Sunday, 6 September 2015


by Sophie Locke-Cooper

Augustine was heavily influenced by Platonism and asserted that there is one God and that God was and is the source of all goodness. Therefore there can only be one virtue and, according to Augustine, this is simply called virtue. For Augustine all the other supposed virtues such as justice, goodness are all just aspects of virtue which is God.  The question is then raised: What binds all the aspects of virtue to the one virtue which is God?  Augustine's answer is the divine love. The conscience therefore emerges from the outflow of this divine love and this is similar to  Newman in the sense that following our conscience is also following a divine law. Augustine believed the conscience is God's love being poured forth to human beings; it is when God speaks to the individual and it reveals itself in solitary movements.  Augustine believed that when we listened to our conscience we were really hearing the voice of God whispering to us about what is right and wrong. Augustine urged all Christians to be concerned about conscience and to consider it seriously. He said we should 'see God as ' our 'witness'. 

However Augustine himself addressed the problem that this idea of conscience cannot be questioned as it is the voice of God within. Many people struggle with this idea because if you say that the conscience cannot be contradicted then you may be going against teachings of the church. People against this view of conscience say that it is not possible to verify whether the conscience truly is the voice of God and it could be self-delusional. They also say that if God is the source of conscience why would he contradict and why would different people carry out different actions lead by conscience? If God was the voice within why would he tell one person stealing is wrong but allow another person to believe stealing was right? It leads to one individual doing the reverse of another. For example the Protestants of Touluse rose in revolt against their catholic rulers because their conscience told them to do so. But a few weeks later many of those Protestants were murdered by Catholics who were told by their conscience the Protestants were wrong and needed to be punished. This example also shows that neither side demonstrated God's love which according to Augustine that is what the conscience is meant to reveal.

Aquinas held reason in the highest esteem. He said "Reason in man is rather like God in the world." Most famously, Aquinas claimed: To disparage the dictate of reason is equivalent to condemning the command of God. Augustine had used the term 'synderesis ' to mean an innate knowledge of right and wrong. He held that this was faulty, due to the fall, and that Christians should look to the authority of the Church and Scripture. Aquinas disagreed, holding that conscience has binding force. Aquinas thought that practical reason, through reflection on human nature, can determine primary moral principles (which he called the 'Primary Precepts'). Our 'conscience' then derives secondary principles ('Secondary Precepts') which are applied. As we practice balancing our needs against the needs of others, we develop Prudence.

Synderesis - an innate knowledge of human nature and primary precepts through practical reason

Conscientia - deriving secondary precepts, and applying them

Prudence - the virtue of right-reasoning in moral matters, balancing ours and others' needs

As with Paul, Aquinas said that a person's conscience could err (go wrong), either 'invincibly', through no fault of their own, or 'vincibly' - through our own fault. For example, if I give money to a man who is begging on the streets, I have good intentions, but my actions are actually unhelpful. If I had considered my actions carefully, I would have seen that I wasn't helping him to improve his situation - if anything, my actions would keep him on the streets longer. I erred 'vincibly', as I would have done differently if I'd thought about it. Overall conscience is being able to both distinguish right from wrong and to make decisions when a person is confronted with different moral situations. For Aquinas it is always right to apply your moral principles to each situation as best you can. However he does not mean that if you follow your conscience you are always right because if your principles are wrong your conscience will be wrong too. Aquinas says conscience is reasoning used correctly to find out what God sees is good. It is not just a voice inside us.

Sigmund Freud believed that the conscience is simply guilt. Freud was a psychiatrist who studied the human mind and its effects on and reactions with the body. He believed there was no such thing as a soul and his view of the mind was mechanistic. (That it worked in stages with cogs that connected parts to work together). Freud concluded that the human personality consisted of three things:

  1. The super-ego- the set of moral controls given to us by outside influences. It is our moral code or conscience and is often in conflict with the id. 

 2. The ego- the conscious self, the part seen by the outside world.

 3. The id- the unconscious self, the part of the mind containing the basic drives and repressed memories. It is amoral and has no concern about right and wrong and is only concerned with itself.


Freud believed that conscience is clearly connected with the sense of guilt we have when we go against our conscience is a construct of the mind and in religious people this would be in response to perceptions of God.- in non-religious people it would be their responses to externally imposed authority. Freud did not believe in any absolute moral law and believed that all our moral codes, the contents of our consciences, are shaped by our experiences- it is culturally dependent and this explains the difference in moral code between societies.

So if children learn their moral behaviour from their parents, teachers and other authority figures, is any moral choice they make free? If the super-ego internalises the disapproval of others and creates the guilty conscience which grows into an internal force regardless of any individual rational thought or reflection, it seems to be just a form of moral control which traps us into behaving a certain way.

The breaking of rules in the conscience is linked to the superego. Freud said that a religious person understands that to break God's law, as Adam and Eve did is an act of rebellion against the heavenly father. It brings with it a curse. Non-believers, on the other hand, see the conscience as being a product of the customs or traditions of a male-dominated society. When Freud wrote this theory the people that made the rules such as- rulers, politicians and judges, were male. Fathers were traditionally the head of families and made all the decisions. To break the rules is a rebellion against the father which condemns the son to guilt and punishment. The myth of Oedipus illustrates this idea. Therefore Freud saw the conscience as embodying that sense of guilt that comes from disobedience to the laws of the fathers, society's laws. 

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