Conscience: An essay in moral epistemology

Author: ORCID icon
Garland, Andrew, Philosophy - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Stangl, Rebecca, AS-Philosophy, University of Virginia
Langsam, Harold, AS-Philosophy, University of Virginia

Conscience used to be a common topic in moral philosophy, but it has retreated into limited domains over the last 150 years or so. Nevertheless, a "folk" conception of conscience persists in ordinary moral discourse and in non-philosophical scholarship. On this view, conscience produces appearances of right and wrong by means of a distinctive kind of experience. Beliefs based on conscience are more like beliefs based on perception than on deliberation. This perceptual model explains why experiences of conscience can be so compelling and persistent, while also explaining why conscience is fallible. But conscience can still supply adequate grounds for rational beliefs about the moral quality of my actions. Conscience produces presentations of right and wrong, and these presentations justify beliefs about their content in ways similar to other commonplace presentations. Though there are limits on what we can know by conscience, its limits do not make it useless, or even inferior to other sources of moral knowledge. This theory of conscience can explain the typical platitudes about conscience’s role in society. Conscience is a way to resist social consensus, even against state coercion. But it is not infallible or decisive. Not every appeal to conscience is legitimate, but a legitimate appeal to conscience does require some degree of deference, even if it does not necessarily require the society to change its policies.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
conscience, ethics, epistemology, digital humanities, moral knowledge
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