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Philosophy 302: Ethics
Alexander Bain, "Conscience is Learned"

Abstract:  The basis of morality and conscience arises from the association of the dread and pain of the consequences of breaking the rules of authority becoming a moral feeling with an independent feeling of disinterested aversion, repugnance, or  remorse.

1.  How does Bain define "conscience"? Is his definition congruent with the contemporary use of the word?

2.  According to Bain, how are the emotions and self-interest related to conscience?

3. How is conscience shaped by education, law, and authority?  Explain what Bain means by the "effect of contiguous association"?

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1.  How does Bain define "conscience"? Is his definition congruent with the contemporary use of the word?

Bain argues that conscience or "the moral sense" is identified with education under authority by the means of punishment. 

Conscience is attended with feelings of a strong resentment toward others or toward oneself (remorse) at what was wrong.

Bain does not mention Hubbard Winslow's "delightful feeling of self-approval" as being a characteristic or function of conscience and denies that moral feelings are inborn or natural to human beings.

Bain's definition seems similar to contemporary uses:

  • Benjamin B. Wolman's Dictionary of Behavioral Science defines "conscience" as "1. The individual's set of moral values which was thought to be innate by theologians but is now believed to be learned. 2. (psychoanalysis) See superego. (76)"
  • The definition in Simon Blackburn's The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy begins as "The consciousness humans have that an action is morally required or forbidden.  In the Christian tradition the nature of this awareness and its status as knowledge is a central problem.  On the one hand it is sinful to act against one' conscience; on the other hand conscience can deceive, since we can be mistaken about what is required or forbidden.(76)"

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2.  According to Bain, how are the emotions and self-interest related to conscience?

Bain states that although there is nothing innate or natural in the feelings of conscience, they can be amplified by feelings of self-interest or sympathy which are natural or inborn feelings and generally happen to coincide with moral right and wrong. 

Interestingly, he states extremely strong feelings in this regard are the basis of ideal law and ideal moral codes. 

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3. How is conscience shaped by education, law, and authority?  Explain what Bain means by the "effect of contiguous association"?

Forbidden actions are accompanied by punishment becomes associated with pain and the threat of punishment.  The forbidden action is avoided not so much because it is wrong, but because if the negative feelings associated (which forms our sense of duty). The threat of punishment is transferred to a disinterested  feeling or disposition of aversion, and the original specific threat and pain is not directly present to the mind.

Thus, conscience is, in effect, a social mechanism for the development of ethics in a society.

Note the circularity involved heremoral feelings are shaped by the authorities of morality, law, and education and are amplified by the natural feelings of self-interest and sympathy into the moral codes and law which in turn shape our moral feelings (conscience).  This empirical circularity is not viciously circular, nor is it a case of petitio principii.

Bain emphasizes that the natural feelings of self-interest and sympathy are not significant enough to account for the moral sentiments and are not the basis of morality.  (See Jeremy Bentham's "Happiness is the Greatest Good" for an opposing view.) Bain states the burden of proof  is on anyone who makes such a claim.

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Recommended Sources

Alexander Bain:  An excellent summary of Bain's contribution to psychology from The Thoemmes Encyclopedia of the History of Ideas.

Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century: by Robert M. Young, Chapter 3 entitled "Alexander Bain: Transition from Introspective Psychology to Experimental Psychophysiology," an online chapter on Bain's psychology from a well-received book on the mind-body problem. 

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Hubbard Winslow, "Conscience Determines What's Right"  Top of Page  G. W. Foote, "It Doesn't Pay to Be Religious"
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