Academic journal article Theological Studies

Conscience and Moral Development

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Conscience and Moral Development

Article excerpt

CONSCIENCE HAS BEEN DESCRIBED as "that still small voice that makes you feel smaller still." The term is used in two senses: "anterior conscience" for all the searching and deliberation that leads up to a moral decision, and "subsequent conscience" that reflects back on decisions we have made. When we say, "My conscience is bothering me about that," we are referring to subsequent conscience. I focus here on anterior conscience.

Conscience eludes precise definition, just like rationality, emotion, and choice. Let me first rule out some common misunderstandings. Conscience is not a separate faculty of the mind. It is a human process of assessment and judgment and not the authoritative voice of God. Vatican II correctly notes that "their conscience is people's most secret core, and their sanctuary. There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths."(1) God's voice may add resonance to our deepest reflections but it does not bypass them with direct dictation. Conscience is not merely a social construction, because, just as the conscience of Antigone, it can recognize a higher claim that exposes the pretensions of tyranny and oppressive social conventions. At the same time, conscience is not that place where the sovereign individual stands over against the inevitable tyranny of the group. Etymologically, conscience breaks down to "con" and "scientia," that is "with-knowing." This moral knowledge is self-reflexive and socially connected, knowing that is accountable to my deepest self, to human communities, and ultimately to God. Larger purposes and standards beyond the self exert their moral tug on the individual through conscience. Loyalty to those purposes inevitably relates the conscientious person to others in common cause and mutual accountability.(2) Since these communal claims can be deceptive, they must be measured against the truth that is known in the heart and before God.

Conscience is not a distinct faculty, because it integrates a whole range of mental operations. Sidney Callahan provides a useful definition: "conscience is a personal, self-conscious activity integrating reason, emotion, and will in self-committed decisions about right and wrong, good and evil."(3) Conscience begins in initial sensitivity to moral salience and moves to conscious empathy. Mulling its options, conscience engages in "cross-checking" of critical thought, empirical possibilities, affective valence, imaginatively grasped analogies, intuitive insight, and social corroboration. Reason tutors emotion and emotion instructs reason; intuition is measured against remembered experience; imagination projects possible scenarios that are evaluated by affective resonance and critical reflection. All of these operations lead up to the act of making a moral judgment with as much freedom and commitment as we can muster. No amount of elaborate cross-checking can manufacture self-commitment.(4) Finally, conscience produces more than individual decisions; it enters into the self-constitution of the person over time. Moral choices shape the character of the one who makes them insofar as they integrate personal character or retard moral development.(5) We become what we do.


Moral theologian Timothy O'Connell distinguishes three meanings of anterior conscience which can be called conscience as capacity, as process, and as judgment.(6)

Humans have the capacity to determine right from wrong and to recognize moral claims upon them. Apart from those who are brain-damaged or pathological, humans have this capacity for responsibility as part of the equipment of their species. Possessing the ability, however, does not guarantee its proper exercise any more than possessing reason makes one consistently rational. Despite the skepticism of postmodernism, there is considerable evidence for a common human morality. Humans live under analogous moral systems and can argue about moral issues across cultural and linguistic boundaries. …

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