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What is Conscience?

What is Conscience?


Our conscience is what makes us individual, what determines who we are and how we think. It is our sense of right and wrong. That being said, there are several interpretations of how our conscience works. Let's take a look at Intuitive Conscience first and evaluate its worth. I am not encouraging the belief of a conscience or religion but am simply providing different schools of thought on what makes us unique individuals. Science states that our DNA creates our different physical appearances, but conscience considers why we all think differently, have different opinions and tastes etc.


Intuitive Conscience (Augustine, Butler and Newman)- Intuitive coscience is based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning; instinctive. - Note that intuitive means that it comes naturally.


Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) 

 “Return to your conscience, question it... turn inward brethren and in everything you do see God as your witness.” – Augustine of Hoppo is saying that the Conscience is the word of God (Vox Dei) and we should consult it. After living an immoral life, Augustine began to notice the presence of his conscience more strongly, alerting him that what he was doing was wrong. He took an intuitive approach to conscience, an innate sense of right or wrong because God reveals this to us personally. His main opinion was that the conscience should be viewed as the voice of God (Vox Dei). The voice speaks to us and when we listen we are hearing what God tells us is right or wrong. He wanted all Christians to take conscience seriously. According to Augustine conscience is intuitive, it reveals the behaviour God wishes for us. It is the law of God within us, his love poured into us and so it will always recommend good not evil.This ideal of God as a supreme being was inspired by Plato and adopted by Augustine here. Ultimately he says that following your conscience will bring you closer to God and that is the most important element in decision making.


- Everyone has the opportunity to be in a relationship with God if Augustine is right.

- It fits with human nature as we feel naturally good when we follow our conscience.

- However, if God is the conscience why is it not a stronger voice? How do we explain the current state of society if we all have the voice of God guiding us?

- If criminals claim that their conscience told them to act that way has God commanded evil? (example: Yorkshire Ripper)

- Also different cultures show us God cannot speak the same rules to us all otherwise multiple religions would not exist.

Butler (1692-1752)

Butler was an Anglican Priest and Theologian, former Bishop of Durham. His book is ‘Analogy of Religion’. Butler states conscience is the final and most important moral-decision maker. It is God-given but is not quite Vox Dei. He proposed that human nature is hierarchical, it is formed of:

1) Conscience – Principle of Reflection

2) Self Love + Benevolence – What drives us as human beings

3) Basic Desires

Therefore according to Butler conscience comes above all else in controlling our actions, even above self love. As a result of this he says we should obey our conscience unquestioningly and that doing so will culminate in our happiness. He states that the conscience is inherent in us and exerts itself without needing to be consulted, it has absolute moral authority, it makes us focus on the interests of others, however the corruption of the conscience by self deception is possible.


-It promotes concern for the interests of others which is good and obeying it will result in human happiness.

- However this explanation of the conscience can justify anything, thus most Catholics tend to take Aquinas’ position.

- Perhaps Butler gives Conscience too much authority, and maybe some consciences are wrong; this would explain why some criminals act as they do and believe their conscience instructed them to do so.

John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman began as an Anglican Vicar but converted to Catholicism and by the end of his life had been made a cardinal. He said “I toast the Pope but I toast Conscience first.” – With this assumption Newman states that the Pope and Conscience should align but in the instance that the two did not align, Newman would follow his conscience over the word of the Pope as it is the voice of God and thus his direct word. He also said conscience is a manifestation of divine moral laws and that conscience doesn’t make up the truth but detects it in a given situation; it is the voice of God (Vox Dei). Furthermore, Butler states that the fact there is a conscience shows that God is there telling us what to do (small argument for the existence of God). It is almost an extension of Divine Command Theory, Newman felt that to ignore our Conscience is to ignore God


- It allows one to make a decision without consulting the Bible or Religious theory. Confirmation of Catholic ethics.

- However there are many criticisms of this approach;

- Why are there rules in the Bible if we know God’s law through our conscience?

- Why does a conscience differ between individuals? It is illogical that the conscience is the voice of God if it is different for different people.

- Either the voice is non existent or it is not loud enough which questions God’s omnipotence.

- How can we explain the murderer Peter Sutcliffe? (The Yorkshire Ripper) – Either he is mentally ill and cannot hear the conscience, chooses to ignore his conscience, or God has actually instructed him to commit these murders. Whichever we conclude it threatens the nature of the Judaeo/Christian God as omnibenevolent (all loving), omnniscient (all seeing) and omnipotent (all powerful).

- Finally, we now have a conscience about protecting the environment which people wouldn’t have had in the times of the Bible so does God update our consciences or does this show that conscience is weak?


IMAGE: - Homer SImpson's conflict of conscience

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