The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Conscience is generally thought of as a moral faculty, sense, or feeling that impels individuals to believe that particular activities are morally right or wrong.

Conscience can prompt different people in quite different directions, depending on their beliefs. One person can feel a moral duty to go to war, another can feel a moral duty to avoid war under any circumstances.

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?"


What is conscience?

The 1913 Webster's dictionary defines conscience in the modern sense as

  • the faculty, power, or inward principle which decides as to the character of one's own actions, purposes, and affections, warning against and condemning that which is wrong, and approving and prompting to that which is right;
  • the moral faculty passing judgment on one's self;
  • the moral sense .

It quotes William Shakespeare's Richard III from the play of the same name as saying:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.

and William Whewell:

As science means knowledge, conscience etymologically means self-knowledge . . . But the English word implies a moral standard of action in the mind as well as a consciousness of our own actions. . . . Conscience is the reason, employed about questions of right and wrong, and accompanied with the sentiments of approbation and condemnation.

Any consideration of conscience must consider the estimate or determination of conscience and the resulting conviction or right or duty.

Adam Smith said:

Conscience supposes the existence of some such [i.e., moral] faculty, and properly signifies our consciousness of having acted agreeably or contrary to its directions.

Differing Views of Conscience

Views about conscience are not mutually exclusive, as can been 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.

  1. Secular views '(including the psychological, sociological, humanitarian and authoritarian views.)'
  2. Religious views '(including the Divine Command Theory, the works of Newman, Aquinas, Butler, Bonhoeffer and so on)'.


St. Thomas Aquinas claimed that it was “reason making right decisions” – so rather than it being "some-thing", it is a process. It must be noted that although Aquinas appears to take on an almost nonchalant view of conscience, he still argued that the reason itself could only come from God. If you are doing good, then it must come from the only source of goodness – God.

For Aquinas, our God-given ability to reason will lead to knowledge of synderesis. Synderesis is an innate awareness of good and evil that cannot be mistaken - we all have this ability to distinguish from good and bad in the same quntity, and feel a moral obligation to act out the synderesis rule - to avoid evil and pursue goodness. Aquinas also descibed synderesis as an awareness of the five primary precepts as proposed in his theory of Natural Law.

Aquinas referred to the conscience as the 'conscientia and defined as the acting out of the informaiton given by synderesis, or the process of judgemnt which acts upon synderesis - the "application of knowledge to activity."

Aquinas also discussed the virtue of prudence to explain why some people appear to be less 'morally enlighened' than others. Prudence is the most important of all virtues, as it helps us balance our own needs with those of others and to reason out the knowledge of synderesis. Our conscience may be mistaken if we haven't acquired enough of the virtue of prudence, which can lead to a breakdown of communication between synderesis and conscientia.

To claify things, take the analogy of a locked safe. The safe itself is the moral knowledge of synderesis, the key to the safe of moral knowledge is the virtue of prudence, and the hands of practical application that apply the key to unlock the safe is the conscientia.

Aquianas reasoned that acting contrary to your conscience is as evil action, since although it may be mistaken at times, it is our only guide. The 'erring conscience' as Aquinas termed it, explains the differences that may arise in different people's concientia. You have an erring consciene if you are mistaken or confused about the moral course of aciton. The question could be raised however: is an erring conscience blame worthy? For Aquinas, an erring conscience is only blame worthy if it is the result of culpable or 'vincible' ignorence of factors that are within one's duty to have knowledge of. If however, an erring conscience is the result of an invincible ignorence of factors that are beyond your control, your actions are not culpable. One must also be aware of Aquinas’ distinction between real and apparent goods. Although real goods may be from God, apparent goods (when we follow the wrong path believing it to be a real good) are not. An erring conscience may lead us down the path of an apparent good, which will not lead to human flourishing.

Aquinas reasoned that we should educate our consciences in order to act well and bring our selves in line with the church. He also distinguished between a forwards and backwards looking consience. Although it should be applied before an action, it may cause feelings of 'reatus' (guilt) or satisfaction after and action.

Joseph Butler

Joseph Butler argued that it is God given and should always be obeyed. Butler also said that it is intuitive, as we have the ability to perceive things beyond empirical evidence, and it is therefore it is considered the ‘constitutional monarch’ and the ‘universal moral faculty’. It would appear that Butler is in striking accordance with Situation Ethics – Fletcher was also an Anglican Priest, which may have played some part in this. Butler refers to the use of ‘self-love’ and ‘benevolence’ in conscience, which can be attributed to the Agape of Situational Ethics . As Situational Ethics is teleological and assesses each scenario on an individual basis, it would stand to reason that it supports the use of conscience in every decision. However, as Vardy claims, there is no such thing as a conscience in Situational Ethics – only the attempts of making appropriate decisions in situations. One could argue that these ‘attempts’ are in fact the conscience itself, and it therefore does support its use in decision-making.

More information to follow soon. Feel free to extend.

Medieval conceptions of conscience

The medieval schoolmen made a distinction between conscience and a closely related concept called synderesis. However, there is evidence that this is an artificial distinction, and that the two terms originally meant the same thing.

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" (ibid., 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 Church warns that "rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching...can be at the source of errors in judgment in moral conduct" (ibid., paragraph 1792).

Conscientious acts

A "conscientious objector" is an individual whose personal beliefs are incompatible with military service, or sometimes with any role in the armed forces. The reasons for refusing to serve are varied. Many conscientious objectors are so for religious reasons -- notably, the Quakers are pacifist by doctrine. Other objections can stem from a deep sense of responsibility toward humanity as a whole, or from simple denial that any government should have that kind of moral authority.

Amnesty International has created the term prisoner of conscience to mean a person imprisoned for their conscientious beliefs.


In law, a conscience clause is a clause in a law that relieves an individual from complying with the law if it incompatibile with religious or conscientious beliefs.

Other Wikipedia links

Last updated: 05-07-2005 17:33:10
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04