An Introduction to Conscience

Listen to your conscience, the old saying goes. But how do we follow that advice, and what do we do when staying true to our conscience contradicts conventional wisdom and behaviors expected or encouraged by society?

Before listening to our conscience, we must be capable of identifying what it is. Broadly speaking, having a conscience is defined as having the ability to discern the right course of action from the wrong course of action and basing that discernment on our intentions, values, and moral philosophy.

What does it mean to have a conscience?

According to many religious traditions, an individual’s conscience is a tool given to us by God that helps us make the proper decisions when we are faced with moral quandaries or difficult choices, or even as we go about our daily lives. Some people even refer to the conscience as the “voice of God” we hear or sense within, in private conversation with the innermost self.

A more materialist view would be that what is commonly termed a conscience is merely an ongoing series of cognitive processes influenced by our prior experiences and conditioning, which in turn influence how we evaluate the potential ramifications and outcomes before deciding how to proceed in a given situation.

Regardless of how one defines a conscience, sometimes following your conscience means doing what you consider to be the right thing in the face of criticism, social expectations, and other obstacles. Doing the right thing can be—and often is—different for each individual.

How can I listen to my conscience?

While there is no single best way to receive messages from your conscience, making a conscious effort to be open to what your conscience is telling you is a good place to start. Common ways to tune in to the signals from your conscience include saying a prayer for guidance, engaging in various meditation techniques, and finding time to nurture a connection with nature to help encourage clear thinking far removed from the minute-to-minute distractions of daily life.

What is an examination of conscience?

An examination of conscience consists of an individual taking stock—often in the form of a self-reckoning—of past thoughts, deeds, and actions through the lens of one’s moral philosophy. An honest examination of conscience can provide both clarity about motivations for past deeds and a more focused sense of purpose about how to choose wisely going forward.

In Catholicism, an examination of conscience that draws on Bible-based moral teachings, such as the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes, is encouraged prior to participation in the sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Penance or Confession).

What does it mean to follow my conscience?

Following one’s conscience can apply to everything from how we interact with other people, such as being kind and polite instead of being mean and rude, to behaviors and decisions on a much larger scale. 

During the war in Vietnam, for example, the United States instituted a military draft for young men. Tens of thousands of draftees refused to comply. One such man was the heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali. After being denied conscientious objector status, Ali still maintained that his conscience would not let him take part in the war. He refused induction into the armed services in 1967 and, because of that refusal, was banned from professional boxing until 1970. It took years for his case to work its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 8–0 in his favor in 1971. 

Contrast that with young men and women who felt they had a moral duty to join the armed forces in support of the U.S. government’s foreign policy goals in southeast Asia. Just as Ali followed his conscience by refraining from participation in the war, a sizable number of young Americans who volunteered to join the military did so because their conscience told them it was the right thing to do.

What does it mean to have a clear conscience?

Both in the religious and the secular sense of the term, having a clear conscience means that you feel the choices you’ve made were right for you, regardless of others’ opinions and the consequences resulting from those choices. 

In some religions, having a clear conscience can also mean that you feel ready to stand before God and be judged for your thoughts, words, and deeds, be it in regard to a specific situation or your life’s trajectory over the course of an entire lifetime.

What does it mean to have a guilty conscience?

If something you did is causing you distress because of the negative effect it had on someone else, that would fit the definition of a guilty conscience. People can also have a guilty conscience when they haven’t done something they feel they should do or should have already completed.

In both cases, there are ways to move from a guilty conscience to a clear conscience, such as making amends to those your actions may have harmed or fulfilling an obligation that you’ve been avoiding. 

Following one’s conscience is not always easy, but not following it can be even more difficult in the long run. 

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