoulder. The angel often stands on the right, the good side; and the devil on the left, the sinister side (left implying bad luck in superstition, and the word sinister coming from the Latin word for left). These entities will then ‘speak out’ to you and try to influence you to make a good choice or bad choice depending on the situation.
The dilemma of listening to and obeying my own God-given conscience, versus teachings dictated from the pulpit, is one I am all too familiar with. Often, these quandaries lead to what I refer to as a “stalemate” or “checkmate”, as in a board game of Chess. When there is a differing of belief or opinion on any given topic, church leaders will likely use a variety of means to “readjust” your thinking, with the hopeful result that your conscience will become more in line with their “scripturally trained” conscience. There has never been a shortage of politicians or religionists who would be only too happy to do everyone else’s thinking for them, conscience isn’t something someone else can do for someone else.
Just as religious leaders used scripture at will to influence my conscience and personal beliefs before I left the religion entirely, my retort has been a quote from 1 Corinthians 10:29:29: “I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience?”