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Conscience is generally thought of as a moral faculty, sense, or
consciousness which prompts the individual to make right choices.
Conscience can prompt different people in quite different directions,
depending on their beliefs. One person can feel a moral duty to go to war,
another can feel a moral duty to avoid war under any circumstances.
Many churches consider following one's conscience to be as important as
obeying human authority. This can sometimes lead to moral quandaries. "Do I
obey my church/military/political leader, or do I follow my own sense of
right and wrong?" (Rev. Moon of the Unification Church says, "Never violate
your conscience" but also has included the motto "absolute obedience" as
part of the church's Family Pledge).
What is conscience?
The 1913 Webster's dictionary defines conscience in the modern sense as
* the faculty, power, or inward principle which decides as to the
character of one's own actions, purposes, and affections, warning
against and condemning that which is wrong, and approving and prompting
to that which is right;
* the moral faculty passing judgment on one's self;
* the moral sense.
It quotes William Shakespeare's Richard III from the play of the same name
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings
in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.
and William Whewell:
As science means knowledge, conscience etymologically means
self-knowledge . . . But the English word implies a moral standard of
action in the mind as well as a consciousness of our own actions. . . .
Conscience is the reason, employed about questions of right and wrong,
and accompanied with the sentiments of approbation and condemnation.
Any consideration of conscience must consider the estimate or determination
of conscience and the resulting conviction or right or duty.
Adam Smith said:
Conscience supposes the existence of some such [i.e., moral] faculty,
and properly signifies our consciousness of having acted agreeably or
contrary to its directions.
A "conscientious objector" is an individual whose personal beliefs are
incompatible with military service, or sometimes with any role in the armed
forces. The reasons for refusing to serve are varied. Many conscientious
objectors are so for religious reasons -- notably, the Quakers are pacifist
by doctrine. Other objections can stem from a deep sense of responsibility
toward humanity as a whole, or from simple denial that any government should
have that kind of moral authority.
Amnesty International has created the term Prisoner of conscience to mean a
person imprisoned for their conscientious beliefs.
Medieval conceptions of conscience
The medieval schoolmen made a distinction between conscience and a closely
related concept called synderesis. However, there is evidence that this is
an artificial distinction, and that the two terms originally meant the same thing.