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Conscience in Context

Historical and Existential Perspectives

Stuart P. Chalmers

In this book, the author presents a detailed study of the notion of conscience from the perspective of its historical development and existential environment. The purpose of the study is to highlight conscience’s dignity and fallibility, as well as its dependence upon the context of virtue and grace, in order to develop as our capacity to perceive the truth in moral action. Starting from the premise that current moral theory is suffering from fragmentation, the author proposes that this fragmented outlook has affected the common understanding of conscience and is therefore in need of renewal, chiefly in terms of the reintegration of conscience with its proper setting. In order to explore this theory, he investigates how conscience has been understood over the centuries, particularly in the New Testament and during the Scholastic period, and analyses a number of important issues concerning its nature and function.

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Chapter One Setting the Scene: Fragmentation

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The term “conscience” holds many connotations: from the momentous decisions of Saint Thomas More and Martin Luther,1 to even the cartoon character Jiminy Cricket sitting on one’s shoulder, counselling the right course of action. Yet, the variety of circumstances in which conscience is mentioned is itself an indication that appeals to conscience are made for all sorts of reasons. It may be an expression of serious deliberation or used simply as a means of excusing oneself from having to follow a more demand- ing, unselfish path. Indeed, after many centuries of using the notion, we have reached a point in history, and also more particularly in the history of moral theology, where the term conscience is suf fering from such contradic- tory or unclear usage that the concept has lost much of its moral impact. Popular usage of the concept only resembles a fraction of its rich and com- plex history, as its misuse is fuelled by conf licting definitions drawn from the fields of philosophy, theology and psychology. As a result, some would hold that conscience is an intellectual faculty closely related to the process of moral reasoning. Others would consider it to be an af fective faculty, or the unpleasant emotional response to wrong action, whose role is to curb or modify such behaviour. Another school would reduce it to a connatural disposition to carry out what is thought to be right. Others would identify it with the voice of God, whispering in the depths of our...

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