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ESSAY SYNOPSIS : A bad conscience is easier to cope with than a bad reputation. Friedrich Nietzsche


Related Qn asked in UPSC asked last 2 years

  • The process of self-discovery has now been technologically outsourced (2021)
  • Your perception of me is a reflection of you; my reaction to you is an awareness of me (2021)
  • Mindful manifesto is the catalyst to a tranquil self (2020)

Definition:  Conscience is the inner voice which guides a person about behaviour being right or wrong.


Once Ramkrishna Param Hans asked the disciples of his ashram to steal a little rice from their own home with a condition that nobody sees them stealing. The next day almost everyone proudly came with the stolen rice in the ashram as they had completed the task assigned to them by the Guru, but Swami Vivekananda came empty-handed.

On being asked the reason, he told that how much ever he tried, he always saw himself stealing the rice. He knew his self is witnessing it.

Recent example:

Uber Files investigation whistle-blower Mark McGann (a senior lobbyist who worked for Uber) said “I’m exposing a system that sold people a lie – how can you have a clear conscience if you don’t stand up and own your contribution to how people are being treated today?”

Similarly, in a recent first interview, when the whistle-blower of the 2016 Panama Papers was asked If he could turn back time, would he blow the whistle again? He said, “Yes, In a heartbeat.”

What does conscience describe?

Conscience describes two things – what a person believes is right and how a person decides what is right. More than just ‘gut instinct’, our conscience is a ‘moral muscle’. By informing us of our values and principles, it becomes the standard we use to judge whether or not our actions are ethical.

C Rajagopalchari was known as India’s ‘Conscience Keeper’: With his principled opposition to both the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on many occasions, he brought to the table respect, dignity, intellectual rigour, and honesty.


Conscious Vs Conscience?

Conscience refers to the awareness that one’s actions are right or wrong, as in one’s “guilty conscience,” while conscious means “awake” or “alert.”

In his book, noted Israeli Historian Yuval Harari said humans are different from animals on the basis of conscience. While animals are also conscious of their surroundings, but only humans can have a conscience.


Consciousness Vs self-awareness

Consciousness is awareness of one’s body and one’s environment; self-awareness is recognition of that consciousness—not only understanding that one exists, but further understanding that one is aware of one’s existence.

What are Good Conscience and Bad Conscience?

We sometimes tend to procrastinate things. This creates a dilemma in our conscience. How could “former me,” with my typical procrastination, have put “present me” in this untenable situation. What was “present me” to do?!

The person who listens to their more virtuous instincts is at peace, while the individual who neglects themselves and their future, has no one to blame but themselves.

We can recognize the effects of a bad conscience when we observe the inevitable side effects.

  • War in the heart
  • Inner division
  • Psychological disintegration
  • Narcissism and excessive self-love
  • Hatred of self
  • War against those who might be trying to free us from said condition.


It is said that

“Inside all of us, there are packs of wolves, some flocks of sheep roaming through our thoughts. We want to be fair, and yet, we want to win. We want to be righteous, but we want to get ahead. Such is our struggle with our conscience”


How do we develop conscience?

It is not always easy to listen to that deeper sense of wisdom. Principles are not born in a man but are the result of training and association. It should be the endeavour of all who are connected in any way with children to see that good moral ideas are inculcated, so that when tempta­tion comes they may not fall, but resist it, and with every victory strengthen their character until they grow into noble, firm and self-reliant men.

When our conscience is well-formed it can feel a little like an inner drill sergeant, demonstrating an awareness of the bliss and happiness that is at stake.


Importance of Conscience in life: 

  • Individual level: helps to take an important decision. It can act as a strong tool to evade away individual self-centered thinking. e.g., Conscience keeps me from cheating on an exam.  Conscience allows me to help accident victims even on my way to an interview.
    • No one is perfect in this world. Everyone lacks one or other things but still, if we can use the power of our conscience then we can deal with any difficult situation easily.
    • Philanthropy: It is drawn out of one’s conscience to give back to society.
  • Political Level: Conscience can help to lessen corruption, nepotism, and profit-seeking behaviour. Thus, provoking them to act in the benevolence of society at large and uphold the constitutional principles. e.g., CD Deshmukh resigned on the policy of reorganisation of states.
    • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (USA) showed that each of our own conscience should have the right to challenge the government. This would allow the society to not be run from the biased government’s view.
    • Quotes: “Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it”– Albert Einstein
  • Bureaucratic Level: The crisis of conscience is important whether to just merely follow the orders from superior’s v/s to follow the right path of judgement.  e.g., Kannan Gopinathan resigned in 2019 from government service over the clampdown in Kashmir.
  • For Police officers, they must treat every criminal as equal. However, their treatment may change for a criminal who has stolen something because he needed money for his mother’s treatment. They may even help him because of conscience’s voice.
  • Citizen Level: Collective conscience of inhabitants describes the existing social conditions such as keeping surroundings clean, actively contributing to elections, and dissenting to undemocratic principles. Adhering to it will also control mass prejudice such as riots and lynching of offenders.
  • Society Level: Henry D Thoreau’s (American Philosopher) Civil Disobedience espouses the need to prioritize one’s conscience over the dictates of laws. It criticizes American social institutions and policies, most prominently slavery and the Mexican-American War.


  • Aristotle– One must possess Intellectual virtues like Intuitive Insight and Practical Wisdom
  • Saint Augustine visualized the conscience as the voice of God speaking to people from within.
  • Immanuel Kant expressed conscience was rather like a court of law in our minds.

Does conscience make us Weak?

Shakespeare suggested, “Conscience makes a coward of us all. It regulates our behaviour and makes us timid and humble”.

Story: In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we see a powerful scene where Macbeth is shown struggling and fighting with his conscience whilst he ambitiously considers killing the present King and thus claiming the crown.

Does the conscience have the power to make cowards of us? Or would it not be able to prevent us from becoming tyrants?


If Conscience is not present?

Apart from humans, other living beings don’t have a conscience, they merely live to survive and procreate. Thus, a life devoid of conscience is the life of an animal, who can’t think independently.


  • Episode of mass shootingg., Recently, a gunman killed seven people and wounded dozens more during a Fourth of July celebration in Highland Park, Ill in the US this month, shows lack of conscience.
  • Recent Netflix’s Korean horror drama “Squid Games” shows people being killed for sports, highlighting the brutal realities of neoliberal capitalism, and lack of conscience.


Issues with Conscience: 

  • Thomas Hobbes said “as judgement, so also the conscience may be erroneous”:  It may be due to Ignorance i.e., lack of knowledge or his past experience (including upbringing) e.g., a pathological criminal usually has an erroneous conscience. Blacks have low IQ.
  • Crisis of Conscience: Crisis of conscience is a situation in which it is very difficult to decide what is the right thing to do. e.g.  When I was a child, I took a few sweets from a shop without paying for the same. In the public domain, Kashish Mittal, — who was an additional principal secretary to NITI Aayog resigned in 2019 — because he was unhappy at being transferred to Arunachal Pradesh.
  • To overcome the crisis of conscience:  The key to overcoming such a crisis of conscience for a public servant is through keeping all dimensions in mind, freeing himself from desires or pressures and staying calm & true to the public service ethical code and legal framework.

Limits to the freedom of conscience?

  • Recent debates about free speech and government surveillance cast Questions on the freedom of conscience.
  • Fundamental Rights guarantee Freedom of conscience, the profession and freepractice of religion.
  • However, the constitution also says, freedom of speech is not an absolute right, the Government can impose certain restrictions on it. But how much restriction is valid?


Recent laws on the abortion ban have created a debate: – While followers say banning abortion is right on basis of the ‘right to life’ and religious ethics. But other experts say there should be a ‘conscience’ exemption for abortion in states with bans.

Religion and Conscience

  • ‘Karma’ in Hindu philosophy says there’s a price for every action. Conscience helps us to make a cost-benefit analysis of our actions.
    • God created it when he gave you the abilities of self-awareness and rational thinking.
  • Buddhism: In Buddhism, conscience means unselfish love for all living beings which gradually intensifies and where the mind withdraws from sensory interests.


Quote:  There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts. – Mahatma Gandhi

How these values can be imbibed

  • Pause and think about the dimensions of an issue.
  • Practice the power of silence.
  • Meditation and prayer.
  • Free yourself from external influences and selfish interests.

Conclusion (from CS point of view):   A conscience which is both well-formed (shaped by education and experience) and well-informed (aware of facts, evidence and so on) enables us to know ourselves and our world and act accordingly. Voice of conscience is the source of ethical decision-making.


Our conscience,
Like an old fragile pilgrim,
Is in search of the holy land within mankind’s soul,
Because everything is transient,
And only the soul is eternal”