My name is Jason Howard and I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in the United States. I have long thought that one of the most fascinating things about human beings is the power that moral appeals and obligations have in shaping our identity. My specific interest in conscience —what it is, why it appears so pervasive, how it functions—is one with my larger curiosity about moral agency, especially what such agency might tell us about the ontological complexity of human beings.
One of my principle motivations in writing Conscience in Moral Life was to capture the pivotal role that conscience continues to play, both positively and negatively, in contemporary society.
In brief, my book explores where our widespread confidence in conscience stems from, examining the history of conscience as a moral concept and its characteristic moral phenomenology. Looking at the rich conceptual history of conscience, theories about its relationship to moral development, and the role of conscience claims in the history of U.S. legislation, I make the case that many of our beliefs concerning conscience exaggerate its capacity for moral guidance. Rather than a trivial problem, our overconfidence in conscience has a detrimental impact on how we see the role of moral reasoning, the value of moral consensus and even the function of moral education.
I argue that Western culture has inherited a number of assumptions about conscience that first gained widespread currency during the Enlightenment. These assumptions can be grouped under what I call a “faculty” conception of conscience, where conscience is seen as a unique faculty of moral insight, and whose defining characteristics are its infallibility, innateness and ontological distinctiveness. The first section of the book is focused on showing that such a faculty view is indefensible and that accepting such a picture of conscience, even if only some aspects, leads to seriously misunderstanding the nature of moral obligation.