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Chapter XII: Conscience and Ethics

It is not usual to number conscience among the social institutions. The term has been, and still is, widely used to designate the mind whenever it addresses itself to moral matters. In a still more restricted, but equally familiar, sense ‘conscience’ is taken to designate a distinct cognitive capacity; a “moral sense,” that is, a form of sensibility specifically attuned to moral qualities, as is the ear to sound; or a faculty competent to deliver itself of intelligible moral judgments or intuitions.

Moral intuitionism has already been examined.1 It has been generally discredited owing to the discovery that moral intuitions, despite their subjective sense of certainty, vary from one society to another, and are often flatly contradictory. This evidence of relativity has been reinforced during the last century by the explanation of the alleged moral intuitions in terms of the social conditions of time and place. Conscience has not lost its oracular quality, but its oracular claims are no longer accepted.

When subjected to criticism, conscience assumes the character of a cultural product, composed of attitudes of approval and disapproval, together with their correlative codes, creeds, and ideals. Even when so conceived it may be denied a place in the list of institutions on the ground that it has no special functionaries such as rulers, judges, employers, scientists, artists, teachers, and priests. Conscience is everybody's business. But under the names of ‘custom’ and ‘public opinion’ it has long been recognized as a form of social control. It satisfies the criteria of a major cultural institution. It has a specialized function and instrumentality of its own. It is universal — arising out of conditions which prevail in all social groups in all periods of human history. It consists of organized relationships, by which persons play reciprocal roles. It is durable, in that its interrelated attitudes or systematic characteristics are perpetuated by tradition through successive generation of particular members.

While conscience is customary, it is not coextensive with custom. Dialects, manners, dress, and countless other idiosyncrasies characteristic of a social group, are customs, and are imposed on its members by the same sanction that is employed by conscience. But they fall outside the institution of conscience as here conceived because they are accidental, conventional, or arbitrary. Conscience, on the other hand, is distinguished from custom by its moral content, by the fact that it expresses itself in moral judgments employing the moral predicates of good, right, and duty. It serves the moral purpose of social harmony. It submits itself to moral criticism. As is the case with other institutions its purpose is revealed in its self-justification: by the fact that when called upon to defend or reform itself it takes moral ground.


If conscience is to be considered as a cultural institution, then there is a science of conscience, which is related to this institution as political science is related to polity, jurisprudence to law, economics to economy, and the other cultural sciences to their corresponding forms of social organization. All things considered, the best name for this science of conscience is ‘ethics,’ despite the fact that this word has not been invariably so used.

The very ambiguity of the term ‘ethics’ is instructive. If there is an appeal from conscience to its underlying moral principles, and if there is a similar appeal from polity, law, and economy, then it is necessary to recognize a branch of knowledge which shall discuss the moral principles common to those moral institutions, which may be called ‘moral philosophy’ or ‘the science of morality.’ But this basic and common subject of morality may be approached from any one of its institutional embodiments, and may be named accordingly. It may be, and was in antiquity, called ‘politics.’ It might with equal justification be called ‘jurisprudence,’ or ‘economics.’ The ideal polity or republic, the ideal system of law, and even the ideal economy, will at their limit of ideality become indistinguishable from the moral ideal.

The peculiar priority of ethics among the moral social sciences is due to the fact that conscience is ordinarily the channel by which moral judgments are applied to polity, law, and economy. Owing to the fact that conscience is less elaborately organized than these sister institutions, and is less preoccupied with instrumentalities, it represents morality more directly — so directly, in fact, that it is often confused with morality.

The common moral basis of conscience, polity, law, and economy was recognized until modern times, when emphasis on the explanatory method, together with the general tendency to scientific division of labor, led to their separation. But as physics, once the only natural science, later one of many, is again the recognized mother of the brood, so moral science, often disguised under other names is resuming a similar role in another family. Whichever member of the family — whether ethics, politics, jurisprudence, or economics — is taken as its representative, its fundamental analysis will reveal the moral principles common to all — the principles, namely, of reflective agreement and harmonious happiness.

The subject matter of ethics, then, is conscience, taken as a cultural fact, having its own peculiar instrumentalities by which it serves the purpose of morality. It is to this fact that ethics looks for the verification of its judgments. It is quite true that conscience is so intermingled with other parts of human life that it is difficult to disentangle it. There is no such event as a pure state of conscience. But it is meaningless even to ask of any state whether it is or is not “conscience” until in the early stage of inquiry a decision has been made as to what the term shall mean. This decision is arbitrary, but only in the sense of a selection of subject matter and choice of words. If it be objected that too much is here claimed for conscience, it must be remembered that it is conscience as here defined for which the claim is made.


Expressed loosely, conscience is a widespread collective approval or disapproval expressed through individual persons. The definition of conscience consists in tightening this statement, beginning with the meanings of the words ‘approval’ and ‘disapproval.’ Approval is an attitude of favor, and disapproval is an attitude of disfavor, but this is not all. To approve is not the same thing as to like, desire, or love; disapproval is not the same thing as disliking, avoiding, or hating. It means something to say, “I like it, but I don't approve of it.”

The difference begins with the restriction of approval and disapproval to personal objects (total persons, groups of persons, acts, or dispositions of persons). But the personal object is further restricted by a qualifying attribute: it is approved or disapproved, on social grounds; that is, it is favored or disfavored as morally qualified. Thus, for example, when the aggression of the North Koreans was disapproved, this means that it was the object of a negative interest because of its supposed injury to the South Koreans, or to the generality of mankind who desire peace. In other words, approval and disapproval embrace a factor of independent benevolence or disinterestedness.

It is for this reason that Westermarck's definition of approval and disapproval as “retributive emotions” is not satisfactory.2 Righteous indignation is not simple anger, nor is it a resentment of injury done to the indignant person, but a resentment of injury done to some third person, or to a group of persons which, while it may include the indignant person, must look beyond to other persons. Insofar as the condemnation of North Koreans by Americans expressed concern for American interests alone, it would be a natural and common attitude but it would not be disapproval. But conscience is a socialized attitude not only in its object but in the attitude itself. One who approves considers himself, and is considered by others, as representing an agreement. He demands the confirmation of others, and the outward expression of a personal attitude is given the weight of a collective attitude.

The structure of conscience may be briefly summarized in terms of an agent, a patient, a client, and an associate. The agent is the person in whom the attitude of approval or disapproval is enacted; the patient is the person to whom the attitude is addressed; the client is the person or persons in whose behalf the attitude is taken; the associate is the person or persons who share the attitude. Each person plays all four of these interchangeable roles. He is approver and approved; client and intercessor; principal and associate.

Through his conscience a person not only approves others, and is approved by others, participates in the approval of others, and suffers if with others, but, as part of the approving group to which he belongs, imposes its collective approval on himself. He enjoys an “easy conscience” or he suffers remorse. When a person is thus himself a channel by which the social conscience is applied to himself, he is a party to it. He joins the ranks of his friends or his enemies; like the man within a stronghold who takes the side of the besiegers, the social conscience bores from within. This analysis recognizes no separation of the social and the personal conscience. There is no conscience that is not both. An attitude which is only personal, plays a highly important role in the disruption or alteration of conscience, but until it has won a widespread agreement it is at most a conscience in the making.

Conscience taken as a sanction, that is, as a mode of social control, is distinguished by the fact that the attitude of favor or disfavor is unexecuted. It is a sign, and not a fulfillment — a hint, intimation, threat or promise, conveyed by a word, or gesture. “A word to the wise is sufficient.” The attitude of conscience may be conveyed by the subtlest facial expression, by the jaundiced eye, by intent watchfulness, by ironical laughter, by sly insinuations.

The degree of the force of conscience is increased rather than diminished by its lack of explicitness. The manifestly directed blow is less dangerous than the blow which may fall one knows not where; the specified injury is less menacing than the general attitude of hostility, whose applications are variable. Similarly, friendship is better than any particular kindness, and a hostile god, whose all-pervasive disfavor may manifest itself anywhere at any time is more to be feared than a god who will send you to hell if you break one of his specific commandments. The letter can be appeased, circumvented or endured; the former leaves no avenue of hope. By the same token, if God thinks well of you, is your friend, is on your side, who or what can prevail against you? This intimation of diffused friendliness or enmity is so powerful a force as to suffice for long periods of time, and for the majority of mankind, to control conduct in the total absence of overt rewards and penalties.

The pressures of conscience are proportional to the resistances which it has to overcome. Because there is an inertia of selfishness, conscience bestows a premium on unselfishness and self-sacrifice. Because certain appetites are strong, their excesses are severely reprobated. So conscience tends to be associated in men's minds with the enjoyment of public applause or with the pangs and shames of remorse. But these extremes of emphasis (reflecting the ratio of moral demand and supply) do not measure the moral value of conscience. If it so happened that men, whether by nature or by education, were so happily attuned to the collective approvals and disapprovals as to require no penalties and bribes, but only guidance, they would be ruled by conscience none the less.


Ethics, construed as the cultural science which takes conscience as its subject matter, employs the explanatory, normative, and technological methods. Under the present scientific division of labor the explanatory account of conscience is widely distributed, being largely entrusted to anthropology, psychology, sociology, and history. There is a structural aspect of conscience which deserves special emphasis, because it is usually slighted. When there is approving, there is something approved; and when there is something approved, there is an approving of it. There is, in other words, an objective and a subjective aspect of approval, and this duality is of its essence. Whereas anthropologists and sociologists are disposed by their scientific habits to ignore the subjective aspect of conscience, so psychologists are sometimes disposed to ignore its objective aspect.

Furthermore, the distinction between approving and being approved must not be allowed to obliterate the distinction between the persons approved, and that for which they are approved, in other words, their qualifying attribute. If the latter is to be termed the object or objective of approval, then it is necessary to introduce another term such as ‘patient’ to provide for the impact felt by him to whom the approving is addressed. The difference is analogous to that between the crime and the criminal.

The term ‘mores,’ as commonly employed, observes these distinctions. Customs are objects of approval, and except insofar as approved they do not deserve to be considered as manifestations of conscience. But they are commonly abstracted, and treated as though they were independent entities. This procedure arises from the fact that the object of approval is more easily identified, being recorded in words or monuments, or observable in gross behavior. Thus anthropology is largely preoccupied with primitive societies, and since there is an almost complete ignorance of the psychology of primitive men, anthropologists describe what is sanctioned and are able to throw little or no light on those states of mind which gives the sanction its force. But the total situation, in the case, for example, of exogamy, involves the act of approval, the family relationship approved, and the person approved for conformity to the relationship. Similarly, incest or any other taboo is not merely what is prohibited, but also the act of prohibiting and the deterrent effect of its prohibitive pressure.

Taking any given historical conscience as a uniformity of approval it will reflect underlying natural uniformities, such as climate, habitat, food supply, health, and inherited ethnic traits. Acquired uniformities are also to be explained psychologically. There is sufficient evidence to warrant the broad statement that there are in all human beings certain dispositions to conformity. These dispositions are based on man's peculiar sensitiveness to the presence of his fellows. There is a discriminating alertness not only to the presence of a fellow man, but to his whole range of attitudes. ‘Gregariousness’ is the name given to the fact that human in individuals, like members of a herd of animals, tend to take refuge in a group. They shrink from being conspicuous. There is in all men, and in some to a higher degree than in others, also a tendency to suggestibility and submissiveness; they tend to believe what they are told and to do what they are commanded. And, as in the case of communicable diseases, the force of these impulses is proportional to their spread, and thus increases in geometric ratio.

But conscience is, as has been seen, a promise and a threat. It operates, therefore, through exciting hope and fear. The range of fear and hope is extended far and wide by association or the conditioned reflex. And here again the force of the stimulus is proportional to its volume. The hope or fear excited by the approval or disapproval of many is stronger than that excited by the similar attitude of a few.

When one inverts the relationship, and considers what it is that prompts men to act approvingly or disapprovingly, it is evident that many of the same principles apply. One approves because other people approve, or from hope of benefit, or from gratitude, and disapproves because others disapprove, or from fear of injury, or in retaliation. The tendency to censoriousness owes something to the love of power, rooted, perhaps, in a more elemental impulse of self-assertion. Even approval, when it takes on a patronizing tone, may flatter the ego of the approver, as indicating the other's deference to his opinion. The disinterestedness of conscience, on the other hand, arises from sympathy or fellow-feeling for the client.

The importance of “prestige” is evident. The sources of prestige are manifold, but once an individual or a group achieves a position of superiority for any reason whatever their approval is especially coveted, and their disapproval especially feared; their attitudes are supercharged, as though they represented the group as a whole. And those who enjoy prestige themselves feel a peculiar disposition to express their approvals and disapprovals. They find it natural to cast themselves in the role of wise men, moral leaders, makers of opinion or elder statesmen.3

Of all the causes of conscience, however, the most important is the sense of solidarity, that is, the belief that when one offends, all will suffer. This may take the form of a religious belief that the guilt of one will bring down the wrath of God on all; or it may reflect the more or less instinctive recognition of interdependence. Hence to the question, “Am I my brother's keeper?” the answer is “Yes.” Together we stand, together we fall. The benefits which each individual derives from collective action are threatened by the deviationist, and he becomes the common enemy. It is this which makes the group particularly approving or disapproving in time of crisis. For examples one does not have to look beyond the censoriousness of Americans towards Communism, or towards anything which is associated with Communism; and the corresponding applause of orthodox Americanism.

The conditions which give rise to conscience are cultural as well as natural; and its cultural conditions are both internal and external, that is, they may consist of conscience itself, or of other forms of culture. Conscience itself, once it is created, has effects upon other conscience. Thus to explain the origin of an American conscience it would be necessary to refer to the Puritan conscience. But each institution has effects upon other institutions, and a genetic explanation of the American conscience would take account of democratic political institutions, the Common Law, and the capitalistic economy, as well as of the characteristics of American science, art, education, and religion.

Closely related to this genetic question of origins is the evolutionary question of change. That a social conscience should come to pass, and that it should be perpetuated, are less difficult to explain than that the cake of conscience once it is baked should crumble. To explain the dissolution of conscience reference must be made to commerce, war, and other intercourse with alien groups; and to the independent development of other institutions within the group. Two causes deserve special mention. In advanced societies, perhaps, for all we know, in all societies, there is a certain free play of individual thought and imagination despite the reign of custom. From this source there springs that independent moral insight which distinguishes the “great” founder or reformer.4 A second important cause of changes is the “revolutionary” force, the protest and revolt which arises when repression is felt as oppression, and when the resistance has gathered sufficient force. There are revolutions of conscience as well as political and economic revolutions.

The subject matter of conscience lends itself to the comparative, as well as to the morphological, genetic, and evolutionary methods, with an unavoidable overlapping similar to that which attends these methods in biology. A survey of human history and of the human groups which coexist upon the earth reveals notable diversities of conscience. In the comparison of different types of conscience attention may be focused on its object, as when one says that lying was approved by the ancient Spartans whereas it is disapproved by modern Christian nations. But it is equally possible to distinguish consciences subjectively. It is probable that the approving of lying in a military state such as Sparta differed profoundly from the countenancing given to mendacious advertising in a modern industrial society.


In passing from the explanatory to the normative method in ethics it is to be noted that the critique of conscience also operates as a cause. Thus a dietary taboo may be explained by habit, but it may also be explained by the judgment that it is hygienic and therefore good. The disapproval of incest may be explained by the fear of God, but it may also be explained by the judgment that it produces weak offspring. And once such judgments are admitted as causes, it is impossible to exclude the evidence on which they are founded or by which they are proved. A cause among others by which taboos or codes are brought into existence is their “apparent utility,” and appearance of utility already embraces some evidence of utility. Once this is granted, further evidence, positive or negative, enters by the same door, and conscience is thus conditioned by its own criticism. It makes claims and its claims are more or less supported, and its continued existence, its modification, and its disappearance, are effected by the renewal or withdrawal of that support.

The normative science of ethics may be either instrumental or final, internal or external.

Judged internally, that is, by its own peculiar instrumentality, conscience may be deemed strong or weak, as when it is said of a person that he is “highly conscientious,” or, at the other extreme, that he has no conscience at all. Similarly, one may speak of a group as having a powerful collective sentiment and opinion which acts as an effective coercive force upon its individual members; or as having little or no conscience, as when one says of the totality of mankind that their world conscience is as yet unhappily feeble and intermittent, as compared with their several nationalisms. Similarly, one speaks of the presence or absence of a “code” which binds the members of a group engaged in specific collective activity, and recognizes that it may be present in greater or less degree. Thus the British are supposed to have a strong code of sportsmanship, as compared with other nations; the medical profession has its code, imposed by the approval of its members, whereas the profession of business is said to lack such a code; or the military class, which once had a strict code of “honor,” is said, under modern conditions of warfare, to have lost it.

It is required of a conscience that it shall be not only strong but sound. Its critique embraces a pathology of conscience; or an examination of the several ways in which it may break down and cease to function, through disorganization.

In order that a conscience shall be sound or vigorous several factors must be present in balanced proportions. Thus a conscience may be deficient in its act of approving and disapproving through lack of forcefulness in its personal channels. The social group may lack “leadership”; or its titular leaders may be lacking in that so-called “force of personality” which is compounded of articulateness, aggressiveness, decisiveness, attractiveness, oddity, or latent power. Where this lack occurs there is a corresponding lack of respect on the part of those to whom the approving or disapproving is addressed. But, on the other hand, the voice of conscience may be excessively arrogant, and breed sycophancy in the party of the second part. A tyrannical conscience “makes cowards of us all.”

Or, the source of the unbalance may lie in the passive member of the relationship, who may be either constitutionally resistant and unassimilable, in which case the authority of the other party is weakened; or he may suffer from an “inferiority complex.” A too passive acceptance of the moral code, as was pointed out by the Sophists of old, exposes the more naive to the exploitation of unscrupulous tyrants who do not feel bound by the code themselves. It is this excess of submissiveness which is the burden of Nietzsche's charge against morality. In relation to his self-approval a man may be conscience-ridden, or overconscientious; or he may expend too much time and attention in perpetual self-examination. He may engage in a sort of self-flagellation, in a masochistic indulgence in tortures of remorse.

A sound conscience will address itself both to others and to self.

When the emphasis on reproving others is excessive a person renders himself vulnerable to the tu quoque argument; he is accused of intrusiveness and censoriousness, and it is suggested that he look to his own conduct. If through reticence or humility he utters no judgment on others, he fails to play his part in the creation of the collective sanction. If the emphasis on self-judgment is excessive, he becomes an “introvert.” If he is excessively approving of himself, he is called “self-righteous”; and this self-approbation is likely to be imputed to him if, through preoccupation with judging others, he fails to judge himself. When his disapproval of others is coupled with self-approval, he is considered a hypocrite, on the ground that no person can really be as blameless as he takes himself to be.

Conscience may fail to be in balance through a too great reluctance to agree. There is an excess of individual independence which may take the form of “negativism,” that is, a pride in being different. On the other hand, there is an excessive readiness to agree, a lack of “sales resistance,” which is not agreement at all, but merely a reflex of conformity or chain reaction, like the process of crystallization in a liquid medium.

And, finally, conscience requires a balance of self-interest and disinterestedness. A person who has no independent benevolence, that is, no concern for the fulfillment of the interests of others for their own sake, is incapable of conscience. He may use its language and tone of voice but his approval and disapproval are no more than instruments by which he hopes to persuade others to serve his own interests. An absorption in his own interests is likely to weaken his interest in the interests of others. There may, however, be the opposite form of excess. The use of the term ‘altruism’ is unfortunate. The client of conscience, in whose behalf a person approves or disapproves, includes himself as well as others. The omission of this self-reference in conscience has no recognized name unless it be ‘folly’ or ‘fatuousness.’ Excessive unselfishness is a rare disease which society is under no great necessity of preventing. Nevertheless, the question “Where do I come in?” is a legitimate and sometimes a timely question.

The diagnosis of conscience can be approached from another angle with similar results. All of the parts of conscience, its active assertion, its passive acceptance, its application to self and to others, its benevolence and disinterestedness, call into play certain deep-seated human propensities; and these may pervert conscience as well as nourish and sustain it. The indignation in righteous indignation is a form of anger, and the anger once kindled may consume the righteousness. The line between strong disapproval and anger is sometimes a fine line, but judged by the standard of conscience it is a frontier. A mass demonstration of mere anger, regardless of the innocence or culpability of the victim, is not a manifestation of conscience, though it may sometimes feel so and call itself by that name. Similarly, fear plays an important role at the opposite side of the relationship, and fear may run away with any state of mind, individual or collective, of which it is a part. But yielding to approval or disapproval merely from timidity or panic, is not conscience. In short, conscience intimidates, but it is not the same thing as intimidation.

Approval and disapproval constitute forms of power, and may be fed by ambition. Those who play important roles in setting the patterns of approval and disapproval are likely to be prompted in some degree by self-assertion, and are likely to profit by their ascendancy. Here again human nature, admitted as an ally of conscience, may usurp its role. The Puritans, who were experts on conscience, were well aware that the Devil may enter by this door.

Disgust and repugnance may enter into the act of disapproval, and they may invigorate it; but in themselves they cannot constitute it, and must not be confused with it. A disgust for tobacco not infrequently expresses itself in the judgment that smoking is wrong. This emotional compulsion of conscience appears in what is sometimes described as “appetitive inversion.” When sex is frustrated it may take the form of a strong repugnance, and this in turn may take the form of excessive disapproval. What sounds and feels like a declaration of conscience may then be nothing more than a form of psychic nausea. Prudery is a perverted and corrupted form of conscience.

Finally, a sick conscience may be a divided conscience. This is a vast topic ranging all the way from schizophrenia to the normal problems of divided allegiance. The reference here is not to the conflict between conscience and the appetites and desires which conscience in some degree represses; or to the external conflict between different communities, each with its own conscience. By conflict of conscience is here meant that internal conflict which arises from the fact that a person belongs to several communities of opinion and sentiment, in each of which he plays all the different roles which conscience implies. In this sense race-conflict is not a conflict between the white's conscience and his greed or sadism, or a conflict between whites and blacks. It consists in the fact that whites are at one and the same time members of a special caste and members of a community with a traditional Christian code. The conflict of conscience is the conflict, within the breast of the white person, of the requirements of these two consciences.

The most persistent and widespread conflict of conscience is that which arises from the coexistence within the same society of the two communities of church and state. Each has its own conscience, and they create a tension within the personalities of their common members. The conflict between the Catholic's religious conscience and his secular conscience is a widespread and momentous phenomenon in the modern world. The “conscientious objector” illustrates the same type of conflict.5


There is a final, as well as an instrumental, critique of conscience. The second means that the conscience is or is not in good working order and capable of exercising its specific function; the first means that it satisfies or does not satisfy the requirements of that moral good, which is its ultimate purpose. It is true that this line cannot be sharply drawn; nevertheless the distinction serves to clarify and amplify the normative method in the science of ethics.

Without this distinction it is impossible to describe the fact that an institution can stumble over its own feet. Its instrumentalities may through their specialization, their internal complexity, and their inertia, become vested interests, and stand in the way of the very purpose of which they are the instruments. The institution may, in short, defeat itself. This is illustrated by situations in which a society which has achieved a high morale is nevertheless morally objectionable. Let us assume that at the outbreak of the Second World War the Nazi Party had succeeded in imbuing the German people with a strong social conscience, so that all Germans shared the same approvals and disapprovals, applied these to themselves, and through a sense of solidarity were concerned for one another. And let us suppose, on the other hand, that the social conscience of France was comparatively feeble; in other words, that its morale was “low.” 6 Despite the superiority of the Nazi conscience on instrumentalist grounds, the conscience of Germany is not thereby exonerated. It may still be condemned not only externally, on the grounds of the injury to its victim, but internally on the ground of its own ulterior purpose, namely, by the moral purpose which it is the function of conscience to serve.

The final normative critique of conscience is not a judgment of conscience by conscience; it is a judgment of conscience by the principles of morality; or by the critic's conscience only insofar as this has itself been already examined and certified by these principles. It is only by the common moral standard that it is possible to judge finally between one conscience and another.

The difference between criticism by conscience and criticism by morality is exemplified by the present necessity of creating a conscience that shall support other international institutions, also in the making, and designed to promote general peace and welfare. Such a conscience of mankind would not be justified because it was approved by the existing consciences of narrower scope; on the contrary, these may be condemned because they are disapproved by a higher, that is, more inclusive, conscience which has yet to be created. Both the positive judgment that a world conscience would be good, and the judgment that existing consciences are defective, appeal for their evidence, not to any existing conscience, but to the moral purpose.

The question is clarified by the analogy of scientific doctrine. Anybody of scientific opinion can be judged by any other body of scientific opinion, as being in agreement or in disagreement. Thus the Ptolemaic astronomy can be criticized in terms of the Copernican or the Copernican by the Ptolemaic, or both by the opinion of naïve common sense. But when one judges between these astronomies the appeal is not from opinion to opinion, but from opinion to true and certified knowledge.


The moral critique of conscience is divisible into two parts: a critique by the canons of rationality, and a critique by the canons of reform. A conscience may be said to be rational insofar as it is “true” to its moral purpose; ‘true’ being taken to mean both fidelity and also enlightenment. It cannot be too strongly affirmed that the fidelity of conscience here means fidelity to its own purpose. It does not mean fidelity to the purposes of science, art, education, or religion. Conscience can be criticized by such extra-moral standards; such external criticism has meaning and is of common occurrence. But conscience owes no allegiance to these external purposes; it cannot on such grounds be convicted out of its own mouth, that is, on the terms which it offers for its self-justification.

It may be said to be the role of the moralist to remind conscience of its moral purpose. It brings the moral purpose of conscience into focus, making men more consciously aware of it, and more methodical in their pursuit of it. Reflection broods upon the utterances of the existing conscience, and interrogates its exponents; seeking to clarify the meaning of the terms which it employs, and to systematize its judgments under some conception of the moral good.

The most famous instance of this procedure is to be found in the Socratic dialogues of Plato. The critic and his interlocutors start with the existing social conscience; for which it is assumed that any man may speak, whether he be an illustrious Sophist, or an unsophisticated Athenian youth. But while Socrates, thanks to his place in history and to the literary art of Plato, is considered as the founder and prototype of the critique of conscience, the same procedure appears throughout the ages in every highly developed culture. The conscience of the Hebraic-Christian world, thanks to the prophets old and new, moved from the ancient tribal mores to the Ten Commandments, and from the Ten Commandments to the “Two Great Commandments,” and from those to the supreme good of universal love. Modern criticism moved from the several duties of feudalism to a supreme duty to society as a whole, conceived in terms of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” or the total national interest, or the welfare of mankind.

The rationalization of conscience is said to be a sign of social weakness, as demonstrated by the appearance of Socrates on the eve of the collapse of Greece. There is no doubt that the critical attitude taken in itself does reflect a lack of uniform and certain conviction, and that this, if carried beyond a certain point, may diminish a society's cohesiveness and power to survive in a struggle for existence. But it is quite possible, indeed usual, for this self-criticism to serve as a leaven, directly engaging only a small portion of society, or others only in their occasional “lucid intervals.” In any case it is the price which has to be paid for moral progress, and affords the only escape from the tyranny which develops whenever the instrument loses sight of its end.

The term ‘tyranny’ is derived from the political context where it is most notorious. Governing officials, in whom the function of political control is vested, seek control for its own sake, or for the sake of the ruler's private good, or for that of his friends. But there is a like tendency to tyranny in all institutions; there are domestic, legal, and plutocratic tyrannies; scientific, artistic, educational, and religious bureaucracies. Among all the tyrannies which man creates and from which he suffers, there is none more abusive than the tyranny of conscience. This tyranny may be embodied in certain persons who assume the role of the keepers of the social conscience; each man harbors a potential tyrant within his own personal conscience.

The canon of enlightenment as applied to conscience does not mean any enlightenment, but moral enlightenment. Assuming a conscience which is faithful to its moral purpose it may fail to serve that purpose through fallacious judgments of what will fulfill that purpose. The “folk-ways” of primitive societies provide abundant illustrations of the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Judgments based on a single instance which happens to be striking and memorable are thereafter hardened by habit and tradition and become impenetrable to evidence. The following examples are provided by Sumner:

In Molembo a pestilence broke out soon after a Portuguese had died there. After that the natives took all possible measures not to allow any white man to die in their country. On the Nicobar islands some natives who had just begun to make pottery died. The art was given up and never again attempted…. Soon after the Yakuts saw a camel for the first time small-pox broke out amongst them. They thought the camel to be the agent of the disease. A woman amongst the same people contracted an endogamous marriage. She soon afterwards became blind. This was thought to be on account of the violation of ancient customs.7

The importance of these examples lies in the fact that they differ only in degree from what is of daily occurrence in societies which pride themselves on their enlightenment. Post hoc propter hoc is still perhaps the commonest form of so-called reasoning and Cyprian's dictum that “custom is often only the ambiguity of error” is still applicable — despite the development and vogue of science, and sometimes, indeed, within science itself. The social thought of everyday life, even in the twentieth century, abounds in areas which are impenetrable to light — slogans and clichés which divert social action from its true end. Perhaps for mankind the more decisive struggle is not that between morality and immorality, or between mores and mores, but between mores and morality: between the established approvals and disapprovals of the group, and its rational pursuit of the moral good of harmonious happiness.


The moral ideal is the organization of interests for their greatest possible benefit, and embracing as many interests as possible. It is this maximum and optimum fulfillment of the moral purpose which inspires reform, and provides its justification. The reformer says “This is good, but it might be better.” In the name of liberality it condemns repression, and in the name of universality it condemns exclusiveness.

Moral organization requires the limitation of the interests organized, and conscience tends to freeze the limits, even when they are excessively narrow. The so-called “social Gestalt,” that is, the existing system of attitudes, and the scale of values into which successive generations of individuals are initiated, imposes restrictions on individual freedom which exceed the requirements of social order. The moral purpose requires that the conscience of the group shall be perpetually liberalized, lest it shall give interests less than their due. Its inertia evokes a legitimate protest in behalf of interests that seek more room within the moral household.

This protest, whether from the aggrieved parties or from disinterested reformers who take the aggrieved parties as their clients, is the moral core of that “social revolution” which is more conspicuous in its political, legal, and economic manifestations. In this struggle the resistance of the existing conscience, which is satisfied with the benefits of the status quo, and neglects its costs, is known as “conservatism” or “reaction.” Liberalism, or progressivism, on the other hand, insists that no social organization is acceptable so long as there is a possible reorganization which would provide for interests more abundantly.

The moral ideal implies universality — it implies, in other words, that all interactive, and therefore potentially conflicting, interests shall be brought in. Morality “begins at home” — that is, it spreads from narrower to wider circles. The psychological factors which create conscience — gregariousness, sympathy, fear, suggestibility, prestige — all operate more strongly within the narrower circle, and stand in the way of its extension. As a local or class conscience creates a barrier to a wider social conscience, so this wider social conscience in turn creates a barrier to a still wider conscience embracing two or more societies. In augmenting the solidarity of a single society, conscience may arm it against another, and thus aggravate that very conflict of human interests which it is the purpose of morality to resolve. Hence the conscience of a nation, which is an essential part, if not the core, of its nationalism, may be attacked on moral grounds; or in the name of those universal moral principles which apply to all human relations, international as well as national.

When conscience becomes identified in men's minds with its abuses, they forget its uses. It would generally be granted in a cool hour that men cannot live without government, law, and economy; but when these institutions become symbols of conservatism and reaction men may propose not to correct them, but to abolish them altogether. Similarly, the complaint against the evils of harshly repressive conscientiousness tends to assume the form of an attack upon conscience in general. But it is as unthinkable that men should live harmoniously and happily together without the force of collective and personal approval, as that they should live without government, law, and economy.

The moral critique of conscience, the normative judgments passed upon its approvals and its disapprovals, will attempt to remove the abuse while preserving the use. It will recognize that while conscience tends to be misguided and ignorant, illiberal and narrow, and cannot, therefore, be accepted as it stands, it is morally the most fundamental of all institutions. It is the institution on which society must place its chief reliance for bringing the sister-institutions of polity, law, and economy into line with the purpose of harmonious happiness.


Since there is need of conscience there is a demand for the methods and arts by which it can be created. Hence there is a technology of ethics, as there is of every other institution. The discussion of the explanatory and normative judgments which are applicable to conscience has already trespassed on the domain of technology — not by inadvertence, but by necessity. For, as has already been pointed out, all explanatory judgments yield matter for technology, and all normative judgments can by a mere change of direction be converted into technological judgments.

Conscience as a system of approving and disapproving attitudes, in which sentiment and opinion are conjoined, can be implanted. To him who is engaged in this task recipes can be supplied by the various sciences, natural and cultural, which deal with man, and no science of man is wholly irrelevant. Insofar as such recipes are made to order, and fitted to their specific uses, they constitute ethical technology. What is known about past or existing conscience can be employed in the making of new conscience. In the implanting, strengthening, or modification of conscience use can be made of biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Use can be made of other cultural sciences, such as linguistics, politics, jurisprudence, the sciences of education and religion, the science of art, and the science of science; provided only that their products are selected and adapted to the use in question.

Conscience being a form of control the technique of its implanting is sought whenever and wherever this control is desired, and for whatever purpose it is desired, whether personal or social, selfish, or moral. Thus businessmen in a capitalistic system are interested in implanting or conserving the code of free enterprise, that is, a social approval of thrift, labor, sobriety, and emulation. Ambitious rulers or military leaders in their desire for power seek to implant a code of loyalty. Priests, in their desire to glorify the church, may seek to promote a cult of supernatural to the neglect of natural and worldly, values. Parents or teachers may seek to inculcate a cult of obedience as a means of promoting their own ascendancy. These and all similar functionaries who desire to create approvals and disapprovals that accord with their designs, create a market for the “know-how” of conscience.

Technology of conscience can be put to a great variety of uses, bad as well as good, low as well as high, but it must not be supposed to have any predilection for the bad and the low. There is a technology of a morally good, as well as of a morally bad conscience. The implications of this for propaganda and education, all along the line, are evident. If the conscience implanted is to satisfy the requirements of morality, the moral end itself must be implanted. The lover of peace and human welfare must learn how to cultivate these ideals, and to create a conscience in which they will be so strongly approved, and their opposites so strongly disapproved, by the aggregate of society, as to lay the ground for the more palpable moral institutions of polity, law, and economy.

  • 1.

    Cf. above, Ch. VIII, § 3.

  • 2.

    E. A. Westermarck, Origin and Development of Moral Ideas, 1912, Vol. I, p. 21

  • 3.

    It has been pointed out that in a certain tribe of American Indians the susceptibility to cataleptic seizures has been taken as a mark of distinction by which certain women have become “the pathway to authority over one's fellows … the most respected social type … which function with most honour and reward in the community.” (R. Benedict, Patterns of Culture, 1934, p. 267; qu. by E. C. Tolman, in Science, 101 (1945) p. 161.)

  • 4.

    This is the second of Bergson's “deux sources de religion et de la morale.“

  • 5.

    A study of American conscientious objectors at the time of the First World War revealed the fact that 90% based their opposition to the civil requirements of military service on sectarian religious grounds. Cf. “Testing the Conscience of the Conscientious Objector,” Literary Digest, April 5, 1919.

  • 6.

    It is interesting to note that Count Keyserling, writing in 1929, found Germany notably lacking in tenue (meaning possessed of a unifying code of honor) as commpared with other European nations with the exception of Russia. Had he been writing today he might have found in both Nazism and Communism attempts to overcome this weakness. Cf. his Recovery of Truth, 1929, pp. 517 ff.

  • 7.

    W. G. Sumner, Folkways, Ginn and Company, 1907, pp. 24–25.

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