The Central Distinctions Between Psychological and Theological Accounts of the Nature and Role of Conscience

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The Central Distinctions Between Psychological and Theological Accounts of the Nature and Role of Conscience

The biggest of distinctions that obviously accounts for all the rest,

is that theological accounts of conscience rely on the existence of

God, whereas psychological ones do not. However, this is not to say

that there are two simple ideas about conscience. The terms

‘psychological’ and ‘theological’ are very broad in terms of

conscience, and although thinkers within each grouping have some basic

similarities there are many different ideas within both groups. For

example, Aquinas and Augustine both believe that conscience is from,

or at least related to, God, yet whereas Augustine believes it be the

voice of God within us, Aquinas sees it merely as a faculty of reason

that helps us to do good and avoid evil (the synderesis principle).

This leads onto the disagreement over whether we intuitively know what

is right and wrong and are always right (as Augustine argues) or

whether we have to work out what is right and wrong and can often be

mistaken due to following ‘apparent’ rather than ‘real’ goods (as

Aquinas argues).

Joseph Butler had different ideas to both Aquinas and Augustine,

seeing conscience as ‘the final decision maker’. He believed that all

humans are influenced by two key principles: self-love and

benevolence. It is the role of conscience to steer us away from the

interests and love of ourselves, and towards the love of others. I.e.

much like the Christian rule of treating others as one would like to

be treated. Butler’s ideas were similar to Aquinas’ in that he

believed that our conscience helps us to decide/work out...

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...n he is displeased

people will feel guilty, yet the fact that Christianity is built on

forgiveness means that this guilt is increased many times over.

Perhaps punishment would make people less submissive, as it would give

something for people to focus their hate and anger on. If people truly

believe that God is the way to Heaven and eternal happiness then fear

of rejection will be inevitable. And though the humanistic conscience

may be ‘healthier’ for Fromm, it merely helps us to achieve our own

aims, not those of God, and so is essentially selfish and wrong.

Therefore, Fromm’s biggest strength is that he manages to describe

religion through psychology without critiquing it to a major extent,

almost managing to build a bridge between the two schools of though on

what the conscience is, why it’s there, and how it works.
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