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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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Reviewing the Aim of this Study Understanding conscience in subjectivist terms has become commonplace in modern culture. The inviolability and dignity of conscience is rightly promoted, but in a manner which is detached from its proper context. Detached from other elements that bestow and qualify its dignity, conscience is therefore seen by many as the ultimate decision-maker, one that cannot be challenged. Clearly, seeing conscience in absolute terms, as supported by emotivism, we are left in a situation where the individual conscience is defended, but the question of moral truth is left to the side, made relative by competing arbitrary opinion. This understanding of conscience is obvi- ously far from the notion presented in history, particularly in the context of Catholic moral theology. However, over the centuries, shifts in style in moral theology have occasioned a progressive emptying of the perceived content or function of conscience, to the point that it has come to be understood by many as either the locus of blind obedience or justified opposition to an imposed external law. In this way elements of a fragmented (or isolated), emotivist understanding of conscience have coloured the theological notion, either in terms of a rigorist reaction against the secular notion, or by way of an incorporation of certain aspects of the subjectivist viewpoint. It is the prevalence of this weakened, individualist notion of conscience that presented the starting point for this investigation into the nature and context of conscience. Stimulated by pastoral experience, particularly with individuals and their...

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