Conscience in Moral Life: Rethinking How Our Convictions Structure Self and Society

Conscience in Moral Life: Rethinking How Our Convictions Structure Self and Society

by Jason J. Howard

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The notion of conscience remains one of the most widely used moral concepts and a cornerstone of ordinary moral thinking. This book explores where this widespread confidence in conscience stems from, examining the history of conscience as a moral concept and its characteristic moral phenomenology.
Jason Howard provides a comprehensive reassessment of the function


The notion of conscience remains one of the most widely used moral concepts and a cornerstone of ordinary moral thinking. This book explores where this widespread confidence in conscience stems from, examining the history of conscience as a moral concept and its characteristic moral phenomenology.
Jason Howard provides a comprehensive reassessment of the function of conscience in moral life, detailing along the way the manifold problems that arise when we believe our conscience is more reliable than is actually warranted.

The result is a step-by-step evaluation of our most accepted assumptions. Howard goes on to argue, from a phenomenological perspective, that conscience is indispensable for understanding moral experience. He capitalizes on a dialectical perspective developed by Hegel and Ricoeur, in which conscience is seen as the recognition of the other, and integrates this with work in the philosophy of emotion, arguing that conscience is best seen in terms of the function it serves in moderating the moral emotions of shame, guilt and pride.

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Conscience in Moral Life

Rethinking How Our Convictions Structure Self and Society

By Jason J. Howard

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 Jason J. Howard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-012-8


A Quick History of Conscience and the Rise of the Faculty View

This first chapter has two general aims: one, to familiarize ourselves with the rich history of interpretations of conscience in order to highlight some of its common core features, and two, to explain how such a rich variety of descriptions ended up being incorporated under one conceptual paradigm, that of conscience as an inherent and independent faculty found in all human beings. Consequently, although provided as an overview of dominant historical trends in the interpretation of conscience, this first chapter does defend a particular reading of this history. Conscience is one of the most widely endorsed moral concepts that currently exist, transcending differences in religious denominations, politics, race, gender and even basic beliefs in the transcendent, being endorsed by atheist, agnostic and theist alike. Such wide-ranging endorsement by individuals of such different metaphysical stripes and political persuasions is something that asks for explanation. The ascendency of the faculty view is one indispensable part of this explanation.

Seen as an argument, my historical account of conscience defends the following claims. First, that the history of conscience develops as different descriptions of the common experience of accountability; second, that efforts are eventually made to integrate these different descriptions; third, that it is the effort to combine these different features of conscience, some of them quite different from one another, that helps pave the way for the faculty view; fourth, that the faculty view finally emerges as the definitive view of conscience with the Enlightenment; and fifth, that the reason why the faculty view emerges so acutely with the Enlightenment is that it ends up serving as additional confirmation for a number of crucial assumptions concerning subjectivity and larger society.

Simply put, if one is to adequately explain the current pervasiveness and acceptance of conscience among so many different people of differing beliefs, then one needs a unifying conception that can help explain the underlying accord between such differences, and this unifying conception I call the faculty view. And if one is to adequately explain the power and appeal of this faculty conception, then one needs to see it as part of a larger historical movement that interweaves and solidifies many of the deepest aspirations and assumptions of our age, and this larger historical movement is that of the Enlightenment.


More than anything else, conscience traditionally has been used to explain our original or inherent propensity for moral behavior, that there is something about our nature that makes us care about good and evil. As Kant succinctly puts it:

Every being has a conscience and finds himself observed, threatened, and, in general, kept in awe (respect coupled with fear) by an internal judge; and this authority watching over the law in him is not something that he himself (voluntarily) makes, but something incorporated in his being. It follows him like his shadow when he plans to escape.

There is a sense here that if one could comprehend what conscience is and how it operates one could eliminate an ongoing concern about moral agency — namely, whether and to what extent human beings are genuinely moved by moral appeals. The point is far from trivial, which explains why it has challenged so many thinkers of note, regardless of their broader philosophical allegiances: Cicero, Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Adam Smith, Reid, Kant, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Mill, Butler, Nietzsche, Newman, Freud, William James, Scheler, Tillich, Ryle, Broad, Heidegger, Levinas and most recently Ricoeur.

The conceptual history of conscience is rich and diverse, dating back to the ancient Greeks. This history has profoundly conditioned how we understand the experience of moral obligation. Yet, for some, the very fact that there are so many divergent interpretations of conscience is taken as a serious strike against it, as proof that the concept is, at best, only a sophisticated literary trope and at worst an escapist fantasy. It is doubtless true that the concept of conscience is laden with a long history of divergent interpretations whose conflicting senses have served, at least in some cases, to confuse rather than clarify its ties to moral obligation. However, I suggest we see this growing list of divergent interpretations as expressions of a more elemental range of experiences, as descriptions that encircle one of the most traumatic experiences of the human condition, that of being bound to the crucible of accountability.

It is a well-recognized fact that conscience has played a pivotal role in the development of moral theory since the Greeks. This idea served as a touchstone for the medieval-scholastic tradition as well as being a springboard for later secular interpretations of moral obligation. My purpose in this first chapter, however, is not to offer a full-scale philosophical reconstruction of the historical development of conscience, which is a task unto itself, but to give a selective illustration of how conscience has come to be depicted as an independent source of moral insight of one kind or another. Perhaps the most serious conceptual puzzle surrounding conscience relates to its ontological status as a distinct and independent moral source. As we shall see shortly, however much philosophers have disagreed about the origin of conscience, there has been widespread convergence on its supposed distinctiveness when it comes to informing people's moral choices and behavior. Of all the problems that can confuse how we understand conscience, I believe the greatest stems from how we envision this independence, since this view most directly ties into questions about its credibility and universality.

The Ancient Greeks

The ancient Greeks present us with the first attempt to depict an experience of conscience, which they characterize with the general term syneidesis. The term is derived from the verb sunoida ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), whose initial meaning appears to be something like "I know in common with", and whose sense was later refined to mean "to bear witness". One important point to bear in mind is that initially neither the Greek term syneidesis nor even the later Latin translation of the term into conscientia were meant to refer exclusively to "moral consciousness" but simply "consciousness" in general. Following Paul Tillich, perhaps the best way to appreciate the sense of the original Greek expression is in terms of a "Being witness of oneself", the moral connotations of which became more pronounced as the concept developed.

Already with the Greek tragedians, we see how the idea of sunoida had come to function largely as the consciousness of a past transgression. This awareness serves as a source of rapprochement akin to remorse. This idea of sunoida as the experience of remorse or guilt is clearly documented in both Aeschylus's version of the Oresteia trilogy, as well as Euripides's version. In both cases the awareness in question is the cause of inner torment, which is experienced as the feeling of guilt. For example, in Euripides's version, when Menelaus asks Orestes what is troubling him, Orestes responds, "My intellect ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), I am conscious of having done awful things"; he then goes on to add, "It is anguish in particular that is destroying me". What is important to note here is that with the Greek tragedians, conscience is characterized by the acknowledgement of some previous wrongdoing that we cannot forget. Sunesis ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) refers specifically to the consciousness of being implicated in one's past transgressions, in which we are incessantly reminded of what we have done.

The Roman and Early Christian View

What stands out in the Greek interpretation is the passive role of the agent; the experience of guilt is imposed upon the subject, an imposition from which there is no escape. The notion of conscience as synderesis, which the Greek tragedians depict as the anguish of guilt, stresses both our obedience to something beyond the human — the fates — and our powerlessness to rectify the past through our own capacities. This initial depiction of conscience in terms of guilt — what has become termed in common parlance as acting with a bad or guilty conscience — undergoes a key transformation with the Roman Stoics, particularly Cicero, who augment its original function as a retributive source. What makes Cicero so important is the emphasis he places on conscience (conscientia) as a normative source of inner justification. In so doing, Cicero comes to associate conscience with recta ratio or right reason. Through this idea, conscience is contrasted with public opinion and common consensus; that is to say, its role as a personal directive of moral action comes strongly to the fore. As Cicero comments in his Letters to Atticus, referring to one's reputation and public character, "In all one's life one ought not to stray a nail's breadth from the straight path of conscience". In another work, Tusculan Disputations, he stresses that one must always rely on one's own judgment: "[I]f you are content with yourself in approving the right, then you will only win a victory over your self. ... [T]here is no audience for virtue of higher authority than the approval of conscience". What Cicero makes evident, and what is continued by later Stoics such as Seneca, is the idea of conscience as an inner witness or judge that approves or disapproves of what we do, thus solidifying our choices and adding a normative force to our claims. In fact, as Paul Strohm points out, Cicero sometimes appealed to conscience explicitly in his public speeches and in his legal work defending clients, reinforcing the connection between conscience and explicit principles of good character and virtue.

I should qualify here that the Greek tragedians and the Stoics were not the only ones to develop the notion of conscience in the ancient world; the concept was also taken up in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. However, as numerous scholars have pointed out, in Hebrew there is no real equivalent term for conscience, and so there is minimal direct development of the concept in the Hebrew Bible. It is with Saint Paul in the New Testament that the term becomes firmly cemented in the Christian tradition. Paul expands the function of conscience in a direction similar to Cicero, in which the earlier Greek idea of conscience as solely punitive is expanded to include the idea of conscience as offering guidance. With Saint Paul we find the idea of "good" conscience (Acts 23:1), "weak" conscience (1 Cor. 8:7), "clear" conscience (1 Tim. 3:9) and "corrupted" conscience (Titus 1:15). In his integration of the Greek concept of syneidesis, Saint Paul encapsulates both the various expressions that conscience can take as well as its functions (both judicial and legislative, distinctions we will define shortly), uniting them all under one common term.

What remains inexplicit with the notion of conscience articulated by the Greek tragedians, specifically through its relation to the Erinyes (fates), is the link between conscience and reason. Cicero tries to establish this link by equating "good judgment" with following one's conscience. In contrast to the earlier conception and its emphasis on the passivity of the subject, with conscience expressing itself as the awareness of inner anguish, Cicero's conception stresses the role of conscience in formulating judgments — in justifying one's purposes — and has the benefit of bringing the subject into a more active role in the experience of moral obligation to the extent that he can choose to abide by such obligations. The idea of conscience as conviction is already latent in this later characterization of Cicero, many of the details of which become a theme in its own right through the efforts of Saint Paul. However, despite the inclusion of an evaluative-critical function that was largely absent in the Greeks, Hans Reiner reminds us that later Roman and early Christian depictions of conscience remained tied to a conception of moral nature as universal and inherent to all human subjects.

The Multiple Character of Conscience

In expanding the original notion of conscience, Roman and Pauline innovations add another interpretive function. The problem with this new interpretation, as Reiner goes on to attest, is that it leaves us with two interpretive poles of conscience, one judicial (condemning past behavior) as elaborated by the Greeks, and the other legislative (indicating what should be done), most evident with Cicero. This expansion implicitly introduces an antinomy between the individual, or personal nature of conscience, and the universal, or normative character of its guidance, that will mark much of the later tensions characteristic of the development of the concept of conscience. For example, the Greek tragedians point to the burden of guilt and the unyielding hegemony of fate, which singles out individuals for punishment, while Cicero's conception is modeled on following a natural law, abiding by reasons assumed to be universal. Hence, on the one hand, the phenomenon of conscience attests to something applicable to one's actions alone, a unique psychological torment imposed solely upon the individual, while on the other hand conscience is universally prescriptive of all agents, something we live up to. Each conception points out different ways that agents experience moral imputation, the first emphasizing the passivity of the subject in light of some cosmic moral judge, and the second stressing the active role of the subject in following the guidance of sound moral insight. While the Greek model assumes a netherworld of immortal beings who police the fate of human agents, the Stoic stresses the personal process of self-adjudication and celebrates the virtues of practical reason. Once again, what distinguishes the agent in the Greek view is the fact that he must bear the burden of transgression alone, leaving the nature of the moral law implicit, whereas what distinguishes the agent in the Stoic conception is the chance of abiding by the dictates of a good conscience, trusting to the intuitive authority of good judgment. The tension here is further complicated by Saint Paul, who implies that God's authority supersedes that of conscience and reminds us that conscience is fallible, and yet also singles out conscience as important in the realization of our true spirituality. One of the key challenges left to later Christian thinkers is to understand how all these elements could belong to one conception.

These contrasting views still influence how we view conscience today, especially the dual role of conscience as both guilt and good judgment (acting with a clear conscience). It would not be an exaggeration to say that the classical legacy of conscience, with the interplay it introduces between conscience as backward looking (judicial) and forward looking (legislative), provides the general parameters that have defined the entire conceptual history of conscience. The classical tradition points out two seemingly universal characteristics of human agents — our propensity for guilt and our willingness to trust in our moral convictions. It should be stressed, however, that even though the later classical tradition singled out these behaviors by denoting them with the general term conscience, they did not develop any detailed philosophical explanation or justification of how conscience works. Indeed, as some critics have pointed out, this omission is not something confined to the classical tradition but is a problem that continues with many accounts of conscience into the present. According to Peter Fuss, few philosophers actually supply an in-depth account of how conscience operates; rather, they merely accept it as an indisputable fact of human nature. Because this supposed fact has been seen as indisputable, what Kant calls a "Fact of Reason" that must be accepted on pain of abandoning any explanation of moral action, most accounts do not move much beyond the task of definition. Sadly enough, when this is not the case, as with Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger, the concept's moral authority is one of the first things to go.


Excerpted from Conscience in Moral Life by Jason J. Howard. Copyright © 2014 Jason J. Howard. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Meet the Author

Jason J. Howard is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Viterbo University, La Crosse, USA. He has published articles on Hegel, Kant, and Schelling, as well as in the areas of philosophy of emotion, moral education, aesthetics, and the philosophy of film.
Jason Howard is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Viterbo University, La Crosse, USA.

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