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Critically Asses the Claim That Conscience Has Ultimate Moral Authority

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Conscience is said to be a voice or feeling that dictates a persons moral decisions this feeling of a sense of right and wrong has no definite definition and its argued among psychologists, philosophers and religious believers what the true origin of this feeling is. Some psychologists argue that we are born with this and this part of our personality is created by our social surroundings and as we grow up what our society dictates to be right or wrong becomes hardwired into our brains and that forms our conscience. Some religious believers see the conscience as having a metaphysical origin such as a God, some argue that conscience has total authority and that we should in some respects not be blame for our actions because it’s a fault or difference in our conscience while others argue that we are totally responsible for our actions and conscience does not have ultimate moral authority.

Thomas Aquinas a Christian who thought that conscience did not have ultimate authority, saw the conscience as right intent. He saw conscience almost as a voice helping us distinguish between right and wrong, he thought that we, as Humans, naturally try to avoid evil or bad he called this Synderesis this means recta ratio or right reason. Aquinas split the conscience into two parts the Conscientia (Conscience) and Synderesis he saw the ability to tell right from wrong and right reason as the most vital parts of moral decision making. Aquinas did not think that the decisions made by the conscience where always correct this depended on the quality of your conscience. This theory explains the origin of conscience and explains how our conscience can be misunderstood or misused, but this theory does not satisfy religious believers & if its God given why is it fallible?

Cardinal Newman, a Christian intuitionist, agreed with the fundamental principles of Aquinas’s work but thought that the conscience has more authority and saw it as the divine law as given directly by God. So he believed that conscience was more than just a sense of reason he believed that when we make a moral decision that’s God speaking directly to us directing us in the correct moral path, he believed that it was God helping detect the already present truth. He argued guilt came from ignoring this guidance. However this is not a solid argument, nothing would be to stop someone saying that there conscience told them to do something and this theory does not really explain what our conscience is or how to use intuition.

Jean Piaget a rationalist argued that we learn what is considered right and wrong from a young age via external influences but as well as it being naturally occurring. He believed before the age of ten children develop their morality from authoritative figures, primarily parents he called this heteronymous morality but as the child get older they develop an awareness of morality and their sociological surroundings, but this assumes we are all in the same stages of development and his research was based on poor or incorrect data. Lawrence Kohlberg a Jewish American psychologist improved on Piaget’s work, he thought that this had the fundamental rules but it was more complex than that. He interviewed 72 boys from upper-class Chicago ages 10-16 asking them what was known as ‘The Heinz Dilemma”, he was interested not in the answer they gave but how they got to that decision, the question basically asked if a man should have stolen a drug that cost ten times what it cost to produce to save his wives life because he could not afford the expensive medication. By studying the answers and how they got to that answer he concluded that there where six levels;

The first was obedience and punishment, this is the earliest stage common in young children, rules are seen as absolute and the only way to get past a rule is to follow it, this is primarily to avoid punishment. Level two is individualism and exchange children account for individual points of view and judge actions based on how they serve individual needs, this is where the children argued that this was Heinz’s best choice and best served his needs & own interests. Level three interpersonal relationship was that level at which there is an emphasis on conformity and being ‘nice’ and considering the choices will reflect in social situations. Level four is social contract and individual rights, this is the focus on maintaining law and order this is where the person begins to take wider society into consideration. Level five social contract and individual rights at this stage people begin to take into account differing values and beliefs. Finally level six is the universal principles, this is based on universal ethical principles and abstract reasoning. This is a rational view and suggests that conscience does not have ultimate moral authority This however has problems too moral reasoning does not necessarily lead to moral behavior and Kohlberg is suggesting that our moral decisions are mainly based on justice and does not really talk about guilt or why other than the legal & social repercussions we follow our consciences so is it also a too westernized way of looking at the conscience.

Butler had a different view as a Christian and saw Human nature as hierarchical and at the top of this hierarchy is the conscience. He saw the conscience as a gift from God that has ultimate authority over our moral decisions; this gift from God he said is also what separates us from animals, having this ability to see wrong from right. Butler said conscience creates a balance between these two principles; self-love and benevolence, the concern for others wellbeing, he called conscience “our natural guide, the guide assigned to us by the Author of our nature”. However Butler still fails to explain how we know what our conscience is and how we manage this contact with God or how we hear him, and this does not explain evil acts if we have an infallible God given conscience.

Fromm is a rationalist who said that we have an authoritarian conscience and a guilty conscience is the result of displeasing an authorities figure, as we learn and get our conscience from authority figures, which are internalized by the individual and we are socialized so that when we are disobedient we feel guilty which in turn makes us more submissive to authority. He said humanistic conscience judges our success as a human being, it leads us to realise our full potential, form personal integrity and moral honesty. Some argue that this means that this would suggest that if you are brought up in a background of crime or have negative poor role models there is almost no chance at all of you becoming a functioning member of society and following normal rules and laws and this also leave us with the problem of if crime is a result of poor conscience them we would not blame the individual as they had not choice but to follow their conscience.

If conscience is morally responsible for everything and every action we take then we could not blame anyone for any of the crimes committed and if as Fromm suggested we all can only follow our conscience this means that criminals would never be able to do anything but commit crime which is not correct, we see many example of people escaping a life of crime which is almost unexplainable by the rules of an authoritarian conscience.

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