Historical and Existential Perspectives
Chapter One Setting the Scene: Fragmentation
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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