“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”
Monday, 24 August 2020
Today, and for the rest of this week, I am reflecting on the moral concept of conscience. It is at the heart of all forms of ethics, religious or secular. It embraces what one might call human moral sense, is a state of mind (in a broad sense), and is a spur to action.
All forms of ethics ask the question: what is the right thing to do. This is true whether we make moral judgments according to sets of moral principles, values and virtues, or based on real or imagined consequences of actions. Indeed it is even true if our ethics are rooted in adherence to laws, doctrines or sociocultural norms. All of these approaches, including legalistic ones, should be subject to two questions. First, are these claims true? Second, so what do I do about it?
Conscience is that deep inner sense of right and wrong that drives us to act in accordance with our deepest held beliefs. Sometimes understood as an ‘inner voice’ (which religious people may call God and all people the sense of the Good). It is that feeling – often unsettling and disturbing – that calls us to engage in situations where good must be done and evil avoided. It can occur when we are choosing between two apparent good things, to seek the better. Other times it occurs when we are confronted by something that seems wrong and needs to be made right. This can even happen when we are faced by moral ‘laws’ that we may sense are either wrong or inadequate to a situation.
Though the language of conscience is often found in religious communities, it is by no means the preserve of religious people. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us that conscience is found even outside – this ‘law’ of conscience is “written on their hearts”. It speaks to each of us, no matter our beliefs and worldviews.