Appeared in Fall 1994, Vol. XX, No. 3

Whenever I treat the issue of conscience in my undergraduate survey of ethics, I ask the students to prepare for class by sketching their own spontaneous definition of conscience. My favorite is: “My conscience is my inner dog which barks when I break my diet.” Most of the definitions tend to fall into emotivist, intuitionist or mystical accounts of conscience.

For the aspiring emotivist, conscience is a reservoir of moral sentiments. The following definitions are typical of the emotivist approach: “Conscience is the feeling that we should do something in particular.” “Conscience is an emotion about what we’ve done.” “Conscience is a feeling about good and evil.” The student emotivists might disagree on the temporal traits of conscience – whether, for example, conscience is primarily antecedent to or consequent upon human action. They agree, how- ever, that conscience involves arational emotions of attraction or repulsion concerning a particular object of moral choice.

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