Centrepoint of individual awareness of right or wrong, which may provide signals regarding what to do or not to do ("My conscience tells me I shouldn't do this"), or indicate regret at what has been done ("I feel bad about that"). Critics suggest that it is so variable from one culture to another, and between one individual and another, that it is unhelpful to rely on it in any way. Moreover, it seems highly plausible to psychologise it away, as little more than ‘the introjection of parental inhibitions’.

Remarkably, in spite of academic reservations as to its worth, conscience remains a key term in law internationally, as in general talk of individual ‘moral responsibility’. Its recognition goes back over millennia. For instance, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, dating back to Jeremiah (31:31) in the Hebrew Bible and Paul (Romans 2:14) in the New Testament, conscience is the gateway to moral and religious awareness. Similarly, in Confucian tradition, ‘searching in oneself’, with its access to highest moral experience is fundamental for humanity. Now, freedom of conscience is now identified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as warranting protection in every country and culture, and education of conscience by implication deserves to be a fundamental priority.

Illustrative scenarios

’Guilty conscience’

Driving along a country lane, a motorist saw a group of teenagers ahead. They were more in a group than a line and not even walking on the right side of the road. He slowed down, tooted the horn and drove past them. As he did so, the car mirror caught one of them. This prompted the individual to give a shout, which was followed by a chorus from the rest of the group. He drove on.                                              .

Thinking about it, he was initially angry with them all for being so careless. Then he began to wonder whether in fact the person he had clipped might in fact be hurt. What if they were? Shouldn’t he really stop and check? His conscience told him he should do so. At the same time, self-interest pulled him in two different directions: drive on, because otherwise the group might jeer at him and even become physical; or go back, for otherwise he might be reported for not stopping after an accident.
question: is the message from this that when self-interest and conscience coincide, we should follow it, but when they don’t, we should ignore it?
A job interviewer at the time when an appointment is being made, leaves unquestioned what he realises is an exaggerated appearance of superiority in a particular candidate. He does so to camouflage his preference for this individual, which is actually based not on pre-specified assets but on on sexual attraction or family connection. For some time afterwards his conscience came back to haunt him.

question: Chicken or egg, which comes first? Either - professional codes (here regarding the conduct of interviews) provide a more reliable preventative against morally questionable behaviour than the past-historic workings of conscience. Or - professional codes depend upon prior appeal to a sense of rightful duty and ‘ought’, if they are to be applied with any degree of conviction.

’Advance warning mechanism’

She had mixed feelings about her work. Her colleagues were friendly enough, but the work itself was quite tedious - mainly word processing and answering the occasional phone call. A friend had offered her a ticket for a Grand Slam Tennis Final tomorrow and she’d really like to go. Unfortunately, she’d already used up all her holiday allocation. The friend suggested she simply call in sick. She was very tempted at the thought. No-one would know or suspect. Nevertheless, her conscience told her it would be wrong, so she decided she couldn’t go.

question: was she being unnecessarily squeamish in heeding what some would mock as an over-sensitive conscience? How should anyone decide where to draw the line in the observation of rules of behaviour?

This website uses cookies to improve your user experience. By using the site, you agree to our use of cookies. For more information about how we use cookies click here.