One’s personal sense of right and wrong is sometimes referred to as one’s conscience. It has also been described as a kind of moral sense, faculty, or awareness.
Having a conscience involves evaluating, from a moral perspective, the situations, persons, actions, and decisions that one faces. It also involves dispositions to act in accordance with what one judges to be right on the basis of that moral evaluation, and, finally, involves feelings such as guilt, shame, or satisfaction depending on one’s success or failure in acting rightly.
To see how each of these aspects of one’s conscience interact, consider the following example.
A trader at a hedge fund, Samantha, is told by her superior that in order for the firm to remain competitive it must adopt a new business strategy – one that aims to aggressively obtain insider information on the dealings, successes, and failures of the corporations whose stock they trade. Samantha quickly evaluates this newly proposed business model and judges it to be immoral. She knows that what her superior is describing is a practice known as insider trading, she knows that it is an unfair and immoral practice, and she knows that it is illegal.
Thus far, we have seen that Samantha has morally evaluated the situation and the decision that she faces, which is – should she or should she not participate in insider trading? If Samantha is disposed to act, and indeed chooses to act, morally, by refusing, resigning, or otherwise avoiding involvement in the insider trading scheme, we would say that Samantha has followed her conscience and has done what is right. As a result, Samantha may feel a sense of satisfaction in her moral resilience and courage.
If, however, Samantha agrees to participate in the scheme, in spite of her knowledge of its immorality, Samantha may feel some sense of guilt or shame, suggesting that she recognizes that what she is doing is wrong. This, too, would be evidence of Samantha having a conscience, even though in this instance she chooses not to follow it.
The historical writings on the concept are primarily theological, coming from Christian thinkers such as St. Jerome, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas Aquinas. In more recent times, the concept has received attention from notably non-religious thinkers, including David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.« Back to Glossary Index