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Religious views on conscience

Aquinas’ Natural moral law

Aquinas developed Natural law as a form of religious ethics. Natural law is the theory that God has designed a moral law into human nature such that we are naturally inclined to certain moral behaviours. Ethics is therefore about using reason to discover the natural law within our nature so that we can conform our actions to it in order to fulfil our purpose (telos) of glorifying God, by following his law.

The Primary Precepts & Synderesis

Aquinas claims that reason is a power of the human soul and synderesis is the habit or ability of reason to discover foundational ‘first principles’ of God’s natural moral law which gives us insight into God’s intentions for human life and thus our telos.

“the first practical principles … [belong to] a special natural habit … which we call “synderesis” … is said to incite to good, and to murmur at evil, inasmuch as through first principles we proceed to discover, and judge of what we have discovered.”

The first principle synderesis tells us is called the synderesis rule: that the good is what all things seek as their end/goal (telos). This means that human nature has an innate orientation to the good.

“This therefore is the principle of law: that good must be done and evil avoided.

In addition to this, synderesis tells us the primary precepts: worship God, live in an orderly society, reproduce, educate, protect and preserve human life and defend the innocent. These primary precepts are the articulation of the orientations in our nature toward the good; the natural inclinations of our God-designed human nature, put into the form of ethical principles by human reason.

Secondary precepts & conscientia

The primary precepts are applied to situations or types of actions – a process called conscientia. The judgement we then acquire is a secondary precept. E.g euthanasia: the primary precepts don’t say anything about euthanasia exactly, but we can use our reason to apply the primary precepts to euthanasia, and realise that it goes against the primary precept of protecting and preserving human life. Arguably it even disrupts the functioning of society too. Therefore, we can conclude the secondary precept that euthanasia is wrong.

Aquinas’ view of the conscience

Natural law is Aquinas’ theory on how God is the grounding and source of morality. Conscience is about the human psychology involved in understanding and applying natural moral law. Conscience is ratio (reason) used to understand and apply God’s natural law.

Aquinas claims that the classic features of conscience follow from the application of our knowledge of the natural moral law to our moral actions, in three ways:

  1. Witness – by knowing whether we have done or not done something.
  2. Bind & incite – “through the conscience we judge that something should be done or not done”
  3. Accuse, torment & rebuke – “by conscience we judge that something done is well done or ill done”

This is how the conscience causes guilt. Conscience is our ability to know whether we have done something, whether we should have done it, and whether it was done well. If we have done something wrong, our conscience will accuse, torment and rebuke us – causing feelings of guilt.

Because human reason is fallible, the conscience thereby becomes fallible. We could be mistaken for example when we don’t know how a general rule applies to a certain situation (mistake in conscientia). Aquinas claims that the synderesis rule and the primary precepts cannot be mistaken or lost from the human mind. However, mistakes can be made in conscientia – the application of the primary precepts to moral situations or actions to derive secondary precepts. These mistakes can result from original sin, unvirtuous habits and corrupt culture.

“As to those general principles, the natural law, in the abstract, can nowise be blotted out from men’s hearts. […] But as to […] the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions, just as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions; or by vicious customs and corrupt habits”

Real vs apparent goods. We might reason that something is in accord with our nature’s goal and is thus good, when really is not. Such actions are called apparent goods because they only appear good to someone engaged in faulty reasoning. They are not real goods. Despite this potential for our conscience judging something bad to be good, Aquinas still insists we must follow it:

Every judgment of conscience, be it right or wrong … is obligatory … he who acts against his conscience always sins

This is because if you choose to act against your conscience, then you are choosing to do something you believe to be evil. Conscience is thus always ‘binding’.

Vincible vs invincible ignorance

Whether errors in conscience that lead to sinful acts will be forgiven or pardoned depends on the type of ignorance that caused the error.

Invincible ignorance involves circumstances where a person could not have known better and so are not to blame for their action. For example if someone drunkenly jumps in front of your car and there was nothing you could have done, you would not be held responsible for hitting them. Actions that go against the natural law but are done due to invincible ignorance are technically not voluntary and thus not sin.

“It is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called ‘invincible’”

Vincible ignorance involves circumstances where a person could have known better and so are to blame for their action. It typically involves some kind of negligence or ignorance of which moral principle is relevant to a situation. For example, if a fire breaks out in a building because it wasn’t looked after properly, then the person in charge of that is to blame for their action. They were ignorant that the fire would happen, but they should have known better. Actions that go against the natural law done out of vincible ignorance are sins because we should have known better.

“[invincible ignorance] not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin … On the other hand, vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about matters one is bound to know.”

Arguably Aquinas is too optimistic about human nature. If you consider the terrible things that humans have done and that entire cultures have embraced, e.g. slavery and Nazism, it starts to look like human nature is not as positive as Aquinas thought. If we really had an orientation towards the good and the primary precepts accurately described our nature’s orientation, then we should not expect to find the extent of human evil we do.

However, Aquinas’ claim is merely that human nature contains an orientation towards the good, it doesn’t involve a commitment to humans actually doing more good than evil, nor to incredibly evil acts or cultures occurring infrequently. Aquinas acknowledges that there are many reasons we might fail to do good despite having an orientation towards it. These include original sin, mistakes in conscientia, lacking virtue and a corrupt culture.

The fact that humanity could sink so low as to produce Nazism and the holocaust is strong evidence against the human nature having an orientation toward the good.

Descriptive moral relativism

Aquinas was not as aware of different cultures as we are today. As we now know thanks to modern anthropology, there are vastly different moral beliefs across cultures; this is called descriptive moral relativism. Fletcher made the argument that this could be taken as evidence that there is not an innate God-given ability of reason to discover the natural law, since then we should expect more moral agreement. Freud would argue that it is society which conditions our moral views. There either is no natural moral law or human reason is unable to discover it. So, what Aquinas thought was human nature was really just his culture.

However, there do seem to be some core similarities between the moralities of different cultures such as not killing for no reason and rules about stealing. Reproduction and education are also universal. Moral thinkers from different cultures came up with similar moral prescriptions such as the golden rule; to treat others as you would like to be treated, which can be found in ancient Chinese Philosophy, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. This could be taken to show that moral views are determined by a universal human moral nature.

Alternative explanation: These cross-cultural similarities in moral codes might have resulted from a biologically evolved morality rather than one designed by a God, however, which would mean it is not related to a telos designed by God.

Alternatively, cross-cultural morality might result merely from the basic requirement of a society to function. If anyone could kill or steal from anyone else for no reason whenever they wanted, it’s hard to see how a society could exist. That might create an existential pressure which influences the moral thinkers of a society, yielding prescriptions such as the golden rule. Cross-cultural ethics therefore has a practical reality as its basis, not God and not or not only evolution.

Aquinas’ Natural Theology

Aquinas believed that human reason could never know or understand God. However, Aquinas is a proponent of natural theology through reason which he claimed could support faith in God. Human reason can gain knowledge of God’s natural moral law through the ability of human reason to know the synderesis rule and primary precepts.

Karl Barth argued that Aquinas’ natural law theory was a false natural theology which placed a dangerous overreliance on human reason. Barth argued that if humans were able to know God or God’s morality through their own efforts, then revelation would be unnecessary. Yet, God clearly thought revelation necessary as he sent Jesus.

Barth also argued that “the finite has no capacity for the infinite”; our finite minds cannot grasp God’s infinite being. Whatever humans discover through reason is therefore not divine so to think it is must then amount to idolatry – the worship of earthly things. Barth argued idolatry can lead to worship of nations and then even to movements like the Nazis. It follows for Barth that after the corruption of the fall, human reason cannot reach God or figure out right and wrong by itself. Only faith in God’s revelation in the bible is valid.

In defence of Aquinas, he is not suggesting that our finite minds can understand God’s nature or goodness (eternal law). Aquinas is only suggesting that reason can understand the natural law God created within our nature. If reason only has this goal of supporting faith in such ways, then it cannot make revealed theology unnecessary.

 Tillich defends Aquinas to a degree, arguing that Barth was too negative in denying the possibility of reason discovering anything whatsoever of the natural law.

“there is self-deception in every denial of the natural moral law … The very statement that man is estranged from his created nature presupposes an experience of the abyss between what he essentially is and what is existentially is. Even a weak or misled conscience is still a conscience, namely, the silent voice of man’s own essential nature, judging his actual being” – Tillich.

To deny that our conscience can discover the natural law is to claim that there is a gap between what we currently are and what we could be. Yet, to have an awareness of that gap is to have a conscience that is aware of its fallen state. So it is contradictory to deny the natural law. Even it now involves a weakened conscience, that still tells us at least something of the direction we have fallen in and the direction back towards righteousness.

However, whatever a weak and misled conscience discovers is surely not God’s morality. Humanity believing it has the ability to know anything of God is the same arrogance that caused Adam and Eve to disobey God. Humanity believing that it has the power to figure out right and wrong is what led to the arrogant certainty of the Nazis in their own superiority. The arrogance of natural theology is evidence of a human inability to be humble enough to simply have faith.

Psychological views on the conscience

Sigmund Freud

Freud thought the conscience was just the result of psychological forces that science could understand. Freud believed the mind was divided into the Id (our unconscious animalistic desires), Ego (Our conscious decision-making self) and the Super Ego (the part of us that “stores” the values we introjected ((unconsciously adopted)) from authority figures during childhood and is the source of our moral feelings). When a desire bubbles up from the unconscious Id into our conscious Ego, we become aware of wanting to act on it, but our Super Ego then tells us whether the values of our society allow it. If so, we can act on it. If not, we have been conditioned to repress that desire, which Freud thought responsible for many mental problems.

The ethical implications is that conscience is not the voice of God in us, it is just what our society wants from us. Our society might be good or bad, therefore our conscience is not the best guide if Freud is right. Furthermore there might not even be a ‘good or bad’, if morality is merely the conditioning of societies on its members.

Freud was influenced by Nietzsche who argued that human conscious mind (what Freud called the ego) developed by necessity when humans underwent the radical change from hunter-gatherer to farmer. Our natural animalistic instincts (What Freud called the Id) were of less use to us in the new environment of society, in fact they were a hinderance as they called on us to behave in ways that would make society fall apart. Consciousness emerged as the space in-between our instincts and the outside world as a mediator which had to decide which instincts to act on and which not to.

Freud’s theory of psychosexual development relates to his theory of the id, ego and superego. Freud thought that the process of being socialised – being inducted into society – required children to learn to control their Id. This process of learning was developmental in that it comes in stages. If self-control is not learned at a particular stage, it can lead to issues later in life.

Oral stage: Between birth and 1.5 years old. Babies breastfeed, and explore the world by putting things in their mouth. Failure to develop properly during this stage can lead to smoking or overeating.

Anal stage: 1.5 – 3 years old. The ego develops at this time and pleasure is gained through exercising self-control over going to the toilet. Those who overly-control become a control freak, those who do not learn to control enough become messy.

Phallic stage: 3-6 years old. Children become aware of their genitals and their gender. Oedipus and Electra complex develops – jealousy of the parent of the same sex for the time and attention they take from the parent of opposite same sex. Problems moving through this stage cause intimacy issues later in life.

Latency stage: 6-puberty. Sexual desire develops and is repressed. Gender roles are learned.

Mature genital stage: lasts until death. Controlled sexual desires result in a desire for love and marriage. A person now has a fully developed conscience where the ego controls the Id with reference to the superego.

Freud has been criticised by contemporary psychologists for not being empirical enough. Karl Popper criticised Freud’s theory for being ‘unfalsifiable’ as it could not say what would prove it wrong. This means it is not true empiricism. Freud studied a small sample size of patients, a poor cross-section of society and did not do proper experiments, so he is unscientific. However, Popper was clear that he wasn’t saying there was absolutely nothing of value in Freud’s ideas – just that they needed to be subjected to proper scientific experiment and testing.

Piaget was a contemporary psychologist who developed better empirical methods of experiment than Freud but came to similar conclusions, so can thus be seen to defend Freud to some degree from the accusation of being unscientific. He studied the development of children and argued that there occurs a fundamental shift in the nature of ‘conscience’. Before the age of 11 children have what he called heteronomous morality. This means they merely associate actions as bad because of the influence of their authority figures like parents. For example, an 8 year old child dangerously runs into a road and their parent yells at them. The child will learn not to do that again, but not because they have cognitively understood that running into the road will cause them injury or death which would be a bad thing, but because they merely associate the action of running into the road with the loud scary noise of their parents shouting occurring. After 11 year old however, Piaget argued that the autonomous morality develops in children, where they can begin to have abstract cognitive moral beliefs about how one ought to act and why.

Freud’s critique of religion’s approach to developing the conscience

Maintaining social order depends on people repressing their anti-social instincts (e.g. for sex and violence). Religion encourages repression and for that Freud thought it had done “great services for human civilization” in the “taming of the asocial instincts”. Nonetheless, Freud thought that the Christian belief system had long passed its usefulness because a secular society would be far superior at enabling self-control. So, society would be better off outgrowing religion.

Freud evaluates religion and its doctrines not as claims about reality but as strategies for controlling instincts. For example, for Freud, belief in and propagation of the idea that human nature is corrupted by original sin is really just a method of dealing with our natural instincts, but a primitive and childish method that actually causes as much immorality and unhappiness as it prevents. Viewing humanity as inherently sinful and only God as good, who easily forgives sins, does not provide the proper motivation for following religious social rules, causing frequent “backslidings into sin” and seeking of penance.

After millennia of religious rule, too many people are still unhappy being controlled by social rules. Freud claims this is because the religious approach to conscience is external imposition by authority, similar to how children are treated, the result being comparable to a ‘childhood neurosis’. Although rules are in place to reduce suffering, they also cause suffering through repression and thus inspire unconscious resentment against civilisation.

Freud argues that the better approach for society would be autonomy. People can rationally understand that repressing their instincts is for the good of social order, making them capable of choosing autonomously to follow social rules. This makes them more likely to happily accept and follow them. Furthermore, this would also introduce flexibility into the rules. If it were accepted that the social rules of human origin with the intention of improving society, then they could be continually improved, further encouraging adherence to them.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of religious rules as tools for social order depends on the notion that a God has decreed them, which inexorably burdens religious social order with the psychology of external imposition and the inflexibility of eternal unchanging ‘laws of God’. Freud concludes that society would be much better off if it could admit that the purpose of its social rules is the maintenance of social order, rather than their “pretended sanctity”.

Aquinas’ natural law ethics arguably gets around Freud’s critique, because Aquinas thought that following of the natural law did involve the engagement of a person’s rationality with God’s eternal law in a way that enabled their virtue and flourishing. It’s not simply externally imposed and there is a degree of flexibility in the application of the primary precepts and use of the double effect.

Perhaps Freud’s critique only really works against approaches to the conscience like Augustine’s where it simply involves an external imposition of God’s law.

Possible exam questions for Conscience

Critically compare Aquinas and Freud’s view of the conscience
Are the workings of God present in the conscience?

‘Freud makes more sense of the concept of guilt than Aquinas’ – Discuss.
Does a theological approach to conscience work better than a psychological approach?
Critically compare Aquinas and Freud’s views on the process of moral decision-making.

Does conscience exist at all or is it an umbrella term for culture, environment, genetics and education?
Is conscience merely an umbrella term for the psychological factors involved in moral decision making?
Critically assess Freud’s psychosexual approach.

Quick links

Year 12 ethics topics:
Natural Law.
Situation ethics. Kantian ethics. Utilitarianism.
Euthanasia. Business ethics. 

Year 13 ethics topics:
Conscience. Sexual ethics. 

OCR Philosophy
OCR Christianity
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions