Conscience

This unit is a discussion on our thought process and how we think about our actions. We often think about what we ‘should’ do, which can either be ethical or prudential.

Task: What do we mean when we refer to ‘conscience’?

1. Conscience as the voice of God.St Augustine of Hippo and John Henry Newman both thought that Conscience was the voice of God, speaking within the individual. 
2. Conscience as a Human Faculty.There is a debate raging over whether a person’s moral sense is the result of “Nurture” or “Nature”. At a popular level, this debate is being played out on TV Screens whenever a murder is committed, or when Public sensibilities are offended by some individual’s behaviour. On a more profound level, psychological and sociological research has examined the way that the conscience is developed, and how this development takes palce. 
3. Conscience as the Voice of Reason. Some people regard morally “good” behaviour as the most sensible or practical answer to a moral dilemma. They would argue that the “best” course of action is “common sense”, and regard the use of conscience as the process by which this decision making takes place. Religious philosophers have argued that “Reason” is a gift from God, and God intended it to be used for moral decision making. 
4. Conscience as a Special Moral Sense.Some people have argued that we have a “moral sense” in the same way that we have aesthetic tastes. A moral sense could then be trained, ignored or even perverted. The sense is based on something instinctive.

The essence of this topic is a debate about an internal morality. It is the faculty or capacity of human beings to reach personal judgment or to distinguish right from wrong. It may draw on codified moral principles as well as social norms, but unlike traditional normative ethics, such as Utilitarianism and Kant, Conscience is not an explicitly designed ethic, devised by specific theorists, with rules and guidelines set down to be followed.

Instead, it is closer to agent-centered ethics, such as Virtue Ethics, as it looks at the individual’s own moral code. Having said that, it is not as prescribed as agent-centered theories either.

As unique as the individual, one’s conscience can be considered an internal ethic, influenced perhaps by our own experiences and our own appreciation of what is right and wrong.

By examining the various perspectives on what conscience is, it becomes easier to see how it can be a moral guide; and question the legitimacy of claims to its infallibility. If conscience is a divinely given principle of reflection, its authority would appear to be greater than if it is something developed through our interaction of society with no reference to God. As such, looking at the origins of conscience can allow us to analyse claims of the authoritative nature of conscience further.

Of course, our consciences are not always obeyed and this disobedience can be caused by a variety of different things, causing a variety of consequences.

The crux of the debate can be seen to revolve around three main areas:

  1. The origins of conscience
  2. The authority of conscience
  3. The disobeying of conscience

Ethicists distinguish between two ways in which the conscience works:

  • Judicial Conscience – This is the process by which we judge past actions. This is the sort of thing done when a person goes to Confession (usually in a Roman Catholic Church).
  • Legislative Conscience – This is the process by which we decide on future actions. This is the sort of thing done when a person decides on what course of action or behaviour would be the most appropriate.

Abu Ghraib prison was a US Army detention center for captured Iraqis from 2003 to 2006. An investigation into the treatment of detainees at the prison was prompted by the discovery of graphic photos depicting guards abusing detainees in 2003. Eleven US soldiers were convicted of crimes relating to the Abu Ghraib scandal. Seven of those were from Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company. A number of other service members were not charged but reprimanded.

Task: Watch the video on the Abu Ghraib trial. Explain a theory about why good people can become evil. Is conscience fixed?

Task: Read about the Milgram experiment and the Zimbardo experiment. How do these suggest that good people can become evil?

Divine command theory is the belief that things are right because God commands them to be. In other words, it means that things which are considered wrong or unethical are wrong because they are forbidden by God. Some Christians believe that the conscience is the voice of God. God is speaking to individuals, guiding them to do the right thing in a given situation.

They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

Romans 2:15

Task: Read the quote above which implies that people should know right from wrong intuitively. Jehovah’s witnesses are Christians. They refuse blood transfusions as they feel it
violates God’s law as expressed in a number of biblical passages. (Genesis 9:3,4.
Acts 15:19-21). However, if the child of two Jehovah’s Witnesses was in desperate need of a blood transfusion and a doctor was able to override the decision of the parents, whose conscience should be followed? Who is right and why?

Task: Write a paragraph arguing that conscience comes from God and a paragraph arguing that conscience comes from society.

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