Deep conscience and accountability to God

In his last post Jon Holmlund referred to the concept of deep conscience as defined by J. Budziszewski. I think it is worthwhile to spend a little time on the implications of deep conscience. When Budziszewski writes about deep conscience he is distinguishing it from surface conscience. Surface conscience consists of our conscious moral beliefs which may vary from person to person and has similarities to the concept of convictions. Surface conscience applies to our day to day decisions and consists of derived beliefs that may have been derived in error. Deep conscience refers to a foundational first knowledge of morality that is what we derive our moral convictions from. As Budziszewski says in his book, What We Can’t Not Know, it consists of concepts such as friendship is good, gratuitous harm is wrong, and we ought to be fair.

Even though it may be called other things, the existence of deep conscience is widely accepted. Moral philosophers call it common sense morality when they use the moral convictions we all share as a test of moral theories. Beauchamp and Childress built their widely used principles of biomedical ethics on common morality, recognizing that people could agree on basic moral principles even though they cannot agree on moral theory. Mary C. Gentile uses common morality as the justification for teaching business managers to give voice to their values without specifying what those values are.

However, the existence of deep conscience or the fundamental principles of common morality presents a problem for those who do not recognize the existence of God as creator. As C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity we not only recognize that there are moral values that all people share across time and across cultures, but we also recognize that we do not live up to those moral standards. If common morality was just the values that were found to be necessary for the existence of human society, then we would expect that those standards would be readily achievable. What we find is that we all know what is right, but we all fail to live up to those standards. That implies that there is a source of those standards beyond us. The existence of deep conscience does not fit with a godless world that has come about through chance and time. It says that there is a moral order to the world that is beyond us as humans. Just as the order and complexity of the physical and biological world leads to the idea that there must be a designer or creator, the existence of deep conscience implies that there is a source for our moral concepts who has made us with a purpose.

As Jon said in his post, deep conscience tells us that we are accountable to God. That is the uncomfortable thing about conscience in our society. We live in a society that worships autonomy. The idea that we are accountable to the one who is the source of conscience leads either to acceptance of that accountability, and can be the first step toward the answer to the problem of our not living up to what we know to be right that we find in Jesus, or leads to the suppression of our knowledge of right and wrong to try to remain autonomous.

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Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund
8 years ago

Hear, hear, Steve. Thanks for expanding on this. I have also seen Budziszewski describe surface conscience as the application of the fundamental truths recognized by deep conscience. In any event, I think this post helps further address the conscience/convictions issue.

Susan Haack
Susan Haack
8 years ago

Thanks for all of your expansions.