Freud approached the conscience from a psychological angle.
He came up with the view that we have a “superego” which is programmed into us
from an early age through things like family, friends and general reactions to
certain reactions and then in the future we reflect on these events in a way in
order to differentiate between right and wrong actions. The superego could be
argued to be the conscience; however, other scholars have weighed in on the
argument regarding what the conscience is including Aquinas, Butler and Newman;
these are all theological approaches.
One argument for Freud’s approach and in favour of the
argument that the conscience is just the superego is that it takes seriously the
influence of human personality and the way that we are nurtured impacts the way
we act. This is clearly visible in the way that as people grow, the behaviour
they have been taught stays with them and continues to influence their actions.
An extension from the idea of behaviour being programmed into us is that we
feel guilty. For example, a child feels guilty if they do something that is deemed
wrong because they have been programmed to believe that their action was wrong,
it is simply them reflecting on past lessons. Therefore, it could be argued
that conscience is just the superego.
I would counter this view and say that it isn’t a good argument
for the conscience because whilst I believe that children are influenced by
their parents or teachers or society, there is weak scientific evidence for
Freud’s argument and the fact that much of his information comes from personal
experimentation and testing demeans the validity of the argument. I think a
view such as Piaget is a better approach because he offers more control for
humans in the way that there is “autonomous morality” and also there are many
people that do the wrong thing without realising which i would say makes the
superego look less convincing from the guilt angle.
Aquinas argued that God gave us ratio (reason). We can see
this in the way that we are able to reason and engage in debates over moral
dilemmas. This differentiates humans from other living creatures and empowers
them to be active in moral decision making. But further from that it explains
why we make mistakes: flawed reasoning. Aquinas uses the argument of original
sin and the idea that we were “seminally present in the loins of Adam” to
explain why we make mistakes.
I would say this view is stronger than the view that the conscience
is just the superego because it accommodates for our occasional flawed
reasoning. I would also argue that our ability to reason is actually much more
visible than the idea of a superego and perhaps could even be applied separately
from the idea of God because there are many instances which we must reason and
figure out the right thing to do, like in Act Utilitarianism when we must
determine through reason which action will cause the greatest good for the greatest