For most of the recorded history of the Western world, conscience was experienced and conceptualized as, if not a divine phenomenon in itself, then at least a point of contact with the divine, with absolute moral truth. Its respected status still shows in the legal provisions made for conscientious objections. Over time, however, conscience underwent a devaluation, until in the twentieth century the concept had largely disappeared from philosophical ethics as well as mainstream psychology. In this article I trace the history of conscience in an attempt to make sense of this devaluation, and to rethink the concept of conscience. Inspired by the work of Eric Voegelin, Michael Polanyi, and others, I argue that a certain forgetfulness lay behind the modern rejection of the concept: a forgetting of the symbolic nature of expressions of conscience, and of the experiences that engendered those expressions. By recovering those experiences and reminding ourselves of the symbolic nature of expressions of conscience we are also able to construct a ‘fluid’ concept of conscience that does justice to its experiential reality without reifying conscience. This may also be a first step towards a renewed appreciation of the meta-ethical importance of (engaging with) experiences of conscience.
- Conscience, moral experience, ultimate concern, Eric Voegelin, Michael Polanyi, Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Tillich