“There is a principle of reflection in men by which they distinguish between approval and disapproval of their actions… this principle in man is conscience”. Here Joseph Butler asserts in his sermons that conscience is man’s intrinsic and overriding judge of morality and thus it is a distinguishing feature within the natural hierarchy. As a pluralist, deontologist Butler upheld that conscience is a universal demand that has ‘de jure’ authority over the passions, which is similar to some extent with Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul, in that conscience has natural authority over the appetites and requires an internal denial of egoism.

For Butler the conscience is God-given guide and therefore authoritative and automatic as it ‘magically exerts itself… without being consulted”, identifying the path we should follow. As a result of our instinctive recognition, there is an obligation to act this way. Despite Butler’s intuitionist approach, he rejects that conscience is substantiated a priori and instead emphasises reflection and experiences which creates problems for its universal moral application. Such a holistic approach allows too much autonomy to the individuals. Also, such a subjective approach to morality creates the threat of antinomianism, with the serious implication that society has to ensure our conscience is fully informed and developed.

Additionally Lutheran theologists such as Karl Barth would reject that individuals should have any autonomy in judging their actions. As all human reason was corrupted at the Fall, humanity is reliant on revelation and the church for guidance. All too often this thesis would be rejected in a post-enlightenment era, however it cannot be denied, even by the atheist, that often humanity lacks the phronesis and insight required to make the right moral decisions.

St Thomas Aquinas, despite his rationalistic approach, had parallels with Butler as he also had theological speciesist foundations and gave considerable weight to the duty of individuals to follow their own consciences. Aquinas argued that humans alone are created imago dei (in the image of God) and have the quality of recta ratio (right reason) to be deontologically applied through synderesis, to distinguish between right and wrong. Furthermore, these distinctions are to be pragmatised within the conscientia.

Thus Aquinas upheld a dualist interpretation of conscience and considered that it “was the mind of man making moral judgements”. Aquinas believed conscience to be a sense of morality having derived from God, therefore to dismiss it, is intrinsically wrong; “to dismiss the dictate of reason is just the same as dismissing the command of God”.

The Catholic magisterium continues to uphold this view today, Vatican II attested to the inviolability of conscience in Dignitatis Humanea, “all are bound to follow their conscience faithfully in every sphere of activity so that they may come to God”. Pope John Paul II commended Thomas Moore as a role model, who never compromised his conscience even when faced with the ultimate sacrifice of death. However, giving full force to conscience can be problematic morally as it cannot guarantee that we are doing the right thing. Indeed, history has shown that what was felt to be right at one time has been regretted in hindsight!

However, Aquinas looked to overcome this by pointing out that following one’s conscience doesn’t ensure a person is doing the right thing but rather that that person is morally blameless. This confirms a major weakness in adopting conscience as the foundation for ethical decision making. Ultimately therefore there is an overwhelming need that society must educate itself so its conscience is well informed, as the contemporary scholar, Ronald Preston recognizes “we have a duty to educate our conscience. If we make mistakes because we have not troubled to put out consciences to the school of Christ we are blameworthy”.

Saliently the universal nature of conscience indicates it is already an important aspect of moral decision making and a constitutive part of being human. It is an essential part of three major religions such as Islam and also upheld by athiests, humanists and agnostics alike, thus Kant’s proposition that morality does not come from God and that conscience is rational, is to be accepted. Significantly, society still plays an important role in aiding personal development and helping the individual to discover the conscience within; in the words of the modern scholar, Vincent MacNamara “it is not so much that I have a conscience -a special piece of equipment-as that I am a conscience… that is the basic truth”.