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Conscience is Innate Discuss

“The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still small voice of conscience” – Mahatma Ghandi. There are conflicting beliefs about whether conscience is innate or learned. When conscience is described as being innate, it means that it is inborn within you. From a religious perspective, an innate conscience is God-given or the voice of reason as a moral guide to right and wrong. In contrast, if it is argued that the conscience is not innate, then it is described as being learned or developed according to psychologists. If the conscience really is innate and God-given, does this mean that God has told people to act immorally?

Surely this destroys the whole idea of God being omnibenevolent. However, if the conscience is not innate and it is, in fact, learned, then the blame for people behaving immorally would be shifted from God to society. Key scholars such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Butler and Cardinal John Henry Newman believe that conscience is innate and inborn within a person. The argument that conscience is innate comes from a religious point of view. They argue, apart from Aquinas, that God gives our conscience as a moral guide of what is right and wrong and that we should never disobey what our conscience says as it would be going against the word of God. Joseph Butler devised the idea of ‘Intuitive Conscience,’ which stated that your conscience immediately comes into play when faced with a moral situation or dilemma.

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He described conscience as being “our natural guide, the guide assigned to us by the Author of our nature,” meaning that it is assigned to us by God. According to Butler, humans are motivated by two basic principles; self-love and benevolence. The conscience encourages people to move away from self-love, strive towards benevolence, and keep other people happy. In turn, this would result in a happier life. Conscience is the final decision maker when deciding as it is the ultimate authority in the authoritative hierarchy. However, this may conflict with some laws which may be in place in a country. Take Nazi Germany, for example; if you were a German citizen and Jewish people were asked to hide in your house through fear of death, would you let them, or would you abide by the laws of the country and turn them away?

Under conscience comes ‘the principle of reflection.’ By this, Butler meant that we could look back on our past actions and deliberate whether they were right or wrong. This ability to look back on our actions and decide whether we approve or disapprove of them in principle in man, meaning that it has always been a part of humanity. As previously stated, if our conscience comes from God, then surely God must be responsible for all of the actions we make, even the bad ones? Not for Butler. He said that as conscience is a direct knowledge from God, convincing yourself that wrong actions are good is self-deception that interferes with God’s purpose for an individual. A person could go their whole life saying that they acted negatively because their conscience told them to, but is it believable that God would guide people into making bad moral decisions?

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St. Thomas Aquinas did not think of conscience as being the voice of God but as the ability to reason and distinguish between right and wrong and that there were two parts to making a good, moral decision. The Synderesis Rule is an innate ‘right reason’ that gives us knowledge of the basic principles of morality, e.g. following the good and avoiding the bad. The conscience is the choice to follow an action based upon the principles and right reasoning of the synderesis. Both parts of Aquinas’s conscience enable us to decide between good and evil and then use ‘right reason’ to follow the good action and make a moral decision. For example, realizing that the good thing to do would be to help the older woman across the road and then acting.

However, Aquinas did not believe that the actions of the conscience were always correct due to a mistake in reasoning. If you make a mistake in reasoning, your conscience will be flawed, and your action will be immoral. Because of this, Aquinas did not see it advisable to follow our conscience at all times. Even though we may think that we are carrying out a correct moral action, our reasoning may be flawed, resulting in an apparent good rather than a really good. Cardinal John Henry Newman agreed with Aquinas that conscience is the ability to apply moral principles. However, this approach was more intuitive than rationalistic like Butler’s. Newman believed that conscience was God’s voice giving us direction and that following this conscience given to us by God was the same as following the Divine Law.

The Cardinal also said, “I toast the Pope, but I toast conscience first.” This implies that conscience is the ultimate authority rather than the Pope. For many Christians, this is seen as extremely controversial as the Pope has a direct link to God and is supposed to be of infallible ultimate authority. However, he does argue that conscience is innate and inborn within us, given to us by God as a moral guide for doing what is right and what is wrong. The main problem with religious beliefs is that if conscience was the voice of God, then why do different religions and sections of Christianity believe different things about sex and abortion? Surely, if conscience were the infallible voice of God, then all religions of all cultures would have the same morals for all issues. However, as this is not the case, there are differences between Christian denominations.

This suggests that conscience is not as clear-cut as Butler and Newman make it out to be. Another problem with the idea of having an innate conscience is that it assumes the existence of God. What about atheists and people that do not believe in God? Are we assuming that they have no conscience and they are the immoral people of the world? This poses a huge problem, as it infers that individuals who follow a religion are more superior than those who do not, as they do not have the innate moral guide to distinguish right from wrong. However, atheists would tend to agree with the secular approaches to conscience.

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Christians favour Aquinas’ view of conscience as he does not say that it is the direct voice of God but that it is reasoning that separates us from animals and helps us make morally good decisions. If it were that conscience was the voice of God, then it would be far too easy to blame atrocities on God and say that every person on earth that has committed a bad act has done it because ‘God told them to.’ Not only does this look bad on religion, but it also looks bad on the individual as they are following this word blindly and not questioning whether it really is as infallible as religious groups make it out to be.

On the other hand, there are various secular beliefs about what conscience is. These beliefs all describe conscience as being learned and developed, not innate. Sigmund Freud was a psychologist who posed a secular approach to what he thought conscience was. He believed that conscience was a part of the mind that strived to make sense of disorder and deal with guilt. Freud said that we are subject to accepting certain values and beliefs about morality that we reject in later life during our childhood due to our moral reasoning. However, these early formed values and beliefs may still influence our morality today. For example, if an individual was forced to attend Sunday service at church in their childhood, they may still take these values into their later life and go to Sunday service at church, so they do not feel guilt for not going. Thus, for Freud, the mind is split into 3 parts; Instinctive Desires (Id), Super-Ego and Ego.

As previously stated, the immature conscience can be identified with mass feelings of guilt, reinforced and conditioned by childhood. For example, going to Sunday service at church is what you did as a child to keep your parents happy and stop you from feeling guilty. The mature and healthy conscience can be identified with the ego’s reflection about the best way of achieving integrity and having strong moral principles. The mature conscience is dynamic and focused on the future, and it will not let the immature conscience restrict it with guilt, although they may sometimes conflict. This is a process of development and learning, not something that is inborn within them. Freud’s view of conscience would blame society for an individual acting immorally rather than God.

As parenting, school and life experiences shape a person’s conscience and morals; it would be accurate to say that this kind of conscience has to be developed over time and at the individual’s own pace, rather than just following a set of instructions by God. Jean Piaget took Freud’s idea of guilt as a conscience and made it into his own view of conscience. He said that our conscience develops as we move through the stages of our lives. The first conscience that we experience usually happens between the ages of 5 and 10; this is called heteronymous conscience. This conscience is developed as a result of parenting and upbringing. For example, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when addressing people. This happens when the conscience is immature, and the consequences of an action determine whether it is right or wrong, so the child does not know if they have acted immorally until they have done the action.

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The second conscience which Piaget outlines is the autonomous conscience. This develops after the age of 10, where an individual can distinguish between right and wrong before they decide what action they are going to take. They are also less dependent on the people’s authority and can distinguish between right and wrong for themselves. This is clearly a developmental approach to conscience, not a religious one that claims that it is innate. If an individual were to carry out a bad action, then the blame would be placed on the child’s upbringing or that they are just a morally bad person that is unable to distinguish the difference between right or wrong, or that they do know what the right thing to do is yet they still carry out the immoral action.

One major downfall of the secular approach to conscience is that it does not explain actions that are clearly made without conscience. If the conscience is possessed from childhood, why do some people not have a sense of the right and wrong things to do are. Obviously, you could put it down to poor parenting, but what about those people who have had a perfect childhood and have gained everything they wanted yet still committed horrendous crimes? Another problem with the secular ideas of conscience is that it explains how it influences us into making decisions, but it does not tell us what the right path is? How are we supposed to know that the path we have chosen is the wrong one or mistake the wrong path as the right one? St. Thomas Aquinas would put this down to a mistake in reasoning, but how would psychologists such as Freud explain this?

In conclusion, I believe with Piaget that conscience is something that you are conditioned with as a child, but then develop yourself when you become old and mature enough to make your own decisions about difficult situations. “Things only looked wrong when there was someone to see you” – Anna Godbersen. This implies that conscience is completely subjective and that as long as you do not have people telling you what to do and what is right or wrong like the Religious ideas of conscience tell you, then everything that you are doing seems like the right thing to do.

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