Conscience, As Related To Medical Ethics

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"And always let your conscience be your guide" were the words of Pinnochio's consultant, Jiminy Cricket. Conscience may be defined as a subjective norm of morality, which involves the process of applying and committing to individual knowledge of moral principals and values to specific cases. Even though, according to the Catholic Church, a well-formed conscience should reveal the will of God and be in alignment with church teaching, this is not always the case. Because, with conscience, moral absolutes do not exist, decisions can be made based on purely subjective criteria, which can lead to moral relativism. This issue is currently of great concern to bioethicist; should conscience be the primary guide to ethically-based medical decisions?

When considering ethical values pertaining to medicine, the role of conscience is extremely significant. Contrary to popular belief, an ethically-grounded conscience is much more than Freud's "still small voice" that an individual may hear, but a well-formed conscience is, rather, a pronouncement of inductive reason. In order to have a well-formed conscience, an individual is obligated to inform themselves about ethical norms, incorporate that knowledge into their daily lives, act according to that knowledge, and take responsibility for those actions. Therefore, a mature conscience is formed in dialogue with the sources of moral wisdom, which are tradition, scripture, church teaching, reason and experience (Clark, notes, 2/21).

Historically speaking, conscience in Greek times was only referred to as consequent conscience, which only judged an action previously performed, whereas Paul is believed to first introduce antecedent conscience, which is considered to be a guide for present and...

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...ied if the patient is not influenced by a third party, has a free and informed conscience, and there is only a reasonable hope of benefit if burdens are placed on the patient or there is excessive expense to the family or community. Therefore, if the patient went through all 3 senses of conscience, then he would violate his integrity in deciding to undergo treatment.

When considering conscience, it is therefore extremely important to know that the patient or even the health-provider has used a well-informed conscience as his or her guide, so that chaos and disregard for standards of care can, by large, be avoided.


Clark, Peter, S.J., Ph.D. Notes

Curran, Charles E. Directions in Fundamental Moral Theology. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of d Notre Dame Press, 1985

Kavanaugh, John F. "Conscience Matters". Ethics Notebook. 1997.

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