Critically assess the claim that conscience is the voice of reason. 
The origin of the conscience is much debated by both secular and religious beliefs. One may insist that the conscience is the voice of reason and this can be supported by Aquinas’ belief in the recta ratio. One may however discuss that the conscience is the voice of God, supported b y the Butler and Newman, or is influenced mainly by society, parents or authority figures, usually supported by secular views. This essay will critically asses these claims.
Aquinas believed that the conscience is the right reason (recta ration) and this reason is central to moral life to aid the conscience in choosing right from wrong. If man can use reason correctly, in line with the conscience, then it can help us to understand what it is God sees as good. We must use reason to what is good as some may perform bad actions due to faulty reasoning and thus commit sins; for example this is seen in the event of the man who slept with another man’s wife believing that is was his own wife and thus did not believe he was committing a sin. As this is faulty reasoning, the conscientia helps to distinguish between right and wrong. Along with the Synderesis rate it is vital for making moral decisions. Aquinas states that the conscience is the voice of reason as it enables man to fully assess good actions before taking them.
Others if religious belief may argue that the conscience is the voice of God rather than the voice of reason. Both Newman and Butler argue that the conscience is the actual voice of God and thus makes us different from animals. As the conscience is seen as God-given, it is understandable for one to also believe that it must be his voice, and that by following our conscience we are effectively following divine law.
Believing this, Newman went on to say that man must also use reason to enable man to decide what God’s voice guides man towards. For Newman, God’s voice gives moral direction and for us to recognise the goodness of the Pope’s teachings, we must recognise this if from both his understanding of Biblical teachings and his understanding of the voice of God: ‘I toast the Pope, but I toast the conscience first’. Newman’s reasoning to believe that the conscience is the voice of God outweighs the belief that it is purely the voice of reason and consequently disagrees with the beginning statement.
To reason and rationalise makes man different from animals and thus one may argue that the conscience is the voice of this reason, however Butler believes that it is the voice of God which man must then apply reason to.
As the ultimate authority in moral judgements, one may argue that it must be given that it must be given by the ultimate authority in the universe: God. It is ‘our natural guide, the guide assigned to us by the author of our nature’ that author is God and his voice will guide man to make the right decisions. For instance as man is motivated by both self-love and benevolence, as a benevolent God He will guide man away from selfish love and towards a benevolent society that will ultimately focus on happiness.
As God’s purpose for man is to reach eudemonia it is understandable why Butler and Newman may believe that it is God’s voice that guides us towards this through the conscience.
A secular approach may deny Aquinas’ belief that the conscience is the voice of reason (given by God) and Newman/Butler’s belief that it is the voice of God. For thinkers like Fromm, Freud and Piaget the conscience is instilled by society, authority figures and parents. Fromm believed that the society and authority around us from a young age, influences man to believe that if society accepts/denies something then this is likely to be right/wrong; this is the authoritarian conscience.
Like Piaget, Fromm believed that this influence of beliefs and morals will be internalised over time. Piaget and Kohlberg believed that it is the authority figures in our life, most specifically our parents, which will influence the morals of our conscience. Between the ages of 5 and 10 our conscience is still immature and under the influence of our parents, to shows us the punishments for rules being broken; Heteronomous. From the age of 10 we gain Autonomous morality, as this initial teaching of morals and influence of the conscience is replaced with the child developing their own understanding of morals. It is clear that the ‘voice of reason’ in the conscience is in fact the voice of authority figures in society, and the voice of our parents prescribing their beliefs onto their children, therefore Fromm, Piaget ad Kohlberg disagree with the statement.
Rather than parents and authority figures dictating the morals of man, under Piaget and Fromm, Freud argues that the conscience is the product of the mind that will be influenced by the values of the society they live in. Man’s personality is made from the Super-ego, ego and the id; the super-ego specifically sets moral codes that are given by outside influences.
This understanding of the conscience rejects the idea that the conscience is the voice of reason but rather the implementation of a variety of outside secular influences, ranging from parents and teachers to society as a whole. If societies hold different morals, then the use of reasoning (given by God) cannot be implemented universally as this is proven to be insufficient. Though all of mankind possess reason it is the influences of outside agencies that allows man to use the ‘conscience’ in line with what they have been taught as right and wrong; therefore it cannot be the voice of reason.
By discussing Aquinas’ support for claiming that the conscience is the voice of reason and analysing it with the concept of the conscience being the voice of God, viewed by Newman and Butler, and the concept that it is instilled by society, viewed mainly by those of secular beliefs. From this one may finally come to the conclusion that the conscience is not the voice of reason. Although it is still much debated, it is clear through history that society and authority figures play a major role in deciding what is morally right or wrong. In addition to Fromm’s authoritarian conscience there is the negative authoritarian conscience that misleads groups of people into doing sinful things; for example the Rwanda genocide in 1994. If all mankind posses reason how can one truly believe that the killing of innocents is the best thing for society.