1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Conscience

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CONSCIENCE (Lat. con-scientia, literally “knowledge of a thing shared with another person” or “complete knowledge,” and derivatively “consciousness” in general), a philosophical term used both popularly and technically in many different senses for that mental faculty which decides between right and wrong. In popular usage “conscience” is generally understood to give intuitively authoritative decisions as regards the moral quality of single actions; this usage implicitly assumes that every action has an objective or intrinsic goodness or badness, which “conscience” may be said to discern much in the same way as the eye sees or the ear hears. Moralists generally, however, are agreed that in all moral judgments of this character there is an implied reference to moral laws, the validity of which is in some ethical systems the true subject matter of conscience. The part played by conscience in relation to general moral laws and particular cases will vary according to the view taken of the character of the general laws. If, on what is called the “jural” theory, these laws are regarded as deriving their authority from an external source, the operation of conscience is so far limited. It may be held to recognize the validity of divine laws, for example; or it may be confined to the deductive process of applying those laws to particular cases, known as “cases of conscience” (see Casuistry). If, on the other hand, the general laws are regarded as intuitive, then the discernment of them may be taken as the true function of conscience. In either theory, conscience may be understood as the active principle in the soul which, in face of two alternatives, tells a man that he ought to select the one which is in conformity with the moral law. Apart from the two functions of discerning between right and wrong, and actively predisposing the agent to moral action, conscience has further a retrospective action whereby remorse falls upon the man who recognizes that he has broken a moral law. See Ethics; also Butler, Joseph; and compare the “moral sense” doctrine of Shaftesbury.

There are certain special uses of the word “conscience.” A Conscience clause is the term given to a special provision often inserted in an English act of parliament to enable persons having religious scruples to absent themselves from certain services, or to abstain from certain duties, otherwise prescribed by the act. Conscience money is the name given to a payment voluntarily made by a person who has evaded his obligations, especially in respect of taxes and the like. This usage derives from the last function of conscience mentioned above. Conscience Courts were local courts, established by acts of parliament in London and various provincial towns, for the recovery of small debts, usually sums under £5. They were superseded by county courts (q.v.).