Issues and Reflections:

1. Towards a Broader Image of Ethics
2. On Conscience
1. Towards a Broader Image of Ethics
 Need and Importance

Most people will acknowledge it’s necessary and important to have ethics, both for their own good and for the good of society. And in recent years in particular we have become aware of the harm which wrongdoing, malpractice and lack of consideration for others can cause. The international financial crisis in 2008, for example,  led to widespread hardship in Ireland and elsewhere, and it was caused in part by bank policies which pursued profit through excessive risk-taking with little regard for wider economic and social consequences.  And we are aware, too,  that some people harm others by posting hurtful comments about them in social media. Also, along with the many particular ethical challenges that face us personally in our lives, there is greater awareness now that our response to major economic and social issues, such as economic inequality and climate change, is essentially ethical. Yet ethics doesn’t quite have a public image to match its public importance. It’s perhaps still associated to an extent with a perception which sees it as limited to a private matter of personal behaviour rather than, more broadly, a subject we can engage with to appreciate the ideas it offers in support of personal and social good.

Actions Speak Louder….

One perception is that ethics is not something we  need to talk about particularly. Instead, we should try to behave in an ethical way as best we can. Actions speak louder than words. But we also need to talk  about ethics if we are to develop understanding of what is good and what is not, especially now when there is uncertainty along with divergent views on many issues. Reflection and discussion will help promote greater awareness of the kind of life and society which have value.  And such discussion can influence social change for the better.

Unrelated to the ‘Real World’

Ethics has been seen as a ‘soft’ humanities subject,  ‘soft’ in the sense that it is all very well and good but that it doesn’t engage enough with the ‘real world’ of people’s needs and behaviour as they struggle to get by in a competitive world.  By contrast, a subject like economics is seen as ‘a hard’ humanities subject from the practical consequences which economic realities and polices have on people’s lives. But since the financial crisis of 2008 we are now more clearly aware of how ignoring or departing from ethical standards has serious adverse practical consequences. At the time of the crisis many commentators and politicians pointed to the underlying source of the crisis in a lack of ethical understanding and practice. For example, Nicholas Sarkozy, the French Prime Minister at the time, said:

“The financial crisis is not the crisis of capitalism. It is the crisis of a system that has distanced itself from the most fundamental values of capitalism, which betrayed the spirit of capitalism… the present crisis must incite us to re-found capitalism on the basis of ethics and work”… “injecting morality into the financial system was now a priority.” (Source: ‘Sarkozy calls for capitalism with dose of morality’, Lara Marlowe, Irish Times, 26 September 2008).

Just as discussion about economics influences the kind of economic polices society has, discussion about values can have influence in shaping the kind of society we have. As a subject, ethics is radical, radical meaning something that goes to the root of things.  As far back as the late 19th century, Nietzsche threw down a challenge in claiming that ethical sensibility is a manifestation of a will to power, to have power in particular over others. In saying this, he clearly recognised its radical nature. And opposing views (and there are a number in philosophy) will need to come from similar radical thinking if they are to hold good.

Also, ethics is certainly about trying to be good, but not in a cosy, smug, self-satisfied way. Living up to values and principles is not easy.  And it helps to consider the basis they have in rational thought, and to relate the basis to the practices which give them effect. And for ethics in practice, Nelson Mandela’s life of struggle for justice of all people in South Africa is a strong example of how challenging ethics can be.  Challenging also is the work of frontline aid workers and human rights defenders who help alleviate terrible suffering while coping with extremely demanding material and emotional conditions.


We might also want to avoid speaking about ethics in case we seem to give the impression we know best what is good for others, which could make us presumptuous, hardly a good quality to have.  If we are dogmatic or over-assertive and deaf to other viewpoints, then of course we will come across as presumptuous. But from its philosophical roots, open dialogue is characteristic of ethics.


In fear of sounding pretentious, we might also want to shy away from talking about the big questions of the values by which we and others should live, and of the arrangements which should be made for all of us in society . These are the great philosophical (and practical) question of ethics. But to address in our own way the questions is not to be pretentious, but eminently practical. Over two thousand years ago Socrates was among the first to promote ethical discussion and he did this by talking with anyone who cared to talk to him in the market-place in Athens. And his view that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ has lived on ever since. As is often said, we have only one life; it’s not a dress rehearsal; and so to think about the way we want to live it in accordance with what we consider of most value is of great practical importance.


Also, there’s an image of ethics which associates it with prohibitions and restrictions. Ethics is seen as telling us what we shouldn’t do in ways that keep us down, in particular by telling us we shouldn’t take pleasure in life or try to fulfil our own desires. And while we can understand there have to be restrictions on our behaviour, in our own best interests and in the interests of others, we like to think of ourselves as free and not tied down by obligations. But there is no reason inherent in ethical understanding why ethics should have to be associated with being tied down by unnecessary restriction. Aristotle, for example, linked the ethics of developing character qualities with enjoying a pleasurable life of satisfying desires, along with having an increased capacity to cope and realise our potential. And Kant linked his ethics of behaving rationally in complying with rules, such as to tell the truth and be respectful, with becoming freer in ourselves by avoiding living a contradictory life in our relations with others, and also by avoiding being adversely influenced by our inclinations and desires which are not always reliable guides.

Imposed Authority

There is also an image which associates ethics with other people – parents, teachers, and people in religious organisations and public bodies – imposing moral authority over us, authority we may feel they haven’t discussed with us or which they haven’t earned. And we might associate such authority with trying to make us feel guilty and ashamed when we have transgressed their requirements on how we should behave. But this perception, while a feature in Ireland in the past, is much less a feature today. There is a realisation now that you can’t force someone to be good; it has to come from ourselves through wanting to regulate our behaviour in certain ways. There is little merit in behaving in a good way against our will, or grudgingly. It is also recognised that to impose morality is not itself a morally good thing to do; it is to fail to respect the inherent freedom and dignity of each individual to think for him and her self. At the same time there is a need learn about values and attendant value practices, and to explore the meaning and implications they have for us personally and for society through reflective questioning, consideration and discussion.

Moral Weakness

Awareness of our moral weakness may also make us feel uncomfortable in talking about ethics, as if somehow we are not good enough. But there is no reason why it should. This is because moral frailty is well recognised as part of the human condition. Feelings, desires, temptations can get the better of us. Society throws a lot of opportunities and pressures our way for behaving in ways contrary to the values we have. And self-honesty is a hard quality to have. We seem to have a blind spot for ourselves, at least some of the time and to some extent. For Nietzsche honesty is the youngest of virtues, one we are still grappling with to bring fully into view. Rather than face the truth about ourselves, we may sometimes find it easier to pretend that something unpalatable doesn’t exist. And we know it’s possible for people to lead double lives. This is where a person’s public persona, in which for example they might project impressions of being honest and trustworthy, contrasts markedly with how they behave behind the scenes. The recognition that a capacity for bad exists in ordinary people was recently portrayed in the TV drama ‘Breaking Bad’. A family man, a chemistry teacher, diagnosed with life threatening cancer, succumbs to manufacturing illegal drugs to earn money to provide for his family after his death and thereby unleashes a chain of catastrophic events which spiral out of control.

Being Judgmental

We may be wary of talking about ethics in case it will make us appear judgmental. We don’t want to be seen as critical of other people’s lack of standards or failures in case it reveals us as lacking in understanding and empathy. Also, we know how the tables may be turned on us when people find us at fault, and understandably don’t want to stand on the high moral ground. Judgemental words can come back to haunt us when we find we have done the very thing we have criticised others for doing.

Also, moralizing  is not an attractive quality. However, there is a distinction between ethics and moralising. As novelist and critic John Berger put it, ‘Ethics determine choices and actions and suggest difficult priorities. They have nothing to do, however, with judging the actions of others. Such judgments are the prerogative of (often self-proclaimed moralists). In ethics there is humility; moralists are usually righteous’.

We can have understanding of moral weakness from recognising that it is part of being human. Christian ethics contains the arresting saying about letting he who is without sin cast the first stone. It also contains the weighted words: ‘Judge not and you will not be judged.’ At the same time, it is a good thing to speak out against wrongdoing, in particular to condemn appalling crimes such as human trafficking, torture, slavery and genocide to  help end them.


People now are asked to be accountable for their actions when there is need. This is more acceptable than simply giving moral condemnation and criticism. It puts the onus on them to explain what they have done or omitted to do, and it avoids a rush to judgement that makes plain, or infers, that they are at fault for having done something wrong. As Montaigne wrote, ‘When I want to judge another man I ask him to what extent he is himself satisfied; how far he is happy with what he has said or written.’ In the first instance, the call for accountability shows a need to be accountable to ourselves for what we do. Also, people suspected of criminal wrongdoing are made accountable to society through the procedures of the justice system. And, as part of the justification of punishment, offenders can be helped to become more accountable to themselves by having genuine remorse for their actions, a firm resolve not to offend again, and getting support to address underlying causes which may have contributed to them committing the offence.

Changed Image

The perception of ethics has developed. It is referred to now a lot more in public discussion and debate on a range of issues, whereas in the past it was more likely to be seen as limited to matters of personal behaviour.  More often now an ethical frame is put around issues previously thought of as solely social,  economic or environmental. It has come more clearly into view as lying at the roots of what we need to think and talk about to influence the development of a decent society and world based on fundamental human values.

6 May 2014


Traditional sources for ethical authority have less influence today than they once had. People differ more now in their views, and there is more uncertainty about right and wrong. Yet conscience continues to stand out as both a personal and universal source of guidance. But what is it? And what is the source of its guidance?


Conscience is associated with a sense of right and wrong we are born with, which is innate in us.  And it is felt as an immediate guide for how we should behave. We can feel it when we are troubled by a difficult moral decision. We might say, ‘I want to do this, but my conscience won’t let me.’ Or, when we are sure we have done the right thing, we might say ‘my conscience is clear about it’. We also experience conscience as an ultimate guide; one we feel we can trust.

It seems to come from deep within us as a kind of ‘voice’. The idea of conscience as a ‘voice’ or a ‘call’ is deeply embedded in culture and still with us as a working metaphor. We still use the verbs ‘tell’ and ‘prompt’ for the way conscience relates to us, as when we say ‘my conscience tells me I can’t do that’, or ‘my conscience prompted me to do it’. We can also feel conscience as a compelling voice. People feel they should always heed it, even when they come under strong pressure to change their mind. And they can be prepared to make big sacrifices to stay faithful to their conscience, for example, when they are imprisoned for their views by repressive regimes in non-democratic countries. This is one of the reasons why we usually respect people when they are sincere in following their conscience, even when we disagree with their decision.

The guidance conscience gives is often inconvenient to our immediate interests and desires. And while we can ignore our conscience if we want to, and avoid developing a relationship with it, nevertheless it has real power to influence our actions for the good, for it holds us to account. It can make us feel guilty when we act against it, or disturb us with unacknowledged or buried guilt. And there is often a need to examine conscience to see if we are following its guidance. But it’s not always clear what our conscience is telling us to do, especially when faced with a dilemma. We speak of ‘wrestling’ with our conscience. And the power of conscience shows in how it can provoke different reactions in us as we grapple with it. Montaigne wrote: ‘So marvellous is the power of conscience! It makes us betray, accuse, and fight ourselves, and, in the absence of an outside witness, it brings us forward against ourselves’.

Some Historical Sources

The philosophical literature on conscience goes back to the classical world of Greece in fifth century BC, in Plato’s account of Socrates’ daimon. Socrates felt he had a guiding spirit or daimon which acted as an intermediary between him and the gods. He regarded his guiding spirit as ‘a divine sign’ and ‘a voice.’ It helped him to live a life according to virtue, in particular by warning him against doing certain things. By claiming he was in touch with personal ethical guide, Socrates got into trouble with the Athenian authorities. They put him on trial on charges of introducing new gods (his guiding spirit) and of failing to pay proper homage to the Greek gods of the time. They also charged him with corrupting the youth of Athens. This was from his practice of challenging young people to think philosophically about the meaning of ideas such as truth and justice. Socrates stood up for his views in court, and, rather than escape into exile, he faced a death sentence by poisoning from drinking hemlock. By his action he set a powerful example for the value people place on being guided by their conscience, an example which still resonates today. Plato didn’t use the word ‘conscience’ in writing about Socrates’ guiding spirit. But over the following centuries writers linked the understanding of conscience with it, notably Plutarch (AD 50 – c.12), Apuleius (AD 125 – 180) and, in the fifth century, Olympiodorus. Apuleius described conscience as ‘our guardian’ and ‘our keeper’ and in vivid detail describes how it watches over us, though we would no longer see it, as he saw it, as some kind of personal spiritual being that speaks through us. But there are two features of Socrates’ guiding spirit which we still associate with conscience. First, its guidance is something we receive or intuit personally for ourselves. Second, it is based on knowledge of how we should behave for our good. For, Socrates believed intuitive attention to the voice of his guiding spirit wasn’t sufficient. He also had to obtain knowledge about the right way to behave. He had to use his reason to know, for example, what justice means in order to be able to act in a just way. And from this comes the idea that a good conscience is an informed conscience. This, then, begs the question of the knowledge source for informing conscience.


The idea that nature provides the bedrock for guiding conscience has proved influential. It’s an idea goes back to ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy. Nature is given to us. We live in the natural world of seasons, day and night, and growth and decay. There is an order or pattern to how nature works.  Accordingly, human beings should behave in ordered ways which are natural for human beings. These ways can be worked out from observing how people naturally behave and forming laws which prescribe and prohibit certain activities, related, for example, to conjugal relations, ownership of property and trade.  Cicero (Circa 106-43 B.C) maintained that nature is the fundamental source of law which should govern both human behaviour and the laws of the state. He regarded nature as a ‘universal, unchangeable and eternal’. And he believed we are linked to behaving in accordance with nature through our conscience. He said nature ‘needs no other expositor and interpreter than our conscience.’

In the 13th century, Aquinas also made central the idea that an informed conscience is a conscience based on nature. Aquinas argued that God exists and that he created the natural world and human nature. And human nature lies essentially in our capacity to reason, as well as to experience various needs and desires. He described the power of conscience as ‘a sort of dictate of reason – an application of knowledge to action. Awareness of the knowledge originates with ‘the spark of conscience’ (synderesis). This is the natural disposition of the human mind to apprehend the basic principles of behaviour immediately and directly, without having to work them out. For example, there’s an immediate recognition that we should do good and avoid bad. This (very general) principle is then applied to the human experience of an action or activity to see if it can be considered good or bad. And, in applying principle to the activity, prudence is needed as a guiding virtue to discern the activity’s specific nature.  For example, it’s natural and good to want to live, and so, in accordance with Aquinas’s view,  from the prudent examination of the practice of assisted suicide, it is against reason (and conscience) to help a terminally ill person to end their own life even though they have requested help. This, then, gives rise to secondary principles which contain more specific content for how we people should behave, e.g. that the life of a terminally ill people should be preserved and they should be cared for in the best possible way.

Overall, for Aquinas, the knowledge that informs conscience comes from nature and human reason as ordained ultimately by God. His account proved very influential because it formed part of the Catholic Church’s moral understanding and teaching. At the same time, the understanding of a source for conscience is not confined to religion.


Moral psychologist Eric Fromm (1900-1980) also took the view that conscience should be informed, but not by some idea of a pre-given natural order to the world. He believed it should be informed by the sense of individual freedom which he regarded as essential to being a person. He called it ‘humanistic conscience’. And the knowledge content of humanistic conscience can only come from ‘those principles which we have discovered ourselves as well as those we have learned from others and found to be true’.

Inevitably, our views will accord to a greater or lesser extent with the moral beliefs of some section of society, whether liberal or conservative, or the beliefs of a particular religion, or humanist philosophy. But the challenge is to retain an open and critically reflective mind to try to ensure we make our own judgements about what we find is in accordance with our conscience. Humanistic conscience accords with maintaining a sense of personal freedom and rationality, even though we subscribe to certain beliefs. It includes, in particular, resisting being taken in by sources of power which seek to keep us dependent on them for their ends, such as their monetary gain. And it includes supporting measures to enhance personal freedom, psychologically, economically and socially in solidarity with everyone else in society. He called it humanistic conscience to distinguish it from authoritarian conscience. Authoritarian conscience is formed when a person unquestioningly or unconsciously accepts and internalizes the commands of an external authority as his own and obeys the authority uncritically.

For Fromm, it can be a psychological challenge to resist the pull towards authoritarian conscience. This is because living with our freedom can make us feel uncertain and insecure, whereas we can find some assurance and security by following uncritically the moral requirements of an external authority. Going along with an authoritarian conscience can also provide a ready sense of belonging because a person becomes a member of a group, and members think and behave in a similar way as required by the authority. So, developing a humanistic conscience requires that we develop security in our own ‘positive freedom’. Fromm also recognised that it is difficult for us to know our own conscience. It requires self-knowledge, in particular to identify hidden or unconscious reasons which may be acting to restrict our sense of freedom, such as insecurity economically or psychologically in childhood which may have developed a strong need for some security at the expense of remaining open and free.

He also recognised that we can find it hard to hear the voice of conscience beneath the stream of attractions and pressures which society presents us with and which are not always in our interest or for our good. Living up to conscience requires self-honesty and will power. At the same time, he believed that the voice of conscience will tend to remain, even though we ignore it it. It can show through a feeling of vague unease. And such feelings are likely to become more evident as we face up to getting older and dying.

He believed, too, in humankind as the highest power, and that the primary call of conscience is to uphold individual dignity by safeguarding and developing freedom and rationality through economic and social structures which support it.  At the same time, he recognised that humanistic conscience is open to religious belief and understanding. He recognised that the desire for union with a power believed to be God is ‘by no means irrational’ because rational understanding is limited. Rational understanding is unable to account adequately for ‘the secret of man and of the universe’.

Moral Instinct

Some philosophers claim that we are born with a moral instinct, which is pre-rational. Irish-Scots philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), for example, claimed we have an internal moral sense just as we have five external senses of sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell. This internal sense immediately and directly alerts us to regard certain behaviour and practices as either right or wrong. The internal sense responds favourably to kind actions and intentions and it recoils from those that cause harm. For Hutcheson this is how we are of our nature. We have been endowed with an internal moral sense by God who is the ‘Author of nature.’ And our internal moral sense is ‘a passive power’ in that its information is impressed upon us, which is similar to how we experience our conscience. The idea that we are possessed of a moral instinct has been given support in recent years by research in neuroscience into how the brain works. The research indicates that favourable and averse responses we have to certain behaviour and practices have already been triggered in the brain before we become aware that we find them good or bad. Before we become conscious of what is good or bad the brain has emitted positive emotional signals when we witness or hear about practices like cooperation and fairness; and it has emitted negative signals when we witness or hear about practices like injustice and cruelty. Moreover, people often have strong attachments to their viewpoints on particular issues and speak passionately about them. And neurobiology could also explain this feeling of moral force. This is because neurobiology would understand the force as coming originally from an instinct born and bred in the human brain through its evolutionary history as a means of identifying with behaviour and conditions conducive to our survival and recoiling from behaviours and conditions which threaten it.

Culture/Human Nature

We can be deeply influenced by the cultural moral beliefs we are taught to follow as part of our upbringing, and a cultural determinist view holds that conscience is merely the voice of cultural beliefs. So, for example, a person brought up a Buddhist or a Christian and who continues to live accordingly, will have a conscience based on Buddhist or Christian ethics.  A cultural source would include, as well as beliefs internalised in childhood, beliefs we later acquire from our experience and thinking, but these beliefs too, cultural determinists would argue, are based on what is available to us from our experience of cultural meaning and understanding.  Our conscience may, for example, be based on different cultural beliefs, arising partly from upbringing in a religious faith and partly from non-religious or secular liberal beliefs which we acquire from reflecting on moral and social issues. On this view based on culture, the knowledge source for conscience varies, rather than coming from one primary source, such as nature, or personal freedom or neurobiology. At the same time, there still seems to be a core of conscience that is universal. It draws from what it means to be a human person and coexists with cultural influences, without being reducible to them. For example, regardless of cultural beliefs, in general people’s conscience is disturbed and offended by the suffering of others where it can be prevented or avoided, such as when they are victims of famine. And it is the universality of conscience which both gave rise to, and is embodied,  in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Writing about human rights, Seamus Heaney made the point that their origins, and the origins of ‘words like conscience and dignity strain against the limits of legal definition and political categorisation’ and lie deep in a ‘metaphysical’ dimension to what it means to be a human person. He has written of its roots in a communal understanding of what is acceptable and what is not.  There is for him ‘the role of poet as conscience, one who wakens us to a possible etymology of that word as our capacity to know the same thing together.’

One way of looking on the culture/human nature dimensions is to see that cultures present people with differ rent forms of the good life, which are characterised by value beliefs and value practices. At the same time, there is a universal requirement to see each person having what Parekh calls ‘a distinct self-consciousness with an inescapable inner life’, as well as ‘a need and desire for wellbeing’. The phrase ‘a distinct self-consciousness with an inescapable inner life’ could well describe the essence of our humanity to which conscience speaks. And the fact that each person has a need and desire for wellbeing, which is closely allied to his or her distinct self-consciousness and inescapable inner life, tells us in general terms what conscience speaks to us about in the guidance it gives.


25 October 2014  


Apuleius (MDCCCL123) ‘The God of Socrates’ in Metamorphoses or Golden Ass and Other Works, Bohn’s Classical Library. See extract and footnote from The Metamorphosis or, Golden Ass and Philosophical Works of Apuleius, available online from Google Books (Accessed 21/08/2014)

Aquinas, T. (1993) Selected Philosophical Writings, Selected and Translated by Timothy McDermott, Oxford University Press. P. 368

Cicero, Marcus Tullius, The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Vol.1 (Treatise on the Commonwealth, Book 111, Trans. Francis Barham, The Online Library of Liberty (assessed 28/08/2014). See also Marcus Tullius Cicero, Ethical Writings 1 (On Moral Duties), esp. Book 1, Trans. Andrew. P. Peabody, The Online Library of Liberty.

Fromm, E. (1982) Man for Himself: An Enquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. London Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Fromm, E. (1994) Escape from Freedom, An Owl Book, Henry Holt and Company, New York.

Haldane, J. (2004) ‘Medieval and Renaissance Ethics’ in A Companion to Ethics, Ed. Singer, Blackwell)

Heaney, S (2008) ‘Human Rights, Poetic Redress’, Irish Times 15 March 2008

Heaney, S (1989) ‘Lowell’s Command’  in  The  Government  of  the  Tongue, faber  and faber

Langton, D (2011) ‘Medieval Theories of Conscience’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (available online accessed 04/11/2014

Montaigne, M. de (2003) ‘Of Conscience’ in The Complete Works, Everyman’s Library p. 320

Parekh, B. (2000) Rethinking Multiculturalism, Cultural Diversity and Political Theory, Palgrave Macmillan.

Plato (1961) The Last Days of Socrates (Euthyphro, The Apology, Crito and Phaedo)  trans. Hugh Tredennnick, The Penguin Classics Plutarch (1993) ‘Socrates’ Daimonion’ in Plutarch Selected Essays and Dialogues, World Classics, Oxford University Press

Strohm, Paul (2011) Conscience: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press.