Many people have committed acts, execrated and deplored by others, in obedience to sincerely held beliefs. Can we reasonably ask anyone to do better than simply to obey his own conscience?
Noah Buckle, Watford Grammar School for Boys, United Kingdom
Winner of the 2020 Theology Prize | 8 min read
A common objection to deontological ethics, and one it must address if it is to be upheld against ethical theories grounded in virtue or consequence, is its apparent demand to classify actions performed in accordance with an ill-informed conscience as ‘good.’ In attempting to resolve this, what must be conducted is a complete investigation of conscience, understood as the affective predisposition of the subject towards moral obligations, as regards its provenance, fallibility, and authority. Having established the nature of conscience thus, I contend both that obedience to one’s conscience is the only stipulation that may be made of a moral agent insofar as concerns [his] immediate moral responsibility; and that this obedience nonetheless cannot be a moral principle (duty), but derives its necessity instead from the subjective judgment of conscience itself.
1. On the Impossibility of the Acquisition of Conscience
Firstly, it seems we must determine whether conscience itself is an acquired or indigenous moral endowment – that is, whether its existence as a reflective and motivational power of subjective judgment finds its origins in the instruction of experience (“conscientia artificialis”),  or the laws of nature (“conscientia naturalis”) . For if conscience existed only artificially, the moral feelings it aims
to affect (either positive or negative) would themselves stand in relation to duty as contingent, and so the acts of conscience would be rendered entirely arbitrary; hence, obedience to conscience would consist in mere habit, lacking both a rational and moral ground. The falsehood of this doctrine may be proven in two ways:
Directly and negatively, as merely a posteriori and empirically certain.
Indirectly and positively (i.e. by proof of the alternative), as a priori and apodictic.
And though the conditions of our argument, which seeks to establish as a priori certain that obedience to one’s conscience is the single demand of morality that may be made immediately, will only be satisfied by this latter proof, the illustrative simplicity of the former, and the peace of mind thereby afforded, warrant its inclusion:
Consider, for example, an individual ‘instructed’ such that any honest act they perform is followed in conscience by a sensation of guilt. What is meant here by ‘guilt’ if not knowledge of the violation of a duty? Or, if it need be expressed in more neutral terms, guilt is “the state of one who has committed an offense, especially consciously.”  Surely, then, it is not in the subjective judgment of conscience that this sensation, qua guilt, originates, as in this judgment is implied nothing more than the actual attribution of the honest act to the individual. In truth, it is simply that the individual believes honesty to be proscribed by duty. For if the contrary be maintained (that they believe honesty to be permitted or necessitated by duty), it would imply that one is capable of feeling guilt at the fulfilment of a duty, i.e. that an innocent person may enter the state of one who has consciously committed an offense, which is absurd.
What has been demonstrated, therefore, is that, provided we assume an indigenous human capacity to recognise moral (mis)conduct, conscience cannot be conceived of as a thing procured by experience. What remains to be demonstrated, and yet cannot be demonstrated by the above means, is that such a capacity actually exists. Therefore, we must turn our attention not to the provenance of conscience per se, but rather to that to which our conscience responds – as this, I will argue, may be identified with a natural (rational) consciousness of the moral law. Only once this foundation has been laid may we say with any conviction that conscience is not merely ‘not acquired’, but necessarily indigenous – that it “is presupposed on the part of feeling [Aesthetische Vorbegriffe] by the mind’s receptivity to concepts of duty as such.” 
2. On the Necessity of the Indigenous Endowment of Conscience
Just as Marx commenced his critique of political economy – not from any arbitrary point within, but at the level of its most fundamental unit – so, too, must an analysis of the grounds of conscience begin at the most basic unit in which moral economy deals, namely, law. A law spoken of generally is a regulation – that is, a limitation upon freedom by which an act is determined – and from this notion must follow a concept of causality. Indeed, a law is invoked in any mention of causality, as it is by way of the former that the latter is posited; for what is expressed in the relation of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ is determination (in contrast with a lack of determination, which we call undetermined freedom).
But when we speak of ‘willing’, we cannot avoid reference to a kind of efficient causality; freedom of will*, unlike undetermined freedom, must consequently imply the nature of this causality, insofar as it exists not merely negatively, as exemption from determination to act by external causes, but (lest we fall into the unfortunate situation of Aristotle’s man, who, “hungry and thirsty, and both equally, yet being equidistant from food and drink, is therefore bound to stay where he is”)  positively, as an independent cause itself. The simple modus barbara results:
All causality is a kind of conformity to law.
Freedom of will is [the nature of] a kind of causality.
Freedom of will is a kind of conformity to law.
Of causality with respect to the natural world, i.e. to that in which the will plays no part, we observe that it conforms to the following law: that every efficient cause is determined to bring about an effect by an external force. Therefore, of causality with respect to the will, we conclude that, as it cannot conform to the same law as that of nature, it must conform to the alternative law: that the will, as an independent cause, is determined to bring about an effect by an internal force. To this self-determination, wherein the will must determine itself to act in accordance with laws given by its own nature, we assign the deceptive label of ‘freedom.’ Accordingly, the derivation of the form of the law of the will must be possible by use of the operations of the will alone; operations whose nature must themselves be understood as fundamentally rational, for it is by a process of reason that we are able to posit relations of causality, and thereby determine the appropriate action in accordance with a (self-)given law. Here, however, what is important to note is that the law spoken of is conformed to not, as with the physical laws of nature, as an objective limitation, but as a representational limitation.
But the law, spoken of as specifically moral, is also acted in accordance with, not as an object, but as representation (that is, not with a view to its effect, but as an end in itself, as duty). Furthermore, if it is to apply universally and without exception, its establishment must be possible prior to any given experience, such that every individual possesses the means to know it a priori. This being so, it is clear that the law which governs a free will and the law which governs a moral being are indistinguishable; for both find their wellspring in reason, both constitute representations, and, most crucially, both must apply universally, as for either to admit exceptional cases would undermine its foundation. Hence, from the real necessity of the one (the law of the will), demonstrated above, may be inferred the real necessity of the other – that law “which exists for the sake of the self, and not the law for the sake of which the self exists,”  in which ‘an indigenous human capacity to recognise moral (mis)conduct’ is fully visible.
3. On the Nature of Conscience
Having now grasped the sense in which it is proper to speak of the ‘origins’ of conscience, namely, as a concept presupposed by the recognition of duty by practical reason, it is possible to give its concept as pertains to its fallibility, or integrity, and the extent to which it is binding. In the first case, we are compelled to recognise, from the definition given, that conscience cannot arrive at misjudgments, precisely because the judgment of conscience is not an objective judgment of the obligatoriness of a particular act, but judges the subject [him]self, in whom moral feeling is evoked owing to his having engaged in this objective judgment; or, the very affective manifestation of conscience evidences the truth of its judgment. I anticipate some resistance to the suggestion that for conscience to err is an impossibility, however, the obstinacy of which is more easily seen when the nature of conscience is apprehended as a whole (under its fallibility and authority).
With respect to the second, what must be recalled is that conscience does not follow from duty, but is a presupposition without which no concept of duty, no moral imperative, could be formed. For while it is our knowledge of duty that enables us to speak confidently of conscience as natural and indigenous, it is the subjective condition of conscience, of susceptibility to moral feeling, by virtue of which discussions of obligation are possible at all. And from this ‘inescapability’ of conscience, it follows that conscience is absolutely binding, because if we consider not the validity of the body of moral knowledge constructed on its basis (the objective assessment of actions as either duties or not duties), but the voice of conscience alone prior to any qualification, self-awareness of a mistaken moral judgment (the only reasonable justification for the disobedience of conscience) is a manifest impossibility. Hence Hegel writes, “For the essence of the action, duty, consists in conscience’s conviction about it; it is just this conviction that is the in-itself; it is the implicitly universal self-consciousness or the state of being recognised, and hence a reality.” 7 In light of this, it is also clearer what is meant by the infallibility of conscience, viz. that its conclusion†, as that which binds subjectively, can be ‘mistaken’ only by proxy, by originating in mistaken premises (an objective misjudgment of moral self-consciousness).
To conclude, it should be evident from the above that there exists neither the empirical possibility of the rejection of the consequent judgments of conscience, nor the logical possibility of the rejection of its antecedent judgments. We, therefore, do not just embrace the negative (“We cannot reasonably ask any better than to obey one’s conscience”), but restate it: “There is no reasonable better than to obey one’s conscience.” Nonetheless, this restatement gives rise to two final questions:
Is obedience to one’s conscience itself a duty?
How is an ill-informed conscience to be overcome?
In truth, these questions strike at the same principle, of the distinction between the moral self-consciousness of the understanding, and the universal self-consciousness of conscience. To answer the first, we remind ourselves again that conscience is duty’s precondition, and so, just as it cannot be a law that one must obey the law, conscience cannot enter into relations of duty. Regarding the second, it is by now transparent that ‘ill-informed conscience’ is a misnomer, and that where before we saw an ill-informed conscience, we now perceive an undeveloped understanding, an incomplete moral self-consciousness which, simply by virtue of its residence within reason, bears the most primary duty of all: to seek, through recourse to the faculty of practical reason, full knowledge of its duties, and to orient itself in a manner conducive to their fulfilment. This is the task of ethics.
At times, it may appear that I have adopted an inappropriately specialised ethical vocabulary, employing notions of ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’, to the exclusion of any non-deontologist. On this point, I both maintain that my reasons for doing so emerge in the unfolding of the argument itself, and stress the need, especially in moral philosophy, to avoid the use of an existing yardstick in the critical evaluation of a new one – we might call this an ethical suspension of the teleological. Nonetheless, I invite any reader, if they insist, to substitute my language with less precise terminology, to see if it does not produce the same result.
1 Kant, Immanuel. Lectures on Ethics. Ed. Peter Heath and J. B. Schneewind. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 134.
2 Ibid., 134.
3 ‘Guilt’, Dictionary by Merriam-Webster,
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/guilt (accessed Apr. 1, 2020).
4 Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. Ed. Mary J. Gregor. Texts in German Philosophy. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 200.
5 Aristotle. De Caelo, II, 13. Trans. J.L. Stocks. The Works of Aristotle Translated into English. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922), 295b.
6 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, J. N. Findlay, and Johannes Hoffmeister. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, 639. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 387.
7 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, J. N. Findlay, and Johannes Hoffmeister. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, 640. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 388.
8 Frankfurt, Harry. “Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility.” Journal of Philosophy. 66 (23): 829–39. (Journal of Philosophy, Inc., 1969), 829.
* Freedom of will I take to be assumed, if not as a condition for the possibility of discussions of moral responsibility in general (as this requires the additional acceptance of what Frankfurt calls the “principle of alternate possibilities”) , then at least as a condition for the possibility of ethical discussions pertaining to obedience (insofar as these do, in fact, imply an alternate possibility; that of disobedience).
† It is misleading even to call it a ‘conclusion’, for the acts of conscience are mental effects, and are a product of practical reason only indirectly.
Aristotle. De Caelo. Trans. J.L. Stocks. The Works of Aristotle Translated into English. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922.
Frankfurt, Harry. “Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility.” Journal of Philosophy. Journal of Philosophy, Inc., 1969.
‘Guilt’. Dictionary by Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/guilt (accessed Apr. 1, 2020).
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, J. N. Findlay, and Johannes Hoffmeister. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
Kant, Immanuel. Lectures on Ethics. Ed. Peter Heath and J. B. Schneewind. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. Ed. Mary J. Gregor. Texts in German Philosophy.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.