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Aquinas on Conscience | Video lecture by Dr Daniel De Haan - MASSOLIT



The modern world is marked by violence, riots, wars, terrorism, and abortion, all of which pose dangers to men’s peaceful coexistence. Analysts have worked hard in their many positions to find a solution to the problem. Both peace and terror advocates, theists and atheists, directly or implicitly, speak and write about conscience and its role in the pursuit of specific objectives. As a result, the concept of conscience is of interest to everyone.

Today, the term conscience exists in many national constitutions as well as official church publications. Civil rights advocates have frequently used words like “white conscience,” “public conscience,” “Christian conscience,” and so on as remedies for various injustices and excesses of ideologies.

Scholastic philosophers are themselves neither unanimous nor constant in their use of the word conscience.

This overview is nevertheless sufficient to show that conscience embodies various meanings and covers situations ranging from view of life to personal conviction, social values and objective standard of conduct for different peoples.  The nature of conscience has, as a result, been variously interpreted as an interior voice, a faculty, an act of judgement, a habit, etc.  The lack or absence of unanimity in the usage and interpretations of conscience by both secular and ecclesiastical writers often blur and make ambiguous its true meaning.  Thus, the ordinary man is all the more perplexed with regard to its function as a norm of morality. In this light, it is an onerous task to arrive at an understanding of the nature of conscience and its obligation.


Authority irks modern man. For him, freedom is the absence of restraint.  In many democratic countries, for instance, freedom becomes equated with irresponsibility.  Often the basis of dissent is sought in conscience, which serves as an arsenal of defense against the demands of authority.  In moral matters, the emphasis is on personal autonomy that refuses to look beyond self, for moral values and guidance.  However, appeals to conscience in cases like these often result in an inability to resolve moral problems.  The consequence is chaotic existence, which has become the mark of our times.


This long essay is an attempt to clarify some of the uncertainty that surrounds the word conscience using the philosophical framework of St. Thomas Aquinas.


1.1             Background Of The Study


Conscience is man’s nearest guide with regard to his moral decisions on actions.  Man makes a rational judgement over the actions performed or about to be performed in order to know how good or bad they are.  He does this because of the natural inclination to attain happiness and satisfaction.  Hence, conscience is of interest to all.  Teachers make lesson on it, leaders consider it, parents address their children on it, Christians respect it; lawyers act on it; while philosophers examine it critically.


Aquinas’ attention was drawn to the issue of “conscience” as a result of the hot debate on the relationship of conscience and synderesis as well as its nature in the Middle Ages.  He looked into the matter to see if there were any distinguishing features of conscience, its operation in the intellect with regard to the actions of man.  He came out with the conclusion that conscience incites or binds.  There is no doubt that his stand on the issue alleviated the problem to a certain extent.  However, it is still subject to critical examination, because his view appears to be very subjective.


Thomas Aquinas {c. 1225-74} was born into an aristocratic family at Roccasecca in the south of Italy.  He studied philosophy and theology at Cologne with and under Albert the Great.  Aquinas’ best-known work is his Summa Theologia and others like Scriptum Super SententiarumQuaestiones Disputatae De VeritateSumma Contra Gentiles, which he wrote around 1254 to 1273.  He died on March 7, 1274 in the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova.



1.2    Statement Of The Problem

A historical survey of philosophers and thinkers who delved into the problem of conscience shows that conscience and synderesis are inevitable in making moral decisions on actions.  However, man cannot appreciate and appropriate this function of the human intellect without an epistemological cleansing in order to see the relationship between synderesis and conscience.  Aquinas’ doctrine established that conscience has a binding force whether true or erroneous[1]. This means that one who yields to erroneous conscience is not free from a bad act.  Does it imply that one with erroneous conscience must act wrongly?  What measure could be employed to correct the error and how?  The problem of a doubtful conscience entails a feeling of uncertainty about something as to the lawfulness or obligation of an action.  Aquinas’ reply seems naïve: of course, “a man needs only to put aside his error for he is really not in a quandary”[2].



 1.3     Purpose Of The Study

The main objective of this work is to expose and make a philosophical reflection on Aquinas’ doctrine on conscience, his understanding of conscience and synderesis. An attempt will be made to see the relationship between Aquinas idea of conscience and man as a moral being in quest of ultimate end. I shall attempt also to contribute to resolving the problem of error and doubtful conscience, in addition to what Aquinas has said about the problem.



1.4   Scope Of The Study        


I am concerned in this research work with Aquinas’ teaching on antecedent conscience not consequent conscience, since only the former is a norm of morality.  I am bent on finding out exactly the ‘quid’ of his antecedent moral conscience with its attendant obligation.



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