The conscience refers to a person's sense of right and wrong. Having a conscience involves being aware of the moral rightness or wrongness of one's actions, or the goodness or badness of one's intentions. In a Christian context, conscience is often conceived as a faculty by which God's moral laws are known to human beings. Being 'judged' by one's conscience can lead to guilt and other 'punitive' emotions.

The elements of conscience

Conscience refers to a person's sense of right and wrong. Having a conscience involves being aware of the moral rightness or wrongness of one's actions, or the goodness or badness of one's intentions. In philosophical, religious, and everyday senses, the notion of conscience may include the following separable elements.

Firstly, conscience may refer to the moral principles and values that a person endorses. In this sense, one can be said to go against conscience, where this means going against one's basic moral convictions. (See also normative ethics; ethics)

Secondly, conscience may refer to a faculty whereby human beings come to know basic moral truths. This faculty has been described variously as “the voice of God,” “the voice of reason,” or as a special “moral sense.” For example, in Romans 2: 14-15, Saint Paul describes conscience as “bearing witness” to the law of God “inscribed” on the hearts of Gentiles. This conception of conscience, as a faculty by which God's moral laws are known to human beings, is continued in the writings of the Church fathers such as Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine.

A third aspect closely associated with conscience pertains to self-scrutiny: conscience involves a person's examination of his or her own desires, and actions, and connects with sentiments of self-evaluation, such as guilt, shame, regret and remorse. This aspect of conscience is encapsulated in the expression “pangs of conscience,” which designates the painful experience of being found morally wanting by the lights of one's own self-scrutiny. Living with painful emotions such as guilt and shame are elements in a “bad conscience” (see also Nietzsche).

The role of emotions such as guilt in a functioning conscience is not subsidiary to rational evaluation. On occasion, one may become aware of having done something wrong by experiencing the emotions of self-assessment-these may be indicators that something is morally amiss-even before one knows what this is. It is also important that acts of self-scrutiny need not come about by will, that is, though decisions to morally evaluate oneself; in one of the most important modern discussions of the moral significance of conscience, Joseph Butler put this point elegantly, writing that conscience “magisterially exerts itself without being consulted, and without being advised with… ” (Sermon II).

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.1

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.

Biblical references often cited regarding conscience

  • 1 Timothy 4:1,2: "Now the Spirit speaks expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron."
  • Romans 2:14-15: " When Gentiles who do not possess the law carry out its precepts by the light of nature, then, although they have no law, they are their own law; they show that what the law requires is inscribed on their hearts, and to this theur conscience gives supporting witness, since their own thoughts argue the case, sometimes against them, sometimes even for them."

Conscience in Catholic theology

Conscience, in Catholic theology, is "a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1778). Catholics are called to examine their conscience before confession.

Obedience to conscience has been claimed by many dissenters as a God-given right, from Martin Luther, who said (or reputedly said), "Here I stand, I can do no other," to progressive Catholics who disagree with certain doctrines or dogmas. The Church eventually agreed, saying, "Man has the right to act according to his conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1782). In certain situations involving individual personal decisions that are incompatible with church law, some pastors rely on the use of the internal forum solution.

However, the Catholic Church has warned that "rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching… can be at the source of errors in judgment in moral conduct" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1792).

Conscience in Protestant theology

The Reformation began with Luther's crisis of conscience. And for many Protestants, following one's consciences could rank higher than obedience to church authorities or accepted interpretations of the Bible. One example of a Protestant theologian who caused his church to rethink the issue of conscience was William Robertson Smith of the Free Church of Scotland. Tried for heresy because of his use of modern methods of interpreting the Old Testament, he received only a token punishment. However the case contributed to a situation in which many Protestant denominations allow a wide variety of beliefs and practices to be held by their members in accordance with their conscience (see Presbyterianism#Doctrine).

Notable philosophical conceptions of conscience

The Church Fathers

The notion of conscience (Latin: conscientia) in not found in ancient Greek ethical writings. However, Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of the soul as possessing a reasoning faculty, which is responsible for choosing the correct course of action (Greek: orthos logos = right reason) were important antecedents to the conception of conscience developed in the patristic period of Christianity. Following on from the writings of Saint Paul, early Christian philosophers were concerned with the question of how pagans, who had not come to know the revealed truth of God, could justly be deprived of the means to salvation. Their response was to claim that all human beings possess a natural moral faculty-conscience-so that pagans could also come to know God's moral laws (also revealed through revelation), and hence live morally good lives. In this respect, Saint Jerome introduced the notion of synderesis (or synteresis) to refer to a moral faculty whereby we “discern that we sin,” describing synderesis as a “spark of conscience, which was not even extinguished in the breast of Cain after he was turned out of paradise… ”

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Probably because of a misinterpretation of Saint Jerome, medieval philosophers supported a sharp distinction between synderesis and conscience. Thomas Aquinas, for example, argues that the most basic principle of human conduct-that good is to be pursued and evil to be avoided-is known by the faculty of synderesis. However this basic principle is too general to help one know how to act in particular circumstances. Even if one aims to choose good, and aims to refrain from bad, this still leaves the question of which actions are good and which ones are bad in the situation. On Aquinas' model, conscience is conceived as filling this gap. Conscience is a capacity that enables man to derive more specific principles (e.g. thou shall not kill), and also to apply these principles to a given circumstance. Even though the synderesis rule (“Do good and eschew evil”) is held to be infallible, errors in conscience are possible because one may make mistakes in deriving specific rules of conduct, or alternatively, make mistakes in applying these rules to the situation.

In Summa Theologica Thomas Aquinas discusses the moral problem of the “erring conscience.” Given that Aquinas conceives of the synderesis rule (“Do good and eschew evil”) as self-evident, an erring conscience refers either to a mistaken set of basic moral principles and values, or an inability to know which principles apply in the particular case. The moral problem of the erring conscience is that one does wrong in doing what is objectively bad. However, one also does wrong in going against conscience, that is, in doing what one believes to be bad. So, either way, the person with a distorted conscience does wrong: “unless he put away his error he cannot act well.”

Joseph Butler

One of the most sophisticated modern discussions of conscience is found in the writings of Joseph Butler. Butler analyzes man's nature into a hierarchy of motivations: there are, first, the particular passions such as a hunger, thirst, and other bodily needs, compassion, love, and hate; secondly, there are there are the principles of benevolence and self-love; roughly speaking, benevolence is a desire for the happiness of others, whereas self-love is a desire for one's own happiness. The third and most important part of Butler's analysis of human nature is conscience, which he claims to be essential to man's being a moral agent (Sermons). Butler conceives of conscience as a principle of reflection that “judges acts right or wrong and characters and motives virtuous or vicious.” He also describes conscience as a “sentiment of the understanding” and “a perception of the heart.”

On Butler's analysis a virtuous person is someone who has all his parts functioning in a proper hierarchy. This means that particular passions are controlled by the self-love and benevolence, and these (and the particular passions) are in turn controlled by conscience. According to Butler, then, conscience rules supreme in the virtuous person.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Christian thinkers have tended to focus on conscience's fundamental importance as a moral guide. Nietzsche, by contrast, focuses attention on what happens when conscience becomes unhealthy, that is, the notion of “bad conscience.” Nietzsche's discussion of conscience is part of his account of the genealogy of morality, and the attendant notion of guilt. Nietzsche conceives of “bad conscience” as involving a sense of guilt and unworthiness, which comes about when one's aggressive impulses fail to be expressed externally, so that they are suppressed and are turned inwards, directed against the self. Nietzsche's solution to the problem of “bad conscience” involves a rejection of the morality system, which he regards as “life-denying,” and the presentation of an alternative “life-affirming” set of values.

Sigmund Freud

The “self-punitive” strand in conscience, criticized by Nietzsche, has also been discussed by Sigmund Freud (see also psychoanalysis). On Freud's conceptual model, the human person is divided into id, ego, and superego. The primitive 'it', or id, is a natural repository of basic instincts, which Freud divides into life (eros) and death (thanatos) drives. Life drives are concerned with affection, and love, while death drives yield motives such as envy and hate. The ego (“das Ich”-German: “the I”) and super-ego develop out of the id. On Freud's analysis, conscience is identified with super-ego, which is an internalization of the moral authority of parental figures (particularly the father). Guilt arises from the super-ego in response to aggressive or sexual impulses arising from the id, which are subject to the moral evaluation of the internalized moral authority. Conscience, or super-ego, is much more severe than a person's actual parents; it can be a source of substantial anxiety and guilt, and sometimes, in severe cases, of suicide.

See also

  • Consciousness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Moral value
  • Guilt
  • Ethics
  • Freedom
  • Inner light
  • John Locke, in particular An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, chapter XXVII "Of Identity and Diversity" where he defines consciousness
  • Light of Christ
  • Morality
  • Moral philosophy
  • Moral repugnance
  • Original sin
  • Reason


  1. ↑ See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963. Retrieved August 22, 2007.

References and further reading

  • Aquinas, T. 1266-73. Summa theologiae (Synopsis of Theology), ed. T. Gilby. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1970, vol. 11, Ia.79.11-13; 1966, vol. 18, IaIIae.19.5-8.
  • Bennett, J. 1974. "The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn," Philosophy 49: 123-34.
  • Butler, J. 1726. Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, Sermons I, II, III, XI, XII; repr. In Five Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel and A Dissertation Upon the Nature of Virtue, ed. S. Darwall. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Pub. Co., 1983. ISBN 0915145618 ISBN 9780915145614
  • D'Arcy, E. 1961. Conscience and Its Right to Freedom. London: Sheed and Ward.
  • Davies, Brian. 1992. The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. Clarendon Press, Oxford. ISBN 0198264585 ISBN 9780198264583 ISBN 0198267533 ISBN 9780198267539
  • Dolan, Joseph V. 1971. "Conscience in the Catholic Theological Tradition." In Conscience: Its Freedom and Limitations, William C. Bier (editor). Fordham University Press, N. Y. ISBN 0823209059 ISBN 9780823209057
  • Freud, S. 1912. "Totem Und Tabu," IMAGO 1: 213-27, 301-333; trans. and ed. J. Strachey, "Totem and Taboo," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 13. London: Hogarth Press, 1955, part II, "Totem and Emotional Ambivalence." ISBN 0876681356 ISBN 9780876681350
  • -. 1927. Die Zukunft Einer Illusion, Leipzig, Vienna and Zurich: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag; trans. and ed. J. Strachey, The Future of an Illusion, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 21. London: Hogarth Press, 1955. ISBN 0876681356 ISBN 9780876681350
  • -. 1930. Das Unbehagen In Der Kultur, Leipzig, Vienna and Zurich: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag; trans. and ed. J. Strachey, Civilisation and its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 21. London: Hogarth Press, 1955. ISBN 0876681356 ISBN 9780876681350
  • Langston, Douglas C. Conscience and Other Virtues. From Bonaventure to MacIntyre. The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 2001. ISBN 0271020709 ISBN 9780271020709
  • Nietzsche, F. 1887. Zur Genealogie der Moral; trans. M. Clark and A. Swensen as On the Genealogy of Morality, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
  • Potts, Timothy C. 1980. Conscience in Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0521232872 ISBN 9780521232876
  • Potts, T.C. 1982. Conscience, in N. Kretzmann, A. Kenny, J. Pinborg (eds.). The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521226058 ISBN 9780521226059
  • Zachman, Randall C. 1993. The Assurance of Faith. Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Augusburg Fortress Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0800625749 ISBN 9780800625740