Key Points

Assess the view that conscience is not a reliable guide to ethical decision-making. [45] Answer by Erika Federis, with my comments in red.

Sigmund Freud believed that humans are incapable of dealing with the reality that the world we live in is surrounded with chaos. From this, he advocates that in a desperate need to mask this reality out, we try to enforce order into our lives. Freud believed that the conscience is merely a construct of the mind that seeks to make sense of disorder and to deal with the conflict that guilt brings. He states that our conscience is developed from our early upbringing where we accept certain values and beliefs about morality and society, despite being rejected by our moral reasoning in later life. However, these early moral values still continue to influence us, through the conscience in which he believed to be a way of dealing with the conflict of our rejection of the early beliefs. Freud, through his theory of psychosexual development, stated that our feelings of guilt ie.) from not following our conscience, is linked to the Oedipus Complex – our feelings are repressed into the unconscious and then form the basis of neuroses that lead to the concept of guilt. He believed that this guilt was in response to ideas about God and values of the Bible for people who are religious, and for those who are not, guilt was a construct that responded to external authority such as government, family and societal values. He stated that our experiences are what makes us who we are – there is no innate knowledge as to what is right and what is wrong, it is the events that have happened to individual persons that decide on one’s path – these events are what shapes one’s moral values, one’s sense of right and wrong. There is no definite moral conduct or asolute moral laws – our individual consciences are moulded by our own experiences. Different ethical codes within different societies are all part of external constructs of authority.

A really good explanation of Freud.  You need to make sure you apply it to the specific question.  In terms of marks, it’s full marks for “Explain Freud’s account of conscience”, but very little on “To what extent would Freud say it is right to follow the conscience” (although some of this is implied in what you wrote), and nothing on “How effective is Freud’s account of the conscience?”

Jean Piaget stated that before the age of 10, children take on heteronymous morality, which develops into autonomous morality after this age. Piaget’s view allows for the assumption that the development of one’s conscience is learned from external influences and that there is nothing innate about it. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development supports Piaget’s belief of the developmental conscience, along with Aquinas’ avocation of the conscience as ‘recta ratio’. This theory centres around the notion that justice is the essential characteristic of moral reasoning which in itself relies heavily upon the notion of sound reasoning based on principles. Kohlberg himself considered his theory to be compatible with the ideas of deontology and eudaimonia. He also states that there must be such a thing as moral universalism and that morals are not natural features of the world but rather they are prescriptive. He believes that moral judgements can be evaluated in terms of truth and falsity.   

Again, please refer this back to the question.  Is the conscience a reliable guide?  According to Piaget, Aquinas, Kohlberg?

Fromm, similar to Freud, Piaget and Kohlberg believed that our moral centre came from those around us who are able to exert authority over us which involves reward and punishment and overtime, we will have internalised their moral values and theirs become central to our own understanding of morality.

Not sure what you’re saying about Kohlberg.  Earlier it was moral universalism with truth and falsity.  Now morality is coming from ‘those around us’.  It may be better to deal with Kohlberg separately.

As with Freud’s theory of repressed guilt, Fromm believed that this was a result of displeasing those in authority – the authoritarian conscience. A good authoritarian conscience provides a structure that we can work within to ensure that both society and we are moral. Over time, Fromm’s ideas developed and resulted in the humanistic conscience where we are able to assess our success as a human by evaluating our behaviour and we moderate them according to the examples of others, by develiping our integrity and honest to become moral people.

These secular perspectives of the conscience support the statement that the conscience is not a reliable guide to ethical decision making as it demonstrates that there is subjectivity within our moral values due to individual experiences and upbringing.

Leaving these evaluative statements that should have come in sooner has required you to lump different perspectives together, and I don’t think it works for you.  Would Piaget and Kohlberg agree with you?

Ethical decision-making help us to make the correct decisions when it comes to moral judgement. However, the secular approaches do not provide an accurate method of understanding what the right path is. Having said this, Georg Hegel (along with Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg and Fromm) suggested that we make our judgements according to the conscience that society has formed. What, ultimately are ethical decisions created for? Is it not to please society’s norms?

I like this.  This is a great example of ‘Taking it further’.

Religious perspectives state that the conscience is a reliable guide to ethical decision-making as it relies on our innate ability to determine what is good and bad. Saint Jerome believed that our conscience is intrinsically important for our moral well-being and for our relationship with God to be able to shy away from sin. Saint Augustine saw the conscience as the voice of God speaking to us from within – it is the law of God in our hearts that we use to understand right and wrong actions. For him, the conscience must always be in every circumstance turned towards the good and away from all that is evil.

Thomas Aquinas stated that the conscience is ‘recta ratio’ and that reason was central to the moral life and to understanding the differences between right and wrong. He believes that it was reason making the right decisions and is what helps us to understand what God sees as good and right. Aquinas avocated the Synderesis Rule – people try to do good and to avoid what is evil. Our subconscious actions are to do good but due to faulty reasoning or weakness of the will, some people perform actions thinking they are good. These people are those who follow the apparent good, rather than the real good, therefore their conscience are at fault and mistaken. Aquinas stated that if your principles are flawed or incorrect, then so is your conscience. Therefore, from his point of view, a healthy conscience is a reliable guide to ethical decision-making.

A good account of Aquinas, although you could explain in more depth what Aquinas meant by ‘conscientia’.

Joseph Butler saw that the conscience was the final moral decision-maker. Similar to Aquinas, he believed that we possess the ability to reason and rationalise. For Butler, this was evidence for the existence of the conscience.

He believed that the conscience is given to us intuitively and exerts itself at the correct time without being called upon: it was the ultimate authority in moral judgements. He referred to the conscience as our natural guide, the guide assigned to us by the Author of our nature  - it was the final judge of right and wrong that must be obeyed - the conscience is a God-given gift and therefore must be obeyed. Butler assumed, unlike Aquinas, that every action could be justified correctly and mistakes of the conscience cannot be made – he believed that people will know intuitively what is the right thing to do in each situation. For people who have done wrong, Butler was quick to condemn and stated that they have a deluded self-deception that interferes with the purpose and purity of God.

This is a confident account of Butler’s theory.  You still need to spell it out, though, and evaluate it.  Is the conscience a reliable guide?

Another intuitive approach was Newman, who believed that the conscience does not create truth, but it does detect truth that already exists. It is the responsibility of a person to intuitively decide what truth God is guiding them towards. This gives a sense of objectivity when it comes to ethical decision-making, as religious perspectives assume that everybody will make the same decisions, everybody’s perception of right and wrong is the same.   

Good.  So we should follow the conscience?

There are many arguments about whether or not the conscience is a reliable guide when it comes to ethical decision-making. Cicero stated that ‘If conscience goes, then everything collapses around us.’ – the conscience is a moral guardian that impels followers to perform morally good actions by causing them to feel peace of mind or guilt. This suggests that the conscience is central to our identity as moral beings. From this we are inclined to question, is it possible to rely upon it? Roman Catholic teachings’ say that if we fail to follow our conscience, it is at this point that we sin, even if the conscience is objectively wrong. But what of those who have ‘faulty’ consciences? Those who feel that horrendous crimes such as murder and pedophilia are not wrong actions? If those who resist the urge to commit such crimes refuse to follow their conscience, does that make their conscience a reliable guide to what is morally correct?

If we are to use our conscience to decide what is ethically right then we have to ascertain how accurate it is in the situation. Through experience, we know that we have made errors of judgement due to our conscience leading us in a certain direction. It has been suggested that if you follow your conscience properly, it will reap its own rewards and allow for peace of mind, however this cannot always be true. In the case of Rosa Parks and the Bus Boycott, she did not give up her seat to a white person due to her conscience telling her so. It was a moral deontology for her to not have given up her seat, however, in context to the time it happened, it was her duty to have done so. Nowadays, we are able to determine that what Parks did was the right thing to do. However, at the time, it was not seen as such. According to the religious perspective, our intuition and moral judgement should be the same irrespective of chronology. The Bus Boycott is an evident case of collective conscience as an ethical decision maker which has lead to the performance of an act that was wrong.

A really interesting example to use, but I am not sure that you’re right about this.  If conscience were simply an internalising of society’s rules, we ought not to follow it.  However, the Rosa Parks example suggests that there is more to conscience than that.  She saw past society’s expectations, and was able to question them, confront them.  This suggests the conscience comes from somewhere else.  Furthermore, most of us would now applaud her actions, suggesting that her conscience, that led her to reject society’s expectations, was right.  Your example suggests to me that the religious accounts of the conscience may be more accurate and that we ought to follow the conscience.

However, I’m not sure that Kohlberg isn’t saying more than you credited him with.  Is he not saying that conscience develops continuously, particularly in our understanding of justice?  As such, he could account for Rosa Parks’ more developed sense of justice.  I am sure Kohlberg was trying to explain the conscience rather than say whether we ought to follow it, but it seems to follow that a more developed conscience is a better guide than an underdeveloped one.

I believe that both religious and secular perspectives both provide arguments which demonstrante the unreliability of the conscience when making ethical decisions. However, by use of Aquinas’ idea of reason informing our conscience, there is leeway for the possibility of our conscience being reliable.

A good point to end on.  Overall, a very competent essay that includes a wide range of scholars.  You have explained their positions well, and have made some attempt to evaluate them.  To improve this, I would suggest linking your evaluative comments to each thinker as soon as you have described their position.  Leaving it until later confuses what you say about them.  I also think you need to refer back to the question to make sure that you are answering it.    This said, I think this is a well-written and intelligent answer, and if I was grading this I would want to be awarding you a top mark.  Well done.  

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