In Good Conscience

Where does conscience come from? How does it relate to our morality? And what is the importance of laws and government protecting it?

Have you ever had to intensely talk yourself out of eating a whole tub of ice cream? I have! And one of the things I tell myself is that my conscience wouldn’t let me do it. We think of conscience as an inner conduit to moral authority, or an inner court that judges our thoughts and actions. The idea of cosncience is very relevant in a society in constant redefinition, with diminishing consensus. Here I look at its philosophy and theology.

Conscience as Value System

Conscience is one of those complex, foundational topics that permeate philosophy throughout history. Pretty much every philosopher has had something to say about it. And in fact, since philosophy is something we all do, consciously or not, there are literally billions of opinions on the topic. Out of necessity, my treatment today will be fairly simple and practical.

The word “conscience” comes from the Latin conscientia, which roughly translated means “sharing knowledge with oneself.” As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out, this etymology doesn’t specify the type of knowledge being shared. But historically, the notion of conscience has revolved around two ideas: that the knowledge involved is moral, and that conscience manifests as emotion – typically as a sense of guilt or remorse when we outstep our values, but also as a “warm and fuzzy” feeling when we act within them.

This implies an important aspect of how we define conscience, and that is its relationship to our personal ethics. In fact, that’s our first question: is conscience our internal value system – our “true north”? Or is it just our moral compass – the way we measure ourselves ethically?

Let’s look at the first possibility. One way to understand conscience is as an innate sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. This spills into the idea of natural law, and raises the fascinating question of where would such universal imperatives come from. Theistic worldviews ascribe this to deity. Darwin ascribed it to evolution. And in classical Greek philosophy, what’s good can be discovered within – the outcome of the virtue ethics ideals of self-knowledge and self-improvement. These interpretations share the notion that conscience is an inner conduit to a higher moral authority – something inside us or an inbuilt path to something outside of us, that can point out the good and the bad in our thoughts and actions.

Other thinkers alter this definition of conscience by equating it with a moral memory of sorts – not something we are innately born with, or that is given to us, but something we develop as our experiences with society, and more specifically its authorities, shape our sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. In this viewpoint, proposed by Freud and others, we interiorize at some subconscious level the rewards and consequences of our behaviors.

Conscience as Moral Compass

Let’s now look at our second possibility. A different way to think of conscience is as a gauge – a warning system. In this view, conscience isn’t our notion of good or bad, but the way we evaluate ourselves on the boundaries of those notions. This typically expresses itself through emotion. We may feel peace and validation when we contemplate actions aligned with our values. Or we may feel discomfort if we think or act in ways we consider immoral, or fail to act how we think we ought.

This raises three complications. First, emotions are low-bandwidth communication. What I mean by that is that unlike reason and language, emotions can’t convey refined arguments. If I feel uncomfortable about a choice, I need to dig deep and carefully analyze what exactly is the problem and what exactly is causing it. I think that we wouldn’t want a legal and government system based on emotions. But at first blush, with our conscience, that’s what we get.

Second, emotions aren’t entirely reliable. Not all that makes me feel good will neatly fall within my value system, and not every apprehension or negative feeling means that I am considering something wrong, morally speaking. And third, emotions can be overridden. My conscience could do a great job at pointing out exactly what is it I am about to mess up, and I can still choose to ignore it.

Don’t get me wrong. Conscience understood in this way is powerful and useful. But it does have limitations.

Theology of Conscience

What is the Christian theology of conscience? On one level, the Bible does uphold the idea of an inherent moral law built into us. In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul speaks of “the requirements of the law written on [Gentile’s] hearts” – that is, non-Jewish people. But then, it goes on to say: “their consciences also bear witness.” (Rom 2:15) Thus, suneidesis, the New Testament Greek word translated as “conscience,” refers to moral awareness. Even as the Bible upholds an innate moral law given to all humans by God, it more specifically refers to conscience as an awareness of that moral law.

Biblical doctrines on conscience provide an illuminating window into Christian ethics. Christianity connects conscience with the notion of knowledge I introduced in the beginning. While conscience expresses itself as emotion, ultimately it gauges my value system, which must be grounded in the Bible’s unambiguous and explicit mandates. In other words, my value system should reflect God’s definition of the good life. And by that token, violating my conscience is a sin, because it makes me break God’s law.

This calls for a clear and thorough understanding of biblical doctrine, because ignorance isn’t an excuse. If my Christian value system is deficient, blindly following my conscience now becomes a sin. To illustrate this in non-religious terms, imagine that you didn’t know that driving without a seat belt is illegal. Your ignorance doesn’t spare you from the consequences. Just because you don’t know, and you don’t feel there’s anything wrong with it, it doesn’t mean you can do it.

So, at the outset, the Christian’s value system is epistemically aligned with the Bible, and violating his conscience clearly is a sin. What about areas that aren’t clearly mandated? Things like dietary choices, the use of alcohol (excluding inebriation), recreation, celebration of holidays… We call these “disputable things” or “matters of indifference.” On matters where the Bible affords us freedom, we are expected to develop a strong point of view about them, and to behave accordingly. Violating one’s conscience on these matters is a sin too, even though they aren’t grounded in universal mandates.

This is why you run into issues like the following. You find nothing wrong with social drinking, and you are surprised when a Christian friend refuses a drink. You say: “the Bible doesn’t forbid drinking – just inebriation.” And you’re right. But in this matter of conscience, your friend has freely and firmly chosen not to drink. Thus, drinking will violate her conscience. Developing a conviction on a matter of freedom becomes as binding as a mandate.

However, in this scenario, the doctrine is expanded to also respect the conscience of others, who in the same freedom may arrive at different conclusions. Let’s say I drink, but you don’t. My drinking may cause you to reluctantly have a drink – to violate your conscience, simply because you think that’s what I’m doing. If I realize that this is going on, I should refrain from drinking in front of you. It’s not that I’m violating my own conscience; it’s more like it’s extended, to consider the effects of my actions on others.

To summarize, Christian conscience is a gauge on my value system, which should comprise clear biblical mandates and strongly held personal views on matters of freedom. With these in place, it is a sin to violate my conscience. And on matters of freedom, I shouldn’t seek to impose my viewpoints on others, nor critique theirs.

One last theological bit I’ll highlight is that it’s possible to sear your conscience. Just like medical cauterization burns off bits of tissue, destroying its nerve endings, it is possible to ignore our conscience to the point where it has no effect on us. Christians are warned not to let that happen, and real world examples abound of chaos ensuing when humans fail on this. This is particularly troublesome when societies adopt communal consciences that are influenced or shaped by social mores. What do you think most people thought their consciences told them about slavery back when it was legal? I’m sure you can come up with other examples.

Conscience in Laws and Government

With this, I’ll transition to the impact of conscience matters on law, government and society. Human rights considered universal in Western civilization include the Christian ideal of preserving individual freedom of conscience. In Canada, freedom of conscience is enshrined in Section 2(a) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and this echoes concepts like:

  • Conscience votes, where politicians are free to break from party lines to vote their conscience on a bill
  • Medical conscience clauses, which protect health professionals from performing procedures that would violate their conscience
  • Conscientious objection to participating in war, carrying and using weapons, or receiving specific medical procedures against a person’s sincerely held beliefs

However, the ongoing secularization of Canadian society continues to redefine our moral system, and with it, our notion of conscience. Historically, forcing a doctor to perform an abortion or to provide medical assistance in death has been construed as a violation of the doctor’s conscience. But lately, some voices are suggesting that protecting this would in turn violate the conscience of the person seeking these procedures. I anticipate that these debates will increase in social and legal prominence over the next few years. Other than being aware, I don’t have much to offer on that front.

But on our daily interpersonal conversations, I find that conscience provides a powerful tool to analyze and discuss viewpoints. You start with a shared definition of conscience. Then, you explore the grounding for the underlying value system – which matters it considers unequivocally good or bad, and which ones entail freedom of conscience. And that lets you understand the grounds on which actions and opinions are justified or objected to. This doesn’t mean that you always convince the other party, or condone or accept their decisions. But I consider any opportunity to learn more about how others think to be a good conversation.

Published: November 14, 2021