McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Jennifer A. Bates
conscience, Ethics, Kant, Nietzsche
The aim of this study is to contribute to the understanding of conscience by critically examining turning points of the traditionalist approach that conceptualizes conscience primarily as a cognitive capacity. The basic assumption of this approach is that there is a built-in mechanism in human beings that enables us to judge the rightness of our actions. This mechanism is a part of reason that deals with the ethical value of the actions. Conscience judges an action with reference to a set of principles. These principles constitute the content of conscience. My study follows this track and puts forth its findings in terms of its content and function.
The study starts with the examination of the emergence of the word conscience. Once I have enough evidence that enables me to fix the meaning and use of the word I turn to Plato and Aristotle and argue that although they do not write explicitly on conscience they establish the conceptual framework of the later studies on conscience. In the second chapter, I focus on Philip the Chancellor, Bonaventure, and Aquinas’ accounts of conscience and claim that the importance of these thinkers arises from the questions they ask regarding the relation between conscience and reason. They highlight the question that has to be answered in order to explain the mechanism of conscience. In the third chapter I focus on Kant’s understanding of conscience. His main contribution to the tradition is that he provides coherent answers to the questions about the distinction between reason and conscience. I argue that his Copernican Revolution in ethics enables him to re-secularize the concept of conscience that originally emerges as a secular one. In the fourth chapter, I consider Nietzsche’s criticism about conscience by paying special attention to his On the Genealogy of Morals. I conclude that his criticism is not so controversial as it is thought, and his main contribution to studies on conscience is that the content of conscience may not be some necessary truths about the right thing to do but may come from contingent beliefs, which are imposed on us by the society in which we are brought up.
In the conclusion, I claim that the authority of conscience arises neither from the contents, whatever they be, nor from the ways conscience derives conclusions, but from the belief that I could not live with myself if I do something wrong, so I have to scrutinize my actions and judgments. If I find something wrong about my past action I have to admit the guilt, or if I find something wrong about my future action, I should not do it. This belief originates from one’s awareness of one’s accountability for one’s actions.
Sarac, N. (2016). A Study on Conscience: The Content and Function (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/105