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The conscience is generally viewed as a special entity in human consciousness that determines how one should judge and that indicates whether a course of action corresponds or disagrees with what a person sees as correct and consistent for himself. There is an urge , for ethical , moral and intuitive reasons, to carry out or to refrain from certain actions . Decisions can be perceived as inevitable or they can be made more or less consciously - in the knowledge of their requirements and conceivable consequences ( responsibility ).

The individual conscience is mostly seen as dependent on the norms of society and also on the individual moral attitudes of the person. Without an ethical orientation, the conscience remains “empty”; "Without responsibility the conscience is blind".

Usually one feels good when one acts according to one's conscience; that is then a good or a clear conscience. If someone acts against his conscience , he has a subjectively bad feeling; a bad , nagging conscience or remorse , which is also described as cognitive dissonance , a lack of harmony in consciousness.

Origin of the term

Today's meaning of conscience goes back essentially to Martin Luther . Before him, conscience could also express awareness or increased knowledge (certainty). This narrowed word meaning comes from the Greek syneidēsis term and its Latin translation conscientia. This cannot be properly translated as "consciousness" or as "conscience"; a neutral translation would be “co-knowing”. This can specifically be understood as the co-knowledge of a higher authority about one's own actions, sometimes rather our own, action-accompanying knowledge of the moral value of the action. In this sense, Johann Gottfried Gregorii alias Melissantes characterizes conscience as an inner mirror of emotions in a prince's mirror created on a moral theological basis in 1715, which says without error what is right or wrong, and therefore not hypocritical. It is an impartial judge in the human heart, where the thoughts of each other sue and apologize. There is a certain witness who will have a lot to say at the Last Judgment. Melissantes calls for freedom of conscience in connection with freedom of religion , "so that one does not injure one's conscience".

The concept of conscience is already in Daimonion of Socrates created: An inner voice warns of wrong actions. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt took up this term in the 20th century.

Legal perspective (Germany)

The federal German legislature grants great importance to the individual conscience , for example by granting its citizens the freedom to refuse military service for reasons of conscience (see Article 4, Paragraph 3 of the Basic Law : Nobody may be forced to do military service with a weapon against their conscience. ) .

The Federal Constitutional Court gave the term its shape in a decision from 1961. According to this, a decision of conscience is considered to be “every serious moral, i.e. H. Decision based on the categories of good and bad [...], which the individual experiences internally in a certain situation as binding and unconditionally binding, so that he could not act against it without serious conscience. "


Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud

The structural model of the psyche (1923) according to Sigmund Freud is based on the distinction between id , ego and superego .

Freud's notion of the unconscious is-compulsive it in his statements by the superego retardant controlled. The super-ego is understood as an introject , i.e. internalization of parental and social authority , through which the conscience is formed. It causes the child to adhere to behavior and expectations that are customary or expected in society. The mature ego , the individual personality with its conscious value-setting gained from experience, is formed in the way people deal with their social environment and by overcoming the demands of the superego.

Analytical psychology by CG Jung

For CG Jung in 1958/1959, conscience is an unconscious, autonomous complex of the human psyche, which may also assert itself against the conscious intention of the individual . A distinction is made between a moral and an ethical conscience.

The moral and moral conscience is based on the traditional values and beliefs of a society. Everything that corresponds to the corresponding customs, behavioral norms and moral laws is considered to be moral or moral (mores: manners, customs; moris: will that has become a rule, custom). The moral conscience is not only the result of the environment, upbringing and habit, but also of inherited instinctive behaviors. The moral judgment of abused and neglected children (aged three to five and a half years) differs little from that of their peers.

The ethical form of conscience occurs where two moral demands or modes of action stand side by side on an equal footing and drive the individual into a conflict of duties . Now the moral code and the personal conscience stand opposite one another as incompatible. The person concerned can experience for the first time that there is a difference between traditional and conventional morality and conscience. It also shows that custom itself cannot give him any satisfactory or no answer and help at all; he experiences his situation as highly individual. If the person concerned is ready to resolve his or her conflict of conscience , this leads to a new, individual act of judgment, which can also be understood as a creative achievement. It is clear to the executor that society will not approve or approve of his new actions. He feels, however, that the easy way of making moral decisions, by suppressing the content of conscience, must lead in the long term to illness and personal alienation .

Because of this high, autonomous dynamic, with which the ethical conscience knows how to assert itself against traditional morality, it is to be understood as “Vox Dei”, as God's voice. Like a divine intervention, it asserts itself against the will of the individual. It is not man who has a conscience, but a conscience that has man.

In the context of the “primitive” peoples, the ethical conscience is a mana phenomenon and, when implemented, leads to the breaking of taboos . The traditional tribal morality with its taboo rules and rituals is called into question, changed and renewed and adapted to the actual living conditions. The conscientious decision that has been made prevents society from freezing in an outdated and purely conventional moral code.


Kantian philosophy

According to Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), practical reason contains an a priori basic principle that precedes any morality . This a priori determines the categorical imperative . It applies absolutely and everywhere and can be used by everyone. It is also referred to as “the good conscience” and is a necessary but not a sufficient basis for good action .


In Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals from 1887, “conscience” is placed on the same level as “guilt”, “ duty ” and “ holiness of duty”. Instincts that cannot be actively lived “turn inwards”. “Guilt” and “duty” towards the previous generations in the form of a “bad conscience” finally become an unpaid debt: “[In the debtor], in which the bad conscience is now so stuck, eats in, spreads and polyp-like in every breadth and breadth Depth grows until finally with the insolvability of guilt also the insolvability of repentance , the thought of its inalienability (the 'eternal punishment ') is conceptualized -;… ”.

According to Nietzsche, the “bad conscience” in its “active” form is possibly the condition for the emergence of aesthetic sensations in the sense of “affirmation and beauty ”.

The term "guilty conscience" is used with different connotations. A parallel shimmers through between phylogenesis and incarnation in the individual, subjective sense. The “bad conscience”, which, according to Nietzsche, is apparently a genuinely human trait, which - it will not be very clear - belongs to every human being, but at least belongs to the artist, has to be overcome, affirmed, perhaps also integrated in order to create beauty and soul , ideals to create.

Dialectical materialism

According to dialectical materialism ( Marx ), conscience reflects the changeable state of society, which is explained by changing material relations of production . Since matter , the only reality, is constantly changing, no moral truth is absolute.

Richard Mervyn Hare

Richard Mervyn Hare (1919–2002) explains a guilty conscience as a kind of substitute for true prescriptivity . Because of the property of prescriptivity, every morally acting agent must consider himself bound by his own judgments, so that he must carry them out whenever he is physically and psychologically able to do so.

In other words: According to Hare, it doesn't make sense to say “I should do X” and then refrain from doing so. But it is sometimes easier (and to some it even seems the only way to explain things to oneself) to take refuge in self-reproach (failure in "critical thinking") or in a victim mentality ("psychological inability") instead of to take full responsibility for one's own behavior and to act accordingly.

It is well known that many prefer to hand over personal responsibility as much as possible to external or internal scapegoats (the state, the police, neighbors, foreigners, addictions, their own inability). It has been criticized, however, that the justification of this behavior by scientific theories is inadequate to help people to lead a morally responsible existence.

Christian religion


The Old Testament does not have a separate word for conscience. Rather, the functions of the conscience are assigned to the "heart" or sometimes the "kidneys" as the interior of the person. The heart as the starting point for good and bad deeds is more the intellectual, the kidneys more the emotional component of conscience. Ex: 2. Sam 24:10: "after David had counted the people, his heart (= conscience) beat". In Jeremiah 12: 2 the wicked are described: "You are only near their mouth, but far from their kidneys", i.e. That is, they speak of God, but they do not want God to influence their innermost decisions and feelings. In the New Testament , the term heart and parallel to it the Greek term syneidēsis = confidante, conscience (approx. 30 *). Rom 2:15 vividly describes what is going on in conscience: “With this they prove that what the law requires is written in their hearts, especially since their conscience testifies to it in them, including the thoughts that accuse one another or also excuse. ”The tainted conscience can be cleansed by the“ blood of Christ ”; H. by claiming the finished sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the deed that caused the remorse (Heb 9:14). Since conscience is not an absolute standard in itself (1 Cor. 4: 4), it is important to sharpen it again and again by aligning with the word of God (Rom. 12: 2). In addition, Paul admits to individual “dubious questions” that Christians can judge differently. Then (but not with clear answers from the Holy Scriptures) one should not adapt one's behavior to others, but follow one's own conscience (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8 + 10). The important double commandment of love for God and for one's neighbor is underlined by the statement in 1 Tim. 1: 5–6: “The ultimate goal of instruction, however, is love from a pure heart and from a good conscience and from undefended faith. Some have lost sight of this goal and have turned to useless chatter. "

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (13th century), following Albertus Magnus , defines conscience as the execution of a judgment about the moral value of an action. He recognizes two aspects in the conscience, a disposition of conscience ( synderesis ) and the concrete act of conscience ( conscientia ), in which norms and experiences introduced from outside merge into a judgment based on the disposition of conscience . For Thomas, the judgment of conscience is the last instance to which a person has to act, even if he is contradicting the official church. Conscience tracks the reasons and considerations that led to this action, but is not, like the pursuit of wealth, exposed to the influence of emotions and affects . Therefore, there can be a disproportion between choice of action and judgment of conscience (called “bad conscience”). The bad in the sense of a tormenting conscience only comes to the fore with Luther, who declares this to be the basic form of conscience.

Protestant theology

The Reformation (1517–1648) began with Luther's crisis of conscience due to the church of his time. For many Protestants, the individual decision of conscience in faith has more weight than submission to church authorities or certain readings of the Bible. This development already begins with Martin Luther himself. On April 18, 1521, Luther had to appear before the emperor and empire at the diet in Worms and comment on his writings. He concluded his speech with the words:

“Unless I am refuted by written testimony or a clear reason - for alone I do not believe the Pope or the councils; It is certain that they were often wrong and also contradicted themselves - so I am overcome by the scriptures I have quoted. And since my conscience is caught in the words of God, I cannot and will not revoke anything, because it is dangerous and impossible to do anything against conscience. God help me. Amen."

Luther thus appeals to freedom of conscience. In itself, that was nothing radically new; Since Thomas Aquinas, conscience has been understood as the authority in man that must be followed unconditionally, even if it is wrong. Luther appeals to this before the Diet of Worms; and yet he defined the concept of conscience new: This is not the set by God in the human action-orienting instance, but it is in the attachment to the Word of God handlungsbeurteilende instance. This means that conscience is now not of divine origin, as in medieval scholastic theology (synteresis vs. conscientia, see above), but nothing other than the inner psychic co-knowledge of the person with his actions and the judging authority in the person, which is shaped by external, predetermined values People themselves. With this Luther oriented himself to the meaning of “conscience”, as he found it in the letters of the apostle Paul: Here Paul uses the word syneidesis , which means “ knowing ” with oneself.

Later, the theologian Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889) had a decisive influence on the concept of conscience in the sense of the individuality of conscience. Ritschl emphasizes the need for given and consistent orientation values. Ritschl, however, only moves within the Christian concept of order and derives the concept of conscience from the Christian concept of virtue. And it would have to be classified in an overarching morality, such as that represented by human rights.

John Henry Newman

For John Henry Newman (1801–1890) there are moments of depth in the experience of conscience, in which man hears the echo of God's voice . He represents a rather mystical conception of the presence of God in human conscience.

Second Vatican Council

In the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) there is a tension in the explanation of the functioning of conscience, which stems from the compromise character of the Council texts. According to the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes , conscience is an excellent place to meet God, “the most hidden center” and “sanctuary in man”. Elsewhere, however, there is talk of a "law [...] to which man must obey".

Here some interpreters see a contradiction between the individual's autonomous decisions of conscience and conscience as an orientation towards internalized church moral norms. In the post-conciliar magisterial development, the encyclicals Humanae Vitae or Veritatis Splendor , the second aspect comes to the fore and the free decision of conscience in dialogue with the “inner voice” is seen as less important.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993) emphasizes that the conscience must be formed and shaped on the word of God for life in order for it to be able to give a correct judgment ( Conscience Formation , Catechism No. 1783–1785). The conscience can judge correctly if it is in accordance with reason and divine law, or it can be wrong if it fails to keep both (Catechism 1786). A person must also follow an erroneous conscience if he has endeavored to form a right conscience (Catechism No. 1793).

To explore the conscience of the individual that includes Gotteslob the conscience levels .


At the Catholic Congress in Mechelen, Charles de Montalembert also called for freedom of conscience in 1853, while Pius IX. rejected this in 1864.


Systems theory

Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) interpreted conscience as a function in the service of identity formation : the possibilities a person has to relate to the world are far greater than the ability to realize them (all at once). I can be a villain, a saint, a coward, a hero - but not all at once. The person chooses certain options and suggests others and thus forms a personality, i. that is, it becomes a selective structure that typically acts one way and no other. Humans need control bodies with which they succeed in being and remain a constant personality, “and such a control body [...] is conscience [...]. Every visible and in this sense external behavior of the human being [...] says something about what the human being is. Whether he wants to or not, he presents himself in his behavior and thus commits himself, since time irrevocably removes his behavior [...] into the past. If he wants to portray himself as an identical personality, he has to keep control over his appearance. This is only possible if he is objectified through internal processes that are beyond our view. As George Herbert Mead has shown, he bases this reflection on the fact that others objectify him and that he can adopt their attitude. [...] Since his situations and behavioral problems are quite complex, he has to internalize his personality, abstract his personal values, be able to remember his story of self-portrayal. The more he comes in this way shaping the character, the more he can stretch his self-representation, the more complex its can life world to be. But he never needs to reflect the complexity of the whole world inside him. The function of the personality lies in the area of ​​reducing the innumerable potentialities of the ego to a coherent, individual self-presentation. "

As I said, this is served by conscience. That is exactly how everyday intuition understands its role when you say that you still have to be able to look in the mirror in the morning to see whether you have become the same or what has become of you. Conscience poses the future-oriented question of what should become of me, and looks into the past at what has become of me - "in conscience you make your own being a decision". “After the deed […] [forces] the conscience […] to identify with the past, to realize that I am still and forever someone who could act like this. Conscience then asks me to rearrange the remaining possibilities in the ruins of my existence. "

“Luhmann defined [...] conscience as a system-regulating element without any compelling ethical statement. He assigned him the cybernetically relevant function of restricting the threatening freedom of choice of the individual to a level that was tolerable for him. According to Luhmann, this is the only way to secure the personal identity and self-sufficiency of the individual. So here is a functional and essentially non-ethical interpretation of the concept of conscience, which does not deny the phenomenon as such. The conscience as a psychosocial ordering function of being human without definite value attachment corresponds to the radical metaphysics-critical approach of systems theory . "

Behavioral biology

Doris Bischof-Koehler

In her model, Doris Bischof-Köhler (* 1936) decisively expanded the stages of development of moral judgment according to Kohlberg. Your model is based on functional layers. In contrast to Kohlberg, when a higher level is reached, the other levels remain active and they interact with one another.

1st level - impulsive, purely biologically conditioned
Gene-controlled behavioral programs in infants - "maturation"
Example: suckling reflex in babies
2nd level - learning through individual experience
"Biological maturation" is supplemented by what has been learned
Example: attachment to a permanent caregiver , learning to tie shoes
3rd level - empathy
Participation in the emotions of the other, recognition that external expression of feelings triggers something in the other
"Empathy" is basically based on biological ability ( mirror neurons )
4th level - empathy
Inner visualization of the situation of the other person, being able to empathize with him
Higher cognitive performance than “empathy” - requires self- awareness, in which one looks at oneself from the perspective of others
5th level - think in
Ability to empathize not only with the situation but also with the actions of the other
“Time travel” - the child constructs theories from observations and empathy about how a person will behave in the future
6th level - affirm social and legal systems
Superordinate rules and regulations are recognized as a result of insight

Bernhard Hassenstein

In his description of conscience, Hassenstein (1922–2016) refers to the model of Bischof-Köhler.

Origin and functioning

From a behavioral point of view, the key role in the decision of conscience is the maximum permeability . Colloquially, it can also be referred to as the “ inhibition threshold ”. It is the authority for deciding between mutually incompatible behavioral tendencies. The strongest behavioral impulse in each case then "wins" the decision of conscience.

The behavioral impulses come from three areas: biologically determined impulses, impulses shaped by processes and results of learning, and impulses shaped by mental processes. According to Hassenstein, biologically conditioned impulses are the strongest. For example, feelings such as panic fear easily “overrun” “spiritual impulses” when making a decision of conscience, such as the conviction that you are helping a person in an emergency.

According to the behavioral biological model, the “contents” of conscience are fundamentally indefinite. So it is also possible at level 6 of Bischof-Köhler's model that the pursuit of values ​​such as "God's commandments", "the decent", "the healthy" "leads to cruel results in certain cultural circumstances and has already done so. According to Hassenstein, the content of conscience is in principle only limited by "what human imagination and thought can produce."

The knowledge is of great importance in the decision of conscience. Fatal mistakes in fateful conscience decisions can be reduced through greater applicable personal knowledge. More important than theoretical knowledge are your own life experience and your own actions, as well as experience gained from observing and listening to as many different people as possible.

Unscrupulous action and need of conscience

There are biological givens that numb the voice of conscience. Four examples:

  1. Group aggression: Complicated mechanism that leads to “black and white thinking” of a group; “Friend or foe - nothing in between.” An example of group aggression is the attitude of the population of the warring states shortly after the outbreak of the First World War.
  2. General fear-related inhibition of thinking: someone who z. B. suffers from severe exam anxiety, cannot “freely” decide to take an exam.
  3. Special fear-related inhibition of thinking (repression): One bypasses thoughts that were unbearable. A thought is associated with fearful associations and is therefore avoided. The rest of the thinking is normal. Issues of concern should therefore be deliberately "thought through".
  4. A lack of empathy between adults and children: It means that the levels of empathy (3), empathy (4) or thinking (5) are not properly developed. Some young violent criminals show no sympathy for their victims.

Need of conscience arises when one has to choose between two actions that are both required by conscience but contradict one another. These inevitable contradictions in individual cases are conditioned by the realities of our world. Another type of distress of conscience arises when unfounded feelings of guilt become overwhelming (e.g. children who feel responsible for their parents' divorce).

Sources of strength of conscience

The question arises as to what, from a behavioral point of view, gives people the strength to defend their “decision of conscience” even against massive disadvantages or dangers. According to Hassenstein, perceptions and mental attitudes need an emotional factor (this belongs to a more primal level of behavioral control) in order to become an imperative. Only then do they prevail against other behavioral tendencies in the maximum value passage.

Studies of the "rescuers" who helped people threatened with death in Nazi Germany suggest certain traits that can be called "sources of strength for conscience". This includes the frequent praise of parents for good and right behavior , a close and good relationship with one parent, further extension of the compassionate behavior that can be attached to a role model such as Albert Schweitzer .


Web links

Commons : Conscience  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Conscience  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Honnefelder: What should I do, who do I want to be? 2007, p. 56.
  2. Melissantes: Curieuser AFFECTen-Spiegel. Frankfurt am Main, Leipzig [and Arnstadt] 1715, p. 57.
  3. Melissantes: Curieuser AFFECTen-Spiegel. Frankfurt am Main, Leipzig [and Arnstadt] 1715, p. 251.
  4. See BVerfGE 12, 45, 55 .
  5. The Conscience in Psychological Perspective, 1958 / Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology. 1959. In: Collected works by C. G. Jung, Volume 10, 1981.
  6. On the genealogy of morals. Second Treatise: "Guilt," "Bad Conscience," And Related. KSA 5, p. 291 ff.
  7. On the genealogy of morals. Second Treatise: "Guilt," "Bad Conscience," And Related. KSA 5, p. 322.
  8. On the genealogy of morals. Second Treatise: "Guilt," "Bad Conscience," And Related. KSA 5, p. 331.
  9. See on the genealogy of morals. Second Treatise: "Guilt," "Bad Conscience," And Related. KSA 5, p. 326.
  10. See Richard M. Hare: Freedom and Reason. Frankfurt am Main 1983, p. 94.
  11. Quoted from: Martin Luther, Selected Writings, ed. by Karin Bornkamm and Gerhard Ebeling, Vol. I: Aufbruch zur Reformation, Insel TB 1751, Insel, Frankfurt am Main / Leipzig 1995, p. 269.
  12. Cf. Reiner Anselm, Art. Conscience, in: Lexikon Theologie. Hundred Basic Concepts, ed. by Alf Christophersen and Stefan Jordan, Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 2004, pp. 131-133: 132.
  13. Cf. Rom 2:15; 9.1; 13.5; 1Cor 8,7 and others; 10.25 etc .; 2Cor 1.12; 4.2; 5.11.
  14. Cf. Klaus H. Fischer, Der Richterstuhl des Gewissens, in: Albrecht Ritschl, About Conscience, Schutterwald / Baden 2008, p. 12.
  15. See .
  16. ^ Oskar Panizza : German theses against the Pope and his dark men. With a foreword by MG Conrad. New edition (selection from the “666 theses and quotations”). Nordland-Verlag, Berlin 1940, p. 13 f.
  17. Jan Philipp Reemtsma: About the term "scope for action".
  18. Quoted from: Roland Mahler, Conscience and Conscience Education in Psychotherapy , Vs Verlag 2009.
  19. See Hassenstein: Conscience in biological anthropology, p. 766.
  20. a b cf. Hassenstein: Conscience in biological anthropology, p. 767.
  21. ^ Hassenstein: Conscience in biological anthropology, p. 765.
  22. See Hassenstein: Conscience in biological anthropology. P. 768 ff.
  23. See Hassenstein: Conscience in biological anthropology . P. 771.
  24. See Hassenstein: Conscience in biological anthropology, p. 771 f.