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Philosophy – Conscience (90/90) Essay

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Discuss critically the view that we should always follow our conscience when making ethical decisions

It has traditionally been proposed that the conscience is an established body of authority, essentially justifying the view that it should be ‘followed’. Many notable figures throughout history – Aquinas, Butler, Plato, Freud – have structurally placed it in a potent r�le. Whether this is by means of tripartite analogies, hierarchical standing or even religious eminence, the conscience serves a theoretical, and indeed practical, function as the human and societal arbiter. But then, there is also a possible disparity between the states of individual and collective conscience, contributing to the difficulties in determining which conscience is more suited to enacting ‘ethical decisions’. This predicates an interesting dichotomy: the conscience either does not maintain this degree of control or, conversely, the conscience’s increased social standing grants it an even greater level of authority. It can similarly be questioned whether or not the conscience’s proposed supremacy necessitates an individual’s reliance on it, or even, whether it is needed at all.

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Ideas in connection with the conscience are far-reaching. The notion of ‘ethical decisions’ being governed by the conscience implies that there is a principal r�le the conscience must play in enacting them. But, as addressed above, there are solid questions over its reliability: its seemingly potent position and even its existence. My argument follows an objective line, paying close attention to that factor in which man is of sole importance. The human being is the entity the conscience must work alongside, and vice versa. There is a clear discrepancy between common definitions of ‘consciousness’, in turn emphasising the inconsistency of thought on the matter.

The Collins Dictionary, for example, defines ‘consciousness’ as being “aware of one’s surroundings”1; in contrast with the Concise Oxford Dictionary which classifies it as being “aware of and responding to one’s surroundings”2. Herein, at the outset, lies an issue. ‘Surroundings’ and conditions are clearly noted by both definitions, yet the human acknowledgement and ‘response’ to them are not so. This irregularity is highly relevant when trying to determine the conscience’s r�le in the individual’s ‘decision’-making. The mind’s influence on the individual, the individual’s place in society, and, indeed, individuals themselves, are key to this matter.


“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” 3

Presented above is the Biblical proposition most considered to be supportive of the tripartite theory of the Godhead. Theologically, ‘three’ has been a consistent Biblical presence, “It should be noted at the outset that the Biblical authors’ use of the number three is abundantly attested”4 – The Holy Trinity, Noah’s three sons and Job’s three daughters being notable cases of this.

Accordingly, the human being consists of ‘three’ separate elements; either ‘body’, ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’, as is noted above, or, most applicable to the question of conscience: i) appetites ii) affections, and iii) reason – the latter having familiar associations with the conscience. But where does this come into the idea of ‘following’ one’s conscience? Simply put, it is the idea that the conscience is dominant in its essence; that theologians, philosophers and psychologists throughout times past have placed it above appetites and affections. Noted examples of this are Aquinas’ ‘Hierarchy of Being’, Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Chariot’, Freud’s idea of the id, ego and superego, and others; all leading to one literally presented conclusion – conscience is ‘boss’, and ergo, should be ‘followed’.

Thomistic philosophy places the conscience in a divine rank; alongside the Bible, the Church and Mankind as a whole. It is divine and institutional law; guided through human mechanisms by the Synderesis Rule:

“the innate principle in the moral consciousness of every person which directs the agent to good and restrains him from evil”5.

This can be seen to relate directly to the idea of a benevolent conscience making ‘ethical decisions’ – ‘good’ being the ultimate goal. Butler takes a similar position – “man is born to virtue”6 – ‘self love’ and ‘benevolence’ being the individual’s guide. But, one might ask whether the apparent requirement to do ‘good’ is really an objective balance. Can one really make an ‘ethical decision’ without knowing the evil? 7

Aquinas asserted five primary precepts which the conscience formulates in an ‘ethical’ judgement – self preservation and preservation of the innocent, continuation of the species, education of children, living in a society and worshipping God. Despite the need for these to be followed, and, of course, definitive of how we make ‘ethical decisions’, it is the fifth that one finds enticing for this particular study. ‘Worshipping God’, the church – a state of authority – or, indeed, perceived authority, guiding our actions.

It conforms to the hierarchy of being (an apt link with the tripartite theory) and is a premise for God’s ‘benign tyranny’. God is the pure form of Reason, and is so at the top of the hierarchy, subordinated by mankind – affections – and animals – pure appetite. By this we can see that this hierarchical method is multi-levelled – the human being comprises these attributes just as a collective hierarchy does. They are simply metaphors for the conscience’s divine authority on a bodily and societal level.

This is further supported by Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Chariot’; the charioteer representing Intellect/Reason/Conscience, the white horse signifying the aforementioned morals and affections, and the black horse symbolising appetites. One might be too facetious in making this interpretation but the use of a horse somewhat indicates that human beings are majorly of beastly appetites, other than reason – are we God’s ‘beasts’ as it were? Plato himself judged that:

“man…is a tame or civilized animal; nevertheless, he requires proper instruction and a fortunate nature, and then of all animals he becomes the most divine and most civilized; but if he be insufficiently or ill-educated he is the most savage of earthly creatures.”8

Yet, he conversely gives the analogous horse human traits:

“he is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only.”9

Even more interesting is Plato’s use of a human being in God’s r�le. This gives two ideas; God is either being anthropomorphised (putting him in inferior standing) or, alternatively, human conscience is God-ly10 – maybe God is our conscience. Maybe He is mankind. Newman supports the former idea; “an echo implies a voice; a voice, a speaker. That speaker I love and revere”11, by the literal hearing of voices. The ‘speaker’ is the indwelling voice – the conscience – and the reverberation of God’s direct message. Here, on the surface, we can clearly see, due to the divine cloud hanging over this matter (‘God is good’), that the conscience should be ‘followed’ when making ‘ethical decisions’.

Yet, one might ask the fundamental question of whether the conscience is worthy of its place above appetites and affections. The empiricist, David Hume, makes his opinion on the matter quite clear:

“reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”12.

He provides a clear argument against ‘always’ ‘following’ our conscience when making ‘ethical decisions’, in favour of our appetites. One might take the view that our primitive nature, without the influence of our conscience and an interventionist (or determinant) society is more equipped to make ‘ethical decisions’. Indeed, the Reformation encouraged the break-away from the Church of Rome and set the individual conscience, not ecclesiastical authority, at the centre of religious life. As will be addressed in further detail later, if our conscience is distorted by society the individual may not be in full control of his own ‘ethical decisions’. One could conversely argue, however, that, as Plato seemingly hinted at above, Hume degrades humanity to the level of animals; that we have no power to reason and therefore cannot achieve ‘God-liness’ or make ‘ethical decisions’ at all.

Plato supplemented the ideas purveyed by his ‘Allegory of the Chariot’ through another work The Republic, which, for this essay, provides the basis for examination of the relationship between individual and societal conscience. As with Aquinas, it is a question of hierarchy. The workers – appetite followers – and the soldiers – protectors of the state and morals – are both subservient to the philosopher-kings – the embodiment of reason.

Plato’s view was that of an elitist society with the core conscience in charge; “knowledge is power”13 (“Conscience is king”14) or, as I might conversely argue, ‘power is knowledge’ (‘King is conscience’). One can draw parallels with Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which, for me, offers an even more appropriate portrayal of this idea: the lowly ‘proles’ comprising the vast majority of society – governed by appetites – the Outer Party – controlled by state values and propaganda, morals, affections – and the Inner Party and Big Brother, the core of the state; the quintessence of the conscience, “it is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party”15.

These two examples demonstrate the conscience of the individual being mirrored in society. It raises issues as to whether the conscience of the collective should be ‘followed’ when making ‘ethical decisions’ as opposed to that of the limited individual; “only in the mind of the party, which is collective and immortal”16 – drawing distinctly Marxist parallels, and, perhaps more relevantly, conforming to the Thomistic precept of ‘living in a society’. One can link this to the thoughts of Soloveychik; that “conscience can’t be someone’s own. Conscience is both personal and universal”17. The pluralism, ‘we’, established in the initial proposition is markedly addressed with these connections to societal conscience.

One extremity that may arise from this elitist, authoritarian ideal, however, is the issue of mind-control (“Big Brother Is Watching You”). A conscientious hierarchical society controlling the psyche of the masses may fulfil the r�le of the individual in a more oblique, inflated manner. Appetites, affection and reason being governed by class structure; bringing about a socially solidified conscience. One might apply this to F.H. Bradley’s personification: “our function [is] as an organ” in a “social organism”. Thus, if conscience is uniform among individuals, why might ‘ethical decisions’ not be carried out similarly? Baruch Spinoza believed that God’s knowledge is distilled through humanity:

“an idea is adequate and perfect insofar as it represents knowledge

of the eternal and infinite essence of God”18.

Giving further substance to the idea of an individual’s morals (their ‘ethical’ make-up) being reflected on a collective level. Hume, however, argues against this, “nothing is more surprising than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few”19, pondering the dominance of a reasoned minority – the collective’s core conscience – in turn eradicating the starting point for this theory. An answer to the issue in the proposition, however, is still not possible at this point. One cannot yet determine whether the conscience should be ‘followed’ when making ‘ethical decisions’ because of the sheer amount of subjectivity over the ethics of elitism.

Still, the plausibility of a societal conscience maintaining this degree of authority is questionable. Despite the seemingly loose connections mentioned above, the conscience of the collective is undoubtedly dissimilar to that of the individual. The juxtaposed issues of freedom and conflicting individual mentality are enough in themselves to maintain this viewpoint. Obviously, this makes us question whether making references to literal states of authority is actually worthwhile. The individual has a conscience which both conflicts and complements the state/collective consciousness.

Linking to the above issue, are governments/collectives always an objective balance? Seemingly, there are corrupt governments; history has shown there to be corruption in the Church and other elements of society that control the individual’s mindset. Yet it is indubitably the case that the mind (and conscience) is always influenced by the society in which it operates. This presents a mind-blowing paradox. Society is not only determined by a central conscience but the conscience of the individual is conversely determined by society. This might then suggest that whatever the case, the sole function that drives societal conditions, indirectly assumes its authority over the individual. J.B Watson – the ‘Father of Behaviourism’ – proposed:

“give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select” 20

He places himself – a core being with societal influence – in an authoritative position over specified individuals. This can be compared with the Freudian idea that the superego develops throughout childhood by external influences. The human being is born with the id; the basis for appetites, eros (sex) and thanatos (death) drives – these drives could interestingly be seen in a belligerently potent r�le, supporting the idea of appetital authority � la Hume. Subsequently, the ego develops; the presentable fa�ade that we apply to the world; our affections. Then the superego, our reason and conscience; the irrefutable censor of the human mind. It develops throughout childhood. In tandem with the environmental development, or determinism, mentioned above, “children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them”21.

So by this then, we can see that the tripartite, ‘three’; is a consistent literal basis for the presentation of the conscience. I would, however, question whether this is a valuable method by which to present its authority. There are obvious differences between the theories presented by each of these figures; Freud – socio-psychological; Aquinas – religious; Plato – the soul. These differences mean something. For one, each has specific r�les. Some may apply strictly to societal conscience (Plato’s Republic and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), others may apply merely to the individual (Freud and Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Chariot’). It is nonetheless interesting that the tripartite is consistent throughout different periods and cultures. Ultimately, it comes to the point where one must consult Freud’s verdict to prove what these give us, “analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home”22.

How else, then, can the conscience be interpreted authoritatively and conclusive of how we make ‘ethical decisions’? Put simply, the conscience is an alarm: it is disturbing; it forces the individual to put themselves in uncomfortable situations and concurrently feel the effects of these. Although there are religious sides to this, for example, the threat, “he who acts against his conscience loses his soul”23, the principal factor here is indeed guilt. Of course, guilt is the one thing that the layman will consider alongside the conscience. Conscience is guilt to many. The objective conscience works by putting the individual at a discomfort, Freud believing that guilt is the consequence of not obeying it.

Dostoyevsky provides a fine example of this in his notorious work Crime and Punishment, where the protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, experiences continual mental anguish following his homicidal actions. The novel gives the idea of mental demons – “If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment as well as the prison.”24 Rodion’s shame ultimately forces him to confess. He ‘follows’ his guilty conscience to make an ‘ethical decision’. This issue is also given great attention in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, in which the king, Claudius, comes to realise, in retrospect, the implications of his fratricide; “my stronger guilt defeats my strong intent”25.

He is, however, prone to continuing his murderous tendencies. Although this is a literary construction, one might suggest that Claudius reverts to his thanatos drive, the superego not taking precedence. Another interpretation is that he adheres to the belief that you “perform a sin twice and it will cease to be a crime”26, providing a distinctly self-centred stance. Above all, however, this notion of guilt leads us to question whether the conscience’s precedence actually does entail our reliance on it. If the conscience can be seen to be malicious one might assume it is not all good or a worthy mechanism by which to make ‘ethical decisions’. Should we ‘always’ ‘follow’ our conscience if it occasionally encourages us to impart malevolence towards others?

Yet, admittedly, I have placed the conscience, somewhat clumsily, in a potent r�le by inappropriately treating it as an inanimate transcendent ‘object’. ‘The conscience’ is a misleading phrase – it can not be addressed in literal terms as the above-mentioned figures and I have done so. It is an ambiguous concept; a culmination of ideas, not a figurehead or core being that people must obey. In doing this I have partially neglected the fundamental points initially outlined; those of human response to the conscience, as well as the issue of ‘ethical decisions’. The point is that the human being is its conscience – they work in tandem – yet the individual conscience is contingent on the social conscience and vice versa. It is an eternal cog of human reasoning, working jointly to maintain relations and prevent wrongdoing.

There is a deterministic problem associated with this question: if the conscience is a necessary mechanism then seemingly we cannot escape it – ‘always’ following our conscience places it in a more authoritative r�le than a judicial one. Aquinas, for one, believed that ‘following’ our conscience is ‘always’ right despite it not necessarily entailing good – is this really the kind of mindset we want when making ‘ethical decisions’? If one is to take Hume’s view of appetital dominance, the human essence being the guidance of our nature, we can, to an extent, countermand this. One might argue that the conscience is just a constraint on our essential urges. A constraint on the collective’s blossoming; Sartre asserting that “we must act out passion before we can feel it”27.

Even today in such a complex, interlaced world there is a question over whether our primitive essence would beget greater happiness. Not at all am I suggesting that humans should revert to being primal, nor that happiness should be the human race’s ultimate goal, but, in terms of making ‘ethical decisions’, must one rely on the conscience? Indeed, there is a danger that reliance on appetites would encourage societal and individual regression. Hence, a viable alternative must be suggested.

For me, this comes in the form of Social Darwinism (‘survival of the fittest’); that mankind evolves by means of competition, “the very essence of instinct is that it’s followed independently of reason”28. Darwin appeared to prioritise appetites; using them as a means for societal progression. One might assert that this ideal comes closest to loosening the fetters of both individual conscience and societal restraint, whilst not jeopardising our future. In answering the question, the various examples presented in this essay – of the conscience being dominant in its essence – suggest to me that in any case the conscience deters our ‘decision’-making. Indeed, if we feel by any means constrained we are unable to make pure, objective ‘ethical decisions’, ergo, we should not be subservient to the conscience when making them.

1 Collins Dictionary & Thesaurus: Two books in one, 2004

2 Concise Oxford Dictionary: Tenth Edition, 1999

3 1 Thessalonians 5:23

4 Richard D. Patterson, The Third Day Motif, The Use Of Three In The Bible

5 The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

6 Joseph Butler. Class notes.

7 This is addressed further with the issue of guilt later on.

8 Plato, The Republic

9 Plato, Phaedrus

10 This is intended to mean the essence of God, rather than merely ‘god-like’ attributes.

11 Pope’s Letter On Newman

12 David Hume

13 Sir Francis Bacon

14 Joseph Butler

15 Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 2, Chapter 2

16 Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 2, Chapter 2

17 Simon Soloveychik, Free Man

18 Spinoza’s Ethics

19 David Hume

20 John B. Watson

21 Sigmund Freud

22 Sigmund Freud

23 Fourth Lateran Council

24 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, Chapter 19

25 Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 3, l. 40

26 Jewish commentary

27 Jean-Paul Sartre

28 Charles Darwin

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