Is conscience a reliable guide for ethics? (part 1 of 3)

As a seven-year-old, Dr David Whitten recalls his family holidaying at Katoomba’s Hydro Majestic Hotel. When the waitress served his breakfast of fried eggs, he noticed “something next to the eggs that looked like thin, crisp meat and was the source of a wonderful aroma.”

“We don’t eat bacon,” his father said, and the waitress took it back. But young Whitten faced a moral dilemma: under one of his fried eggs lay a small, crisp chunk of bacon his father had not seen.

“The voice in my right ear told me to inform dad,” he recalls. “The voice in my left ear told me how wonderful it might taste.”

Whitten was wrestling with his conscience. He considered the downside (the prospect of punishment) and the upside (the promise of a desirable taste sensation). He quickly whipped the bacon into his mouth and chewed. He was not disappointed.[1]

What is conscience?

We speak of a “good” or “guilty” conscience, acting on conscience, the “Baptist conscience,”[2] freedom of conscience, a parliamentary “conscience vote.” We fear those who appear to have no conscience.

Neuroscience claims that conscience is a human brain function facilitating reciprocal altruism, its capacity genetically determined but its subject matter probably learned in ways similar to language acquisition.

Most of us, like Dr Whitten, are familiar with the inner “voice” of conscience, indicating feelings of guilt or regret when we have done what we consider wrong, or feelings of pleasure when we do what we believe is right.

The Bible, classical culture and conscience

For thousands of years, people have sought to explain the phenomenon of conscience. In classical Greek thought, the idea of conscience was linked to notions of self-knowledge, especially critical review of one’s past. The Pythagoreans viewed conscience as a “watchman” who guided the individual to live according to nature and shape moral progress.

In classical Arabic culture, the closest concept to the Western idea of conscience is al-jazir, “the restrainer,” defined as “God’s preacher in the heart of the believer, the light cast therein which summons him to the truth.”[3]

The Romans tended to identify conscience with public opinion or social consensus rather than inner disposition. Jerome, in his late fourth-century translation of the New Testament from Greek to Latin, chose to apply conscientia to translate the Greek word syneidesis, but already the concept was widely understood to refer to both an internal prompting and a more public and judicial standard.

There is no Old Testament Hebrew equivalent to the English word “conscience.” The closest is “heart,” including a capacity for self-reflection (e.g. 1 Sam 24:6; 2 Sam 24:10; Ps 51:10; cf Ec 10:20).

In the New Testament, conscience has a dual aspect, providing guidance for moral action and judging the ethics of an action. Four texts are of special significance.[4]

Romans 2:12-16 highlights the universality and divine source of conscience, and also its corruption by fallen human nature. Paul suggests that the conscience of a Gentile person is more consistent with their ethical framework than a Jewish person’s conscience is with the written Law. Conscience appears to enable ethical behaviour whereas adherence to the Law fails.

In 1 Timothy 4:1-5, illustrating the judicial aspect of conscience, Paul claims that deceivers have by their activity seared their consciences. We are not completely autonomous moral agents but bound to respond to absolute, external ethical norms and principles. In various places the pastoral letters emphasise the need for self-reflection and the formation of a “good conscience.”

Hebrews 9:9-14 illustrates the role of conscience in affirming right action, and declares that the saving work of Jesus cleanses a guilty conscience. This implies that conscience has the capacity for instruction and forgiveness, differentiating it from the voice of God.

In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul counsels his readers to abstain from eating food offered to idols for the sake of those whose “weak” consciences lead them to insist on such abstinence. The weak lack godly enlightenment, it is not really a matter of conscience, and grace and love should prevail while their moral formation matures.

Thus we may say that everyone has a conscience – an inner moral “voice” which may be informed, trained, manipulated and harmed from within or without. Conscience serves as a guide but is distinct from divine revelation. Its promptings may need to be restrained to accommodate the needs of others. With certain qualifications, conscience is a reliable compass for ethical action.

Rod Benson is an ethicist and social justice advocate based in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Australia. Part two of this article will examine other biblical references to conscience and outline the development of the concept of conscience in Christian perspective from biblical times to today.


[1] David Whitten, “Tempting fate to save my bacon,” Australian Doctor, Nov 2005.

[2] For example, David W. Bebbington, “The Baptist conscience in the nineteenth century,” The Baptist Quarterly 34 (1), Jan 1991, pp. 13-24.

[3] Paul Strohm, Conscience: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 4.

[4] James Keenan, “Conscience,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics (ed. Joel B. Green; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), p. 167.

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