Volume 10, 2008
Jason J. Howard
The Trouble with Our Convictions
Re-thinking the Role of Conscience
In recent decades few moral concepts have suffered as much neglect at the hands of ethicists as the notion of conscience. My paper argues that this neglect is largely in reaction to an ‘authoritarian’ conception of conscience that is outdated and based on a naïve faculty psychology. When construed in terms of a narrative of self-integration, in which conscience designates our struggle to balance the affective and cognitive dimensions of moral experience, its neglect appears unjustified. It is my contention that the phenomenon of conscience discloses the experience of moral agency in a way that is highly instructive, and that we miss a valuable window into moral behavior by ignoring it. In order to make this case I argue that the most serious criticisms of conscience—that it has no justifiable
moral criteria, clear distinguishing ‘identity,’ or motivating power—are leveled against a largely obsolete and essentialist reading of conscience. Once we see that ‘having a conscience’ refers to how people contend with the multiple moral warrants that anchor their own sense of accountability, and not some timeless moral intuition, the indispensability of the concept becomes clear.