“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” ― Martin Luther King Jr
“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.” ― H.L. Mencken
There is a higher court than the Court of Justice which is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts” – Mahatma Gandhi
Thomas Aquinas, a medieval philosopher, felt that human conscience sprang from synderesis or the "spark of conscience." He meant the power of the human intellect to interpret the universe in moral terms. Conscience was the mechanism through which we put the concepts of synderesis into action via our judgments.
It is the cognitive ability that allows us to recognize and react to the moral nature of our acts. It aches if we are doing something we feel is wrong. Pangs of conscience are the indicators of guilt. Conscience is the greatest authority, evaluating facts to assess the quality of an action, whether good or bad, fair or unfair. One who behaves with clean conscience benefits from inner peace.
Joseph Butler (1692-1752), combined insights from sentimentalism and rationalism and stressed the link between these intellectual concepts and more popular and religious views of morality. Butler defined conscience as a natural disposition to approve or disapprove of our motivations and acts based on reason and to act accordingly. But conscience is more than just a part of our nature: it asserts a specific authority over other principles that are inherent to us, which it holds even when it lacks the strength to carry out its dictates. Butler maintained that to comprehend the difference between power and authority, we must first view human nature as a constitution, in both the political and biological sense, with a hierarchy of principles, some of which have the right to dominate others. We act against our natural constitution to gratify a destructive passion, we violate our Conscience and that creates discomfort.
Philosopher Michael Walzer believes there are situations where you must “get your hands dirty” – even if the price is your sense of goodness. In response, Aristotle might have said, “no person wishes to possess the world if they must first become someone else”. That is, we can’t change who we are or what we believe in for any price.
A well-formed conscience (moulded by education and experience) and well-informed conscience (conscious of facts, evidence, and so on) help us to know ourselves and our world and act appropriately. This perspective on conscience is significant because it tells us that ethics is not intrinsic. We develop our moral faculty by constantly attempting to comprehend our circumstances.
Crisis of Conscience
A crisis of conscience is a circumstance in which someone is anxious or unhappy because they believe they have done something wrong or unethical. It is the incapacity to act on what one believes to be correct. It might be because of external obligations to act in certain ways. They may be established customary morals, laws, regulations, religion etc. Whatever they are, the point is that there is a gap between internal and exterior calling, this gap may fail to defend a call of conscience. For eg-A policeman might be asked by his superior to carry out a lathi charge on protesters, but in his eyes, there’s no point in lathi charging as the protest is largely peaceful and believes there is a fair cause behind it, his conscience doesn’t allow him to lathi charge on innocent people – it’s a crisis of conscience. There’s a dilemma to carry out orders or act following one's conscience.