Humanist Perspectives: issue 151: What is Conscience?

practical philosophy
What is Conscience?
by Trudy Govier

illustration by Zela Lobb

“Let conscience be your guide.” But what is ‘conscience?’ We often think of it as a kind of a voice in the head, telling us what’s right or wrong — a ‘better self’ within, representing the claims of morality. Each person is assumed to have an individual conscience, urging moral action or restraint. But what voice speaks to us as the voice of conscience? What is the source of its authority?

For religious believers, ready answers seem to be available: conscience is the voice of God and its teachings are divinely certified — hence their authority. Such a conception raises problems even within a theological frame of reference — and it is clearly not available for non-believers. Humanists who use the notion of conscience face the challenge of making sense of it in some other way.

We tend to think of conscience as though each person has within a kind of inner moral authority that articulates sound principles and applies them appropriately to the situations at hand. When conscience tells us something, this oracle within makes itself known, speaking out on relevant occasions to urge action or restraint, satisfaction or guilt. Is conscience, then, a special faculty of the mind, functioning to represent moral knowledge within us? That can’t be quite right. For one thing, given variations and differences between cultures and individuals, the idea that we possess clear knowledge on moral matters is open to challenge. For another, the idea of a part of the brain organized to generate moral insight is scientifically implausible.

When we describe ourselves as feeling twinges of conscience, or the promptings of conscience, feelings seem to be involved. Is conscience, perhaps, a matter of feeling? An inner expression of such emotions as guilt, remorse, satisfaction or pride? This must be part of the story. But it can’t be the whole account of conscience because these feelings are not simple sensations. They are based on beliefs about the rights and wrongs of situations and actions. If we feel guilty about what we’ve done, that sense of guilt presumes first that we did something wrong and second that we were responsible for doing it. A notion of conscience as feeling and feeling only will not allow us to account for these presumptions, which are cognitive in nature.

Perhaps the so-called ‘voice’ comes from social teachings and what we call conscience is the product of social learning. We have been taught in our families and communities what is right and wrong and when we feel promptings of conscience, we are recalling those teachings as though there is a voice speaking inside us. Being naturalistic, this theory may be attractive to many humanists. But it cannot account for many fascinating cases in which people have been inspired by ‘conscience’ to act in defiance of social norms in such contexts as apartheid, corporate corruption, and abuse of animals. Conscience is felt as something particular and individual: in striking cases highly motivated people may experience its voice as one that urges resistance to the teachings of communities and families.

Is the notion of conscience so embedded in faith and theology that it needs to be eliminated from a scientific world view? I find this solution unattractive, being convinced that the notion of conscience is a highly useful one. ‘Conscience’ is our way of describing the plain fact that many people are concerned with the humanitarian implications of their practices and actions.

When people explore the theme ‘Conscience and Science,’ they consider ethical challenges to scientific research and its practices. A scientist whose ‘conscience’ troubles him when he is doing weapons research will reflect on whether the discoveries are likely to cause human suffering and death; these are concerns about consequences of the scientific work for human wellbeing and the wellbeing of other sentient creatures. Sometimes presumed attitudes of respect or disrespect are the central concern of such ethical deliberations. Central to conceptions of human rights is the conviction that humanity is something with dignity and intrinsic worth. Critics of research into genetic manipulation argue that its implications of manipulable human material threaten treasured, and ethically fundamental, conceptions of humanity and nature.

Should humanists relinquish the notion of conscience? Would relinquishing this notion entail giving up on ethics entirely? Few serious humanists would welcome those implications — as is immediately apparent when we examine articulations of humanist principles. If the humanitarian dimension of human thought were eliminated due to philosophical skepticism about the foundations of ethics, the loss would be terrible.

To think of conscience as a voice within is a useful metaphor, but to think of it as the definitive authority is to lapse into error.

My own modest proposal is that we think of ‘conscience’ in terms of moral beliefs rather than moral knowledge. The shift from knowledge to belief acknowledges human fallibility and uncertainty — and, as their corollary, the fallibility and uncertainty of human conscience. The idea of ‘conscience’ as a shorthand way of referring to moral beliefs allows for a realm of moral reflection and direction. At the same time, it renders intelligible skepticism and disagreement on moral questions. To think of conscience as a voice within is a useful metaphor, but to think of it as the definitive authority is to lapse into error.

Conscientious people reflect on moral matters and care about the impact of their actions on those other than themselves. Being aware of the significant effects that our actions can have on others and on our fragile and interdependent environment, conscientious people — including humanists — seek to act with consideration and respect that transcends self-interest. We reason that, by consistency, if we are worth something and if our personal wellbeing counts because we can suffer and care what happens to us, the same will hold true for others. They are beings with dignity and worth; their wellbeing matters.

If I talk about ‘what my conscience tells me to do,’ I’m referring to ‘what I think I ought to do, all things considered.’ What we call the ‘dictates of conscience’ come from our thinking, reasoning and deliberating. The notion of conscience provides a shorthand way of referring to moral beliefs. The ‘voice of conscience’ is something we have constructed for ourselves, taking into account personal experience, feelings, social teaching, scientific findings and relevant religious teachings. A humanist notion of conscience allows for its individuality by stressing the thought and deliberation that construct conclusions from these varied sources. For humanists there will be no inconsistency in using all of them, provided that none is presumed to provide the last, definitive word.

The voice of conscience is not divinely inspired, according to this account. It is no more transcendent than the everyday voice that reminds us to carry an umbrella or take out the garbage. And yet conscience dares to pronounce on matters of morality, often highly serious matters with profound implications. That voice comes from within our very human selves: it has been constructed by our own deliberation and reasoning. It should never be ignored, although it is human, fallible and utterly mundane.

Trudy Govier is the author of many books, including Forgiveness and Revenge, Dilemmas of Trust and A Practical Study of Argument.

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