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Conscience + Acts of Conscience

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

What is conscience?

Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), in his famous Sermons, said of conscience that it was a “principle in man” by which he approves or disapproves his attitudes and actions. He further added that this faculty tends to restrain people from doing “mischief” and incline them toward doing good.

While dictionary (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary) defines conscience as “the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action.”

In simple words, conscience refers to “subjective awareness of the moral quality of one’s action.”

Awareness of the moral quality of one’s actions involves two aspects:

  1. The awareness of an act

  2. The awareness of one’s values as exemplified by the act

Conscience is subjective awareness because:

People differ significantly about the degree and extent of their awareness of the moral qualities of their actions, just as people differ regarding the degree and extent to which they are self-aware in general.

Some are “hyper aware” of the moral quality of their actions; therefore, they tend to be very “scrupulous” and diligent in making decisions and performing any action. The opposite condition is one of a “lax” person who consistently fails to concern themselves with the morality of their actions. Morally scrupulous individuals are often morally conscientious, while lax individuals can be prone to weak moral will.

Acts of Conscience

The acts of a person’s conscience have traditionally been divided into 4 types:

  1. Act of command, whereby one senses that an act is to be done

  2. Act of forbidding, whereby one senses that an act is not to be done

  3. Act of permitting, in which one regards an act as allowed by one’s moral values

  4. Act of advising in which one is aware that an act is either probably better to do or probably worse to do (the act is not sensed as being strictly required or forbidden.)

Good & Bad Conscience

Good conscience refers to the state of mind characterized by peace, self-contentment and ease because the person’s actions are in harmony with the dictates of conscience. At the same time, bad conscience reflects a state of mind characterized by apprehension, anxiety and unease because the actions violate the dictates of conscience or are not in sync with one’s moral values.

*“Conscience” does not refer to evaluations of other people’s acts.

Some important quotes on conscience

“There is…at the bottom of our hearts an innate principle of justice and virtue, by which in spite of our maxims, we judge our own actions…to be good or evil; and it is this principle that I call conscience. Rousseau, Emile

“Conscience is the representative within us of the divine judgement-seat: it weighs our dispositions and actions in the scales of law which is holy and pure; we cannot deceive it, and lastly, we cannot escape it because, like the divine omnipresence, it is always with us.” Kant Lectures on Ethics “It is not because men’s desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their conscience are weak.” Mill, On Liberty

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