Published on
29 February 2012

Conscience, Authority and Conflict

By: Prof. John Cottingham


Prof. Cottingham is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading, as well as a Professorial Research Fellow of Heythrop College, University of London, and an Honorary Fellow of St. John’s College, Oxford, where he started out as an undergraduate. He is also Editor of Ratio, the international journal of analytic philosophy. His principal research interests are in early-modern philosophy (especially Descartes), moral philosophy, and the philosophy of religion. He has published eleven books as sole author, including DescartesThe RationalistsPhilosophy and the Good Life, and On the Meaning of Life. Among his recent books are The Spiritual Dimension (2005), which deals with central themes in the philosophy of religion, and Cartesian Reflections (2008), a collection of his papers on Descartes. The following is the text of a seminar paper given by Prof. John Cottingham at the Thomas More Institute on Wednesday 29 February 2011.*

1. Introduction

A great deal of morality is concerned with the public arena: examining what is required for a just and fair society, and trying to map out the nature and extent of our obligations to our fellow citizens and to the wider world. The concepts of conscience, guilt and shame, by contrast, seem primarily concerned with what might be called the interior dimension of morality: how each of us thinks and feels about our own conduct when we review it, or when we measure it against our sense of what is expected of us, or how we might have done better.1

The idea of conscience carries, etymologically, something of this interior flavour. The Latin word conscientia – from con or cum (‘with’) and scientia (‘knowledge’) – originally meant knowledge shared with another (e.g., a fellow-conspirator); but it came to be used by extension of the private knowledge an individual shares (as it were) with him or herself, and hence the term is employed quite generally to refer to a person’s inner mental awareness. Thus we find Descartes in the seventeenth century reported as saying that if we look within ourselves, we will see that we have ‘intimate inner awareness’ (Lat. intime conscii sumus) of the freedom of the will. Elsewhere he defines a thought as ‘that which is within us in such a way that we are immediately aware (Lat. conscius) of it’. The thoughts of which we are ‘conscious’ in this sense need not have anything specifically to do with morality, though of course they may. This may partly explain how the term ‘conscience’ in modern French does duty for what in English is conveyed by two separate words, ‘consciousness’ and ‘conscience’: it can mean either the direct inner awareness each of us supposedly has of our own mental states in general, or, in a more specifically moral sense, one’s inner awareness of, for example, guilt at wrongdoing.

Because of its central importance in the moral life, one might suppose that conscience would be a primary concern of philosophers working in ethical theory. Certainly it bulked large in the writings of many moral philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; but it is surprising to find how comparatively little attention is paid to it in modern anglophone philosophy. One possible reason for the relative neglect of the topic may lie in the increasing secularism of our philosophical culture, and the resulting mistrust of anything that smacks of a religious framework for understanding the human moral predicament. Notions like ‘the examination of conscience’ (found for example in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, c.1525) are associated in many people’s minds, whether explicitly or implicitly, with the religious notion of sin, which many modern philosophers would probably say has no place in a rational theory of ethics. Yet most of us, irrespective of religious allegiance or its lack, will recognise feelings of guilt and/or shame as having from time to time played a key role in our lives. At the very least they seem to have an indispensable role in the phenomenology and psychology of ethics; and arguably they are an integral part of our sense of ourselves as responsible moral agents.

 2. Conscience in the Western tradition

One of the earliest Western texts to prefigure the idea of conscience is Psalm 51 in the Hebrew Bible (or 50 in the Vulgate and Septuagint numbering), now generally known as the Miserere, and dating from several hundred years BC. Reflecting on his past conduct, the author utters a prolonged plea for mercy, linked to a frank acknowledgement of transgression: ‘I acknowledge my guilt, and my sin is ever before me’. Traditionally, the composition of the psalm is attributed to King David, after he had been brought by the prophet Nathan to a keen sense of his wrongdoing in seducing Bathsheba and sending her husband to the front line to be killed. According to the story, what had made David feel the pangs of conscience was Nathan’s parable about a rich man who was unwilling to draw on his own flocks and herds to feed a visitor, but instead took from a poor man his one ewe lamb, which he dearly loved. David’s outrage at such behaviour was then turned in on himself, when Nathan told him ‘thou are the man!’ (2 Samuel 12: 1-23). The seemingly simple text presupposes an ethical framework of considerable subtlety. Three key points in particular emerge from the story about how the operation of conscience is envisaged. First, it involves a directing inwards by the subject of the kind of disapproval characteristically felt at the untoward behaviour of another. Second, it is linked to remorse and repentance, which is in turn made possible by a deepening both of self-awareness and of empathy: David’s previously shallow grasp of the significance of his actions was altered under the imaginative stimulus of being presented with a vivid analogue of his own conduct, and thus starting to appreciate how being treated in such a way would feel for the victim. And third, the required response is not simply implanted from the outside by the prophet’s condemnation, but is partly elicited from within. Once certain emotional and cognitive barriers are lifted, it is David’s own conscience that convicts him.

The complex psycho-ethical framework presupposed here may be found in one form or another in many prophetic writings from the Old Testament, and it continues on through the parables of Jesus of Nazareth (such as that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32)), and into much subsequent Christian moral philosophy. If, by contrast, we turn to the other great source of Western ethics, namely the philosophy of the classical Greek world, we find a rather different picture. Although the workings of guilt and remorse are vividly present in much Greek tragedy (compare Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus), in the ethical writings of Aristotle there is no developed idea of conscience. Aristotle does discuss aidos (‘modesty’ or ‘shame’), but he characterises it as a ‘fear of disrepute’ – something that may be useful in restraining the young, but which should be no part of the makeup of a person of confirmed virtue (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (325 BC), Book IV, Ch. 9). Aristotle’s central ethical preoccupations are not with prophetic calls to righteousness or with self-scrutiny and repentance, but rather with mapping out the virtuous life of a successful and flourishing human being. Harmonious moral development, on the Aristotelian view, involves a happy match between inclination and right conduct, which arises from an individual’s having been inducted as a child into a sound ethical culture. Aristotle does not describe this process in detail, but the main idea appears to be that even at a pre-rational level, the young child will be progressively encouraged to take pleasure in behaving virtuously. At this early stage, he or she need have no clear rational grasp of exactly what makes the relevant actions good or bad; she is simply being habituated to act and feel appropriately. But by the time the child comes of age, habits of right behaviour will be supported by an understanding of what it is about the conduct in question that makes it praiseworthy or blameworthy. The outcome of this process is a person of mature ethical virtue: someone who has the right habits of feeling and action, but who also has the capacity to discern what should be done and why – someone who acts, as Aristotle puts it in the Nicomachean Ethics, ‘knowing what he is doing and choosing it for its own sake’, and who has the right feelings ‘at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people, for the right motive and in the right way’.

The Aristotelian conception of ethical virtue seems to lack that sense of humans as essentially conflicted beings which emerges so vividly in the Judaeo-Christian worldview – a worldview in which a sense of sin, and its corollary conscience, has a pivotal place. To be sure, Aristotle did give considerable attention to the phenomenon of akrasia – the failure through weakness to chose the best option – and this has some affinities to the disordered and conflicted state of which St Paul famously spoke when he said ‘Woe is me! The good that I would, that I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do’ (Romans 7: 19). But Aristotle’s model is not that of the transgressor tormented by conscience for his or her lapses of will, but rather of someone who desires the good but (under the influence of passion) is subject to cognitive error, mistaking the lesser good for the greater (Bk VII, Ch. 3).

In the letters of Paul and several other places in the New Testament, as well as in some non-Christian writers of roughly the same period (for example the Stoic philosopher Epictetus), we find the first occurrences of an explicit term for of the concept of conscience, namely the Greek word syneidesis. This is normally translated into Latin as conscientia, and appropriately so, since it is made up of exactly the same corresponding elements, coming from syn (‘with’) and eidesis (‘knowledge’). In a frequently cited passage Paul remarks that the Gentiles, though not possessing the Law, ‘do by nature the things contained in the law, and show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience (syneidesis) also bearing witness’ (Romans 2: 15).  A corruption or copyist’s misspelling of the New Testament Greek word appears to have led to the curious term ‘synderesis’, or ‘synteresis’, found in later patristic writers (starting with St Jerome in the early fifth century)Jerome speaks of synteresis as the ‘spark of conscience (scintilla conscientiae) not extinguished in Cain when he was driven from paradise’ (Jerome, Commentary on Ezekiel (414), at Ch.1, v. 7). In Thomas Aquinas, synderesis appears as the name for the innate, God-given cognitive disposition or ‘rational power’, which enables us to know right and wrong.(Disputed Questions on Truth, (1256‑9), Qu. 16.)

Let us now jump right down to the eighteenth century. In the second of his Fifteen Sermons (1726), Joseph Butler, one of the most influential writers on conscience, talks of various ‘natural principles’ in man, including that whereby ‘man approves or disapproves his heart, temper and actions’. But Butler then makes a crucial distinction between principles that are natural merely in the sense of being prevalent, or commonly occurring, and those which are natural in the sense that they carry an authoritative or (as philosophers now say) a ‘normative’ force. So alongside natural feelings such as anger, for example, there is, says Butler, ‘a superior principle of reflection or conscience in every man… which pronounces some actions to be in themselves just, right, good; others to be in themselves evil, wrong, unjust’. The deliverances of conscience, then, are not to be regarded as simply one group among the many competing internal principles which may motivate us, but have a special authoritative status, which enables them, in Butler’s phrase, to ‘be a law to us’. Butler concludes that ‘it is by this faculty (of conscience), natural to man, that he is a moral agent… a faculty in kind and in nature supreme over all others, and which bears its own authority of being so’ (Butler (1726), Sermon II, §8, emphasis supplied). This idea of the authoritative and quasi-legal status of conscience prefigures the conception of Immanuel Kant, later in the eighteenth century, according to which conscience (Gewissen) is the ‘consciousness of an internal court in man, ‘before which his thoughts accuse or excuse one another’. Every human being, Kant goes on to argue in the Tugendlehre or Doctrine of Virtue (1797), is ‘kept in awe an by 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’ (§13).

The strongly normative conception of conscience which we find, in different ways, in Butler and in Kant corresponds to an idea of conscience that is still widespread; but it raises the philosophical question of whether it is compatible with the naturalistic framework for understanding human nature to which many present-day philosophers are drawn. My question is: do we need something more than mere nature to ground the authority of conscience?

 3. The authority of conscience

The naturalistic movement is well under way by the time of John Stuart Mill, writing from an entirely secular perspective, in his essay Utilitarianism (1861). Mill defines ‘the essence of conscience’ as ‘a feeling in our own mind; a pain more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty’ (Ch. 3). He adds various qualifications – that the feeling must be ‘disinterested’, and connected with the ‘pure idea of duty’ – but the main effect of his account is a deflationary or demystifying one – to reduce the deliverances of conscience to nothing more than a set of psychological events or purely subjective feelings. The feelings, he observed, are typically ‘encrusted over with collateral associations’, derived from the ‘recollections of childhood’ and ‘all the forms of religious feeling’; and this, he claims, is enough to explain away ‘the sort of mystical character which… is apt to be attributed to the idea of moral obligation’.

Mill’s account purports to be simply a piece of empirical psychology, but it clearly has serious implications for the normativity of conscience. Painful feelings linked to the violation of duty function as what Mill terms ‘internal sanctions’, and he wished to enlist these in the service of his own utilitarian ethics. But sanctions, as understood by Mill, are no more than causal motivators – means whereby a desired code may be inculcated into the population so as to reinforce allegiance; we are thus in the territory of inducements for compliance, not in the territory of authoritative reasons for action. Mill was sensitive to the objection that if what restrains me from wrongdoing is ‘only a feeling in my own mind’, one may be tempted to think that ‘when the feeling ceases, the obligation ceases’. But he confines his reply to observing that those who believe in a more exalted and objective source of obligation are just as likely to transgress morally as those who think that what restrains them ‘is always in the mind itself’ (ibid.). True, but irrelevant. What Mill has to explain, and what he doesn’t explain, is whether conscience has any genuine authority once it is reduced to a mere inner feeling we happen to have.

 4. Guilt and shame

Let’s think a bit more about the psychology of conscience. It appears to be part of the concept of conscience that it involves not just the evaluation of one’s past conduct, but also, when the evaluation is negative, a characteristic sense of discomfort. When reviewing what we have done yields a satisfactory verdict, then the conscience is ‘quiet’; but when, as often, there is much to regret, then we speak of ‘the pangs’ of conscience, or being ‘pricked’ by conscience. Just as imprudent eating produces subsequent indigestion, so immoral conduct generates an unquiet conscience.

One very characteristic human reaction is to feel ashamed at what one has done. Though shame is a complicated reaction, at the most basic level it seems to involve an awareness that one’s faults have been, or may be, exposed to view. Bernard Williams in his landmark study Shame and Necessity (1993)remarked that ‘even if shame and its motivations always involve in some way… an idea of the gaze of another… for many of its operations the imagined gaze of an imagined other will do’. Williams makes a persuasive case for supposing that what he calls the ‘internalized other’ is typically crucial to how shame works. Taking the example of Sophoclean tragedy, Williams argued that ‘[the central] characters are represented… as experiencing a necessity to act in certain ways, a conviction that they must do certain things… The source of the necessity is in the agent, an internalised other whose view the agent can respect… The sense of this necessity lies in the thought that one could not live and look others in the eye if one did certain things.’ For agents to have this kind of conception of what must be done does not, on Williams’s argument, require them to acknowledge moral imperatives grounded in objective or ‘external’ reasons. Rather, ‘these necessities are internal, grounded in the êthos, the projects, the individual nature of the agent…’ (Shame and Necessity, Ch. 5, p. 103).

What I think we can see here is a programme for the radical deconstruction of the Christian concept of conscience, with its vision of the authoritative divine voice (or its Kantian analogue) calling each of us to account for the moral quality of our actions. We are offered instead a Nietzschean vision of an ethical world in which values are grounded in no more than the ‘individual nature of the agent’ and his or her chosen ‘projects’. The worldview of Williams, in common with many contemporary moral philosophers wholly rejects any absolute moral framework for understanding the human predicament: ‘our ethical condition… lies not only beyond Christianity, but beyond its Kantian… legacies… We know that the world was not made for us, or we for the world, that our history tells no purposive story, and that there is no position outside the world or outside history from which we might hope to authenticate our activities’ (Shame and Necessity, p. 166). The authoritative status of conscience, at any rate as traditionally conceived, does not look likely to survive in such a world. It is a world in which maybe agents will still be able to measure themselves against standards they will be ashamed to fall short of; but those standards depend in the end on no more than the individual projects they have chosen to make their own. I’d be interested to hear your views on this; in my own view it robs moral standards of any true authority or normative power.

 5. Conscience and the Unconscious

Let me finally come to Freud. The concepts of the ‘internal forum’, in Kant, or of the ‘internalized other’, as deployed by Williams, will for many modern readers have unmistakeable psychoanalytic overtones. In a lecture expounding his views on the sources of psychological conflict, Freud discusses some of his patients who were in the grip of a persistent delusion that they were being observed; and he describes how such cases gave him the idea that that the separation of the observing ‘agency’ from the rest of the ego might be a regular feature of the ego’s structure. ‘There is scarcely anything’, he observes, ‘that we so regularly separate from our ego, and so regularly set over against it, as our conscience’. In the typical case, I want to do something that gives me pleasure; if I go ahead ‘my conscience punishes me with distressing reproaches’.

This leads on, of course, to Freud’s theory of the superego. What happens is something potentially traumatic, a kind of ‘dissection of personality’, in which the Superego ‘seems to have picked out the parents’ strictness and severity, their prohibiting and punitive function, whereas their loving care seems not to have been maintained’. The result is a hapless state in which the individual, without fully consciously appreciating what is happening to him, is locked into an aggressive cycle of self-criticism, as he strives to fulfil ever greater demands for perfection. (Civilisation and its Discontents (1929). Successors of Freud such as Jacques Lacan, have laid great stress on this characteristic harshness of conscience. Lacan in a memorable phrase talks of the gourmandisme of the Superego: like a sinister parasite, the more you feed it, the more it wants. (L’ethique de la psychanalyse, 1986).

Freud, like Williams, has little truck with the traditional Christian concept of conscience. But perhaps things are not quite as simple as this. We have to remember that for Freud, the overall goal of therapy was an integrated condition in which the split-off parts of the self were reincorporated into consciousness.  The central idea is that a psychologically healthy person is one who is maximally self-aware – who is able to confront the various desires, inclinations, fears, aspirations and so on that arise within him, but in their true colours, freed from distortions and projections. So they go awry not because such feelings as shame and guilt exist, but when they are invested with an awesome and tyrannical power that distorts the agent’s deliberations so that he is incapable of balanced and rational assessment of how he should act, or unable to reflect on his conduct except with paralysing shame or self-hatred. But self-awareness, self-scrutiny, and a preparedness to delve into the sources of our mistakes, seem to be necessary components in the ethical life of any human being who aspires to integrity and responsibility, as well as being preconditions for the kind of genuine remorse and repentance that allows for healing, moral improvement and growth. This is not, in my view, all that far from the Christian conception of moral growth.

This brings us back to our main theme of the origins of conscience, and the source of its authoritative power. It would take an absurdly blithe and blinkered view of the human condition to fail to acknowledge the moral flaws of our species – the violence and cruelty and the aggressiveness and selfishness of which we are capable. And it does not require a very sophisticated anthropology to realise that the survival of civilisation depends on these dire tendencies being held in check, both by the ‘external sanctions’ of law and social pressure, and by the ‘internal sanctions’ of conscience, guilt and shame. But where does this internal, or ‘internalised’ voice come from? Simply to say that the relevant feelings were implanted in us as children by our parents is only a very short term explanation, since the question immediately arises as to how the relevant feelings were transmitted to them, when they were children. Freud was quick to grasp this point: ‘parents and authorities follow the precepts of their own super-egos in educating children… Thus a child’s super-ego is in fact constructed on the model not of its parents’ [ego], but of its parents’ superego [and thus] it becomes the vehicle for… the judgements of value which have propagated themselves from generation to generation’ (New Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933). Explaining away conscience in terms of a parental voice is, in itself, no more satisfying than explaining away the idea of God by saying that I received it from my parents, since it simply postpones the question of ultimate genesis.

 6. Conclusion: conscience and conflict

The persistence, down the generations, of feelings of conscience must surely come from roots that are deep in our human nature, namely that we aspire to the good, and yet are often drawn to evil. Given what seems indisputable, namely our inherent conflictedness in this respect, conscience can be seen, as it has been seen by many religious writers, as a necessary ally in the pursuit of the good – something, as traditional language has it, that speaks for our ‘higher’ nature, against the promptings of the lower. Casting conscience in this perhaps somewhat exalted but at any rate beneficial role turns out on reflection to be quite compatible with psychoanalytic insights about its harshness; for the harshness, as we have seen, stems from its being ‘separated off’ as an alien voice of punishment and control, whereas the idea of moral growth presupposes that this voice can be freed from its tyrannical overtones, once it is properly integrated into a healthy self-image, and seen as directing us to the good where our true fulfilment lies.

The final question this leaves us with is whether such a positive account presupposes, in the end, a theistic underpinning for the notion of conscience. It is a question that is by no means easy to answer. There seems on the face of it to be a perfectly coherent alternative, namely that the operation of conscience (maintained and transmitted down the generations, and no doubt given specific shape by the mores of society in any given epoch) derives ultimately from no more than contingent facts about the way our species happens to have evolved. David Hume in the eighteenth century was perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for such a view, when he proposed that morality is founded ultimately on the natural feelings of benevolence we find within us. Moral virtues, he remarked, have a ‘natural beauty and amiableness’ which ‘recommends them to the esteem of uninstructed mankind and engages their affections’. An integral part of this is the operation of conscience – although, consistently with his sunny vision of human nature, what Hume stresses is not the torments of guilt and shame, but the joys of a quiet conscience – ‘inward peace of mind, consciousness of integrity, a satisfactory review of our own conduct’ (Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Sectn IX, part 2).

Yet the conflictedness of our nature cannot be ignored, even by someone who takes such a benign view as Hume. Along with the ‘particle of the dove’ which he maintained was ‘kneaded into our frame’, he was obliged to acknowledge ‘elements of the wolf and serpent’ (ibid., Sectn IX, part 1). So which feelings have authority – the dovelike ones or the wolflike ones? Appeals to the evolution, or empirical nature just can’t answer that. The dove, symbol of peace, is of course also the ancient Christian icon of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3: 16), though one assumes this is not an echo that Hume can consciously have intended to evoke, given his atheism. The image of the wolf, by contrast, calls to mind the tag of the Roman poet Plautus, ‘homo homini lupus’, recapitulated by Thomas Hobbes, when he observed in the De Cive ‘that Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe’ (De Cive (1642), dedicatory letter) – a comment consistent with his famous account in the Leviathan (1651) of the natural state of humankind as the ‘war of every man against every man’ (Ch. 13). Hume’s other iconic image, that of the treacherous serpent, unavoidably conjures up the story of the Fall of Man, the archetypal narrative of human guilt and the unquiet conscience. At all events, the combined effect of these juxtaposed images underlines the precariousness of the human condition, beset by contradictory impulses; and given this, it seems plain that the kind of guide to action that conscience has traditionally been supposed to provide cannot be underwritten simply by appealing, along Humean lines, to empirical facts about our nature. More is required.  The believer will argue that the ‘more’ must come from God; for those who disagree, the onus is on them to come up with an alternative source that has the right kind of authority.

  1. This is an informal draft of a presentation given at the Thomas More Institute seminar series on Conscience, Values and Belief in Public Life, London, on 29 February 2012. It is for private study purposes only, and should not be quoted or circulated without the permission of the author. A fuller development of the material will be found in the article on ‘Conscience’ in the Oxford Handbook for the History of Ethics, ed. R. Crisp (Oxford University Press, 2012).