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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > C > Conscience

Conscience

The name

In English we have done with a Latin word what neither the Latins nor the French have done: we have doubled the term, making "conscience" stand for the moral department and leaving "consciousness" for the universal field of objects about which we become aware. In Cicero we have to depend upon the context for the specific limitation to the ethical area, as in the sentence: "mea mihi conscientia pluris est quam omnium sermo" (Att., XII, xxviii, 2). Sir W. Hamilton has discussed how far we can be said to be conscious of the outer objects which we know, and how far "consciousness" ought to be held a term restricted to states of self or self-consciousness. (See Thiele, Die Philosophie des Selbstbewusstseins, Berlin, 1895.) In the two words Bewusstsein and Gewissen the Germans have made a serviceable distinction answering to our "consciousness" and "conscience". The ancients mostly neglected such a discrimination. The Greeks often used phronesis where we should use "conscience", but the two terms are far from coincident. They also used suneidesis, which occurs repeatedly for the purpose in hand both in the Old and the New Testament. The Hebrews had no formal psychology, though Delitzsch has endeavoured to find one in Scripture. There the heart often stands for conscience.

Origin of conscience in the race and in the individual

Of anthropologists some do and some do not accept the Biblical account of man's origin; and the former class, admitting that Adam's descendants might soon have lost the traces of their higher descent, are willing to hear, with no pledge of endorsing, what the latter class have to say on the assumption of the human development even from an animal ancestry, and on the further assumption that in the use of evidences they may neglect sequence of time and place. It is not maintained by any serious student that the Darwinian pedigree is certainly accurate: it has the value of a diagram giving some notion of the lines along which forces are supposed to have acted. Not, then, as accepting for fact, but as using it for a very limited purpose, we may give a characteristic sketch of ethical development as suggested in the last chapter of Dr. L. T. Hobhouse's "Morals in Evolution". It is a conjectural story, very like what other anthropologists offer for what it is worth and not for fully certified science.

Ethics is conduct or regulated life; and regulation has a crude beginning in the lowest animal life as a response to stimulus, as reflex action, as useful adaptation to environment. Thus the amoeba doubles itself round its food in the water and lives; it propagates by self-division. At another stage in the animal series we find blind impulses for the benefit of life and its propagation taking a more complex shape, until something like instinctive purpose is displayed. Useful actions are performed, not apparently pleasurable in themselves, yet with good in the sequel which cannot have been foreseen. The care of the animal for its young, the provision for the need of its future offspring is a kind of foreshadowed sense of duty. St. Thomas is bold to follow the terminology of Roman lawyers, and to assert a sort of morality in the pairing and the propagating of the higher animals: "ius naturale est quod natura omnia animalia docuit". (It is the natural law which nature has taught all animals.--"In IV Sent.", dist. xxxiii, a. 1, art. 4.) Customs are formed under the pressures and the interactions of actual living. They are fixed by heredity, and they await the analysis and the improvements of nascent reason. With the advent of man, in his rudest state--however he came to be in that state, whether by ascent or descent--there dawns a conscience, which, in the development theory, will have to pass through many stages. At first its categories of right and wrong are in a very fluid condition, keeping no fixed form, and easily intermixing, as in the chaos of a child's dreams, fancies, illusions, and fictions. The requirements of social life, which becomes the great moralizer of social action, are continually changing, and with them ethics varies its adaptations. As society advances, its ethics improves. "The lines on which custom is formed are determined in each society by the pressures, the thousand interactions of those forces of individual character and social relationship, which never cease remoulding until they have made men's loves and hates, their hopes and fears for themselves and their children, their dread of unseen agencies, their jealousies, their resentments, their antipathies, their sociability and dim sense of mutual dependence all their qualities good and bad, selfish and sympathetic, social and anti-social." (Op. cit., Vol. II, p. 262.) The grasp of experience widens and power of analysis increases, till, in a people like the Greeks, we come upon thinkers who can distinctly reflect on human conduct, and can put in practice the gnothi seauton (know thyself), so that henceforth the method of ethics is secured for all times, with indefinite scope left for its better and better application. "Here we have reached the level of philosophical or spiritual religions, systems which seek to concentrate all experience in one focus, and to illuminate all morality from one centre, thought, as ever, becoming more comprehensive as it becomes more explicit". (ibid., p. 266.)

What is said of the race is applied to the individual, as in him customary rules acquire ethical character by the recognition of distinct principles and ideals, all tending to a final unity or goal, which for the mere evolutionist is left very indeterminate, but for the Christian has adequate definition in a perfect possession of God by knowledge and love, without the contingency of further lapses from duty. To come to the fullness of knowledge possible in this world is for the individual a process of growth. The brain at first has not the organization which would enable it to be the instrument of rational thought: probably it is a necessity of our mind's nature that we should not start with the fully formed brain but that the first elements of knowledge should be gathered with the gradations of the developing structure. In the morally good family the child slowly learns right conduct by imitation, by instruction, by sanction in the way of rewards and punishments. Bain exaggerates the predominance of the last named element as the source whence the sense of obligation comes, and therein he is like Shaftesbury (Inquiry, II, n. 1), who sees in conscience only the reprover. This view is favoured also by Carlyle in his "Essay on Characteristics", and by Dr. Mackenzie in his "Manual of Ethics" (3rd ed., III, 14), where we read: "I should prefer to say simply that conscience is a feeling of pain accompanying and resulting from our non-conformity to principle." Newman also has put the stress on the reproving office of conscience. Carlyle says we should not observe that we had a conscience if we had never offended. Green thinks that ethical theory is mostly of negative use for conduct. (Prolegomena to Ethics, IV, 1.) It is better to keep in view both sides of the truth and say that the mind ethically developed comes to a sense of satisfaction in right doing and of dissatisfaction in wrongdoing, and that the rewards and the punishments judiciously assigned to the young have for their purpose, as Aristotle puts it, to teach the teachable how to find pleasure in what ought to please and displeasure in what ought to displease. The immature mind must be given external sanctions before it can reach the inward. Its earliest glimmering of duty cannot be clear light: it begins by distinguishing conduct as nice or as nasty and naughty: as approved or disapproved by parents and teachers, behind whom in a dim way stands the oft-mentioned God, conceived, not only in an anthropomorphic, but in a nepiomorphic way, not correct yet more correct than Caliban's speculations about Setebos. The perception of sin in the genuine sense is gradually formed until the age which we roughly designate as the seventh year, and henceforth the agent enters upon the awful career of responsibility according to the dictates of conscience. On grounds not ethical but scholastically theological, St. Thomas explains a theory that the unbaptized person at the dawn of reason goes through a first crisis in moral discrimination which turns simply on the acceptance or rejection of God, and entails mortal sin in case of failure. (I-II:89:6)

What conscience is in the soul of man?

It is often a good maxim not to mind for a time how a thing came to be, but to see what it actually is. To do so in regard to conscience before we take up the history of philosophy in its regard is wise policy, for it will give us some clear doctrine upon which to lay hold, while we travel through a region perplexed by much confusion of thought. The following points are cardinal:

The philosophy of conscience considered historically

In pre-Christian times

The earliest written testimonies that we can consult tell us of recognized principles in morals, and if we confine our attention to the good which we find and neglect for the present the inconstancy and the admixture of many evils, we shall experience a satisfaction in the history. The Persians stood for virtue against vice in their support of Ahura Mazda against Ahriman; and it was an excellence of theirs to rise above "independent ethics" to the conception of God as the rewarder and the punisher. They even touched the doctrine of Christ's saying, "What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" when to the question, what is the worth of the whole creation displayed before us, the Zend-Avesta has the reply: "the man therein who is delivered from evil in thought, word, and deed: he is the most valuable object on earth." Here conscience was clearly enlightened. Of the moral virtues among the Persians truthfulness was conspicuous. Herodotus says that the youth were taught "to ride and shoot with the bow", and "to speak the truth". The unveracious Greeks, who admired the wiles of an Odysseus, were surprised at Persian veracity (Herodotus, I, 136, 138); and it may be that Herodotus is not fair on this head to Darius (III, 72). The Hindus in the Vedas do not rise high, but in Brahminism there is something more spiritual, and still more in the Buddhist reform on its best side, considered apart from the pessimistic view of life upon which its false asceticism was grounded. Buddhism had ten prohibitive commandments: three concerning the body, forbidding murder, theft, and unchastity; four concerning speech, forbidding lying, slander, abusive language, and vain conversation; and three concerning the mind internally, covetousness, malicious thoughts, and the doubting spirit. The Egyptians show the workings of conscience. In the "Book of the Dead" we find an examination of conscience, or rather profession of innocence, before the Supreme Judge after death. Two confessions are given enunciating most of the virtues (chap. cxxv): reverence for God; duties to the dead; charity to neighbours; duties of superiors and subjects; care for human life and limb; chastity, honesty, truthfulness, and avoidance of slander; freedom from covetousness. The Assyro-Babylonian monuments offer us many items on the favourable side; nor could the people whence issued the Code of Hammurabi, at a date anterior to the Mosaic legislation by perhaps seven hundred years, be ethically undeveloped. If the Code of Hammurabi has no precepts of reverence to God corresponding with the first three Commandments of the Mosaic Law, at least its preface contains a recognition of God's supremacy. In China Confucius (c. 500 B. C.), in connection with an idea of heaven, delivered a high morality; and Mencius (c. 300 B. C.) developed this code of uprightness and benevolence as "Heaven's appointment". Greek ethics began to pass from its gnomic condition when Socrates fixed attention on the gnothi seauton in the interests of moral reflection. Soon followed Aristotle, who put the science on a lasting basis, with the great drawback of neglecting the theistic side and consequently the full doctrine of obligation. Neither for "obligation" nor for "conscience" had the Greeks a fixed term. Still the pleasures of a good conscience and the pains of an evil one were well set forth in the fragments collected by Stobaeus peri tou suneidotos. Penandros, asked what was true freedom, answered: "a good conscience" (Gaisford's Stobaeus, vol. I, p. 429).

In the Christian Fathers

The patristic treatment of ethics joined together Holy Scripture and the classical authors of paganism; no system was reached, but each Father did what was characteristic. Tertullian was a lawyer and spoke in legal terms: especially his Montanism urged him to inquire which were the mortal sins, and thus he started for future investigators a good line of inquiry. Clement of Alexandria was allegoric and mystic: a combiner of Orientalism, Hellenism, Judaism, and Christianity in their bearing on the several virtues and vices. The apologists, in defending the Christian character, dwelt on the marks of ethical conduct. St. Justin attributed this excellence to the Divine Logos, and thought that to Him, through Moses, the pagan philosophers were indebted (First Apology 44). Similarly Origen accounted for pre-Christian examples of Christian virtue. As a Roman skilled in legal administration St. Ambrose was largely guided by Latin versions of Greek ethics, as is very well illustrated by his imitation in style of Cicero's "De Officiis", which he made the title of his own work. He discusses honestum et utile (I, ix); decorum, or to prepon as exhibited in Holy Scripture (x); various degrees of goodness, mediocre and perfect, in connection with the text, "if thou wilt be perfect" (xi); the passions of hot youth (xvii). Subsequent chapters dwell on the various virtues, as fortitude in war and its allied quality, courage in martyrdom (xl, xli). The second book opens with a discussion of beatitude, and then returns to the different virtues. It is the pupil of St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, who is, perhaps, the most important of the Fathers in the development of the Christian doctrine of conscience, not so much on account of his frequent discourses about moral subjects, as because of the Platonism which he drank in before his conversion, and afterwards got rid of only by degrees. The abiding result to the Scholastic system was that many writers traced their ethics and theology more or less to innate ideas, or innate dispositions, or Divine illuminations, after the example of St. Augustine. Even in St. Thomas, who was so distinctly an Aristotelean empiricist, some fancy that they detect occasional remnants of Augustinianism on its Platonic side.

Before leaving the Fathers we may mention St. Basil as one who illustrates a theorizing attitude. He was sound enough in recognizing sin to be graver and less grave; yet in the stress of argument against some persons who seemed to admit only the worst offenses against God to be real sins, he ventured without approving of Stoic doctrine, to point out a sort of equality in all sin, so far as all sin is a disobedience to God (Hom. de Justitia Dei, v-viii). Later Abelard and recently Dr. Schell abused this suggestion. But it has had no influence in any way like that of St. Augustine's Platonism, of which a specimen may be seen in St. Bonaventure, when he is treating precisely of conscience, in a passage very useful as shedding light on a subsequent part of this article. Some habits, he says, are acquired, some innate as regards knowledge of singulars and knowledge of universals. "Quum enim ad cognitionem duo concurrant necessario, videlicet praesentia cognoscibilis et lumen quo mediante de illo judicamus, habitus cognoscitivi sunt quodammodo nobis innati ratione luminis animo inditi; sunt etiam acquisiti ratione speciei"--"For as two things necessarily concur for cognition, namely, the presence of something cognoscible, and the light by which we judge concerning it, cognoscitive habits are in a certain sense innate, by reason of the light wherewith the mind is endowed; and they are also acquired, by reason of the species." ("Comment. in II Lib. Sent.", dist. xxxix, art. 1, Q. ii. Cf. St. Thomas, "De Veritate", Q. xi, art. 1: "Principia dicuntur innata quae statim lumine intellectus agentis cognoscuntur per species a sensibus abstractas".--Principles are called innate when they are known at once by the light of the active intellect through the species abstracted from the senses.) Then comes the very noticeable and easily misunderstood addition a little later: "si quae sunt cognoscibilia per sui essentiam, non per speciem, respectu talium poterit dici conscientia esse habitus simpliciter innatus, utpote respectu upote respectu hujus quod est Deum amare et timere; Deus enim non cognoscitur per similitudinem a sensu, immo 'Dei notitia naturaliter est nobis inserta', sicut dicit Augustinus"--"if there are some things cognoscible through their very essence and not through the species, conscience, with regard to such things, may be called a habit simply innate, as, for example, with regard to loving and serving God; for God is not known by sense through an image; rather, 'the knowledge of God is implanted in us by nature', as Augustine says" (Tractate 106 on the Gospel of John, no. 4; "Confess.", X, xx, xxix; "De Lib. Arbitr.", I, xiv, xxxi; "De Mor. Eccl.", iii, iv; On the Holy Trinity XIII.3-6; "Joan. Dam. de Fide", I, i, iii). We must remember that St. Bonaventure is not only a theologian but also a mystic, supposing in man oculus carnis, oculus rationis and oculus contemplationis (the eye of the flesh, the eye of reason, and the eye of contemplation); and that he so seriously regards man's power to prove by arguments the existence of God as to devoted his labour to explaining that logical conviction is consistent with faith in the same existence (Comm. in III Sent., dist. xxiv, art. 1, Q. iv). All these matters are highly significant for those who take up any thorough examination of the question as to what the Scholastics thought about man having a conscience by his very nature as a rational being. The point recurs frequently in Scholastic literature, to which we must next turn.

In Scholastic times

It will help to make intelligible the subtle and variable theories which follow, if it be premised that the Scholastics are apt to puzzle readers by mixing up with their philosophy of reason a real or apparent apriorism, which is called Augustinianism, Platonism, or Mysticism.

Abelard, in his "Ethics", or "Nosce Teipsum", does not plunge us into these depths, and yet he taught such an indwelling of the Holy Ghost in virtuous pagans as too unrestrictedly to make their virtues to be Christian. He placed morality so much in the inward act that he denied the morality of the outward, and sin he placed not in the objectively disordered deed but in contempt for God, in which opinion he was imitated by Prof. Schell. Moreover he opened a way to wrong opinions by calling free will "the free judgment about the will". In his errors, however, he was not so wholly astray as careless reading might lead some to infer. It was with Alexander of Hales that discussions which some will regard as the tedious minutiae of Scholastic speculation began. The origin lay in the introduction from St. Jerome (in Ezech., I, Bk. I, ch. 1) of the term synteresis or synderesis. There the commentator, having treated three of the mystic animals in the Prophecy as symbolizing respectively three Platonic powers of the soulto epithumetikon (the appetitive), to thumikon (the irascible), and to logikon (the rational) — uses the fourth animal, the eagle, to represent what he calls sunteresis. The last, according to the texts employed by him to describe it, is a supernatural knowledge: it is the Spirit Who groans in man (Romans 8:26), the Spirit who alone knows what is in man (1 Corinthians 2:11), the Spirit who with the body and the soul forms the Pauline trichotomy of 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Alexander of Hales neglects this limitation to the supernatural, and takes synteresis as neither a potentia alone, nor a habitus alone but a potentia habitualis, something native, essential, indestructible in the soul, yet liable to be obscured and baffled. It resides both in the intelligence and in the will: it is identified with conscience, not indeed on its lower side, as it is deliberative and makes concrete applications, but on its higher side as it is wholly general in principle, intuitive, a lumen innatum in the intellect and a native inclination to good in the will, voluntas naturalis non deliberativa (Summa Theologica I-II:71 to I-II:77). St. Bonaventure, the pupil, follows on the same lines in his "Commentarium in II Sent." (dist. xxxix), with the difference that he locates the synteresis as calor et pondus in the will only distinguishing it from the conscience in the practical intellect, which he calls an innate habit--"rationale iudicatorium, habitus cognoscitivus moralium principiorum"-- "a rational judgment, a habit cognoscitive of moral principles". Unlike Alexander he retains the name conscience for descent to particulars: "conscientia non solum consistit in universali sed etiam descendit ad particularia deliberativa" --"conscience not only consists in the universal but also descends to deliberative particulars". As regards general principles in the conscience, the habits are innate: while as regards particular applications, they are acquired (II Sent., dist xxxix, art. 1, Q; ii).

As forming a transition from the Franciscan to the Dominican School we may take one whom the Servite Order can at least claim as a great patron, though he seems not to have joined their body, Henry of Ghent. He places conscience in the intellect, not in the affective part--"non ad affectivam pertinet"--by which the Scholastics meant generally the will without special reference to feeling or emotion as distinguished in the modern sense from will. While Nicholas of Cusa described the Divine illumination as acting in blind-born man (virtus illuminati coecinati qui per fidem visum acquirit), Henry of Ghent required only assistances to human sight. Therefore he supposed:

For our purpose we specially note this: "conscientia ad partem animae cognitivam non pertinet, sed ad affectivam"--"conscience belongs not to the cognitive part of the mind, but to the affective" (Quodlibet., I, xviii). St. Thomas, leading the Dominicans, places synteresis not in the will but in the intellect, and he applies the term conscience to the concrete determinations of the general principle which the synteresis furnishes: "By conscience the knowledge given through synteresis is applied to particular actions". ("De Verit.", Q. xvii, a. 2.; Cf. Summa Theologica, Q. lxxix, a. 13; "III Sent.", dist. xiv, a. 1, Q. ii; "Contra Gent.", II, 59.) Albertus agrees with St. Thomas in assigning to the intellect the synteresis, which he unfortunately derives from syn and hoerere (haerens in aliquo) (Summa Theol., Pt. II, Q. xcix, memb. 2, 3; Summa de Creaturis, Pt. II, Q. lxix, a. 1). Yet he does not deny all place to the will: "Est rationis practicae . . . non sine voluntate naturali, sed nihil est voluntatis deliberativae (Summa Theol., Pt. II, Q. xcix, memb. 1). The preference of the Franciscan School for the prominence of will, and the preference of the Thomistic School for the prominence of intellect is characteristic. (See Scotus, IV Sent., dist. xlix, Q. iv.) Often this preference is less significant than it seems. Fouillée, the great defender of the idée force-- idea as the active principle--allows in a controversy with Spencer that feeling and will may be involved in the idea. Having shown how Scholasticism began its research into conscience as a fixed terminology, we must leave the matter there, adding only three heads under which occasion was given for serious errors outside the Catholic tradition:

Anti-Scholastic schools

The history of ethics outside the Scholastic domain, so far as it is antagonistic, has its extremes in Monism or Pantheism on the one side and in Materialism on the other.

Spinoza

Spinoza is a type of the Pantheistic opposition. His views are erroneous inasmuch as they regard all things in the light of a fated necessity, with no free will in either God or man; no preventable evil in the natural course of things; no purposed good of creation; no individual destiny or immortality for the responsible agent: indeed no strict responsibility and no strict retribution by reward or punishment. On the other hand many of Spinoza's sayings if lifted into the theistic region, may be transformed into something noble. The theist, taking up Spinoza's phraseology in a converted sense, may, under this new interpretation, view all passionate action, all sinful choice, as an "inadequate idea of things", as "the preference of a part to the detriment of the whole", while all virtue is seen as an "adequate idea" taking in man's "full relation to himself as a whole, to human society and to God". Again, Spinoza's amor Dei intellectualis becomes finally, when duly corrected, the Beatific Vision, after having been the darker understanding of God enjoyed by Holy men before death, who love all objects in reference to God. Spinoza was not an antinomian in conduct; he recommended and practiced virtues. He was better than his philosophy on its bad side, and worse than his philosophy on its good side after it has been improved by Christian interpretation.

Hobbes

Hobbes stands for ethics on a Materialistic basis. Tracing all human action to self-love, he had to explain the generous virtues as the more respectable exhibitions of that quality when modified by social life. He set various schools of antagonistic thought devising hypotheses to account for disinterested action in man. The Cambridge Platonists unsatisfactorily attacked him on the principle of their eponymous philosopher, supposing the innate noemata to rule the empirical aisthemata by the aid of what Henry More called a "boniform faculty", which tasted "the sweetness and savour of virtue". This calling in of a special faculty had imitators outside the Platonic School; for example in Hutcheson, who had recourse to Divine "implantations" of benevolent disposition and moral sense, which remind us somewhat of synteresis as imperfectly described by Alexander of Hales. A robust reliance on reason to prove ethical truth as it proved mathematical truths, by inspection and analysis, characterized the opposition which Dr. Samuel Clarke presented to Hobbes. It was a fashion of the age to treat philosophy with mathematical rigour; but very different was the "geometrical ethics" of Spinoza, the necessarian, from that of Descartes, the libertarian, who thought that God's free will chose even the ultimate reasons of right and wrong and might have chosen otherwise. If Hobbes has his representatives in the Utilitarians, the Cambridge Platonists have their representatives in more or less of the school of which T. H. Green is a leading light. A universal infinite mind seeks to realize itself finitely in each human mind or brain, which therefore must seek to free itself from the bondage of mere natural causality and rise to the liberty of the spirit, to a complete self-realization in the infinite Self and after its pattern. What this pattern ultimately is Green cannot say; but he holds that our way towards it at present is through the recognized virtues of European civilization, together with the cultivation of science and art. In the like spirit G.E. Moore finds the ascertainable objects that at present can be called "good in themselves" to be social intercourse and æsthetic delight.

Kant

Kant may stand midway between the Pantheistic and the purely Empirical ethics. On the one side he limited our knowledge, strictly so called, of things good to sense-experiences; but on the other he allowed a practical, regulative system of ideas lifting us up to God. Duty as referred to Divine commands was religion, not ethics: it was religion, not ethics, to regard moral precepts in the light of the commands of God. In ethics these were restricted to the autonomous aspect, that is, to the aspect of them under which the will of each man was its own legislator. Man, the noumenon, not the phenomenon, was his own lawgiver and his own end so far as morality went: anything beyond was outside ethics proper. Again, the objects prescribed as good or forbidden as bad did not enter in among the constituents of ethical quality: they were only extrinsic conditions. The whole of morality intrinsically was in the good will as pure from all content or object of a definite kind, from all definite inclination to benevolence and as deriving its whole dignity from respect for the moral law simply as a moral law, self-imposed, and at the same time universalized for all other autonomous individuals of the rational order. For each moral agent as noumenal willed that the maxim of his conduct should become a principle for all moral agents.

We have to be careful how in practice we impute consequences to men who hold false theories of conscience. In our historical sketch we have found Spinoza a necessarian or fatalist; but he believed in effort and exhortation as aids to good life. We have seen Kant assert the non-morality of Divine precept and of the objective fitness of things, but he found a place for both these elements in his system. Similarly Paulsen gives in the body of his work a mundane ethics quite unaffected by his metaphysical principles as stated in his preface to Book II. Luther logically might be inferred to be a thorough antinomian: he declared the human will to be enslaved, with a natural freedom only for civic duties; he taught a theory of justification which was in spite of evil deeds; he called nature radically corrupt and forcibly held captive by the lusts of the flesh; he regarded divine grace as a due and necessary complement to human nature, which as constituted by mere body and soul was a nature depraved; his justification was by faith, not only without works, but even in spite of evil works which were not imputed. Nevertheless he asserted that the good tree of the faith-justified man must bring forth good works; he condemned vice most bitterly, and exhorted men to virtue. Hence Protestants can depict a Luther simply the preacher of good, while Catholics may regard simply the preacher of evil. Luther has both sides.

Conscience in its practical working

The supremacy of conscience

The supremacy of conscience is a great theme of discourse. "Were its might equal to its right", says Butler, "it would rule the world". With Kant we could say that conscience is autonomously supreme, if against Kant we added that thereby we meant only that every duty must be brought home to the individual by his own individual conscience, and is to this extent imposed by it; so that even he who follows authority contrary to his own private judgment should do so on his own private conviction that the former has the better claim. If the Church stands between God and conscience, then in another sense also the conscience is between God and the Church. Unless a man is conscientiously submissive to the Catholic Church his subjection is not really a matter of inner morality but is mechanical obedience.

Conscience as a matter of education and perfectibility

As in all other concerns of education, so in the training of conscience we must use the several means. As a check on individual caprice, especially in youth, we must consult the best living authorities and the best traditions of the past. At the same time that we are recipient our own active faculties must exert themselves in the pursuit with a keen outlook for the chances of error. Really unavoidable mistakes will not count against us; but many errors are remotely, when not proximately, preventable. From all our blunders we should learn a lesson. The diligent examiner and corrector of his own conscience has it in his power, by long diligence to reach a great delicacy and responsiveness to the call of duty and of higher virtue, whereas the negligent, and still more the perverse, may in some sense become dead to conscience. The hardening of the heart and the bad power to put light for darkness and darkness for light are results which may be achieved with only too much ease. Even the best criteria will leave residual perplexities for which provision has to be made in an ethical theory of probabilities which will be explained in the article PROBABILISM. Suffice it to say here that the theory leaves intact the old rule that a man in so acting must judge that he certainly is allowed thus to act, even though sometimes it might be more commendable to do otherwise. In inferring something to be permissible, the extremes of scrupulosity and of laxity have to be avoided.

The approvals and reprovals of conscience

The office of conscience is sometimes treated under too narrow a conception. Some writers, after the manner of Socrates when he spoke of his doemon as rather a restrainer than a promoter of action, assign to conscience the office of forbidding, as others assign to law and government the negative duty of checking invasion upon individual liberty. Shaftesbury (Inquiry II, 2, 1) regards conscience as the consciousness of wrongdoing, not of rightdoing. Carlyle in his "Essay on Characteristics" asserts that we should have no sense of having a conscience but for the fact that we have sinned; with which view we may compare Green's idea about a reasoned system of ethics (Proleg., Bk. IV, ch. ii, sect. 311) that its use is negative "to provide a safeguard against the pretext which in a speculative age some inadequate and misapplied theories may afford our selfishness rather than in the way of pointing out duties previously ignored". Others say that an ethics of conscience should no more be hortatory than art should be didactic. Mackenzie (Ethics, 3rd ed., Bk. III, ch. I, sect. 14) prefers to say simply that "conscience is a feeling of pain accompanying and resulting from nonconformity to principle". The suggestion which, by way of contrary, these remarks offer is that we should use conscience largely as an approving and an instigating and an inspiring agency to advance us in the right way. We should not in morals copy the physicists, who deny all attractive force and limit force to vis a tergo, a push from behind. Nor must we think that the positive side of conscience is exhausted in urging obligations: it may go on in spite of Kant, beyond duty to works of supererogation. Of course there is a theory which denies the existence of such works on the principle that every one is simply bound to the better and the best if he feels himself equal to the heroic achievement. This philosophy would lay it down that he who can renounce all and give it to the poor is simply obliged to do so, though a less generous nature is not bound, and may take advantage --if it be an advantage--of its own inferiority. Not such was the way in which Christ put the case: He said hypothetically, "if thou wilt be perfect", and His follower St. Peter said to Ananias "Was not [thy land] thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? . . . Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God." (Acts 5:4) We have, then, a sphere of duty and beyond that a sphere of free virtue, and we include both under the domain of conscience. It is objected that only a prig considers the approving side of his conscience, but that is true only of the priggish manner, not of the thing itself; for a sound mind may very well seek the joy which comes from a faithful, generous heart, and make it an effort of conscience that outstrips duty to aim at higher perfection, not under the false persuasion that only after duty has been fulfilled does merit begin, but under the true conviction that duty is meritorious, and that so also is goodness in excess of duty. Not that the eye is to be too narrowly fixed on rewards: these are included, while virtue for virtue's sake and for the sake of God is carefully cultivated.

About this page

APA citation. Rickaby, J. (1908). Conscience. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04268a.htm

MLA citation. Rickaby, John. "Conscience." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04268a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rick McCarty.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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