Religious Views on Conscience

Thomas Aquinas’ Approach


  • Thomas Aquinas viewed conscience as the natural ability to see right from wrong
  • He believed all people aim for what is good & avoid the bad, this he called the synderesis rule 
  • He felt that this was innate & sought good
  • He saw conscience in two parts, the synderesis and the conscientia
    • Synderesis: repeated use of what Aquinas termed “right reason” by which a person gathers basic knowledge on how to do good and avoid evil
    • Conscientia: the actual ethical judgement & decision made by a person based on their rationality
  • Conscience for Aquinas could distinguish right from wrong & lead us to make balanced moral decisions based on the situation using our rationality
  • Aquinas did note that conscience can be mistake, & he identified two different ways in which people can fall away from the guidance of the God given conscience;
    • “To err invincibly” – to do wrong through no fault of their own, for example if the conscience is not yet well developed & a person has not yet been made aware of a basic moral rule
    • “To err vincibly” – to stray from conscience & its guidance & to do wrong deliberately
  • Aquinas argued that one should always follow the conscience, by this meaning that one should always use basic moral principles & apply them to each situation
  • Aquinas by this did not mean that conscience is always right, if your basic moral principles are wrong then your actions will be wrong

Joseph Butler’s Approach 


  • Joseph Butler argued that the most crucial thing separating man from animals was the faculty of reflection, or the conscience
  • There is a principle of reflection in men by which they distinguish between approval and disapproval of their own actions… this principle in man… is conscience
  • Butler argued that conscience “magisterially asserts itself” spontaneously, “without being consulted
  • For Butler conscience has an authoritative and automatic element, conscience is the final say in moral decision making
  • He argued that conscience governed aspects of the mind
  • This he outlined through his hierarchy of needs;
    • Drives – the most basic of human impulses such as needing to eat, sleep, have sex. These influence us with no thought for consequence
    • Self love & benevolence – above drives are the principles of self love and benevolence which control the most animalistic parts of human beings. Benevolence for example may prevent a man from stealing another man’s wife even though the drive lust urges him to
    • Principle of reflection – closely linked to conscience, this causes us to evaluate our actions; “distinguish between approval and disapproval“. This evaluative measure means we can learn from actions, regret, rethink
    • Conscience – situated at the top is conscience, the final moral authority & decision maker which controls self love and benevolence, keeping them in check & ensuring sensibility in human decision making. Conscience harmonises these two principles & controls human nature
  • Butler believed that conscience came from God & was a person’s God given guide to right conduct & following his demands & guide lines
  • It must be followed if a person is to live a life close to God & be happy
  • Butler believed that conscience could not be wrong, but that humans could “blind” the conscience 
  • For example, convincing oneself that an amoral thing is the right thing to do would be to blind & ignore the conscience
  • For Butler, this corruption & self deception is worse than the evil acts which come from it – as people do not see the error of their ways & repent

Cardinal Newman’s Approach 


  • Cardinal Newman viewed conscience as the voice of God speaking in humans
  • Conscience is a messenger of God’s word
  • Conscience is the innate ability implanted in us before we can reason which shows right from wrong
  • It can be described as a “law of the mind” in that it gives guide lines on how to live a moral life
  • For Christians it is more than this, as it is also the word of God
  • There are no commandments to follow, no hint of threat or dictation
  • Conscience does not invent the truth but detects it, showing us the right path in any given situation
  • Newman argued that as we feel guilty after doing bad things, this is evidence of something we are beholden to, something to apologise & repent to
    • This is God
  • Newman believed that conscience superseded even the Pope, stating we should “toast conscience before the Pope
  • This does not mean Christians can ignore parts of scripture they disagree with as this is also the word of God, just that ones conscience should be consulted first & foremost whenever making ethical decisions
  • Conscience should always be obeyed as it is the voice of God instructing us to take the right path



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