Topics Worth Investigating

  1. In the reading, Bain associates conscience with "our education under government, or Authority" by means of the instrument of punishment. First, Solomon Asch points out:

    There are acts that we feel we should do, although failure to comply does not involve painful consequences. There are times when we feel we have acted wrongly, although there is no prospect of punishment. The reverse is also the case; we may expect punishment from society without the slightest conviction of wrong. These observations contradict the causal explanations of current behavioristic and psychoanalytic accounts which trace the genesis of obligation to dread of punishment.[1]

    How do you think Bain would respond to this apparent contradiction of the formation of an "internalized inhibitory process" or conscience? Second, suppose a religious-based government educated children to believe it is morally correct to kill with malice aforethought all persons of a different faith. Would the conscience of citizens in that state then be in approval of an ethically wrong action? How can Bain distinguish arbitrary but obligatory customs from principles of right and wrong? On what basis can he demark the moral sentiment of conscience from the moral sentiment formed by obligatory customs? In this regard, Bain notes, "The constant habit of regarding with dread the consequences of violating any of the rules [of a code of honor], simulates a moral sentiment, on a subject unconnected with morality properly so called." Is Bain tacitly distinguishing between a (prescriptive) ethics and a (descriptive) morals?

  2. In Bain's goal to unite psychology and physiology, he distanced himself from John Stuart Mill and the utilitarians. He sought to explain mental association in terms of neural connections. Given this background, speculate as to how Bain might conclude that belief is merely "a preparation to act." Bain states, "There may be various ways of evoking and forming the moral sentiment, but the one way most commonly trusted to, and never altogether dispensed with, is the associating of pain, that is, punishment, with the actions that are disallowed." Does Bain's connection of pain with an associated moral sentiment here anticipate the James-Lange theory of emotion?[2]

  3. Bain points out, "We must never omit from the composition of the Conscience the primary impulses of Self-Interest and Sympathy …" In respect to concurrence with these "natural impulses," the action of killing infidels would seem to be in accordance with self-interest with no attendant feeling of revulsion, but the action would also seem to conflict with sympathetic regard of the individual with the attendant feeling of revulsion. Wouldn't the natural impulses in such a case not be in complete accordance with conscience?

  4. Would Bain's account of the formation of moral sentiment by means of contiguous association of the pain of punishment with disallowed actions differ in kind or differ in degree from either classical conditioning or operant conditioning of behaviorism[3]? Does Bain anticipate Thorndike's law of effect?[4]

  5. In the last part of his The Emotions and the Will, Bain argues for a behavioral determinism.[5] Yet, in his Moral Science: A Compendium of Ethics published the same year, he explains the psychological basis of ethics. If determinism is true, how is a science of ethics possible?

  6. To what extent would Bain agree or disagree with the following legal characterization of "conscience":

    Conscience is defined to be internal or self-knowledge; the judgment of right and wrong, or the faculty, power, or principle within us which decides on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of actions and affections, and instantly approves or condemns them. Conscience is called by some writers the moral sense, and considered as an ordinary faculty of our nature. People v. Stewart, 7 Cal. 140, 143.[6]

    First, would Bain agree that law and custom that shape the moral sense or would he agree moral sense shapes law and custom? Second, are the two parts of the judicial definition from People v. Stewart logically consistent?

  7. The Christian conception of conscience implying devotion to moral law and attention to sacrifice in hope of a further future existence historically developed from the early Greek conception of conscience as shared knowledge and rational conduct to live well. Does the fact that the meaning of conscience changed significantly since the time of the early Greeks imply conscience cannot be an innate faculty? Would such a claim be an instance of the genetic fallacy?

  8. Bain points out the natural, inborn feelings of self-interest and sympathy do not make moral distinctions but instead these innate feelings often coincide with the ideas of moral law. Do you think Bain regards this connection as an accidental correlation or as a causal connection?

  9. Bain's characterization of conscience is not in strict accord with the modern definition of conscience, taken here, for example, from The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

    The internal recognition of the moral quality of one's motives and actions; the faculty or principle which pronounces upon the moral quality of one's actions or motives, approving the right and condemning the wrong.[7]

    In our reading, Bain states conscience involves "a peculiar and unmistakeable revulsion of mind at what is wrong, and a strong resentment towards the wrong-doer …". Would not it follow from his psychology of natural impulses that the resentment towards the wrong-doer be attributable to the natural, innate feelings of self-interest and sympathy rather than to the moral sentiment of conscience? Would not the strong resentment toward a wrongdoer be based on analogical reasoning as if the person were one's own self rather than based on the immediate effect of one's conscience?

  10. Some religious leaders note that the simple nature of the conscience point to a divine origin, and, as a result, conscience is what sets mankind apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Yet, historically, the contemporary religious conception of conscience arose from at least three different factors: (1) the cognitive aspect from early Greek thought,[8] (2) the emotional aspect from Joseph Butler[9] and (3) the remorseful element as a consequence of sin from René Descartes.[10] If we assume the biologists and anthropologists are correct in reducing conscience to a natural capacity acquired in the evolutionary prehistory of homo sapiens rather than assume some contemporary religious leaders are correct in supposing conscience to be an innate simple faculty of divine origin, can it still be reasonably argued that, regardless of the origin, human beings differ from other animals in kind because of their faculty of conscience?

  11. Do you think the examples of feral children or "wolf children", children who have grown up without social interaction, would constitute a definitive counter-example to the belief that conscience is an innate faculty of human beings? For example, the phenomenologist Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka writes:

    Without initiation into language, feral children remain forever wild, with untapped human potentialities. In short, then the forms of the establishment of human life, the life of the social animal, naturally speaking, require first that the human be treated as a human being. Even to begin to realize one's human powers, one must be the recipient of gestures which others make, and one must interpret these intentions on the basis of empathic intuitions.[11]

    Most accounts of documented feral children recognize they never fully develop human capacities. Might not it be argued that just as linguistic ability is innate but not developed in feral children because of their lack of human interaction, so also moral ability is innate but not developed for similar reasons? Might it be that there is an innate or genetically based sense of fairness in human beings whose particular phenotypical expression is based on the environment in which the child is reared?

  12. Explain why the dictates of conscience are not good grounds for determining ethics whether or not conscience is established religiously or conscience is established in accordance with developmental psychology. In both religion and science, a defective conscience or impaired moral sense can arise similarly: parental neglect, poor education, and peer isolation.

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Solomon E. Asch, Social Psychology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1952) 355.


The theory entails emotions result from physiological events rather than causing them. As William James illustrates, "…we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble …" James summarizes the theory as " the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as the occur IS the emotion." William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1913), 2:449-450. The view that some actions are not by their nature the effect of desire is essential to a defense of free will.


Anxious children seem to internalize norms if negative consequences ensue, but fearless children seem to internalize norms more readily if positive consequences ensue. See Grazyna Kochanska, "Multiple Pathways to Conscience," Developmental Psychology 33, No. 2 (1997): 228-240.


"Of several responses made to the same situation, those which are accompanied or closely followed by satisfaction to the animal will, other things being equal, be more firmly connected with the situation, so that, when it recurs, they will be more likely to recur; those which are accompanied or closely followed by discomfort to the animal will, other things being equal, have their connections with that situation weakened, so that, when it recurs, they will be less likely to occur." Edward Thorndike, Animal Intelligence (New York: Macmillan, 1911), 244.


"The doctrine that all the facts in the physical universe, and hence also in human history, are absolutely dependent upon and conditioned by their causes. In psychology: the doctrine that the will is not free but determined by psychical or physical conditions." Dagobert D. Runes, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy (Paterson, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams & Company, 1942), 78.


Editorial Staff of the National Reporter System, Judicial and Statutory Definitions of Words and Phrases (St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1904), 1:1436.


The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, prep. by William Little, et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 373.


See, for example, the charioteer myth in Plato, Phædrus 245c—256b in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,1961), 493-502.


See, for example, Butler's statement, "This principle in man, by which he approves or disapproves his heart, temper, and actions, is conscience; for this is the strict sense of the word …" Joseph Butler, Human Nature and Other Sermons (Middlesex: Echo Library, 2006), 6.


See, for example, his reference to "repentings and pangs of remorse that usually disturb the consciences of such feeble and uncertain minds…" Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method and the Meditations, 1901 ed. John Veitch (New York: Cosimo Publications, 2008), 25.


Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, Manifestations of Reason (Dordrecht,The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993), 321.