‘A’ Level Philosophy and Ethics
conscience L conscientia privity of knowledge, consciousness, f. conscire be privy to, f. as
CON- + scire know: see -ENCE.] I 1 One's inmost thought, one's mind or heart. ME-E17. 2 (An)
inward knowledge or consciousness; (an) internal conviction; mental recognition or
acknowledgement (of). LME-M19. 3 Reasonableness, understanding. rare (Shakes.).
II 4 A moral sense of right or wrong; a sense of responsibility felt for private or public actions,
motives, etc.; the faculty or principle that leads to the approval of right thought or action and
condemnation of wrong. ME. 5 Conscientious observance of, regard to. LME-L17. 6 Practice of
or conformity to what is considered right ; conscientiousness. arch. LME. 7 Sense of guilt with
regard to a thought or action; scruple, compunction, remorse. LME-E17.
The Play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch In this famous line from Hamlet, the
the conscience of the King. Prince is hoping that a play he has
Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2 planned with a group of travelling
actors will have an effect on his Uncle,
Claudius. He suspects Claudius of having murdered his father the King, and of
taking the throne (and Queen Gertrude, his Mother) for himself. Hamlet hopes that
the play (which features similar circumstances) will “tweak” Claudius’s conscience,
and force him to betray himself as a murderer.
In a famous edition of the Cartoon Tom and Jerry,
the cat deliberates over a moral problem that he
encounters. As he does, an angel-Tom appears on one
shoulder, and a devil-Tom appears on the other. The
devil suggests one course of action, while the angel
supports a more virtuous approach.
Sorry – couldn’t find a picture of Tom’s conscience – this will have to do!
Jerry Maguire is a successful, high-profile sports agent who, at
age 35, develops a conscience about the way he does business,
about the way he steamrolls athletes in pursuit of the almighty
Jerry's life was at its peak. He was one of the best in his line, he
was making a mint representing some of the best athletes in the
country, and he was engaged to marry the beautiful Avery
Bishop. But a midnight epiphany leads to a crisis of faith,
and he drafts a "mission statement" for his company promoting
more idealism and genuine concern for people -- and less profit. It sounds
inspiring, yes, but it displeases the big wallets upstairs, so Jerry is fired by
smarmy agent Bob Sugar and loses nearly every client on his roster.
In the Carlo Collodi story Pinocchio, a cricket
warns that the wooden puppet will come to no good
through his bad behaviour. Pinocchio crushes the
Cricket with his foot – the Cricket returns as a
ghost and acts as a moral adviser.
The Cricket was immortalised in Disney’s version of
Most people think of the Conscience as being some sense of right and
wrong. It does not always play a part in moral decision making, but often
acts as a reminder of the times when an individual did not “do the right
thing”. Some people talk of being haunted by a “guilty conscience”.
By 'conscience' is meant the sense of right and wrong in an
individual; described variously by philosophers as a reflection
of the voice of God, as a human faculty, as the voice of reason,
or as a special moral sense.
(excerpted from the Oxford Companion to Philosophy)
1. Conscience as the voice of God.
St Augustine of Hippo and John Henry Newman both thought that
Conscience was the voice of God, speaking within the individual.
2. Conscience as a Human Faculty.
There is a debate raging over whether a person’s moral sense is the
result of “Nurture” or “Nature”. At a popular level, this debate is being
played out on TV Screens whenever a murder is committed, or when
Public sensibilities are offended by some individual’s behaviour.
On a more profound level, psychological and sociological research has
examined the way that the conscience is developed, and how this
development takes palce.
3. Conscience as the Voice of Reason.
Some people regard morally “good” behaviour as the most sensible or
practical answer to a moral dilemma. They would argue that the “best”
course of action is “common sense”, and regard the use of conscience
as the process by which this decision making takes place.
Religious philosophers have argued that “Reason” is a gift from God,
and God intended it to be used for moral decision making.
4. Conscience as a Special Moral Sense.
Some people have argued that we have a “moral sense” in the same
way that we have aesthetic tastes. A moral sense could then be
trained, ignored or even perverted. The sense is based on something
Conscience – background notes
Ethicists distinguish between two ways in which the conscience works:
Judicial Conscience Legislative Conscience
This is the process by which we This is the process by which we
judge past actions. decide on future actions.
This is the sort of thing done This is the sort of thing done
when a person goes to when a person decides on what
Confession (usually in a Roman course of action or behaviour
Catholic Church). would be the most appropriate.
The Bible makes no reference to the word “Conscience”. However, the
Bible does refer to the processes of conscience, and intellectual moral
judgement. The New Testament implies that the ability to evaluate actions
in a moral context, and to act accordingly, is an integral part of Human
Nature – a person neglects their conscience at their own peril.
Synderesis and Conscientia
Synderesis and the Bible
The term synderesis first appears in the Book of Wisdom of Solomon (a
Book in the Apocrphya:
Wisdom 17:11 (RSV) The Greek Apocrypha uses the
For wickedness is a cowardly thing, condemned word
by its own testimony; distressed by conscience, συνειδησει - ‘suneiderssi’
it has always exaggerated the difficulties.
here it is translated as
St Paul makes repeated use of the word, referring to his sense of moral
right, and the way that knowledge of having done wrong can be used in
Romans 9:1 (RSV) In Greek, the word conscience
I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; is given as συνειδησεως -
my conscience bears me witness in the Holy
suneidereos – again
translated as conscience.
According to the Thayer and Smith Greek Lexicon, Suneidesis is translated
§ the consciousness of anything
§ the soul as distinguishing between what is morally
good and bad, prompting to do the former and shun the
latter, commending one, condemning the other the
The term Synderesis first appears in a passage by St Jerome (AD347-
420), in which he describes a vision found in the Book of the Prophet
Ezekiel. Jerome was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Aristotle and
Plato (which had recently been reintroduced into Europe).
“This the Greeks call synderesis, which spark of conscience was not extinguished
from the breast of Adam when he was driven from Paradise. Through it, when
overcome by pleasures or by anger, or even as sometimes deceived by a
similitude of reason, we feel that we sin; ... and this in the scriptures is
sometimes called spirit.... And yet we perceive that the conscience (conscientia)
is itself also thrown aside and driven from its place by some who have no shame
or modesty in their faults.”
Jerome, (Ezech., I, Bk. I, ch. 1)
quoted in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
Following Jerome, the early Christian writers came to make the following
distinctions between Synderesis and Conscientia:
The ability to judge or work for the The attitude a person takes
right. towards good or evil activity.
Augustine of Hippo (AD334 – 430) sees the conscience as the God-given
faculty to observe the Law. He writes about the way that the sense of
moral right and wrong is “so taught by an inward teaching”, and the laws
are preserved independently of humans.
“Where, then, are they written, unless in the book of that Light which is
De Trinitate Book 14, chapter 15; 21
All the early Christian writings on Synderesis concentrated on the idea
that Conscience is the Voice of God (c.f. John Henry Newman – see
notes on the Moral Argument for the Existence of God)
Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274)
Whereas the Early Church Fathers tended to think of the Conscience as
the Voice of God, Aquinas nothing more than the rational mind making
Thus, Synderesis is the basic and practical use of human reason, pointing
out the right course of action. It is an intellectual activity.
"By conscience the knowledge given through synteresis is applied to
"De Verit.", Q. xvii, a. 2.;
Aquinas argued that there is a “Synderesis Rule” – Do Good and Avoid
Evil. The conscience is binding – it is wrong to disobey the dictates of
your conscience. This applies, even if the conscience makes a mistake.
§ If your conscience (after proper reflection) tells you that a particular
action is wrong (even if the Church should say otherwise) it would be
wrong to carry out that action.
§ In the same way, if your conscience tells you that you must do
something which the Church forbids, you would commit a sin if you
failed to obey your conscience.
While this might seem a recipe for anarchy, Aquinas believed that the conscience
derives its authority from God. Only an erring conscience would demand that a
Christian should defy the authority of the Church.
Aquinas believed that wrongdoing came from ignorance, or from ignoring
the dictates of the conscience. Where a person knows what they should be
doing, but fails to do so, is doing wrong.
This failure can be due to a failure to develop those virtues that enable a
person to make appropriate judgements based on an evaluation of the
situation and careful reflection.