Posted by: keherenf | November 14, 2007

“Conscience does make cowards of us all! Or does it?”

Dr. James Hannick of Loyola Marymount University provided a lecture the past week concerning his insights and ideas about the human conscience. As my first attempt at publishing an article on philosophy, I have chosen to use his lecture to try and challenge my readers to ponder what they believe in terms of conscience, free well, and morality.

To start the lecture, Hannick provided four quotes from men that span centuries as to their take on the conscience:

Thrasymachus, “Justice is the interest of the stronger.”

Hamlet, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”

Nietzche, “I take bad conscience to be the deepest sickness which man had to fall…finding himself enclosed once and for all within the sway of society and peace.”

Ambrose Bierce, “A still, small voice that tells us when someone is looking.”

Instantly, Hannick laid the foundation for his inclusion of relativity in terms of the conscience. He explained that when humans derive their own definition of the conscience as a moral force, they will always in a sense be right about their views because they are so subjective. For example, if a vegetarian and a carnivore sit down for lunch, and the carnivore orders a hamburger, they could argue indefinitely as to who was “right”. The vegetarians’ conscience dictates that eating meat is equivalent to consuming innocent animal flesh, which should be considered a moral sin. The carnivore, on the other hand, just as strongly believes that eating meat is central to human needs, as passed on through evolution over millions of years. No matter how much they argue, no universal conclusion will be made because they both feel that their conscience has rationed that they are indeed correct.

Hannick then progressed to discussing the conscience in terms of being authoritarian vs. authoritative. The definition of authoritarian is one in which the conscience has power over us, pulling rank. It is a powerful figure which should be listened to. Instead, authoritative concerns a valid source, similar to how a dictionary is an authoritative source for how to spell words. The difference between treating the conscience as authoritarian figure vs an authoritative figure is key in understanding the rest of Hannick’s discussion.

With this in mind, Hannick explained that many people base their conscience on their intuition, which is typically based on feeling. This type of conscience leads people to do things because “it just feels right”. He quickly exposed the fallacies in this line of reasoning. First, if the conscience is based on intuition and one feels the conscience is authoritative, when presented in a moral disagreement no conclusion can be made (refer back to the vegetarian vs. carnivore debate). This can ultimately lead to a continual cycle of never reaching any universal truths, which Hannick felt was important in his philosophical beliefs. If one believes their conscience is authoritative, but the conscience is ultimately based on feeling, Hannick posed the question as to whether or not the conscience should be trusted in that incident. Often times, things “feel right” not based on gut instinct but because friends, family, media, etc have planted a seed within that it should “feel right”. Or, it may “feel right” because deep down the matter is just something you want to do, without considering the rational thought that should precede the act. Thus, basing the conscience on intuition, which is ultimately based on feeling, is dangerous because many people do not understand their “feelings” and furthermore many do not have control over them, which may lead the person astray from what is right.

Thus, Hannick offers a different solution by basing the conscience on practical reason. This idea originally derived from Aristotle and Aquinas, who believed that universal truth could be discovered through practical (using reason to discover how to act) and theoretical reason (using reason to discover how to believe). However, of the two, the better is practical reason, which Hannick uses to develop his definition of the conscience: one’s last best exercise of practical reason. Therefore, Hannick believes that the best determinate of the conscience is through using practical reason in order to decide how to act to the best of one’s ability. He described the process in the following way: I am presented with a situation, I reflect, ask what I ought to do, and then given my resources, I decide what to do. In doing so, Hannick argues that one is using the conscience to the best of his ability, which does not make him a coward.

The example he used to support this was Franz Jagerstatter of World War II. Franz was an Austrian who was killed after he refused to be drafted into the Nazi army under Hitler. He had a wife and three small children, and he left behind journals which explained his inner struggle. Ultimately, he decided that he ought to be killed before joining the army because his conscience led him to believe that joining the Nazi party was not the right decision. He is now hailed as a martyr in Austria for his “courageous” act, which Hannick uses to support his belief that using his definition of conscience prevents us from being cowards.

Still, Hannick does not see his definition as absolute in that humans are fallible. Even using his reasoning, a man can still use his conscience  and do the wrong thing, although he is likely to be wrong much less than someone who uses a conscience based on intuition.

I feel that this discussion brings in many other issues, specifically that of moral relativity. Hannick is assuming there is a universal “right” and “wrong” that the conscience can lead a person to. Also, from a psychological perspective it seems difficult to me to separate out ideas based purely on intuition versus ideas based on practical reason. I feel that many times, people direct their conscience and thoughts in such a way that they can use their own version of practical reason and still get the answer that they had originally desired. Therefore, if I am questioning whether or not cheating on a test is the “right” or “wrong” thing to do, I can direct my thinking and arguing to justify my actions either way. I could just as easily say that cheating on a small test is better for the greater good of my career, and therefore decide that it is the “right” thing to do as I could say that cheating is “wrong” because the academic community around me tells me that it is.

Thus, while I think that some of Hannick’s ideas are good on paper, I think there is too much subjectivity in many of his concepts. I would like to challenge the readers of this article to share their thoughts on anything presented in this article.



  1. Take a look at some of the recent studies that suggest that some of what we call morale decisions are hard wired into the DNA as a way to keep the species alive. That’s why some of these decisions come quickly and seem natural. If some of this didn’t happened we all might be paralyzed with constant decision making.

  2. what judges you after your action and what tell you to do this or that b4 your action

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