In this essay I will argue that conscience is certainly an essential concept in Theological ethics. I will bring forward the main ideas and views of what conscience is, and what role it plays for each human being. I will argue that as individuals, we should ‘listen to our conscience when it works’ as St Symeon the New Theologian says; as it is the centre of our self-awareness and moral decisions. I will discuss and compare the views of Joseph Butler, both Popes John Paul IV and Benedict XVI, C.S Lewis and James Keenan.
According to Butler conscience is something that everyone has - every individual regardless of race or religion, has conscience; and this conscience determines our actions. He tells us that society is not controlled merely by official governing laws, but really it is our moral conscience that holds society together. Conscience is the supreme faculty - distinct in every person. Through our conscience we see the outside world and decide what is morally right. Joseph Butler presents us with a tripartite hierarchy showing us how the human person is composed. At the top of this hierarchical scale, there is conscience, and following down there is self-love and benevolence, and lastly passions. Butler states that the acts of self-love and benevolence are linked. At a basic level we should love ourselves, as being able to love includes doing good to ones self. Without this we cannot do good to others, and help them. We must make the right decisions for ourselves, and from this we can then help others make the right moral decisions - and act with love towards them. Below this, is our individual passions and emotions he claims. With his practical empirical approach, he says that passions and appetites must be shaped in the right way, with our gift of conscience leading these emotions towards the morally good. Butler clearly incorporates our feelings and emotions as individuals. This makes his view on human nature somewhat more realistic than that of Kant for example, who focuses on reason - or Bentham who tells us that we should specifically seek pleasure.
In contrast to Joseph Butler, Thomas Hobbes takes the view that human nature is that of violence and greed. From his own experience during the civil war, he was well aware of what could happen when living under a weak government. During this time, people acted selfishly and violently - with no sign of moral intuition and conscience. Hobbes thinks this is why we need a strong and authoritative government. However Butler does not agree with Hobbes and tells us that conscience is what guides us. Surely listening to the natural moral law within us will bring about a fair and just society, as opposed to being restricted by man-made dictatorial laws. Hobbes has a mechanized view of human nature, but Butler implies that our conscience is far greater than a machine. In his opinion every individual has a self reflective capacity and therefore gives us the ability to ‘know ourselves’ ; a phrase frequently used by Ancient Greek Philosophers. Butler lived in a very rationalist society , and did not want to be seen as a religious enthusiast. Consequently his ideas are not very obviously Christian. Perhaps intentionally, even though he was the Bishop of Durham, there is not much inclusion of spirituality and God. However his work is fully compatible with Christianity, and is a great concept for Theological ethics.
Our present actions and deeds are affected by our previous actions and decisions - this is why when we act we are sometimes overpowered by our bad habits and again act in the same way. In reply to Butler, Darwell argues that due to our habits grown out of our accumulative past actions, we do not act by the gift of conscience. This is perhaps the problem with Butler’s view, in that he assumes our conscience will always lead us in the right direction. However, on many occasions we are unsure what our heart is telling us as our thoughts and ‘λογισμοι’ take over and corrupt the heart. Τhis is why Saint Symeon carefully states that we should listen to our conscience, if it works properly. Therefore we must remove bad habits, sin and passions in order to have our heart ( our conscience ) clear, so that it will lead and guide us.
If we were to compare and link our conscience with rationality, then Plato backs up this view of a battle between our conscience and passions and distractions. In his piece of writing, ‘Phaedrus’ he emphasizes how we should fight and make sure that our reason ( or for us conscience ) which is something separate from our thoughts and feelings, takes over and guides us. Plato’s Tripartite theory of the soul shows that reason is what should control and guide the other two elements of the person - which he argues are desires and argumentative reason. In the Platonic tradition, there is a real struggle with reason and the other two parts of the soul. Reason takes the lead, but only through hard work and difficulty. It is not a harmonious relationship between the parts of the soul, but rather a struggle. This is in order for our gift of reason to win over the other passions and thoughts which divert us from the good path. If we do not follow the path of our conscience, we are turning away from God’s divine nature and will.
Surely this is very difficult, deciding for ourselves what God’s will actually is, simply through our own personal conscience. The Bl.Pope John Paul II, tells us that conscience cannot simply be a personal decision, but it has to be through being open to the moral teaching of the church, and the divine law of God. This is when we are truly guided on the right path, to act in the right way. He says it is ‘a primordial insight, about good and evil’ that reflects ‘God’s creative wisdom which, like an impenetrable spark, shines in the heart of every man.’ Our conscience is formed by the Church, and its teaching, which brings a person to the fullness of the truth. We must stick to the Church’s tradition and teaching to keep ourselves focused on our heart, rather than our free thought. We are all faced with difficult individual decisions, and Paul II realistically writes that we cannot apply general moral norms to help us with these decisions - but the body of Christ ; the Church. 1
1 John Paul II, Conscience and Truth, Veritatis Splendor (1993) 54-68.
With reference to Romans 2.6-16 (‘The work of the law is written on their hearts’) John Paul II tells us that our conscience is our heart. In this heart we can see the law written by God, and it is for us to obey this law. It is present in everyone , in order for us to follow God’s will, and it is through this that man will be judged. Where else and how is conscience referred to in the Scriptures?
In the The Old Testament, the word ‘conscience’ does not appear, however it does speak of the ‘true heart’ ( Leb in Hebrew ) which consists of the Divine Law. Throughout the Old Testament, people experience God calling them to live His will and Divine natural law; and there are instances where God is clearly judging them accordingly. Relevant examples of this are Adam and Eve’s shame and guilt, as well as the remorse of the people of Israel. In Orthodox Theology, the main consequence of the Fall is guilt - and this guilt has been caused by Adam and Eve turning away from their pure and holy gift of conscience. According to the original Greek translation, ‘συνειδησις’ , (conscience) was seen as the human faculty of right decision-making; ‘ the ability to recognize natural laws and choose to follow them appropriately, possessed by those with ‘phronesis’ ( practical wisdom )’. 2
For Saint Paul, unlike Butler, conscience is not some special faculty that is separate from the rest of human thinking, nor is it secret wisdom that only few people have the gift of. It is simply our ability to understand what the law demands of us. Peter and Charlotte Vardy highlight that Paul uses this word ‘συνειδησις’ thirty times in his letters, and ‘καρδια’ ( meaning heart, which seems to mean the same thing as conscience) even more frequently. Augustine of Hippo tells us that human beings see the moral code in the ‘book of Light’, the Holy Scriptures. He suggests that conscience is in fact putting on the mind of Christ, and therefore leads to acting out of goodness and love.
2 Peter and Charlotte Vardy, Ethics Matters (London:SCM Press, 2012) 266.
3 Peter and Charlotte Vardy, Ethics Matters, 266.
Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his essays ‘On Conscience’, that it is our primary guide. It is obedience to the truth of God’s will, as well as an exercise of our freedom.The Philosopher and Theologian Christos Yannaras writes ‘for the Church the question of Ethics takes as its starting-point the freedom of morality’ 4 - which is our conscience. This highlights that our conscience is the source of our morality, and our ethical decisions. This links to Butler’s view of conscience being the starting point, and the main faculty of the human person. This freedom is personal responsibility to God, and it is clear when someone acts against this gift of conscience that guilt is experienced, and a ‘clear conscience’ is desired. This shows that the heart, our moral judgement ,is bound to God. It is a result of His great creation of human beings - His children, in which the image and likeness is present. Whenever we go against this gift, we feel distant from His will and His presence. 5
C.S Lewis writes that this natural law and practical reason that we are given from God, is the ‘sole source of all value judgements.’ 6 He highlights that this ‘heart’, or conscience will never change. Some would then argue that our moral judgements and stances have certainly changed since the middle ages. However C.S Lewis tells us that every single new judgement of value derives from the source of all judgements and decisions - the natural law within us. A relevant example would perhaps be the new laws on same sex marriage being put into place across the Western world. This law is heavily criticized by the Christian Church, for several reasons. If we were to ask why societies want to introduce such laws, we would probably get answers such as ‘out of love’, ‘freedom’, ‘fairness’, and not wanting to condemn and judge their fellow humans according to their actions. In their true sense, these morals are central to Christian theological ethics, and as we have seen so far these are within our conscience in order to act out of selfless love, and in the right way.
4 Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality (Crestwood, NY:St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984) 15.
5 Peter and Charlotte Vardy, Ethics Matters, 267
6 C.S Lewis, Abolition of Man (Norderstedt:Exciting Classics, 2013) 28.
C.S Lewis explains that this natural law of true love and fairness has been ‘wrenched from their context.’ 7 Each human being has the ‘idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.’ 8 Lewis highlights how our differences in what is right and wrong are exaggerated. We all have a sense of what true morality is he argues, and this is Christian morality. 9
Conversely, James Keenan shows that in the American liberalist context conscience simply becomes a ‘weapon’ in the defense of an individual. He writes that ‘the position does not assert that I have an obligation to conscience; the position is that I have a right to do what I want.‘ 10 Therefore our conscience has been turned into something that we use to act in any way we like - and our argument for doing so would be that we all have our own conscience telling us how to act. I would argue this simply manipulates our gift of our moral judgement, and strongly goes against the Christian tradition and practice.10
In Psalm 50, one of the most popular psalms in the Orthodox Church, we read ‘ create a clean heart in me Oh God’. This is a great concept in spiritual life, particularly in the Lenten period for example, where we aim to clean our hearts, our conscience, in preparation of the Glorious and Joyous resurrection of our Lord. During the lenten period, the Church advises us to fast, to get rid of all egoism and self-centeredness by giving up food, money, unnecessary pleasures; and to act with true love and humility.
7 C.S Lewis, Abolition of Man, 28.
8 C.S Lewis, Mere Christianity (London : Harper Collins, 2001) 8.
9 C.S Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13.
10 James Keenan, Compelling Ascent : Magisterium, Conscience and Oaths (St Patrick’s College, Maynooth:Irish Theological Quarterly Members, 1992) 209.
This is a beautiful example of how we can make sure our conscience is clean and pure, as it is not being corrupted by any other thoughts or habits. This is exactly what John Paul II recommends to us, that we follow the teachings of the Holy Christian Church, in order for us to listen to our conscience with the certainty that it will guide us towards the good and Will of our Creator. This particular example of fasting is a powerful one, that really does ‘create a clean heart’, as it is a weapon that takes away greed, pride and selfish passions. If we genuinely ‘Fight the good fight of faith’ (1 Tim 6:12), then following conscience, with the help of the Church,is not only central to every faithful Christian, but for the whole of Theological ethics; and throughout the essay I have presented why and how this is the case. To conclude, Saint Maximus the Confessor speaks of conscience in perhaps a simple but yet bold and effective way. He depicts conscience as ‘an intimate friend, one who advises us, to do what is best, reveals to us the will of God, and protects and liberates us from the corrupting influence of our own reasonings and our own feelings or passions.’
11 John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life (Crestwood,NY : St Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1998) 47.
Breck, J 1998, The Sacred Gift of Life, Crestwood : SVS.
Keenan, J 1992, Compelling Ascent : Magisterium, Conscience and Oaths, Maynooth : Irish Theological Quarterly.
Lewis, C.S 2013, Abolition of Man, Norderstedt : Exciting Classics.
Lewis, C.S 2001, Mere Christianity, London : Harper Collins.
Vardy, P & C 2012, Ethics Matters, London : SCM.
Yannaras, C 1984, The Freedom of Morality, Crestwood : SVS.