Conscience: The Voice of Decency

Conscience, often defined as the voice of decency and a moral compass, plays a pivotal role in guiding human decisions. The sense of discomfort we feel when breaking a long-held rule or the unease accompanying the betrayal of our core values suggests the presence of an inner mechanism that alerts us to moral deviations in our daily actions. What is the state of our collective conscience?

French playwright and essayist Éric Emmanuel-Schmitt, born in 1960, lamented the decline of the ‘old, good conscience,’ prompting a reflection on the moral health of 21st-century humanity. This concept of conscience intersects various disciplines – ethics, psychology, moral theology – highlighting its multifaceted nature. Its origins trace back to the Greek term synderesis and the Latin conscientia, yet defining its essence remains elusive. For some, conscience is an innate ability to discern right from wrong. Others view it as an authority in personal moral judgment, or a regulatory factor in behavior, rewarding compliance with established principles or punishing transgressions. Conscience is also seen as a tool for evaluating actions, both our own and others, against standards of good and evil, justice and injustice, morality and immorality. So, what then is conscience in practical terms, and how do we perceive its influence in our everyday actions?

The Inner Voice

The notion of conscience traces its roots back to the advent of Christianity in Europe and even earlier, to the annals of ancient philosophy. Socrates, the father of ancient ethics, introduced the concept of the daimonion, an inner voice guiding the soul. As Plato recounts, Socrates described this voice as a deterrent from actions he was contemplating, rather than a director of his deeds: “Since my boyhood, a certain voice appears, and whenever it manifests, it always dissuades me from whatever I am about to do, but it never advises me.” This early interpretation of conscience acted then more as a guard against wrongdoing than as a guide toward morally upright actions, leaving individuals to discern right conduct through reason and thought.

Contemporary Ethics

Christianity later redefined conscience within a theological framework. However, in modern times, with the advent of specialized sciences, the concept of conscience has evolved. Contemporary ethics distinguishes between antecedent and consequent conscience. Antecedent conscience is what one experiences in moments of temptation – for example, finding a lost wallet and feeling the inner urge to return it rather than keep it. Consequent conscience, on the other hand, arises post-act, such as feeling remorse after telling a lie, often coupled with the fear of the truth surfacing. This experience typically involves moral shame and the innate human fear of facing the repercussions of one’s actions.
Echoing through the ages are the words of St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD), which resonate with both forms of conscience: “Conscience can be hidden from others, but not from oneself; to flee from one’s conscience is the same as fleeing from oneself – both will always catch up.”

The most common manifestation of conscience in our lives is likely through the experience of guilt, often accompanied by remorse. Situations such as breaking a promise, betraying trust, or disappointing someone highlight the voice of conscience. This sense of remorse is seen as an ethical response, indicating the presence of an internal moral compass. However, psychologists warn of a risk, especially among those deeply attuned to values and duties, of succumbing to excessive guilt. These individuals often struggle to define the limits of their responsibility, making it challenging to discern when they can reach a state of moral peace.

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Being Decent

Today, accusations of having ‘no conscience’ are often expressed in response to actions deemed unethical or contrary to the norms of ethical behavior. Yet, it is essential to recognize that conscience fundamentally represents the voice of basic, healthy decency – honest actions motivated by goodwill and altruism. Conscience seems to act as a compass, pointing us in various directions, but ultimately, it is up to us to choose the right path based on our values and free will. Decency always appears to be the right course.
In understanding what it means to be decent, we might consider the perspective of Immanuel Kant (1724‒1804), the father of German idealism. He seems to simplify the notion of decency in his writings: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” This is arguably the best moral compass for our everyday choices.

Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

A woman contemplating her choices
Audrey Badin / Pexels

Published by

Magdalena Kozak


Deals with contemporary philosophy, mainly French, in the current of existentialism, philosophy of dialogue and relations, and phenomenology. Privately, passionate about Mediterranean vibes, crime stories – preferably Scandinavian and a lover of animals and long walks. In the surrounding world, unfortunately, less and less surprised.

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