Conscience is a concept extrapolated from the feeling I, and some people, get when contemplating a questionable action, or after having committed one.  It will either make me make a correct choice, or wish I had.  But, looking at the behavior of so many people -- carjackers to con men (and, of course, women) -- I have begun to wonder whether it's a universal possession.  For a long time religion tried to instill conscience by hope of heaven and fear of hell.  It never worked.  Humanists try by suggesting: " Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."  But that's vague, and of course it has no mechanism to guarantee success.  Is conscience something some have and some lack?  Do some people succeed in beating theirs to death?  What's your take?

Tags: conscience, guilt

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There is plenty of psychological evidence that 'conscience' exists in most people (excluding psychopaths) and is part of our evolutionarily derived social instinct set. It is however somewhat flexible, being molded to some degree by our particular social environment.

Without some such mechanism, large scale human societies could not function.

You raise an interesting point, Jay. I agree that the concept of 'conscience,' as Jerry defines it in his first sentence, does not exist in a psychopath. And, exists to a very less extent in sociopaths. Then,  there is what may loosely consider to be the norm in most people functioning within acceptable limits in organized society. On the other end, there are those who are highly altruistic, and whose behavior is admired by many. Not being a psychologist, I'm wondering if the idea of a 'conscience' is something which is quantifiable, and measurable? And, what is the criteria for measuring it?

Well consider a non human mammal with sophisticated social structure; the wolf.

They're powerful and effective predators, but within the pack their aggressive behavior is highly constrained. Cooperation and coexistence is the norm, the pack survives because the individuals restrain their behavior.

This same attribute has come down to us in dogs, who channel that cooperative spirit toward humans. Solitary animals don't have that same psychological structure, that's why you can safely sleep with your 130 lb Rottweiler at your feet but not with a 130 lb wildcat (even domestically raised).
That's a good question - hard to answer. I'm sure there's a scientific explanation for what happens in the brain to produce feelings of guilt. I would have to research this further.
Great discussion!

Darwin thought that any animal endowed with well-marked social instincts would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as its intellectual powers approximated man's.

I think that's right and therefore there is such a thing as conscience.

Surely conscience is our capacity to store away prescriptive commandments in the mind. Then if we fail to follow those prescriptions, we may feel the prick of conscience. The structure of the prescription should carry a message of a lessening of self-worth, social worth or one of more generalised failure, when the prescription is not followed.

Take murder for example. The prescription is that one must not kill another person except under special circumstances, (self-defence, necessary defence of others <eg. in a life threatening hold-up> or during war <ie. national defence>). That's not a comprehensive analysis, but the idea is we have to have a concept of what murder is.

So the consequence of having committed a murder is tagged onto the message the perpetrator has accepted as valid, and stored into their brain. Having transgressed the prescriptive imperative, one has failed in meeting one's own values, and thus has a feeling which we call conscience.

Different people have different ideas stored in their minds, which make their internalised prescriptive messages of commandment different. Adolf Hitler for example, it seems, regarded certain groups of humans as non-people, and so killing them was not a matter for conscience. Of course he must have recognised that the people of other nations, did not hold the views which he did, and knew that he would be treated as a criminal with crimes against humanity if captured. So he took suicide as a way of avoiding that.

I am not sure if animals have the capacity to think as humans do, in the way that I have described. However, social animals do understand their position in the social hierarchy, and will be submissive if 'caught out' or threatened. On the other hand, they will try to climb up the social ladder. It makes sense that the animals with any kind of mental powers approaching that of humans, and which depend on social groupings for living, may well have some capacity for a conscience.

There seem so many recent examples of people who, for many years, appeared to lead exemplary lives, but are found to have stolen huge sums of money, forced themselves sexually on children, and in other terrible ways.  Ponzi scheme perpetrators are one example.  Did they fake a conscience for years, even decades?  Or did the learn to overcome what they were being told by their "Jiminy Cricket?" 

As far as I can tell conscience is some kind of instinctive emotion. It appears to be a product of evolution, as we have a better chance of survival in a society if we have and internal mechanism forcing us to follow our own morals.

Like other emotions and instincts we can ignore or supress it to a certain extent, which explains how people can commit atrocities despite of it.

I should note that this is not my field, so I speak under correction.

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