How does our conscience change over time?
One way of examining the nature of a person’s conscience is to consider the conditions under which that person is liable to have feelings of guilt as a result of their actions.
In his studies of the moral development of children, Lawrence Kohlberg identified three main levels of moral development (which are then broken down further into six stages): ‘pre-conventional’, ‘conventional’ and ‘post-conventional’. The child moves through these stages as they develop morally, and their conscience reflects this development.
The pre-conventional level is characterised by the child’s impulse to avoid punishment for their actions. As a result, they are likely to judge actions as wrong which defy their parents’ wishes (whatever they may be), and their conscience will react to such actual or potential breaches by triggering feelings of guilt. At this stage, it is quite possible for a child to behave in ways which are wrong from society’s perspective without their conscience intervening, depending on their interactions with authority figures.
The conventional level is characterised by the person’s impulse to conform to social norms and rules. Actions are therefore judged as wrong which, for example, are illegal or break from wider social expectations. As a result, the person’s conscience may now react negatively to actions which are sometimes considered to be acceptable in context (such as lying to prevent hurt feelings) but which breach some general social norm (lying is bad).
The post-conventional level is characterised by the consideration of more abstract and nuanced moral principles. At this point, it is possible for the person to apply context and intention in their moral evaluation of actions. For example, it is now possible for a person at this level to lie to prevent hurting somebody’s feelings without them experiencing the feelings of guilt that are usually associated with lying.