Reflection on Christian approaches to consience

Conscience is never fully described or fully explored, even nowadays it still remains a rather mysterious object/feeling/brain activity(call it whatever you want, there is no right or wrong answer). This subject is both notorious within both secular and non secular societies and in this very case most arguments prove that secular world is the winning side.

Many christian thinkers tried to describe conscience, however they could never agree on one and only description of this aspect of human existence. St Jerome preferred the idea that conscience is intuitive and that syneidesis (most commonly described nowadays as the capacity to apply general principles of moral judgment to particular cases ) is actually ‘gleams of conscience by which we discern that we sin’.  From his point of view conscience serves both the individual and the teachings of the Church. Since it is intuitive, it means that conscience is available for everyone, even atheists. Such point appears to be the main strength of his rather undeveloped argument as never bothered to write much about it or support it by any other arguments.

St Augustine of Hippo was another Christian thinker who developed religious understanding of conscience. He understood it as a voice form God, outflow of divine love, which telling us what to do. This consequently creates many problems. One of them is a self-contradictory God. This problem arises when, for example, two consciences of two people contradict each other, in other words, when God tells two people to do two contradictory things. Sadly, St Augustine never did resolve this important issue which undermines his description of conscience. He is also telling us to have God as our witness when using conscience and making decisions, but what is there left to do for people who do not believe in God? They still do good actions and most of them would agree that they do have a conscience, but not from God. Another serious weakness of Augustine’s approach to conscience id that it makes God responsible for all our actions and mistakes. This statement contradicts both the idea of free will and the nature of God who is supposedly omnibenevolent(all-good) and omnipotent(all-powerful). If God is perfect, then our actions should always be morally right and lead to a good outcome. If one takes on Augustine’s point of view, but goes off to kill and rape, would it be fair to say that God has ‘whispered’ them to kill or to rape?

Another idea of conscience comes from St Thomas Aquinas who was also a Christian but preferred to apply reason to conscience and morality, unlike some other religious thinkers. ‘Reason seeking understanding’.  This is how Aquinas thought of conscience. He also put forward the idea that conscience consists of two parts- Synderisis and Contientia. Synderisis is the innate knowledge of the primary precepts (Natural Law) and contientia is the practical part, application of that knowledge(quite similar to the idea of syneidesis discussed above). His theory about conscience gives us a clear guidance on how to act. Primary precepts are easy to remember and by using correct reasoning, secondary precepts are also easy to understand. Aquinas avoids having a contradictory God by saying that conscience is only faulty because of us. Human ignorance does not allow us to follow conscience correctly and therefore, God should not be blamed when we listen to our conscience but in the end it turns out that we should not have. Misinterpretation, all it is. He also claimed that factual errors are fine, which of course is also a benefit as it gives us more chances to stay moral. On the other hand, criticisms of Aquinas’ ideas of conscience definitely overweight the few strengths that it has. Many of them are connected to the natural law. Aquinas assumes that good is the same for everyone, but cultural relativism exists and we have to admit that most of he times people have different values and ideas of good. Good is not actually objective. Also, some acts can never be justified. Murder is still a murder, no matter whether it was a factual error or an act of basic human ignorance. Another serious flaw is emotions. All human beings tend to have emotions and feelings towards things, animals and even other people and St Thomas Aquinas does not seem to acknowledge that simple fact. As much as we wish, conscience is not just our reason making right (or sometimes wrong) decisions. There are also feelings and emotions that always have an effect on our final moral and ethical decisions.

As an example of someone who goes against these ideas I take Sigmund Freud. He would generally criticize any religious idea on anything, especially, conscience. For him, religion is an illness and therefore, religious views on conscience cannot be correct. Conscience equals guilt. And even more guilt when we go against it. Freud did not believe in any moral codes, but did believe in importance of previous experience in decision making.

One of the more modern religious thinkers that has influenced our understanding of conscience is Joseph Butler. In Butler’s view conscience is a natural guide assigned to us by the author of nature. He also proposed that conscience magisterially exerts itself without being consulted. His approach is quite positive and provides us with a clear guidance if we follow our hierarchy of needs according to Butler. At the top of his pyramid (not to be confused with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) is conscience then principle of reflection, below them there are self love and benevolence and at the bottom are our basic human needs and drives such as desire for food. Butler said that in order to be happy we have to leave behind all our low impulses and only follow conscience, but there is a serious problem that arises from this statement. How is conscience distinguishable from other impulses or maybe conscience is an impulse itself? The fact that conscience in his opinion just somehow always magically exerts itself leads to conclude that there is no free will or human freedom at all. This, in turn, leads on to deduce that we should not be held morally responsible for our actions since we do not chose to do them. In many cases religious ideas of conscience lead to a contradictory God and it seems to be their biggest problem. My little research proves that religious approaches to conscience and morality are rather weak and not based on any reasonable ideas or arguments. 

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