Secular Views on Conscience

Sigmund Freud’s Approach 


  • Sigmund Freud concluded that the human personality consisted of three areas;
    • 1. The Super-ego: The set of moral controls given to us by outside influences. Our moral code or “conscience”, often in conflict with the id
    • 2. The Ego: The conscious self, the part seen by the outside world
    • 3. The Id: The unconscious self, the part of the mind containing basic instincts & suppressed memories. It is amoral & only concerned with itself
  • For Freud, conscience is most clearly connected with the sense of guilt we feel after doing something deemed as “wrong” – doing something which goes against our conscience
  • Conscience is therefore just a construct of the mind, for religious people it comes from notions about God and the importance of adhering to his rules in order to achieve salvation
  • In non religious people it is formed from internalised authority, fear of feeling guilt we have previously felt when told we were doing something wrong by an authority figure
  • Freud did not believe in moral law & felt that morality is developed person to person based on their own experiences – it is culturally dependant which therefore explains relativity across the globe
  • Children learn moral behaviour from their parents, authority figures etc. and the super ego internalises the disapproval of others, creating the guilty conscience

Jean Piaget’s Approach 


  • Piaget developed upon Freud’s ideas of the socially constructed conscience by identifying different stages of conscience 
  • According to Piaget as a child grows so does it’s capacity to reason & therefore make moral decisions – morality & conscience depend on cognitive development 
  • Piaget identified two stages of moral development:
    • 1. Heteronomous morality: (between the ages of 5 & 10) conscience is still immature. Rules are no to be broken & punishment is expected if rules are broken. The consequence of an action will show if it’s right or wrong
    • 2. Autonomous morality: (approx. ages 10+) children develop their own rules and understand how rules operate in and help society. The child is less dependant on the moral authority
  • Lawrence Kohlberg followed Piaget’s ideas and identified the passage of moral development as we age
  • Kohlberg identified that people move from behaving in socially acceptable ways because they are told to by authority figures & want to gain approval, to keeping the law, and then to caring for others and having a respect for universal principles
  • Both Kohlberg and Piaget felt that conscience develops from socialisation
  • If authority figures preach destructive rules onto children as the moral truth, they will grow up believing this is the moral truth
  • This explains subjectivity in conscience, right & wrong and cultural relativity

Erich Fromm’s Approach 


The Authoritarian Conscience 

  • Fromm believed that all humans are influenced by external authorities; parents, teachers, Church leaders, who apply rules and punishments for breaking them
  • These rules and the consequences as well as the fear of the consequences are internalised by the person
  • A guilty conscience is a result of displeasing the authority, God can be that authority, creating a powerful fear & motivation for people to follow his laws
  • Disobedience results in guilt due to the internalised rules of the authority, which in turn weakens our own resolve, making us more submissive to the authority 
  • For example the way the National Socialists manipulated the consciences of the German people to feel guilty for not hating the Jewish people
  • The authoritarian conscience is an external force, it (generally) should not be followed or trusted, as it is formed only on the aims of the authority controlling the person

The Humanistic Conscience 

  • Fromm viewed the humanistic conscience as the internal, self assessing force in humans 
  • The humanistic conscience is much healthier, rather than reviewing actions based upon their ability to conform and please authority, it reviews human success, flourishing
  • We use our own discoveries in life, as well as the teachings and examples of others, to give us personal integrity and moral honesty
  • This is different to the enslavement of the authoritarian conscience, it should be listened to, and while not founded in God or an absolute moral code, is generally a good way of assessing the morality of actions




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