Phrases such as “Follow your conscience” and “Do what your conscience tells you” suggest that one’s conscience is a fixed sort of thing, an unchanging absolute. Indeed, it often sounds like one’s conscience is innate, something we’re born with. And something quite separate from us, a sort of ‘inner voice’ (the voice of God?). Chomsky may have proven that there are innate structures of language in the human brain, but to date, no one has proven there are, in the human brain, innate moral principles.
The dictionary definition of conscience is that, it is a moral sense of right and wrong, especially as felt by a person and affecting behaviour an inner feeling as to the goodness or otherwise of one’s behaviour . The idea of conscience given to us by God is a belief, which is adhered too by many and has helped develop ideas on the formation and fixation of conscience. Christians believe that conscience is rooted in the biblical notion of the heart. However the obligation to follow conscience is based on the idea that we have properly formed our conscience, this is the belief that convictions of conscience are shaped, and moral obligations are learned within the community that influences us.
This therefore means that Christians believe in the idea that conscience is formed through life experience; it is not something we are born with. This means that if our conscience can form and develop from birth till it’s properly formed then it must always be changing as we start in new communities, new ways of life and meet new people. However there must also be other factors which contribute in some way to the formation of our decision, this could also suggest then that conscience can be wrong. This is insignificant to Christians because it teaches that God will judge us, not on the basis of our actions being objectively right or wrong but on the basis of the tranquillity in our hearts. However it does back up the idea that conscience is not a fixed force.
The secular belief that we must tackle the reality that we decide what is right and wrong and not God is the idea that, deciding consciously is better than deciding unconsciously. So therefore it must be considered better to recognize and compare, our choice of moral principles ourselves and then to act on those actions, according to our conscience which is formed by our self experiences and not that of God.
Within both religious and secular beliefs that conscience changes and develops there is a prominence of free will, this is key in the proposal of conscience because without conscience, to deceiver from right and wrong, there can be no moral blame. Many theories go against this idea such as hard determinism as it states all human choices have a cause, which precedes it. Within this theory humans are seen as less free and more like machines, they are governed by environmental and genetic factors, just like it is believed conscience is. Libertarianism however states that if we are to retain moral responsibility, we must reject determinism and accept that a person can, when confronted with the choice between right and wrong.
Within this theory of libertarianism, conscience linked to free will is split between personality which is an empirical concept, capable of scientific and personality which is formed by heredity and environmental factors, however it is possible for the moral self will counteract it and cause the person to do something else.
To what extent is Butler’s concept of conscience a dangerous interpretation of Aquinas?
Butler argued that a proper regard for human nature required that consideration be given to the natural instincts and affections that form the raw material of our humanity. It is a fact that human inclinations often cause a conflict of principles, in cases of conflict conscience comes into play, here is the final moral authority according to Butler. It is clear however that Butler is more concerned to describe the place of conscience in moral experience than to explain it source and ground. He prefers to admit the complexities of human experience rather than the cost of the facts.
Butler took the idea that stating that conscience needs to be informed and instructed. So it is the duty of a person to do all in their power to dispel ignorance. If having done so he still believes that it is right to act against authority then his ignorance is said to be invincible and his action blameless. Consequently according to this idea there is no guarantee that a person will do what is morally right. It ensures at the best that a person is only morally blameless.
However as it is important that a person should be morally blameless then he should do what is right, conscience maintains for the individual its ultimate authority. This is a precarious perspective as without blame for our actions we as human beings have no moral responsibility. Butlers ideas could also been argued as dangerous since he gives instinctive judgements of conscience and authority which they can’t possibly have. If crimes are justified in the name of compassion, they therefore have also been justified in the name of conscience. The intuitive judgement of conscience may vary from person to person. Their judgements take into account desires and principles, but when these do not result in one single decision conscience plays its part.
Butler states nevertheless that conscience is not a divine voice within the human heart, although he does believe that it is made in the divine image of God. Nor does he believe that conscience is a separate existence or identity. It has been suggested that Butlers thinking may be misleading as conscience stands for something in us which is the very essence of our humanity, it is considered dangerous however to place complete belief in the conscience as essence to humanity. Supporters of Butler’s ideas suggest that by placing influence on the conscience as the essence of humanity he wishes to deepen and extend our understanding of what it is to be a human being.