Conscience - a universal and objective aspect of the self that remains to many a mystery. Many understand conscience as telling us right from wrong, a moral faculty as such. If this is the case, then why do people do wrong? Why are concepts of what is good and what is bad when we have this universal code of sorts existing in our very self? The reality is that if everyone listened to their conscience and their conscience alone, the world would not be a much better place… so what is conscience? Where does it come from?
Some would argue that conscience in face is a construct of sorts. Conscience needs two things if it is to work – freedom, and knowledge of what is good and what is bad. We can observe in the world that people have very different ideas of what is right when faced with a moral dilemma, and by this logic, it would be wrong to say that conscience is innate. Most approaches to conscience state that it needs educating and forming. However, undeniably, thought educated and formed as is may be, conscience requires a personal evaluation. This individual part of a conscience based decision is what makes the subject so tricky, as empirical approach becomes difficult.
Famous evolutionist and atheist Richard Dawkins sees conscience as result of evolution. He believes that we are programmed for survival, and that our altruistic nature is part of this survival strategy. Interestingly, this argument does agree with our goodness being innate, but still empirically attributes it to biological proof. Sigmund Freud, much like Dawkins, took to mechanistic views of human nature, and believed that conscience is guilt. This guilt comes from going against learned rules of right and wrong which essentially are social constructs.
However to many, this explanation simply isn’t enough. Conscience is not something that can simply be dismissed as guilt or genetic. Many attribute conscience to a higher power. Whether this may just be the spiritual nature of humans, or a God of a certain religion, this view is common to many people of many cultures around the world. An early view on this is that of St Augustine of Hippo, who understood conscience as the voice of God. Followers of Augustine have even argued that conscience is more important than the moral teachings of the church itself. This “voice of God” has been adopted by many scholars, such as Cardinal John Henry Newman, who believed that in following the voice of God we are essentially following divine law.
Whilst both views are convincing, there still remains an interesting mystery surrounding our conscience – if it really is the voice of god, then why would people do such terrible things in the name of god? Is this really their conscience? And if it is purely guilt, or an evolutionary gene, then why do so many feel such an objective and strong faith through this voice? Should we just settle with the idea that we may never know?