Sources of ethical guidance: Laws, rules, regulations and conscience

Sources of ethical guidance: Laws, rules, regulations and conscience


  • Conscience is an aptitude, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. In psychological terms conscience is often described as leading to feelings of remorse when a human commits actions that go against his moral values and and feelings of pleasure and well-being when our actions, thoughts and words are in conformity to our value systems..
  • Etymologically the word ‘conscience’ derives from the Latin conscienta, meaning ‘with-knowledge’ .In the Greek word translation, “conscience” means “moral awareness”. Commonly used metaphors for conscience include the “voice within” and the “inner light”. It implies ‘a person’s moral sense of right and wrong’ as well as consciousness of one’s own actions. Expressions such as ‘gut feeling’ and ‘guilt’ are often applied in conjunction with conscience. In this sense the conscience is not necessarily a product of a rational deduction but is something that can be influenced by the indoctrination of one’s parentage, social class, religion or culture.
  • The extent to which conscience informs moral judgment before an action and whether such moral judgments are or should be based in reason has occasioned debate through much of the history of philosophy.
  • John Locke argued that the conscience was proof for the concept of innate principles but deliberated whether these principles provide moral absolutes, whether they are objective or subjective “if conscience be a proof of innate principles, contraries may be innate principles; since some men with the same bent of conscience prosecute what others avoid.” Thomas Hobbes likewise pragmatically noted that the conscience can be potentially mistaken therefore opinions formed on the basis of conscience, even with full honest conviction should not always be trusted.
  • According to Fromm it is ‘a reaction of ourselves to ourselves; the voice of our true selves’ that guides us to achieve our full potential’. Sigmund Freud believed that conscience was acquired through experience and that it was the part of the human mind that seeks to make sense of disorder and to deal with the internal conflicts caused by guilt. He believed that the conscience was influenced by both early and later life beliefs.
  • Immanuel Kant formulated the idea of the critical conscience which was rather like a court of law in our minds where the prosecutors or conscience excuse or accuse thoughts and actions. He also argued that although moral people feel contentment within the soul after following the instruction of one’s conscience, they should not do good deeds for the sake of experiencing this inner peace, rather they should do it as part of their duty. Rousseau expressed a similar view that conscience somehow connected man to a greater metaphysical unity.
  • A conscience aims to make moral decisions in ‘overwhelming forces of inescapable situations’ despite the risk of adverse consequences. If conscience goes, then everything collapses, conscience is central to our identity and it is as component in the moral decisions making process, however, failure to acknowledge and accept that conscientious judgements can be seriously mistaken on account of their relativistic nature, may only promote situations where one`s conscience is manipulated by others to provide unwarranted justifications for non-virtuous and selfish acts.
  • Without adequate constraint of external, altruistic, normative justification, conscience may be considered morally blind and dangerous  both to the individual concerned and humanity as a whole.

Is Conscience the most reliable guide to ethical decision making? Discus.

  • It is debateable as to whether or not the conscience is the most reliable form of decision making or not. However there are many different opinions on conscience when it comes to decision making. The idea of the conscience has developed from early christian views, however it has now developed through the psychological views of it being linked or part of the mind. The idea of the conscience was also later developed by Freud who suggested that the conscience could be explained best by using scientific knowledge instead of using religious views and opinions on the conscience.
  • Secular perspectives of the conscience support the statement that the conscience is not a reliable guide to ethical decision making as it demonstrates that there is subjectivity within our moral values due to individual experiences and upbringing. Ethical decision-making help us to make the correct decisions when it comes to moral judgement. However, the secular approaches do not provide an accurate method of understanding what the right path is.
  • St Paul believed the conscience was a moral guide, which is within and doesn’t need any rules or theories to be followed. St Pauls idea of the conscience is universal to everyone this means that you don’t have to be a christian to relate and use the conscience as a moral guide. St Paul’s idea is that everyone has a conscience within as a moral guide.   However it may not always be best use our conscience as our moral guide. As if we do use our conscience, the how can people be committed for crimes, as they believed it was right.
  • Butler was a christian theologian and philosopher who believed that the conscience was a God given ability to reason. Due to the fact that they were both christians St Paul and Butler agreed on many of their ideas. Butler thought that the conscience should be seen as a judge within everybody, a judge that makes moral decisions for us, he suggests that as it is within all of us and appears to have a higher authority we therefore must listen to it, and take on board the decision in which our conscience makes. One of the main weaknesses is the idea that not everyone can have the same type of conscience as young children and people with mental illnesses will not have the same.
  • Saint Augustine saw the conscience as the voice of God speaking to us from within – it is the law of God in our hearts that we use to understand right and wrong actions. For him, the conscience must always be in every circumstance turned towards the good and away from all that is evil.
  • Hence from religious perspectives state that the conscience is a reliable guide to ethical decision-making as it relies on our innate ability to determine what is good and bad.

How conscience can act as source of ethical guidance for bureaucrats, politicians and citizens in a democratic set- up.?

  • Conscience is the inherent intuitive capacity to differentiate between right and wrong. “Inner Voice” is important especially in democracy as it has multiple stakeholders such as citizens,NGOs,corporates to be administered by the politicians who are elected by them only.
  • But at individual level.every person has conscience which helps them to take important decision.Thus it can act as strong tool to evade away the individual self centered thinking.
  • Political Level:- Conscience can help in reducing corruption,nepotism and profit seeking behaviour.Thus provoke them to act in benevolence of society at large and uphold the constitution principles. At each and every decision they should keep in mind that they were elected to serve the citizens and not to serve their own needs and greeds
  • Bureaucratic Level- the crisis of conscience is important whether to just mere follow the orders from superiors v/s to follow the right path of judgement.The inherent voice of serving the nation maintaining highest standards of integrity and probity is important as they are link between citizens and politicians.
  • Citizen Level:- Collective and individual conscience of citizens is very important because it defines the existing society conditions. eg.- keeping surrounding clean,actively participating in elections,dissent to undemocractic principles.Thus adhering to it will also curb mob injustice such as riots.lynching of criminals.
  • Moreover it is important to actively excel and improve at individual and institution level.Thus if everyone acts and adhere to there principles values ,the moral degradement can be curbed and faith in governing institutions can be reinstituted.

Difference between Laws and Rules:

  • The main difference between rules and laws is the consequences associated with breaking them. While each is developed to invoke a sense of order, fair play, and safety, the weight of a law is much heavier than the weight of a rule.
  • Laws are like the legal version of rules. When you are a child, a parent sets rules to be followed. When you are in a society, the government sets laws to be followed.
  • Laws are written in specific code so that they can be interpreted as needed. When you break a law there is legal action that follows.
  • Rules are more flexible and carry low end consequences. You can set up rules for games, rules for the home, even rules for fighting. Rules are often adjusted as the conditions and circumstances of change.
  • Laws must be passed through due process in order to take effect. A law starts off as a bill, and must go through a series of checks, balances, and votes in order to become a law. Rules are merely set and adjusted as the need arises.
  • Rules help us learn to prepare for living in society. As youngsters, we tend to learn that there are rules about hitting, stealing, lying, and being wasteful. Laws are not meant to set teaching boundaries, but are there to be enforced.


  • Regulations can be used define two things; a process of monitoring and enforcing legislations and a written instrument containing rules that have law on them.
  • Regulations are usually made by the executive for smooth functioning of the laws. Laws usually provide a skeletal framework for addressing a subject. Regulations are meant for providing a detailed and intricate framework for making the laws work.

Q. Examine the differences between rules, laws and regulations. How they guide our ethical behaviour? Explain a situation where these three can be overridden by one’s conscience.

Q. For a civil servant what qualities are required to withstand pressure from various influential sections to stick to rule book and follow his/her conscience as sources of ethical guidance to do the right thing?

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