“Conscience” and “conscious”: most people can use each of these words in a sentence. At the same time, I think they are frequently employed in a vague or imprecise manner and I hope the reflection to follow can contribute to achieve some clarity on their meanings.
Etymologically, both words indicate “knowing with” or “knowing together” (com- “with” + scire “know”).
Conscience is often understood to contain an element of moral evaluation. In this it may be compared to Socrates’ famous characterisation of his daimon or “divine (daimonion) something”:
This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of my being a politician. (Plato, Apology)
In this connection, conscience may similarly be related to Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia, which is frequently rendered in English as “happiness,” or perhaps “flourishing.” In light of Plato’s description above, however, it is clear the eudaimonia may be more accurately described as “life in good stead with conscience.” In both of these sources, conscience is inherently an ethical function in that it concerns value judgments.
Conscious, as a quality, or consciousness as a faculty, may be contrasted with conscience in respect to the evaluative element of the latter. Consciousness may refer to awareness that is reflexive (i.e. “noscit se ipsum”) and amoral. This is to say that while conscience is a discriminating faculty that judges the moral from the immoral, consciousness subtends this process as presence but does not contribute to the consummation of it. In this way, consciousness is both more and less than conscience.
One respect in which conscience is greater than consciousness is that it gathers and integrates diverse moments of consciousness and organises them into a coherent form. In this way, consciousness is the faculty by which we “know ourselves,” while conscience is that by which we “remember ourselves.” In this way, conscience is also a function of “continuity of consciousness.”
The notion of “self-remembering” may not immediately appear to contain a moral element until it is noticed how inclined we are to form one-sided images of ourselves. These self-caricatures serve at once to over-represent particular features while repressing others. This allows us to compare ourselves against others in an unrealistic ways. It also encourages projection and scapegoating as any element repressed in one form will impetuously seek expression in another. As a rule, we have to induce a temporary state of amnesia as to our own imperfections in order to justify faulting others for the same things. Conscience means bearing in mind and in memory the whole of ourselves, especially in the face of trying conditions. Often the return of conscience makes itself felt as a pang of remorse because we suddenly remember ourselves and regret having done something that we would not have done with continuity of consciousness. In this way, conscience is an engine of repentance or metanoia in us and thus is distinctly pertinent to the Book of Job—especially following God’s speech from the whirlwind.
There is a very expressive scene in the New Testament when a group of Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman whom they claim to have caught in the act of adultery and they wish to stone her according to the Mosaic law. At first Jesus ignores them and writes in the sand, but they are persistent. Finally he looks up and says “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” This statement seems to shock them into conscience or self-remembering. Sheepishly they depart one by one.