Jason J. Howard: Conscience in Moral Life

Conscience in Moral Life: Rethinking How Our Convictions Structure Self and Society Book Cover Conscience in Moral Life: Rethinking How Our Convictions Structure Self and Society
Jason J. Howard
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback £24.95

Reviewed by: Paniel Reyes Cárdenas (UPAEP, Puebla, Mexico / The University of Sheffield)

In this text Jason J. Howard presents a reflective piece of reasoning that enables one to grasp the origins of the contemporary idea of conscience along with its uses and abuses. If we were to trace Howard’s work it seems as though the present book is a natural consequence of the different paths of his philosophical inquiry. Indeed, previous works such as: Adventures in Reasoning: Communal Inquiry Through Fantasy Role-Play (2015); “Kant and Moral Imputation: Conscience and the Riddle of the Given” (2004); and in particular “Political Identity and the Dynamics of Accountability in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (2006) seem to converge for the nuanced view presented in this book. He proposes a renewed way of approaching conscience through phenomenological study and brings to a reasoned reflection all that constitutes an element of morality for an individual and a community: practical reason, the formation of moral character and, most importantly, the interplay of our moral emotions. One of the most important claims Howard makes is that as a result of over-estimation, conscience has become an inflated concept which makes it difficult for one to refer to it in order to gain a clear understanding of how to solve moral conflicts. However, this is not a plea to get rid of the concept, but to articulate it with our moral emotions in a conscious synthesis, as we will see below.

How did we arrive at such criticised concept of conscience? Howard explores the history of moral philosophy chasing the origins of the concept. Howard presents the development of the modern usage of ‘conscience’ from two important sources; a medieval concept of conscience as sinderesis and what he names the faculty view of conscience. On the one hand Howard presents the history of philosophy, and shows that the ancient conception of conscience and the medieval (sinderesis) are not the origin of the modern concept. The concept of sinderesis is accompanied of the concept of conscientia “Synderesis becomes largely interpreted as innate moral knowledge that cannot be effaced, while conscientia is the belief or application of our innate moral knowledge, of which we can be mistaken.” (20) On the other hand, Howard explains that from the perspective of modernity it has become clear that an obscurely ontological notion of conscience has started to play a large role in the discussion; a kind of independent moral voice that was not required to explain motives or reasons, and that this became what he calls “the faculty view of conscience” (see 21-22). Authors like Butler, Newman and even Kant favored this movement, placing particular emphasis in the (perhaps protestant-originated) conviction that the voice of conscience is not subject to questioning. Howard shows how philosophers such as Hegel (1976, 397-406) and Ricoeur (1992, 236) acknowledge a problem with the false consciousness that can be hidden through a solipsistic view of conscience; a view that presents conscience as a sort of independent and inscrutable source of moral decision that isolates itself and the acting individuals from rational scrutiny and accountability. Howard’s argumentation aims to show that the “faculty view of conscience” presents conscience as an alien a priori moral agent within us, a claim near to impossible to justify, whereas he shows that the views of Hegel, Ricoeur and his own make conscience emerge from a reasoned interplay of core moral emotions.

According to Howard, the faculty view of conscience is used as an umbrella term which constitutes a constellation of assumptions and presumptions and the core of his critique concerns questioning what this view amounts to. Indeed, the faculty view “commits one to assuming that conscience is an independent component of human nature” (32), and the independence of conscience is thus explained or justified in the light of its infallibility and innateness. The faculty view, in Howard’s opinion, adopts a sense of infallibility and innateness that are empirically and conceptually empty and indefensible. Howard seems to interpret this aspect of the faculty view as a metaphysically thick concept, one that begs far too many concessions as even if the infallibility and innateness can appear plausible they are not and any effort to save the phenomenon of conscience must do so without relying on this conception. Howard states that there is a definite need “… for an alternate conception of conscience other than the faculty view if we want to retain a notion of conscience that is explanatorily relevant” (32). Howard´s proposal emerges from the assumption that morality is best understood in terms of social interaction. According to him, the problem with the faculty view is that it does not allow for a fully-fledged conscious response to the legitimate needs, concerns and expectations of not only others, but even of the individual agents themselves.

Alongside his own criticisms, Howard introduces some historical challenges aimed at the faculty view. As we see in Charles Taylor’s description of a secular age (2007, 17-21) while Freud attacked the instinctual renunciation present in the faculty view; Nietzsche fought the radical moral conformism that could conceal; and Heidegger the conformism that prevents people from taking account of the meaning of their own being (33).

Chapter Four furthers the critique addressed to the faculty view, nonetheless, does not mean that there is no need of a view of conscience at all, and in Chapter Four Howard introduces his actual proposal to rescue the relationship between conscience and our core moral convictions. The structure of this chapter includes an analysis of the three emotions he believes to be at the core interplay that should ground conscience: shame, guilt and pride. In order to do it, Howard analyses the role that conscience should play in relation to the “internalization and evaluation of certain core norms and values” (87). He elaborates by showing the phenomenological interplay of the structuring of our characters, values, convictions with a special emphasis in the phenomenology of three prominent moral emotions; pride, guilt and shame. Howard aims to specify the way in which the case for a “good conscience” needs to articulate itself with practical reasons, character and moral emotions. Pride plays a role in structuring our moral convictions, but it also bears the risk of isolating us and rendering us insensitive to the needs of others. Shame reminds us of the public character of our actions and makes us aware of it at all times, and guilt, rightly managed, helps us monitoring how we behave in the past in order to picture our future actions. In Howard’s opinion, conscience can be recovered as a horizon of fulfillment between the prideful self-absorption and a thoroughgoing commitment and sensitivity to other’s needs. In order to facilitate this we need to integrate moral emotions with a sense of moral accountability. This is the way in which the faculty view can give way to a more reasoned view of conscience, one that does not isolate us from a reflective character in our moral commitments, whichever these are.

In Chapter Five Howard also traces the consequences of the substantive view of conscience in the legal system of the United States; his aim is to show that the way in which this discussion unfolds reveals a problem with the faculty view of conscience that brings jurisprudence to a halt. Indeed, it seems that the legal system in the U.S. has proved vulnerable to cases in which conscience is used to avoid giving reasons. Howard stresses that the mentioned cases are usually impending problems that involve rights to uphold and obligations to fulfil that an agent could cunningly avoid. Howard carefully traces different cases related to objections of conscience given to stop individuals from having to comply with military service or issues of healthcare. An outstanding case is the majority opinion of the Supreme Court of California People vs. Stewart of 1857 (130): this case is a representative fact where the faculty view of conscience helps somebody to avoid legal obligation by claiming a view of conscience as an inaccessible “black box”. The way conscience was described in this particular way was a conscience that “acknowledges no superior, bows to no authority, yields to no demonstration… is governed by no law” (130). Howard aims to be very impartial in presenting these cases: he doesn’t want to argue for or against a particularly contentious moral problem such as the objections of conscience in cases of the provision of services in healthcare, which of course makes us consider the case of abortion or other issues. Howard wants us to recover the space for serious discussion rather than appealing to a mysterious agency of an inaccessible conscience. According to Howard, those who object to an appeal to conscience often exploit and/or profit from the obscurity inherent in our understanding of the term. In Howard’s opinion (154) the term conscience understood from the faculty view point of view is intractable to sustain a “right of conscience”.

We must agree with Howard that the notion of conscience used in the U.S. legal system is obscure to say the least, but it does not necessarily follow that the concept of conscience cannot be grounded. Howard advocates for the preservation of the aspects of conscience that represents our deepest moral convictions, but he is critical of its use as a “get out of jail free card” i.e. of conscience as something which could halter discussions which seek to solve problems in relation to obtaining justice. One of Howard’s greatest achievements in the book is that, though he criticizes the history, uses and abuses of the faculty view of conscience, he rescues a true place for conscience as that which can be shaped by reasoned evaluation of our moral beliefs and emotions. He emphasizes in Shame, Guilt and Pride, and the reader might profit of a beginning of a phenomenological study of each of these.

In addition, Howard helps us to reflect how moral formation has to take place at an early stage when our convictions form and get strengthened by a responsible engagement in public and social life. He states how important it is e.g. to convey to children the value of grasping and understanding other people’s emotions in order for them to form their own moral character. Philosophical reflections on our ethos as individuals within a society help us to form a true consciousness (as Hegel explains in the Phenomenology of the Spirit). Our moral emotions need to be made conscious so that we can tell whether they are a true ethical response to our way of being in the world as flourishing human beings. Howard reminds us of Dewey’s (1992, 575-98) efforts to understand that our responses to ethical issues have a dynamic character, framing these evolving aspect of morality as early as childhood. Hence, we must adapt by the use of our reason and dialogue, as well as utilizing a democratic spirit, to ongoing and future situations. Howard draws attention to the formation of conscience which is key in relation to Peirce’s metaphor of knowledge (1868, 140-57); not a chain that is as strong as the weakest link but a cable formed by different fibers and strands that become strengthened by their mutual configuration. His intention is to illustrate that moral character and a positive view of conscience require integration with the complexity of our moral life.

One could argue that Howard goes too far with his repeated suggestions that all the convictions that contribute to the formation of conscience must be equally traceable by a phenomenological as well as rational scrutiny. To be clear, this would require every individual who feels damaged in his convictions to be philosophically trained to offer a reconstruction of these convictions, and the appeal to conscience would suggest something very serious that touches the core of these beliefs, even if the individual is not in any condition to offer reasons for his own moral behavior. Requesting such articulation from an individual is tantamount to asking for everybody to become philosophically trained to examine all aspects of their psyche which could contribute to the formation of a moral character. However, as Howard points out, many of the elements of the formation of our moral character are complex relations between values and emotions that are not apparent despite harsh philosophical scrutiny.

Of course, this does not mean that we must endorse the faculty view of conscience, but we should bear in mind that, whatever we happen to feel as a dictate of our own conscience reports a sensitive aspect of our moral character, even when we are not in a position to p.make this explicit. Therefore, we should not overlook such issues as they raise questions in relation to something that, rather than being a hidden inaccessible ‘will within our will’, it is itself a moral emotion which ought not to be downplayed. Suppose, for example, that an individual is in a very upsetting order of things and that she has little or no reflexive access to her own moral convictions (moral intuitions that group together in what we call “conscience” seem to be informative of our overall ethical flourishment) should we ignore these helpful feelings, intuitions and blurry convictions because they are not expressible in terms of a reasonable debate? Perhaps Howard’s work can assist us with a future study of the importance of moral intuitions that can be integrated with the traditional concept of conscience; this would significantly widen the scope of his own original approach. Howard’s book will be of great use for any scholar that wishes to understand how to establish some clarity on the conscientious objections, though seems still just the beginning of such intellectual inquiry, as the book falls short in fully reconstructing the new approach to conscience that Howard promised.


Dewey, John. (1992). “The Construction of the Good” from On Certainty. In The Philosophy of John Dewey, 575-98. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1976). Phenomenology of the Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press.

Howard, Jason J. (2007). “Political Identity and the Dynamics of Accountability in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Proceedings of the Hegel Society of America 18:233-252.

Howard, Jason J. (2009). “The Historicity of Ethical Categories.” Proceedings of the Hegel Society of America 19: 155-176.

Peirce, Charles S. (1868). “Some consequences of four incapacities”. Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2: 140-57.

Ricoeur, Paul (1992). Oneself as another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Charles (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge MA: Belknap University Press.