Conscience: An Essay in Moral Psychology

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Conscience – An Essay in Moral
Psychology*
WILLIAM LYONS
Abstract
The ultimate aim of this essay is to suggest that conscience is a very important part of human psychology and of our moral point of view, not something that can be dismissed as merely ‘a part of Christian theology’. The essay begins with discussions of what might be regarded as the two most influential functional models of conscience, the classical Christian account of conscience and the Freudian account of conscience. Then, using some insights from these models, and from some comparatively recent work in psychology and especially psychiatry, the author argues for a quite different model of conscience that might be called the personal integrity account of conscience.

1. Introduction
While conscience still has an undiminished role in theology, I think that one could say, reasonably accurately, that discussion of the concept of conscience in philosophy has become rather rare. The concept certainly plays little or no part in contemporary AngloAmerica discussions of ethics. The only reference given in the brief entry on ‘conscience’ in Ted Honderich’s Oxford Companion to Philosophy is to an article commissioned for the Paul Edwards Encyclopedia of Philosophy published forty years ago, and the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy could only come up with an entry on ‘Medieval Theories of Conscience’. Though developmental psychology is something of a growth industry, and while it involves some interest in moral development, the concept of conscience rarely if ever plays any part in its analyses or research. If nowadays the word ‘conscience’ appears in the index of a psychology textbook in English, a very infrequent occurrence, it will be followed by a page reference to that section of the textbook that gives a cursory and rather dismissive treatment of Freud and psychoanalysis.1 * An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a paper at a symposium in honour of Terence Penelhum at the University of Calgary, Canada, in 2006. 1

See, for example, John W. Santrock’s Adolescence (Boston, McGraw Hill, 8th.ed. 2001) where the subject index itself ‘gives the game away’ doi:10.1017/S0031819109990076

Philosophy 84 2009

& The Royal Institute of Philosophy, 2009

477

William Lyons
In this essay, my overall aim is to suggest that conscience is a very real and very important part of human psychology and of our moral point of view, not something that can be dismissed as merely ‘a part of Christian theology’. I will begin on this project by extracting from the historical discussions of conscience, what might be regarded as the two most influential functional models of conscience – that is to say, models that set out what conscience is and how it operates. I call the first of these models, the classical Christian account of conscience. The second I call the Freudian account of conscience. Then, using some insights from these models, and from some comparatively recent work in psychology and especially psychiatry, I shall endeavour to construct a quite different model which might be called the personal integrity account of conscience.

2. The classical Christian account of conscience
It has sometimes been said that Christianity, particularly in its Protestant forms, is above all the religion of conscience. But it would be wrong to conclude from this claim that the concept of conscience began with Christianity or is limited in its religious use to Christianity. There is, for instance, something very like a protoconcept of conscience in the Old Testament. In the Book of Samuel, we read that, when David was aware that he had committed some moral wrong, ‘his heart smote him’, where the word translated into English as ‘heart’ is the Hebrew word lev [transliterated often as ‘leb’] which can also mean, more generally, the viscera.2 And in one of the psalms (Psalm 16.7), we read that ‘the kidneys chastise a man’ when he does wrong. Here the Hebrew word is...
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