Sunday, 30 September 2012

Is Conscience Innate or Learned?

by Oliver Price


Developmental pyschologist Jean Piaget put forward the theory that conscience is learned as we grow up. Concerned with the psychology of children as they matured, he deduced that children only gain a full sense of morality by age 10; he called this stage of moral development heteronomous morality, whereby you follow the rules due to fear of punishment but not from a higher sense of moral duty.

Another psychologist, Sigmund Freud, saw the mind as a machine-like entity. Freud theorised that the human personality consisted of three parts: the id (the unconscious self devoid of morality and only concerned with its own wants and desires), the ego (the conscious self and personality society sees) and the super ego (the set of moral controls given to us by outside influences which may conflict with the id). Freud theorised that there was no absolute moral law that humanity abides by and, instead, as children we learn our moral behaviour from our parents and other older role models. Erich Fromm also shared this view that humans are influenced by external authorities and that disobedience therefore produces guilt.

Piaget and Freud’s theories would be consistent with the case of James Bulger’s murder as both the killers were 10 years of age at the time of the killing, so would not be viewed by Piaget to possess a fully developed moral conscience. Also, one of the murderers, Robert Thompson, was born into a family of 7 children whose parents had separated. He is described as having been an illiterate child raised in an impoverished family. His mother is portrayed as having been an alcoholic and as having neglected her parental responsibilities. On the basis of this evidence, Freud would argue that a cause for Thompson’s warped sense of morality could be his lack of an authoritative role model on whom to base his morality. Piaget would argue that Thompson was still at the stage of heteronomous morality because the lack of an authoritative figure in his life meant there were no rules to follow. It also leads us to pose the question: if conscience comes from God why did these atrocities take place?

Joseph Butler attempted to answer this question by stating that immoral actions only take place when a person blinds themselves from their conscience to make way for a wrong action; he went on to say how corrupting one's conscience is worse than whatever the evil action is that comes from it. Butler stood by his assertion that conscience comes from God, seeing conscience as what stands humanity apart from animals, so that being human involves being moral; for Butler, the principle of man is conscience. Within human nature, Butler believed there was a hierarchy with conscience at its top and self-love and benevolence at its base, and above the last two the principle of reflection, which is part of the conscience; Butler argues that God gives us the principle of reflection. However, Mark Twain offered a criticism of Butler’s theory by suggesting that the conscience is not discovered through the principle of reflection and God’s guidance: “I have noticed my conscience for many years, and I know it is more trouble and bother to me than anything else I started with.” Both Butler and Twain, in different ways, suggests that the conscience is innate and with us from birth throughout life.

Cardinal Newman saw conscience as the voice of God, when we feel any sort of intuitive moral knowledge when decision making. As Newman said: “If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed.” By “One” Newman is referring to God, implying that conscience come directly from Him and is therefore innate. Another proponent of this view, St Augustine of Hippo, directed Christians to: “return to your conscience, question it… Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness." This seems to parallel Butler’s principle of reflection. The ideas of Butler, Newman and Augustine concerning conscience rely on an intuitionist approach, whereby people are able to sense what is right and wrong due to God acting as a guide revealing the right path to them.

Thomas Aquinas presented an alternative approach to conscience, offering a middle way. He viewed the conscience as being made up of two parts: “synderisis” and “conscientia”. The synderisis rule states that it’s innate that people aim for good and avoid bad. However, Aquinas also believed that it is repeated use of right reason that leads to gaining moral principles and understanding that it is important to strive towards good and avoid evil deeds. Conscientia is the ethical judgement, based on right reason, that a person makes which leads to a particular action. His whole approach is based around “reason seeking understanding”; you use your conscience correctly to reason what God wants. He said conscience “was the mind of man making moral judgements”. Aquinas’ argument is more rationalist than those of Butler, Newman and Augustine. However, modern psychologists, building on Freud’s ideas would dispute that God leads us to reason what he wants, as they argue that some people’s conscience never mature; does this mean that God has not influenced their moral decisions, and, if so, why?

Freud and Piaget’s views on conscience being innate coincided with those of Lawrence Kohlberg, who argued that there were six stages of moral development: behaving morally due to the instruction of authority figures, the law, caring for others, respecting universal principles and the demands of the individual conscience. Kohlberg said we have to follow these in sequence or otherwise we are prone to faults. Therefore, Kohlberg, like Piaget, believed that moral development and conscience are gained through social interaction, stressing nurture over nature, society over God.

In conclusion, theologians Augustine, Newman and Butler believed that conscience is derived directly from God as he influences our every moral decision; conscience is the voice of God. However, psychologists Freud, Piaget and Kohlberg disputed this claim, arguing that conscience is not discovered through God’s guidance but, rather, is innate and gained through external factors such as role models (parents, teachers etc.) and the environment we grow up in. Lastly, Aquinas provides us with an alternative approach that states that conscience comes from God but that reason enables us to realise what God wants: reason seeking understanding. For me, Aquinas’ argument is preferable to that of Newman and Butler, as it is much more rationalist.

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