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Bruno Russell conscience revision notes

Conscience Revision Notes

This topic requires detailed knowledge of five main thinkers, as well as understanding of other
thinkers at your discretion. You will also need to be able to identify the key strengths and
weaknesses of conscience and to what extent it is a good moral guide.
5 key thinkers are: Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Butler, John Newman, Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm.

1. Thomas Aquinas
Aquinas believes that conscience is the voice of right reason. For Aquinas, reason is
central to life and morality (essential in distinguishing right from wrong). For Aquinas,
conscience was not a voice telling us what is morally right; it instead was reason
making right decisions. Conscience (reason) used correctly can therefore tell us what
God sees as right and wrong.
Aquinas beliefs centre on the Synderesis Rule, humanity always aims to do good and
avoid evil, however sometimes we make a mistake in reasoning. We follow an
apparent good instead of a real good. In the situation of following an apparent good, the conscience
has been mistaken. This idea of faulty reasoning is how Aquinas explains why people do things that
are perceived as wrong. (Consider Aquinas analogy of the man who sleeps with another mans wife
or the broader analogy of Hitler) Aquinas splits his understanding of conscience in too two main
parts: synderesis (right reason aiming for good) and conscientia (distinguishing right and wrong; the
process of deriving secondary precepts through use of the conscience).
The constant application of our conscience to derive secondary precepts eventually, over time,
guides us towards what is good and away from what is bad; Aquinas refers to this as gaining the
virtue of prudence. Building up prudence allows us to make moral decisions that are morally correct.
Aquinas didnt believe that the actions of conscience were always correct; although he did believe
that as long as you follow the moral principles that your conscience has shown you then you are
following the correct course of action. However, he realised that principles are flawed on occasions,
and therefore so must conscience be on these occasions also. Reason is a valuable tool, but part of
its being is that on occasion we will reason incorrectly and our conscience must be to some
extent flawed in these situations.

It is more practical than simply saying conscience is the voice of God

Reason is central to humanity and is what separates us from the animals. Therefore, it
seems logical to suggest that reason would play a central part in moral decision making, as
the ability to distinguish good from evil also separates us from animals.


If decisions are left to reason then we can do anything and claim that we have reasoned it is
morally correct (for example Hitlers approach to racial purity)
Aquinas rationalistic approach does not sit well with Christians!

Bruno Russell conscience revision notes

2. Joseph Butler
Butler saw conscience as the final moral decision maker. Ability to rationalise
separates us from the animals and therefore this is evidence for the existence of
the conscience. According to Butler humans are motivated by two primary
principles: self-love and benevolence. Butler argues that conscience promotes
benevolence and therefore an altruistic nature in humanity. Like Aquinas,
Butler believed that conscience enables us to determine between rightful and
wrongful actions. However, Butler believes that this guide is intuitive (we
intuitively know what is good) rather than us having to go through a reasoned
process. Butler believed this intuitive guide was given to us from God and
therefore is the ultimate authority and guide in moral judgements.
Following this line of thinking, Butler therefore declared that conscience is: our natural guide, the
guide assigned to us by the author of our nature. This guide is the final moral judgement that must
be obeyed. Moral judgements that come from intuition from conscience have ultimate and binding
authority as they originated from God. Butler didnt really care if conscience was truly based on
reason and feelings; what is important is that it must be obeyed as it comes from God and is
intuitive. Finally, Butler believed that this intuition meant that mistakes in conscience could not be
made as we would always know what is truly moral. Therefore, if we make mistakes in conscience
we are wilfully deceiving our conscience. This, for Butler, is one of the major sins. It is unethical to
fool our conscience as this would be to disobey God.

This theory links well with G.E Moore ideas in Meta Ethics. We know what good means for
Moore by intuition. Butler has just extended this with conscience also intuitively telling us
what is good on top of what good means. Therefore, perhaps conscience tells us what is
good and what bad and: that is the end of the matter.
Does this theory combine reason and intuition (God) in a practical and coherent manner? It
can be said that Butler manages to provide a realistic view of conscience that still sustains
theological ideas and doesnt blame God for wrongful decisions (its our fault as we have
fooled our conscience)
If God is telling us the right thing through conscience, then this could provide an interesting
response to the problem of evil. It comes from people refusing to follow their conscience.


Is it possible to fool our conscience without willing to do so? In extreme circumstances, our
emotions can cloud our judgement: in this point can our conscience also be clouded too?
Can we lose this intuitive guide if we have certain mental psychological diseases?
If conscience is a guide given from God, then why do some people not appear to have a
conscience? Take for example Jamie Bulger, many modern thinkers say he does not have a
conscience (and due to being so young it can not be that he fooled his conscience). What
would this suggest about God if he has not given some people this intuitive guide to let them
know how to do good? Or, can our intuitive conscience be overridden by our societys values
and our upbringing.

Bruno Russell conscience revision notes

3. John Newman
Newman agreed with Aquinas that conscience is the ability to distinguish the
rightful course of action from the wrongful, although he disputed Aquinas
rationalistic approach and seemingly takes a more intuitive approach like Butler.
He does however make a distinguishment from Butler; Butler believes that
conscience is the intuitive guide from God, whereas Newman believes that
conscience is actually the voice of God. Conscience is like a direct form of
revelation from God. Therefore, when someone follows their conscience they
are following a divine law as given by God. Conscience is Gods voice telling us
the right course of actions. Newman makes it very clear that this is more than a voice of reason.
Conscience does not create truth, but instead detects it. It is the duty of a person to intuitively
decide what truth God is guiding them towards.
Following conscience, for Newman, is therefore equal to following divine law. This led to Newmans
famous claim that: I toast the pope, but I toast conscience first. Conscience, in this sense, is
therefore a law that speaks to the human heart, is written on the human heart and is written by
God. Finally, Newman believed that the guilt we felt when we do not follow our conscience is caused
by the consequence of not obeying the voice of God.

The ideas of Newman have many theological supporters. St Paul originally believed that the:
requirements of the law are written on their (humans) heats. St Augustine also believed
that conscience is Gods law written on our heart, it is innate law that is like the voice of
God. The conscience therefore, for Augustine, is also the supreme and moral guide and
cannot lead us astray.


Some theological ideas however have also challenged Newman. Although believing
conscience was innate and the voice of God, Paul believed that conscience could sometimes
be weak and therefore mistaken. Paul realised that we can override our conscience.
However, this was not a bad thing. Furthermore, for Paul this does not shine negativity on
God in anyway. This fits in well with ideas of free will, God has made us free but has given us
a conscience so that we know what is right and from there we can choose how to act.
If conscience is the voice of God, then why do we disagree on matters of conscience? Why
do we have so many different diverse views? (see page 6 for further analysis of this point)
Can such a religious approach really explain how moral decisions are made? Morality is a
universal issue however not everyone is religious. Therefore, should morality actually be
based on religion? This seems a bit narrow an approach.
The belief takes the existence of God as a pre-requisite. The existence of God cannot be
proved and can be bought in to question; therefore how reliable a basis is it for conscience
and moral decision making. We may think that conscience is the voice of God however this
may be an illusion. If it is an allusion then what really are we listening to and how reliable is
this? Or perhaps just the notion of conscience is an illusion because we fear having no
guidance with such a complex issue such as morality.

Bruno Russell conscience revision notes

4. Sigmund Freud
Freud, unlike religious approaches, took a pessimistic view of conscience. He
believed that it was a construct of the mind that sought to make sense of
disorder and to deal with the conflict that guilt bought. Freud believe when
we were young we accepted certain moral values, which may at some later
stage be rejected by our moral reasoning. However, these early values still
continue to influence our conscience that seeks to deal with conflict bought
about by beliefs. Freud believed that the human personality consisted of
three parts: id, ego and superego. The superego is related to the feelings of
guilt that conscience brings. The guilty conscience is therefore an
internalisation of anger and disapproval of others. Freud also believed this
feeling was guilt was linked to the Oedipus complex where sexual urges are repressed in to the
unconscious and form the basis for neuroses that lead to the concept of guilt, as illustrated by the
concept of the super-ego. Freud took it a step further and suggested that to feel guilt, or a sense of
conscience, was immature as we have failed to overcome the values of the authority of our
upbringing (this authority may be God and scripture for religious believers and parents or teachers
for atheists).
Conscience is therefore unreliable, and nothing more than a just feeling of guilt caused by repressed
traumas. Freud believed that our experiences are what make us who we are; we therefore our
products of our upbringing. He believed that our conscience is shaped by our experiences, especially
those that we experience as a child. Therefore, good childhood experiences create good
consciences, but bad childhood experiences create bad consciences. Therefore because the
conscience is completely subjective to the manner of the experiences of our upbringing it is not a
reliable moral guide. Freud said that this is why there are so many different ethical codes in society
because we al have individual experience that shape the values of our conscience.

Freuds work has gained support from the late work of Piaget. Piaget claimed that we can
break from the authority at the age of ten, and at this point we can try and rid our
conscience and the associate feelings of guilt for not following our parents, teachers etc
Freuds view of conscience fits with modern scientific developments that suggest we can be
shaped by our experiences as a child


Piaget also proposes that Freuds view may be too limited and conscience may be able to
remain meaningful and reliable after the age of ten, but just in a different form that does not
depend on the authority of outside figures.
If not by conscience how do we know what is right? Freud fails to answer this question.
Therefore, is his theory doing nothing more than just dirtying the waters?

Bruno Russell conscience revision notes

5. Erich Fromm
The final of the main thinkers, Fromm believed that all views of conscience were
compatible, as for him there were two consciences (although there is only one
conscience it can exist in two forms). These two views of conscience he called
the authoritarian conscience and the humanitarian conscience. These two sides
of the conscience are contrary; one being a reliable moral guide, humanitarian,
and the other not. The authoritarian conscience takes the view that our
conscience is the voice of the external authority (e.g. parents, teachers, politicians). In this view, the
conscience is therefore: the internalised voice of the externalised authority. Therefore, a guilty
conscience is caused by displeasing those in authority and a fear of displeasing the authority and
being rejected. The authoritarian conscience can be good or bad. A good version is caused by a
good authority and can provide security and good moral foundations. On the other hand, a bad
version will lead us to commit immoral actions because we believe them to be good or feel we
cannot disobey the authority (for example Hitler would be the authority for many soldiers during the
holocaust). In the bad form, our actions are not ours but the authorities and therefore our
conscience are not reliable as it is nothing more than the perhaps wrongful views of the authority.
However, Fromm also presented a more optimistic view in the form of the humanitarian conscience.
We can assess our success as a human being by assessing our behaviour. We can therefore
moderate our behaviour by developing our integrity and honesty in order to become moral people.
This conscience calls us back to our humanity, to our true selves and calls us to be truly moral.
Fromm describes it as the real conscience that is the voice of our humanity that guides us to
achieve our potential. Fromm believed that humans should try and ensure we identify and live our
lives by the humanitarian conscience which, in all appearances, would seem a more reliable ethical

Fromm considers all aspects of the conscience when considering his conclusions, and
therefore does not reject the pessimistic or optimistic sides of the soul as all other thinkers
do respectively.
Fromms view seems practical in application, for example with Hitler. Also The Milgram
experiment shows us that some people can break away from the authoritarian conscience,
as we should do as humans to return to the humanitarian conscience.


Can we believe that we have been called back to the humanitarian conscience when infact
we have not? If the authority is clever then it still may be able to control us without us even
realising it. We may think that we are acting under a reliable moral guide, although the truth
may be entirely different. Is the humanitarian conscience just idealism? Is the authoritian
conscience the reality, even if we do not want to admit it?
Are the authoritarian conscience and humanitarian conscience completely separate? Is it not
possible that they can be acting together? Can we be being called and controlled at the
same time? Or it may be suggested that this calling is a form of authority, the authority of
our human nature (perhaps the authority of God).

Bruno Russell conscience revision notes


Problem: A 12-year old girl has been raped. She wants an abortion, what
does your conscience tells you is the right thing to do now?
No abortion a life is a life! My
conscience cannot allow the
death of an innocent child. The
moral path is adoption.

Of course she must be allowed.

Conscience directs us to love all.
The most loving approach here is
to allow the abortion



So who has the correct view in conscience? Why can there be more than
two views on the same situation and both believe that their views are a
matter of conscience?
Consider how this impacts the theories of Newman, Freud, Aquinas, Fromm
and Butler. What would their approaches suggest?
Also, what does it suggest about the reliability of conscience?

Happy revising!