Conscience as a Source of Ethical Guidance

Last Updated: June 2023 (Conscience as a Source of Ethical Guidance)

Conscience as a Source of Ethical Guidance

This article deals with ‘Ethical Issues in International Relations and Funding.’ This is part of our series on ‘Ethics’. For more articles, you can click here.

What is Conscience?

Conscience as a Source of Ethical Guidance
  • Conscience is the intrinsic intuitive capacity to discriminate between right and wrong. 
  • The common metaphors for conscience include the “voice within“.  
  • In contrast to the law, which is an external source of ethical guidance, conscience is the internal source of ethical guidance. Conscience comes into play when the mind passes a judgement on the rightness and wrongness of a particular act.
  • Conscience is also essential as a tool of ethical conduct where the law is silent or where a person has to exercise their discretion, whether in public or private life. Additionally, when laws become outdated and require renewal, conscience helps recognize the need to initiate the process and progress toward the most suitable form. In other words, conscience comes into play when compliance and cognitive ethics fail.
  • It supplements the role of law and rules in providing for ethical governance. In the absence of conscience, one may adhere to the letter of the law but may violate its spirit with impunity. 

Limitations of Conscience

  • Conscience is not necessarily a product of a rational deduction but is something that can be influenced by the indoctrination of one’s parentage, social class, religion or culture. Hence, it is subjective and not objective.
  • Conscience often promotes social dogmas. E.g. somebody’s conscience may not allow him to allow Dalits to eat in his shop if his family values are like that. 
  • It leads to multiplicity and inconsistency. Unlike the law that is consistent and equally applied to all in similar conditions, every person’s conscience can give him a different answer when faced with the same situation.

When should we go with our Conscience?

To avoid the above limitations, Conscience can be divided into different types

True Conscience Which is in line with rational morality
False Conscience Which isn’t in line with rational morality 

We should go with our conscience only when we know it is ‘True Conscience’. Although it is advisable that whenever you hear an “inner voice”, you must hear it. But because of inherent deficiencies, you must not blindly follow that inner voice. Think about it and evaluate it rationally. If the answer is yes, you must follow your conscience and act according to that. 

Crisis of Conscience

  • When conscience fails to guide an individual in any specific situation due to a particular experience, it can be called a Crisis of Conscience. Individuals lose the ability to determine right and wrong.
  • It happens in a situation which is ambiguous in terms of the values involved and their consequences. As a result, an individual cannot resolve an ethical dilemma using his moral sense.
  • For instance, an IPS officer is given the duty to regulate the peaceful protest by farmers against corporations. Things were under control, and nobody indulged in violence. But, suddenly, the officer is asked to resort to strict measures, including firing at the protestors. The officer in such a situation can face a crisis of conscience as the situation is ambiguous.