The Heart of the Matter: A Very Brief History of Conscience

According to Mark Twain, “A clear conscience is a sure sign of a bad memory.” This article will counter that a clear understanding of conscience is based on a good memory of the historical roots of the concept. What will be offered here is a selective history of conscience, rather than the history, which would be an enormous task. What this article doesn’t leave out are consciences often ignored in other contexts—those of prochoice Catholics and women seeking reproductive healthcare.

Catholics who defend a prochoice stance have several different reasons for doing so. One of these appeals to a long tradition in Catholic thought that supports a view called delayed hominization, in which the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy is not viewed as a person or even as morally considerable. Another reason appeals to the obvious personhood status of the pregnant woman, who is claimed to have a right to bodily integrity and to control what goes on in her own body. Yet another reason in favor of a prochoice Catholic stance points towards the importance of the concept of conscience—hence the relevance of the present history. Indeed, the official publication of Catholics for Choice in which the present article appears is titled Conscience.

My brief history relies heavily on a magisterial book titled Conscience: A Biography, written by Martin van Creveld, professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His work is highly recommended to readers of this journal. From its very start there are some surprises in the history of conscience. For instance, despite the fact that Friedrich Nietzsche and Adolph Hitler blamed the Jews for the invention of conscience, the concept was not one that had much significance for the ancient Hebrews. In fact, the Hebrew word for conscience (matzpun) was not invented until the 19th century. The morality of the ancient Hebrews was not rooted in conscience, but in obedience to divine commands, according to van Creveld. However, there is a glimmer of conscience in the story of David and Bathsheba, in which the former felt “the disquietness of his heart” for committing murder. For the most part, however, an ethics of conscience is at odds with divine command theory.

It is significant that the first explicit example of conscience is to be found in ancient Greece in one of Sophocles’ plays: Antigone. When faced with the choice between obeying a royal command to leave her brother unburied, on the one hand, and flouting the king’s authority, on the other, Antigone hears an inner voice that compels her to rebel. She does what she considers to be right after careful deliberation, regardless of the pressure she receives from an authoritarian government. Antigone can rightly be seen as the inventor of conscience. Her personal morality turns a kingdom on its head.

It was the great achievement of later Stoic (and Christian) thinkers to make conscience the key to “the inner person,” who could transform morality from mere compliance with law to adherence to the ideal of “purity of heart.” This ideal is consistent with the belief that human beings possess a spark of divinity that distinguishes them from beings that are not moral agents (although they may be moral beneficiaries), as in nonhuman animals. Perhaps the most famous ancient Greek thinker to further develop the idea of conscience was Socrates, whose inner voice (daimon) spoke to him regarding right and wrong.

It was St. Paul in the Christian scriptures who made conscience into the cornerstone of Christian ethics. Both the Greek and Latin words for conscience (syneidesis and conscientia, respectively) refer to knowledge of oneself or an attempt to be true to one’s own highest ideals—or to the better angels of one’s nature, to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase. Conscience (syneidesis or its cognates), which appears more than 30 times in the New Testament, is not to be confused with either fear or shame before others. Violation of conscience is usually accompanied by a sense of personal guilt. Philo, a Jew living in 1st-century Alexandria, was also heavily influenced by the Greeks. As the figure largely responsible for bringing the concept of conscience to Judaism, his influence is analogous to Paul’s effect on Christianity.

St. Augustine in the 4th-5th centuries took conscience into the Middle Ages. It has remained a crucial part of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and of everyday Catholic life (as in “examination of conscience”) ever since. It has also exerted considerable influence in Protestantism through Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, who was heavily impacted by Augustine’s view of conscience and the related phenomenon of guilt when conscience was violated. Augustine was intent on plumbing the depths of his own (perceived) perversity in the world’s first full-length autobiography, his Confessions. In this and other writings, Augustine mentions conscience more than 900 times. Conscience allows us to commune with God: It is primarily on the evidence of conscience in human beings that we can understand the tradition, dating back to Genesis, of seeing humans as being made in the image of God.

As in Paul’s writings, for Augustine conscience is a substitute for law, because Jesus’s ethics of love had supplanted a legalistic worldview. It is quite ironic, however, that Christianity, which basically created conscience as we understand it today, has historically proven fertile ground for a bookkeeping mentality with a dense network of prohibitions that is at odds with conscience. Once one has digested all of the interesting ideas in van Creveld’s book, it is this irony that lingers.

St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century also held conscience in high esteem, but he began to address some of the questions that arise when conscience conflicts with the law. He believed that conscience can never be wrong, although it can be impeded. What he meant by “impeded” is not entirely clear, but he did think that acting against conscience was always a sin. This very favorable portrayal of conscience has made some people—especially the Catholic hierarchy—a bit nervous. Does it mean that people could use their consciences as an excuse to break the law and run amok? Thomas’s response would be that the problem in such cases is not conscience per se, but the fact that a person’s conscience was underdeveloped, perhaps because of a deprived upbringing. A developed conscience is indeed a reliable guide.

The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant emerged in the 18th century under the influence of the Stoics, Augustine and Luther. He saw conscience as an internal judge that we discover within ourselves. In Kant’s case, this is a rather stern voice that demands that we treat all persons as dignified subjects worthy of respect. His “categorical imperative” forbids treating other people as obstacles in one’s path or merely as a means to an end. Some critics have objected to the absolutist character of Kant’s ethics. However, it should be noted that his concept of conscience based on ethical principles that admit no exceptions commendably provides the background for the contemporary human rights movement.

One of the virtues of van Creveld’s book is that he explores in an intellectually honest way, not only arguments in favor of conscience, but also arguments against it. There is a long list of thinkers who have held that although conscience may be important in the private lives of individuals, it is irrelevant in public life. Machiavelli in the 15th and 16th centuries is a prime example of this tendency. Indeed, he thought that in politics conscience was a vice. He suggested that politicians who took their consciences too seriously were dangerous because it was their job to make sure that the state survived and flourished, not to be morally meticulous or to be burdened by the pangs of conscience. His view was understandable because it required that politicians have dirty hands; we need them to be “realists” rather than moralists.

Machiavelli’s necessità was reborn in the 19th century as realpolitik, but it is safe to say that the idea that the ends justify the means has never completely disappeared in politics. Despite protests from Kantians, Machiavellian critics still insist that conscience cannot survive in the real world, especially during wartime.

(Aquinas’) very favorable portrayal of conscience has made some people—especially the Catholic hierarchy—a bit nervous.

Another famous critic is the 19th-century German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw conscience as the result of envy and impotence (ressentiment) on the part of weak (i.e., Christian) individuals. (Nietzsche’s critique of conscience is not unlike Sigmund Freud’s idea that conscience is the result of fear of retribution from an illusory parental God.) It should be remembered that the explicit start of conscience with figures like Antigone and Socrates in ancient Greece does not include the famous heroes from Homer’s epics, but it is precisely the military and aristocratic virtues of these heroes that Nietzsche admired about the Greeks. It is not surprising that Nietsche himself adopted inegalitarian political beliefs. Conscience, he thought, was a fake adornment adopted, as it were, by little people trying to come to terms with the supposed superior individual or übermensch in their midst.

The genesis of the book by van Creveld involved questions regarding why conscience was so ineffectual among German Lutherans and Catholics in confronting the Nazis. In the process of responding to these questions, he was led to study the entire history of the concept, which includes Kant’s nuanced treatment of conscience as a function of performing one’s duty. This is the only part of the book that I think is misleading. It is hard for me to link, as van Creveld does, the Kantian version of moral duty with the Nazi fetish for duty. After all, one powerful Kantian version of our moral duty is to always treat persons as ends-in-themselves worthy of respect and never treat them as means only or as mere things. By contrast, one’s duty as a Nazi was built on the Führer principle (Führerprinzip), wherein one was duty-bound to do what one was ordered to do, whatever the content of the command. Whereas for Kant conscience (Gewissen) was crucial, for Nietzsche and the Nazis the inspired conscience was the key obstacle to be overcome by “superior” individuals trying to realize their nature. As Joseph Goebbels aptly put it, the name for his “conscience” was Hitler.

For those of us within the normal human range of moral agency, however, conscience is what keeps us awake at night. Van Creveld is at his best when he emphasizes a tension that keeps reappearing throughout history between a view of morality as dependent on conscience, and one dependent on obedience to externally imposed (divine or human) law or societal pressure. As the demand for unconditional obedience increases, there is very little room left for the development of an autonomous conscience. The more powerful the law and its ability to reward and punish, the less room there is left for conscience.

One can imagine a moral society that is not based on conscience. When Western psychoanalysts first travelled to Japan, they encountered a culture that did not really have a word for conscience. Instead, a powerful disincentive to breaking the mores of society was provided by the idea of bringing shame to one’s family or society. In this context, morality was based on an assigned role (son or daughter, employee or boss, etc.). In effect, in traditional Japanese culture conscience was not necessary. One can easily imagine a society that functioned well on a shame basis. But for those who cherish a rich interior life that includes conscience, there would be a significant loss if morality were based, not on shame in the face of falling short of one’s own highest ideals, but on shame in the face of others. Perhaps the best society would involve both.

One wonders whether conscience is the exclusive prerogative of human beings. Jane Goodall provides evidence of some great apes that have harmed other members of the group. They subsequently exhibited group shame and gestures that seemed to say “I’m sorry.” These gestures seem to indicate that these great apes are on the cusp of conscience, at the very least. If some nonhuman animals possess something on the verge of conscience, then one can legitimately wonder if Augustine was correct in thinking that it is conscience that uniquely distinguishes human beings and makes them closer to the divine than other beings.

It is interesting to notice the concerns of a contemporary religious skeptic like Jürgen Habermas about the close connection between conscience and religious belief. Specifically, he worries about how society will preserve belief in human dignity now that we have entered what he sees as a postreligious (and postsecular) era. That is, our age is living off the moral capital accumulated during the Judeo-Christian ages, but without having to pay any premium. For example, an important document like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be seen as an outgrowth of the moral lineage that is being studied in the present article. What will happen in the long term if this lineage is jettisoned? What if it was generally believed that human beings are the accidental by-products of evolutionary history and no more intrinsically valuable than any other sort of protoplasmic stuff?

The point here is not to question the reasonableness of  the theory of evolution in general, but rather to question its reductionistic, nontheistic version. Nor is the point to question whether there can be eminently moral atheists—it is obvious that they can exist—but rather to wonder about the theoretical support for human dignity in a postreligious, postsecular world. The real issue: Is it likely that conscience can even survive, much less flourish, if the aforementioned better angels of our nature are seen as fictitious? In this regard, Nietzsche may have been correct to suggest that the “death of God” would constitute the most profound intellectual crisis in history.

Readers of Conscience will no doubt notice the importance of the history of the concept in question for today’s abortion debate. The idea of conscience started with a female character from ancient Greece resisting male authority. The parallels are obvious with contemporary women who face laws that make abortion illegal or that restrict it (and contraception) in burdensome ways. As before, when law in its various forms oppresses, conscience becomes all the more significant.

This is why it is crucial to distinguish between civil disobedience and conscientious refusal. The former involves a citizen who initiates a confrontation with the government. The goal is to try to change unjust laws by appealing to the consciences of those in the majority in a democratic state through public, nonviolent disobedience of the law. In civil disobedience, one breaks some particular law out of respect for law in general. By way of partial contrast, in conscientious refusal it is the government that initiates a confrontation with a citizen by commanding her to do something that violates her deepest moral convictions. Although the classic case of conscientious refusal is usually thought of as a pacifist who receives a draft notice, restrictive abortion laws create a whole class of women whose consciences become a rich repository for moral reflection and decision making.

It is unfortunate that of late, the issue of conscience has been hijacked by antiabortion pharmacists and others who feel that they are under attack by a government that permits abortion. As I see things, however, if conscience protections are properly balanced and adjudicated, then a pharmacist who refuses to dispense birth control or abortifacients can legitimately be granted conscientious refusal status—but only if such refusal is balanced by another pharmacist who is willing to handle these prescriptions with no interruptions in service. The women whose consciences tell them to seek birth control or abortion services are also part of a just society in which there is a radical pluralism of opinion. Like Antigone, they cannot be ignored.


Daniel A. Dombrowski is professor of philosophy at Seattle University, as well as the chair of the Catholics for Choice Board of Directors. His publications include coauthoring the book A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion.

Let us know what you think.

Email your letter to the editor to conscience@CatholicsforChoice.org