The bite of conscience, like the bite of a dog into stone, is a stupidity.
Each of us has, at one time or another, talked about our conscience. We might have been “pricked by our conscience” or our conscience might have “butted in” when it was not wanted. We might be going on quite happily telling a lie to a friend, or might have accidentally walked out of a shop without paying for something and it is our conscience that makes us confess or stops us in our tracks spins us on our heels and takes us back into the shop.
People from different walks of life talk of the “conscience”, from the religious believer, the politician, the celebrity, to every day folk; we might hear someone berate their conscience for nagging them to do something they do not want to. People might be labelled “conscientious objectors” because they feel their conscience is telling them to object to certain political actions, e.g. war. A protester might lament the erosion of their “freedom of conscience”. And we can find concepts very similar to “conscience” in many non-Christian religious traditions both Eastern and Western throughout history and from around the globe.1
However, the nature of conscience is obscure and consequently the philosophical discussion of conscience is complex and has a long history. It draws on issues in philosophical psychology, philosophy of religion, epistemology, philosophy of mind, applied ethics, normative ethics and Metaethics.
In this chapter we’ll give a general overview of two theories of conscience. One draws on Aquinas’s account; the other Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939). Although Freud is not typically seen as a philosopher (he’s a psychologist) his account will provide us with some insights which allows us to think philosophically about this thing we call “the conscience”.
2. The History of Conscience
In the twenty-first century conscience is not thought of as solely a religious idea. However talk of “conscience” was popularised, at least in “the West”, due to its adoption by both Protestant and Catholic traditions. In this section we’ll look how “conscience” is, and has been, used in order to draw out some general features.
“Conscience” played a role in one of the most famous speeches in the protestant reformation. Martin Luther (1483–1546), being charged with heresy and being forced to recant by Charles V, stands his grounds and says “Here I stand, I can do no other” and “I cannot nor will I retract anything, since it is never safe nor virtuous to go against conscience”. Luther believed that his God-given conscience was not allowing him to recant, not even under the considerable pressure by the powerful people before him. Or consider a more recent example.
In the midst of political turmoil of the civil rights movement Martin Luther King Jr., who was under threat and constant pressure to change his views said:
But, conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.2
Conscience is, then, powerful. It seems that it can move a person to put themselves in mortal danger, to “stand up and be counted”, to act contrary to self-interest.
But it is not just saints and heroes that talk of conscience, conscience has been cited by the most repugnant and morally abhorrent people who have ever lived, racists, murderers, tyrants, dictators. For example as Bettina Stangneth’s states in Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,3 a discussion of the inner life of one of the Nazi’s most notorious officers: “Conscience was simply the ‘morality of the Fatherland that dwells within’ a person, which Eichmann also termed ‘the voice of the blood’”.
Conscience can be male or female or both or neither, it can be one voice or many, it can echo religious ideas, social ideas, racist ideas, lofty ideas or ideas found in the filth of human corruption. Conscience can develop at any particular age and dissipates at any age. It does not “speak”, and it does “speak”, and does not have a language of choice. All of these observations then leave a number of observations and questions.
There seem to be (at least) three related functions that we think the conscience plays. First, it tells us what we ought to do as a guide for our lives. Second, it is a source of moral knowledge. That is, we might say “I know that stealing a pen is wrong because my conscience told me”. Third it might be thought of as a motivation. That is, it might be the thing that actually gets us up out of our seat to act in certain ways, even when things are difficult or even life threatening.
Just to clarify, we can see the difference in the first two of these functions if we think of a tyrant who says for example: “my conscience tells me I have to kill all mentally ill people to help the country”. Clearly this is a case where her conscience is telling her how she ought to behave. But, given that we think that killing the mentally ill is morally wrong, we do not want to say that in this case her conscience gives her knowledge of what is right and wrong. So it might be true that the conscience gives us guidance but not knowledge.
Equally the opposite seems true, that we might know what is right and wrong yet fail to be guided to do it. This predicament is what Shakespeare captured in this famous quotation: “conscience doth make cowards of us all” (Hamlet 3.1.78–82).
Consider another point. Conscience is subjective in that it is about one reflecting inwards on oneself, on how one might “feel” about certain things. It is not about looking out into the world, at a set of rules or laws. We experience the conscience differently than we would if a friend, priest, politician or Imam was telling us what to do. Of course, although conscience is “inward looking”, that is not the same as saying that we just make up what the conscience allegedly tells us. For instance, we might think that what is right and wrong is dependent on God but also think that we come to know what is right and wrong through our conscience.
Finally it is worth noting that the term “conscience” was only formalized in its modern moral meaning in the mid eighteenth century (e.g. neither Plato nor Aristotle talk of conscience). However, note that just because a term is modern, or just because there is disagreement with how a term is used, that does not mean that the ideas themselves are new.
Consider the point that the terms “molecules” and “atoms” were recent inventions, and that in their development they might be used to talk about different things, and they engendered disagreement within the scientific community. This in itself does not lead us to the conclusion that there are no molecules and no atoms. So the lack of term “conscience”, and disagreement about what “conscience” means does not mean that conscience is merely an “invention”. With all these points in mind let’s consider one of the key thinkers in relation to conscience, Aquinas.
3. Aquinas on Conscience
If you recall from Aquinas developed a Natural Law theology. The basic idea is that through reason (what he calls ratio) we can come to recognize certain precepts that we ought to live by. Aquinas thinks that this reliance on thinking and reflection is revealed in the Bible:
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.4
Notice then that for Paul — and Aquinas — the “conscience” bears witness sometimes accusing the person, sometimes defending them. For Aquinas conscience is morally neutral, it simply “bears witness”, it is a “sign-post” and after all signposts do not opinions on things (see Aquinas, Summa, Part 1, Question 79, Article 13).
To be clear then Aquinas did not take conscience to be a source of moral knowledge but as a guide. This means that Aquinas, unlike Luther and post-reformation thinkers, took conscience to be fallible. For Aquinas we may be wrong in following our conscience as it can move us in the wrong direction/mislead us
For Aquinas the conscience is the act of applying the universal principles (the Eternal/Divine law) to actual real life situations.
Aquinas explicitly defines “conscience” as the “application of knowledge to activity” (Summa Theologica, I–II, I). So, if conscience for Aquinas is about the application of knowledge to activity, this raises the question how we get this knowledge? This is where another key technical term is introduced. The synderesis. Synderesis is not the same as conscience but is the innate ability of the mind — what he calls a habit of the mind — to apprehend the eternal/divine laws. The role of conscience is to apply the primary precepts discovered as the content of synderesis.
To get a better understanding of synderesis consider someone trying to work out the quickest way to get between two points. Through rational reflection they will see that it is the straight line. This “coming to recognize through reflection” is what Aquinas has in mind when he talks about synderesis. For Aquinas, unlike conscience, synderesis is never mistaken. Humans do wrong, thinks Aquinas, when conscience (and not synderesis) makes a mistake. This means that a failure of conscience needs to be clearly thought through on Aquinas’s account.
For Aquinas, conscience errs because of ignorance about how to apply the eternal/divine laws, of which there are two types. Ignorance that can be overcome by using one’s reason (vincible ignorance), and ignorance that cannot be overcome by using one’s reason (invincible ignorance). Invincible ignorance is doing something wrong when one could not have known better; vincible ignorance is doing wrong when one ought to have known better. But how might this relate to conscience?
Imagine two people going into a gun shop. The first person has no criminal record, has never been in trouble with the police nor at school and they have no record of mental illness. He is, for all intents and purposes, a model citizen. This person buys a gun and goes on a killing rampage. The owner of the shop, by following her conscience, has not done something morally wrong because her ignorance is invincible; there was no indication that this would have been a likely outcome.
This contrasts to the person who is sold a gun even though he has a violent criminal record which would have shown up on a basic background check. In this case, the owner of the gun shop following her conscience has done something morally wrong because in this case her ignorance is vincible.
To conclude, Aquinas thinks all of us can know infallibly what is right and wrong through synderesis. However, even though we are infallible about this, we can, and do, make mistakes in applying this knowledge. It is our conscience (conscientia) which tells us how to apply this knowledge and moves us to act. It can go wrong through ignorance. Ignorance which could have been avoided (vincible) means our action is morally wrong. Mistakes deriving from ignorance we could not have avoided (invincible) means our action is not morally wrong.
In the next section, we will consider what Freud has to say about conscience, and explain how he reconceptualises it as a psychological and not theological concept, and in doing so argues we should not accept it as an inherently good notion.
4. Freud and the Conscience
Freud is best known as a psychologist and the architect of psychoanalysis. He is controversial and most philosophers and psychologists reject the ideas he presents. However, his ideas have been incredibly influential, and indeed his name has entered our everyday talk in the form of a “Freudian slip”. Among Freud’s many ideas his conceptualization of the structure of the mind is key to his views on conscience. He thinks the mind can be thought of as containing three parts: the id, the ego and the super-ego. Freud’s account of conscience is understood as the relation between these.
For Freud the id is the collection of our primal drives, e.g. the basic desires for food, sex, drink and is the oldest part of the mind. The id cannot be properly formalized or understood and Freud likens it to chaos. It is instinctive, emotional and illogical. We cannot list all the drives that make up the id as they are inaccessible to us. Freud has a nice way of describing the id; he calls it: “…a cauldron full of seething excitations…”. (SE, XXII.73). Although we can say very little about the content of the id, Freud did think that there was a general principle to help us understand the drives in the id, what he calls the “pleasure principle”. This is the claim that what identifies and unifies the drives of the id is the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure.
Now, as a very young child it may be OK to be driven by the pleasure principle; they crawl single-mindedly after the chocolate buttons to put in their mouth, they crave their mother’s milk irrespective of anything else. However, as we develop we soon realize that we cannot simply act on the primal instincts of the id as we have to navigate ourselves in the social spaces we inhabit! We have to understand boundaries, sanctions and consequences. To successfully operate in the world, we need to consciously reflect and reason and ultimately, we have to delay instinctive behaviour and “weigh-up” the situation. Put bluntly someone whose id is unchecked would cease to be acceptable in society and find themselves physically, socially and emotionally isolated. It is what Freud calls the “ego” which plays this policing role.
But if we only have the id and the ego then it is unclear why we would not simply follow the pleasure principle. That is, although the ego rationally reflects, it needs something to weigh-up against the id. We need some authority that monitors what the ego is doing. This authority is what Freud calls the super-ego.
Early in our life our parents (as well as society, religious leaders etc.) tell us what we can and cannot do and chastise us for breaking rules, and as we grow older we internalize these things and “hear them” as a voice of authority. Imagine that your mum has always told you not to sit with your elbows on the table then you internalize this rule. So when you are much older and not living with your mum any longer the voice of your “super-ego” speaks with authority — “take your elbows off the table!” These are the very basics of Freud structure of the mind. Our ego balances the primal drives of the id with the voice of authority from the super-ego.
Where does the conscience come in? For Freud the conscience is the form that the super-ego takes in addressing the ego. When the internalized authority derived from parental (social/religious) rules and regulations controls the ego is it is understood as “the conscience”. In our last example it is our “conscience” that tells us to remove our elbows from the table.
Notice then that our conscience often requires certain things from us which we fail to achieve and this gives rise to guilt. For Freud, the conscience can be thought of as synonymous with the “guilty conscience”. Our ego is punished through guilt by the form of the super-ego we call conscience. Furthermore, Freud says that when the super-ego fails to deal properly with the id — when the pleasure principle is repressed — this forms what he calls neurosis.
You can also hopefully see the differences between Aquinas and Freud. First, the obvious point is that for Freud the conscience is not the voice of God. Second, unlike Aquinas, Freud thinks that the conscience could be bad, destructive and unhelpful. The conscience is the way the ego experiences the authority of the super-ego. But the super-ego is arrived at through the experiences we have. And, of course, we might have had really bad experiences growing up where parents are stifling, overly authoritarian, distant, cold, hard, violent, abusive etc. In these sorts of cases the conscience would be stifling, overly authoritarian, distant, etc. This means that although Freud does not think we can, or should, get rid of the conscience he does think we should treat it with a healthy dose of scepticism and hence not be kowtowed by the “guilt” that is our ego’s punishment for falling short of the super-ego; conscience is the product of our often non-ideal upbringing rather than a divinely-inspired force for good.
5. Freud’s Psychosexual Development Theory
Psychosexual Development Theory is a theory of sexual development from birth to death. Freud was the first thinker to look at the entire lifespan in terms of development. Freud thought that as we develop we move through different stages. At each stage our libido (sex drive) is focused towards different things. If we fail to move through a stage completely, or return to a stage, then problems arise and we might become fixated with the area associated with that stage. This can be a serious problem for our relationships and could be an underlying cause of mental illness.
The first stage is the oral stage from birth to about one and a half. This stage is where babies get pleasure through putting things in their mouth, pleasure in biting, chewing and sucking. For example, babies soon after they are born are breastfeeding and as the baby develops they navigate and explore the world through putting things in their mouth. Notice that during this phase babies are very dependent on others. According to Freud at this stage not only do we get information about the world, but we also fulfil the id. Babies who can bite, chew and such as much as they want are being guided by the id. Freud explains behaviours like smoking, chewing gum, overeating, with failure to move properly through this stage which prevented the successful development of the id.
The next stage, from about one and a half to three years, is the anal stage. Here pleasure is gained through controlling going to the toilet. This stage is about gaining control of one’s body, and it starts with controlling the bladder and bowels (being potty trained). It is around this time that the ego develops. This control of their bodies is a source of pride and pleasure for children. Agents who fail to properly move through this stage are what are sometimes called “anally retentive”. That is, someone who is overly controlling or out of control and messy, because — according to Freud — they do not want to let go of their waste, or do not care where or when they let go of their waste.
The next phase of development, from about three to six years, is the phallic stage in which a child discovers one’s genitals, and importantly that they are different in men and women. This stage is where Freud thinks we develop the Oedipus and the Electra complex. A problematic phallic stage will cause problems with intimacy in later life.
The next stage, the latency stage, is from six years to the onset of puberty. This stage is not about pleasure in the body as the libido is “latent” or hidden — this is the stage where sexual desire is repressed and no new sexual desires emerge. At this stage girls play with girls in order to learn the role of a girl and boys play with boys in order to learn about the role of boys.. The child learns how to navigate the social world. A difficult latency stage leads to relational problems and understanding one’s gender.
The libido then reappears in the final stage which lasts to our death and which Freud calls the mature genital stage. This is where the individual not only recognises the difference between men and women but also shows a desire to engage in a sexual relationship and, more generally, a pursuit of pleasure and happiness. People become sexually active, fall in love and get married. This is the stage where we acquire a fully developed conscience.
The notion of “conscience” has appeared for thousands of years in different cultures, even though it has not always been called “conscience”. Modern Christian orthodoxy popularised it and characterised it in relation to God’s voice, and guidance. Aquinas thought that conscience is the way we understand how to apply what we know. In Aquinas’s view, our conscience is fallible and might guide us wrongly. When our conscience “gets it wrong” we can be either culpable — through vincible ignorance — or not culpable — through invincible ignorance.
Freud is less convinced that conscience is a force for good, and he is certain that it has not got anything to do with God. For Freud conscience can be either a good or bad. We can think of our mind as having three parts, the id, ego and super-ego. The conscience for Freud is the form the super-ego takes when it is trying to keep the ego in line. It is internalized as the voice of authority. The super-ego is about following rules but those rules do not come from “on high”, they derive from the upbringing we have had. So if we have had a repressive upbringing then the super-ego — the voice of conscience — will be repressive. How we develop these three features of the mind is through what Freud calls Psychosexual Development; if we do not develop correctly then we become fixated and repressive, form a neurosis and ultimately become mentally ill. Freud thought that this could be avoided by working through the Psychosexual Stages in the normal way, and can be treated through psychosexual counselling.
COMMON STUDENT MISTAKES
- Writing conscious when meaning conscience.
- Confuse synderesis and conscience.
- Confusing conscience as guidance with conscience as the source of knowledge.
- Believe Freud thinks the conscience is always bad.
- Thinking that for Aquinas conscience is way of knowing what is right and wrong.
- Thinking that because the term conscience is new, conscience itself is a modern invention.
ISSUES TO CONSIDER
- Do you think you have a conscience? What does it tell you?
- What is the difference between synderesis and conscience?
- Do you think that everyone ultimately knows — if they reason correctly — what is right and wrong?
- What is the difference between vincible and invincible? Is not most of the supposedly invincible knowledge, really vincible? We just need to try harder?
- What are the possible different roles for the conscience?
- Could the conscience be a morally bad thing?
- Why does Freud think we need to be cautious about listening to our conscience?
- How does Freud’s account of conscience relate to his Psychosexual Development Theory?
- What do you think about Freud’s Psychosexual Development Theory?
- Draw up a table of the key stages and accompanying characteristics of Freud’s Psychosexual Development Theory.
- Could it ever make sense to talk about animals/robots having a conscience? If not, why not?
- Do you think conscience will still shape our lives in one thousand years?
Psychosexual Development Theory (oral, anal, phallic, latency and mature genital phases)
Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, freely available at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/
―, Romans (Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans).
Benhabib, Seyla, ‘Who’s on Trial, Eichmann or Arendt?’, The New York Times (21 September 2014), freely available at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/21/whos-on-trial-eichmann-or-anrendt
Freud S. and Freud A., Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (New York: Random House, 2001).
Giubilini, Alberto, ‘Conscience’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2016 ed., edited by Edward N. Zalta, freely available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/conscience/
King, Martin Luther, ‘A Proper Sense of Priorities’, 6 February 1968, Washington, D.C., freely available at http://www.aavw.org/special_features/speeches_speech_king04.html
Strohm, Paul, Conscience: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), vol. 273, https://doi.org/10.1093/actrade/9780199569694.001.0001
1 See P. Strohm, Conscience, p. 18, for a good overview of this.
4 T. Aquinas, Romans, 2:15.