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Contemporary neglect of conscience is a mistake

Conscience

Dr Dafydd Daniel, a Christian ethics lecturer at the University of Oxford and one of ten academics selected by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council as a New Generation Thinker, talks about his interest in the much-maligned ethical theory of rational intuitionism.  

Tell us about yourself

I am the McDonald departmental lecturer in Christian ethics at the University of Oxford, working within the faculty of theology and religion, and the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life. Prior to my current position, I completed my DPhil at Oxford, read theology and religious studies at Cambridge, and studied for a Masters in Philosophy of Religion at Yale, where I was a Marquand Scholar.

What is the area of your research?

Much of my research focuses on early modern moral philosophy and moral theology. More particularly, it highlights the various ways in which the category of ‘conscience’ lay at the foundation of British Enlightenment rational intuitionism.

Rational intuitionism is an ethical theory which maintains that human beings perceive moral truth with reason. It thus claims that there are such things as objective moral truths determined by reason, just as there are mathematical truths determined by reason. And, that all human beings ‘see’ that it would be wrong to, for example, harm an innocent person, in the same way that we all ‘see’ that 2+2=4.

Although it was revived in the 20th Century, and perceptual models of moral epistemology are a feature of some contemporary moral philosophy, rational intuitionism (whether modern or early modern) is a much-maligned ethical theory.

Following the likes of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, it is criticised for ‘naivety’ – (if we ‘see’ what is right, then why do we disagree about right and wrong, and face moral dilemmas?) – and ‘confusion’ (if ‘seeing’ the right thing is the same as ‘seeing’ 2+2=4, then is making a mistake in addition comparable with doing the morally wrong thing?)

What is the importance of this research?

By focusing on conscience, my research revives a concept that is frequently neglected in modern moral philosophy, moral theology, and intellectual history.

And, by using conscience to show how British Enlightenment rational intuitionism can overcome its leading Humean and neo-Kantian criticisms, my work not only highlights the fact that the contemporary neglect of conscience is a mistake, but that controversies concerning the meaning of conscience were central to ethical and political debates in the British Enlightenment.

As such, it raises the question: what do we mean when we use the expression ‘conscience’ today? Particularly when that term appears to have several connotations. That is, we may be using conscience to signify: the individual’s right to autonomy; the religious experience of divine judgement; Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket; or, a Freudian collocation of parental and societal influences.

By appreciating conscience’s central role in the British Enlightenment, we are better placed to trace (and to explain) the history of conscience’s fragmentation into diverse meanings. At the same time, we can critically evaluate the extent to which various modern invocations of conscience still rely, whether we realise it or not, on an older, rational intuitionist ethical discourse.

Dr Daniel Dafydd’s latest publications are: Briefly: 25 Great Philosophers, From Plato to Sartre; SCM Ethics and Moral Philosophy; and Briefly: Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.

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