What Is a Conscience, Anyway?

[1] The great Louis Armstrong was reportedly asked once how he would define “jazz.” His famous reply was, “Man, if you’ve gotta ask… you’ll never know.” Some things seem intuitively clear to people who are familiar with them, and could never satisfactorily be described or defined by them. One wonders whether “conscience” might be just such an elusive notion. So many thinkers have attempted definitions and descriptions of conscience in the history of theology and philosophy that it comes to seem like a wax nose, obedient to the twisting and turning of those who use it.1 So if we are to understand what the ELCA social statement on human sexuality means by referring to a “bound conscience,” we will have to know something about what it is that is bound.2 This article seeks to outline three ways in which conscience has been depicted and described in modern thought. The thinkers whose views I examine are philosophers, but they are philosophers who have been very influential for theologians, and particularly Lutheran theologians. The three “schools of thought” examined here are German Idealism, Existentialism, and Phenomenology. I try to show briefly how “conscience” is conceived in each of them, and then conclude with some thoughts on how this might help us understand the current debate about the bound conscience and human sexuality.

What Is a Conscience, Anyway? by Derek R. Nelson

[2] The first school of thought we can consider is Idealism, especially as that philosophy took root in Germany. Idealism refers to the conviction that the ultimate nature of the world is based on its perception in the mind, or in ideas. The most real thing for an Idealist is the mental experience of an object by a thinking subject. When Idealist philosophers turn from discussions of how the thinking subject knows the ideal world (epistemology) to discussions of how the subject is to act (ethics), conscience is frequently invoked. Let the 19th century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel be our exemplar here.3 Hegel’s key insight was that the eternal, absolute, unconditioned Spirit, which the Christian tradition calls God, is working in and through temporal, conditioned, relativized human minds.4 As we become more and more aware of the ultimate reality at work in world (and human) history, we become increasingly conscious of this Absolute Spirit. As an infinitely long tangent line touches a closed circle at just one point, so too does the infinite Spirit touch the finite human at just one point — the mind. The reflective mind, for Hegel, becomes aware of its freedom to act, and that freedom exercises itself in the use of “right.”5 Hegel moves from examining these relatively individualistic “rights” (such as the right to property, the right to express oneself, etc.), through a discussion of interpersonal moral interactions (contracts), and leads us then to “morality,” which for Hegel is basically an internalization of external laws and a conforming of the individual’s particular will with the absolute will of the eternal Spirit. The ability of humans to know whether or not a particular action is in keeping with the eternal will is supplied by conscience. As Hegel puts it, “Conscience expresses the absolute right of the subjective self-consciousness to know perfectly just what the right and the obligatory are.”6

[3] This is not pure “Protestant inwardness,” however. Hegel would never say that the conscience of one person could effectively contradict the conscience of another regarding whether an action conformed or did not conform to the universal, absolute will. At least one of them must be wrong. The determination of whether one’s conscience is right or not belongs not to the sphere of morality, but to the concrete ethical life [Sittlichkeit]. This is fundamentally a communal concept. Groups of thinking people (Hegel would say “a State”) have discerned the activity and nature of Spirit in their history, and its counsels regarding the conformity of particular actions to universal truths are to be followed.

[4] Another school of thought that has had significant influence on contemporary theology in general, and Lutheran theology in particular, is existentialism. Begun in Germany with such seminal thinkers as Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, and reaching the peak of its influence in French thinkers like Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre, existentialism is chiefly concerned with human freedom. The shape of existence for each person is a problem that can be solved only by the use of our freedom. Since we are finite persons who will die, the choices that we make — choices about whom to marry, what to do for work, where to live — take on significance since each decision that we make cuts off some possibilities and opens up others. “Conscience” played an important role in this school of thought, and consequently influenced many Lutheran theologians, like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. Our exemplar for how conscience functions in this school of thought is Martin Heidegger.7

[5] For Heidegger, conscience is fundamentally a “calling.”8 It is a kind of dialogue between one voice and another. However, only one voice is actually saying anything. The self that lives day-to-day and has to make decisions and use tools and discuss mundane matters with other people — the self that Heidegger called “Dasein” or “being there”— is vulnerable to a misuse of freedom. We become comfortable in our routines, avoiding difficult decisions about ourselves and our world and becoming unhealthily unreflective. To this being, to this self, the conscience speaks. And the conscience says… Nothing. In Heidegger’s phrase, “Conscience discourses solely and constantly in the mode of keeping silent.”9 The conscience is the voice of our “authentic” being, the self that we most truly are, deep down inside. This authentic self knows right from wrong, knows freedom from captivity. And it desires to communicate to the self the truth of that authenticity. But it cannot say anything. Jesus stands before Pilate, who asks Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Jesus simply remains silent. And in that remaining silent, he says so much. He answers Pilate’s question about truth by standing there, being the truth.10 So too, our conscience calls to each of us with a deafening silence, urging us to put aside the penultimate things of this world and listen to the authentic selves we should be trying to become.

[6] What the conscience says, in saying nothing, is really just one thing: “Guilty!” The calling of conscience is experienced by the one who hears the silent call as a kind of condemnation.11 It is like an alarm clock ringing for the sixth time in a single morning; the “sound” of the clock is not important. What matters is that the message “You overslept!” is communicated. Conscience silences the babble and prattle of inauthentic existence and tells us (or better, “allows us”) to wake up to authenticity.12 Heidegger’s friend and student Hannah Arendt took this line of thinking in a similar direction when she wrote that “conscience is the anticipation of the fellow who awaits you if and when you come home.”13

[7] A third school of thought, called phenomenology, also makes use of conscience, but in a way quite unlike Idealism and Existentialism. Phenomenology is fundamentally concerned with consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. It is therefore less interested in speculation about generalities, or “universals” like those described in Idealism. It instead focuses on the concrete, on the particular. Pure “subjects” do not encounter pure “objects” in the real world. Rather, subject and object always appear together, and it is this unity of subject and object that is the proper mode of philosophical reflection. This is true of the way phenomenology approaches the notion of conscience. Here we let the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas serve as our exemplar.

[8] What is of paramount ethical importance for Levinas is not whether one’s actions conform to abstract universal laws, or whether by looking in at myself and my motivations one can find some pure, authentic self trying to work its way out. Rather, conscience arises fundamentally from viewing the “face of the other.” I might have some ideas about universal laws, such as whether the golden rule is a valid universal ethical code. But whether my actions are ethical do not depend on whether or not I have internalized this law. It depends on my encounter with the concrete face of the one toward whom I act. Conscience is thus a kind of “calling” as it was for Hegel and for Heidegger. But the caller is not an abstract external entity nor an opaque internal one. The caller is the face of the other. In every encounter where I meet the face of some “Other,” my conscience is invoked by the call from that Other.

[9] In Levinas’ words, “I have attempted a ‘phenomenology of sociality’ starting from the face of the other person — from proximity — understanding in its rectitude a voice that commands… It commands me not to remain indifferent to this death, to not let the Other die alone.”14 When the knock at the door comes at 3 a.m. and a stranger stands there looking at me, obviously in need of help, one does not begin to discern abstract principles like “duties to passersby” and weigh them against “duties to protect my family from potential threats.” Rather, one sees the face of the Other, and sees the face of one’s family. Rules do not apply here. Rules may have their utility in some spheres of life, but in any concrete encounter with an ethical valence, they are at best secondary. To put the point as strongly as possible: Conscience requires that I be ready to subjugate my understanding of ethical rules and norms in the context of seeing the Other’s face. Clearly, we have a different notion of what conscience is and how it functions in phenomenological thought, idealist thought, and existentialist thought.

[10] How might understanding the different ways that conscience is used in modern thought illumine the riddle before the ELCA and its new statement on sexuality and the “bound conscience?” I propose that it does so in two ways. First, it helps us to examine the question of the universality of an ethical issue. In the Idealist conception, the conscience in each person is fundamentally the same, and hears the same calling of the one infinite, eternal God. It follows, then, that at some point, the response to the calling should be uniform. One who holds to a basically Idealist view of conscience will say that differing convictions about the conformity of homosexual sexual activity to the universal law are incompatible. Either same-gender relationships are compatible with the eternal law of God or they are not. To say that a conscience is “bound” in this way, is not really possible. Either the conscience is deluding its holder, or telling the truth. In the existentialist conception of conscience, we would expect rather less universality. This is because the “authentic self” that does the calling is different in each person. The ways that the self has used his or her freedom to act vary so widely that the call has to be different. In the case of phenomenology, grounds exist to say that the universal laws that we all agree are universal laws could flatly not apply in certain cases. If I see in the face of a gay colleague a person equipped for and seemingly called to ordained ministry, then I have grounds to affirm him in that calling on the basis of my conscience even if I also intuit an ethical, universal rule against affirming certain kinds of sexual activity. Clarity on whichever of these alternative views of conscience (and there are of course many other ones) we might be using highlights the lines of debate in helpful ways, and stops those involved in moral deliberation from talking past one another.

[11] Second, clarification on the notion of conscience may help us to examine the question of the gravity of an ethical issue. When Timothy Wengert, in his background paper “Reflections on the Bound Conscience in Lutheran Theology” concludes that in matters of adiaphora, the weak or bound conscience must be respected for pastoral reasons, how is the determination of “adiaphora” made?15 If a conscience is conceived along the lines of Idealism, a distinction between differentiated and undifferentiated matters is not valid. The Absolute Spirit gives itself to be discerned by human minds in its entirety, after all. The perceived gravity of current debates about sexuality might also be different if a phenomenological notion of conscience were employed. Imagine the pained faces of, say, one for whom the full recognition of gay and lesbian partnerships is utterly vital and one for whom the full recognition of the authority of theological traditions on the meaning of sex and marriage are essential. Beginning from that starting point, rather than from the perspective of, say a natural law approach, or immediately turning to exegesis, might have allowed a very different moral debate to unfold.

[12] The worry of some in the ELCA is that “bound conscience” has actually little to do with any kind of sophisticated notion of conscience at all. Rather, it seems as though bound conscience was simply a convenient means to finding a way not to say anything decisive about a divisive issue. Perhaps, instead, we in the church might use this tense moment as an opportunity to come to some greater clarity on what we mean, after all, by “conscience.” It might thereby become less a wax-nose to be manipulated and more a beacon whose light we could follow in the dark nights of serious moral deliberation.

Derek R. Nelson is Assistant Professor of Religion and Co-Director of Thiel Global Institute at Thiel College. He is also a member of the ELCA Criminal Justice Task Force.


1. Thinkers as different as, for example, Richard Rothe, Sigmund Freud and A.J. Ayer have thus advocated discarding the concept altogether. See Rothe, Theologische Ethik (Wittenberg: Koelling, 1889–91), II.21; Freud, “The Cultural Super-Ego” in Peter Singer, ed., Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 49–50; and Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (New York: Dover, 1952), 111–3.

2. Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2009), 11n26. I am less persuaded than the authors of the social statement evidently were that Paul has a unified understanding of “conscience” ( Gk. Συνείδησις ) in Rom 2:15. His usage seems more ad hoc, as 2 Cor. 5:11, e.g., understands conscience apparently quite differently.

3. Johann Gottlieb Fichte might in some ways be a better exemplar, since he makes more explicit reference to conscience (Gewissen) in his ethical writings. But since Hegel’s thought is better known and has been more influential in Lutheran ethical thought, we will here follow Hegel.

4. The German word Geist means both “spirit” and “mind.”

5. “Recht.” On this, see Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. S.W. Dyde (New York: Cosimo, 2008), xxiii–lxii.

6. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, 60.

7. I do not mean to imply that Heidegger is precisely typical of existentialism in all its forms, or that by calling him an existentialist I ignore the phenomenological overtones of his work. On the location of Heidegger in 20th century philosophy I have been influenced by Hubert Dreyfus, et al., eds., Heidegger Re-examined (New York: Routledge, 2002), esp. vol. 2, and Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

8. Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, (London: SCM, 1962), 315.

9.. Heidegger, Being and Time, 318.

10. A beautiful dramatization of this scene can be found in Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (New York: Harper, 1977), 8–16.

11. Heidegger’s way of putting this matter has some affinities with Luther’s conception of the conscience as being first “Deus accusator, cor defensor” and then “cor accusator, Deus defensor” “God the accuser, the heart the defender, and then the heart the accuser, and God the defender.” WA 56, 204.

12. Heidegger, Being and Time, 322.

13. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (Orlando: Harcourt, 1978), 191.

14. Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. Richard Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 109.

15. Wengert, “Reflections on the Bound Conscience in Lutheran Theology,” 7–8. http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Social-Statements/JTF-Human-Sexuality/Report-and-Recommendation/FAQs-Bound-Conscience.aspx

Derek R. Nelson

Derek R. Nelson is Assistant Professor of Religion and Co-Director of Thiel Global Institute at Thiel College. He is also a member of the ELCA Criminal Justice Task Force.