Conscience – “The conscience requires God.” Discuss. (40 marks)

Colour code:

  • Blue – Main argument
  • Red – Argument against
  • Orange- Critical analysis
  • Purple – Scholars

Conscience is elusive in its definition but at the core of most descriptions there is the notion of an inner sense of right, wrong and guilt. Throughout history there has been much debate concerning the origin of the conscience with many ancient and medieval thinkers linking it to a divine presence; while many modern thinkers have shifted the discussion to one of genetics and social environment. In this essays I will be arguing against the statement, making the claim that conscience does not require God. For the debate, I’ll be referencing Thomas Aquinas, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm and Joseph Butler.

Sigmund Freud’s concept of the conscience centres around guilt which he claims stems from the Super-ego. The Freudian model of the mind presents three main faculties: the Id, the Ego and the Super-ego. Freud theorised that these faculties arrive at different stages of childhood development, with much of their workings being unconscious to the subject. The Id is present at birth and is driven by the pleasure principle, the Ego develops during the Anal stage as the mind starts to understand restrictions must be made to behaviours governed entirely by the Id, and finally, the Super-ego develops at the Phallic stage after the Oedipus complex is overcome. The Super-ego for Freud is based upon the moral commands given primarily by the child’s father but it also takes in messages from wider society, particularly on social taboos. These commands are internalised and impose themselves on the decision-making of the person; the internalised guilt is the conscience. Freud’s model clearly states that morality is purely subjective and relative to the child’s culture and their family environment. If the teachings were different, the Super-ego would develop differently. This does not leave any room for God to be present in morality. In fact Freud proposed that religion as a whole was an attempt to cling onto a father figure while in adulthood, concluding it was a neuroses that should be overcome.

Alternatively, Thomas Aquinas would argue that the conscience does require the presence of God. Aquinas signifies that we have, as God created beings, been instilled with ratio (God-given reason). It is reasoning that sets us apart from the rest of creation and allows us to pursue a higher telos; flourishing on earth before reuniting with our creator in the afterlife. When people make moral decisions, Aquinas believed there to be two main concepts that are necessary. Firstly we have synderesis; defined as moral knowledge which aims towards good and avoids evil. In Natural Law theory this is seen to be following the primary precepts which Aquinas proposes are the natural inclinations that aim towards God’s will. The moral knowledge then improves through reflection of the Divine law as well as the development of prudence. Secondly, there is conscientia; the process of deliberating what is right and then making the choice to take action. Aquinas thought that it was always right to follow the conscience because it is our best attempt of following the law of God. If one fails to follow their conscience, guilt will arise. It is clear then, that Aquinas believes consciences to be entirely inseparable from God because its purpose is to guide us towards Him.

However, there is some contention that could be raised towards Aquinas’ theory. Aquinas’ emphasis on reason as part of conscience seems to be comparable to other moral theories which do not require the Christian God as its origin. Philosophically, including God as part of the description seems to burden it with the need to qualify God’s existence. Aquinas attempts to prove the existence of God in the Summa Theologica but none of his arguments can be said to be conclusive. With this being the case, one might argue that Aquinas’ conscience would be a better model if it retained its Aristotelian roots concerning virtues and remained silent on the origins of reason.

Another argument against the statement comes from Erich Fromm. Fromm developed two different theories on the conscience, neither requiring God as its source. His first theory is known as the authoritative conscience which is best examined in a social environment such as Nazi Germany. The model suggests that people can be socialised into a submissive position in relation to the authority of the state. Furthermore, the submission causes an internalised regulation of behaviours in line with the moral imperatives given out by police or political broadcasts. The conscience becomes the command of the leaders and people will feel guilt when they go against the social norms dictated by that authority. There are parallels here to the Freudian model due to its insistence on conscience being learned through our environment. It also implies a lack of objective morality outside of culture because in theory, the Nazis established a set of rules which became the standard by which the individual conscience submitted to. This then, for the people living under Nazi rule, was right. Fromm adapted his position later in his career to a more optimistic view, stating that the human conscience could overcome the oppression of outside authority. However, whichever stance is taken, Fromm does not require God to be present in origin or activity of the conscience.

Finally, a last attempt to link God with the conscience is Joseph Butler’s intuitive conscience. Butler believed there to be two main factors driving human moral behaviours – self-love and benevolence. It is the job of the conscience to intuitively guide our actions towards the love of others, rather than ourselves when it is necessary. For Butler, intuition is a gift from God and it should always be listened to. Nevertheless, there are issues with his point of view also. Butler is trying to claim that these intuitions are natural to human-beings and that compassion and empathy are as natural to us as aggression and malevolence are according to Thomas Hobbes. Yet, while this can be said to be the case, we can see traits of empathy and love in the behaviours of other animals, most strikingly in one of our closest (evolutionary) relatives, the Bonobos. Bonobos are the only apes which do not kill and tests have also shown them to share food willingly with others. Perhaps more interesting to the debate, they demonstrate contagious yawning with strangers, a sign of empathy which we also show. Therefore, the conclusion follows- the intuitions, which Butler is wanting to attribute to God, are not found only in us but elsewhere. Therefore, the conscience might not require God at all, instead it is just a product of our evolution.

To conclude, as we learn more about human behaviour and evolution, it is getting harder to justify a need for God in our moral decision-making process. This does not mean that God can be entirely ruled out but even the models using God demonstrated in the essay can be said to be more parsimonious without Him.

Word count: 1155

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