Moral Conscience Through the Ages: Fifth Century BCE to the Present

THE (Times Higher Education)
Review by Tom Palaima
Reproduced with permission

Richard Sorabji
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780199685547
Published 30 October 2014

Always let your conscience be your guide,” sings Jiminy Cricket, conscience personified as a kindly bowler-hatted cricket, to Pinocchio in Walt Disney’s 1940 film classic about a wooden puppet being transformed into a real-life boy. It is one of the few significant social pronouncements about the role of conscience in making us human not found in Richard Sorabji’s compact history of the ideas that important thinkers and doers, beginning with Euripides and Plato and ending with Martin Luther, Thomas Hobbes, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Mahatma Gandhi, have had about how a conscience works, where it comes from, and what good it is, if any – Nietzsche had no use for conscience, believing that modern men “inherit thousands of years of the vivisection of conscience”.

Sorabji’s close reading of subtle arguments spanning 25 centuries, as he transliterates key Greek and Latin terms and does his best to define their particular meanings in different periods, enables us to see how later figures took up or rejected earlier ideas. Gandhi, for example, came to believe unshakeably in his “still small voice within” – no Jiminy Cricket for him – as “the true voice of God”, as it steeled his commitment to non-violent social actions. Gandhi’s voice of God, we learn, sounded a lot like Tolstoy in his 1894 treatise The Kingdom of God is Within You and Socrates in Plato’s Apology, set in 399BC.

The Greek word for conscience first appears in passages in the work of late 5th-century playwrights where characters wrestle with what we would call moral choices, or defects in Sorabji’s view. The Greek compound verbal formation expresses the notion of a shared knowing (sun: “with” and oida: “know”, literally “I saw and I still see”), Latin con-sciens. The precise meaning of conscience is further complicated by the abstract nouns used for it that are derived from other verbal roots, eg, sunesis and the Latinised sunderesis. The notion of with-ness is the common element.

The key question is: shared with whom? In Sorabji’s view – surprisingly given the role that conscience plays in our interactions with others – we share our thoughts about moral behaviour and moral choices with ourselves. Conscience splits us into two people. From this come expressions like “I could not live with myself” and feelings of having a voice within or a cricket or guardian angel advising from without, as in Freud’s superego or Socrates’ daimōn.

Sorabji also argues that the original concept of conscience, ie, “sharing knowledge with oneself of a defect”, was a largely secular idea. Stoics and Christians turned conscience into a religious concept associated with the law or will of gods or God. Michel de Montaigne, Hobbes and John Locke began a resecularisation process that continued through Thoreau’s civil disobedience and then on to conscientious objection to armed service during the First World War.

But what does a largely secular idea in ancient Greek look like in context? Sorabji gives few original source passages at any length. Conscience appears as a daimōn in Plato’s Apology and arguably also in Euripides’ Orestes, where grief is called a terrible goddess in a kind of chiasmus. So how the Greeks viewed daimones becomes relevant to whether conscience ab origine is secular or religious or something in between. And Hesiod’s thoughts two centuries earlier in Works and Days about daimones as immortal and beneficent guardians of justice should be relevant, too.


Tom Palaima is professor of Classics, University of Texas at Austin.

New book questions preferential treatment of religious liberty

Book Review

Why Tolerate Religion?
Brian Leiter
Princeton University Press, 2012, 192 pp. ISBN: 9780691153612

University of Chicago News Office

The Western democratic practice of singling out religious liberty for special treatment under the law is not in sync with the world we live in today, argues University of Chicago Law School professor Brian Leiter in his new book,Why Tolerate Religion?

All people, both religious and non-religious, maintain core beliefs about what they feel they absolutely must do— a category Leiter calls “claims of conscience.” In the book, Leiter, the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence, explores whether there are good reasons for the tendency to grant legal exemptions to religious claims of conscience while largely rejecting non-religious claims.

“The current status quo is predicated on a fundamental inequality,” Leiter said. For example, he says a boy might be permitted to carry a dagger to school as part of his Sikh religion, but the same dagger would not be allowed if it were part of a family tradition.

“Namely, your claim of conscience counts if it is based in religion,” Leiter said. “My claim of conscience doesn’t count if it is not based in religion. That, it seems to me, is a pernicious and indefensible inequality in the existing legal regime.”  Read more . . .

 

Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience

Conscience and ConvictionBook Review
Kimberley Brownlee,
Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience

Oxford University Press, 2012, 260pp., $65.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780199592944

Alon Harel, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

In her thorough, careful and insightful discussion, Kimberley Brownlee explores the nature of conscience and conscientious convictions and draws important conclusions concerning the justifiable protection of acts of civil disobedience. The first part of her book discusses morality while the second part discusses law. In addition to its rigorous analysis, the book contains lively discussions of real-life examples and hypotheticals designed to illustrate and address all possible objections and establish the centrality of the protection of conscientious convictions and conscience in a liberal society.  . . . Read more. . .

New book documents erosion of religious freedom

By Project advisor, Professor Roger Trigg

Is religious freedom being curtailed in pursuit of equality, and the outlawing of discrimination? Is enough effort made to accommodate those motivated by a religious conscience? All rights matter but at times the right to put religious beliefs into practice increasingly takes second place in the law of different countries to the pursuit of other social priorities. The right to freedom of belief and to manifest belief is written into all human rights charters. In the United States religious freedom is sometimes seen as ‘the first freedom’. Yet increasingly in many jurisdictions in Europe and North America, religious freedom can all too easily be ‘trumped’ by other rights.

 

What We Can’t Not Know

What We Can't Not Know: A Guide

By Project advisor Jay Budziszewski

Revised and Expanded Edition

In this new revised edition of his groundbreaking work, Professor J. Budziszewski questions the modern assumption that moral truths are unknowable. With clear and logical arguments he rehabilitates the natural law tradition and restores confidence in a moral code based upon human nature.  What We Can’t Not Know explains the rational foundation of what we all really know to be right and wrong and shows how that foundation has been kicked out from under western society. Having gone through stages of atheism and nihilism in his own search for truth, Budziszewski understands the philosophical and personal roots of moral relativism. With wisdom born of both experience and rigorous intellectual inquiry, he offers a firm foothold to those who are attempting either to understand or to defend the reasonableness of traditional morality.

Islamic Biomedical Ethics

Islamic Biomedical Ethics: Principles and Application

By Project advisor, Prof. Abdulaziz Sachedina.

“Abdulaziz Sachedina is the leading Islamic thinker writing in Engish today.  Thus, his Islamic Biomedical Ethics is a welcome addition to the already extensive literature in the field because of his great knowledge of the classical and modern Islamic legal and ethical sources, his authentic religious commitment to the truth of Islam, and his willingness to engage perspectives from other traditions in what is becoming a genuinely multicultural field of moral discourse.”  David Novak, author of Jewish Social Ethics

Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise

Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise (Basic Bioethics)Holly Fernandez Lynch

Review by Sean Murphy*  |. . .[the author] is seeking a compromise that will provide “maximal liberty for all parties.” She believes that freedom of conscience for physicians and the provision of legal medical services are both important social goals, and that they are not incompatible. . . . However, it is necessary to acknowledge what the author herself admits. In her view, the heart of the conscience clause debate is patient access to services. She has written a book about how to help patients obtain services when some of the gatekeepers who control access to them are uncooperative. It is not a book about freedom of conscience. . . . [Fulll text]