Philosophical Investigations

HANDOUT Three theories of conscience

Eric Fromm on conscience eric_fromm

Eric Fromm experienced all the evil of Nazism and wrote his books to reflect on how conscience and freedom can be subverted even in the most civilised societies. In order to explain how, for example, Adolf Eichmann can plead at his trial for mass murder in 1961 that he was only "following orders" in applying the final solution, we can invoke Fromm's idea of the authoritarian conscience.

Authoritarian conscience

The authoritarian conscience is the internalised voice of the external authority, something close to Freud's concept of the superego considered above.

This internal voice may be backed up by fear of punishment, or spurred on by admiration or can even be created because I idolise an authority figure, as Unity Mitford did Adolf Hitler. As Unity found, this blinds us to the faults of the idolised figure, and causes us to become subject to that person's will, so that "the laws and sanctions of the externalised authority become part of oneself" (1947:108).

Notice that the voice of the authoritarian conscience is obeyed not because it is good but because it is in authority. So, as with the Nazis, ordinary seemingly civilised human beings do atrocious evil because they are subject to a voice which comes essentially from outside them, bypassing their own moral sense. The presence of the authority figure is necessary to strengthen and maintain this voice, otherwise it loses its power and Fromm's second concept of conscience, the humanistic conscience considered below, can reassert itself.

This authoritarian conscience can come from:

• Projection onto someone of an image of perfection.
• The experience of parental rules or expectations.
• An adopted belief system, such as a religion, with its own authority structure.

"Good conscience is consciousness of pleasing authority, guilty conscience is consciousness of displeasing it" (Eric Fromm 1947:109)

The individual's identity and sense of security thus become wrapped up in the authority figure, and the voice inside is really someone else's voice. This also emans obedience becomes the cardinal virtue, and as Eichmann pleaded at his trial, the individual feels he or she ahs no choice but to obey. The individual gives up the right to criticise, to reflect and to evaluate what the authoritarian conscience dictates.

"Those subject to him are means to his end and, consequently his property, and used by him for his purposes" (Fromm 1947:112)

So in choosing to obey the authoritarian conscience the individual loses their autonomy and creativity, or any action which does not obey the rules of the authority, is seen as rebellion and as in the archetypal story of Cain and Abel, when Cain kills his brother he is cast out forever, and complains "my punishment is more than I can bear".

Fromm stresses that there are two implications: one where someone submits to authority and another where "he takes on the role of authority by treating himself with the same cruelty and strictness" and "destructive energies are discharged by taking on the role of the authority and dominating oneself as servant" (1947:113). Because of the authoritarian conscience we treat ourselves extra harshly, and become our own source of guilt and self-punishment.

"Paradoxically, authoritarian guilty conscience is a result of feelings of strength, independence, productiveness and pride, while the authoritarian good conscience springs from feelings of obedience, dependence, powerlessness and sinfulness." (Fromm 1947:112).

Exercise: Read the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. Fromm describes this as an archetype of the effects of an authoritarian conscience. Explain in your own words how Cain's experience may be a reflection of the consequences of an authoritarian conscience.

Exercise:  Thomas More's conscience takes on the absolute authority of Henry VIII, in this YouTube clip of Robert Bolt's 'Man for All Seasons'.  watch the clip and explain how More is rejecting the authoritarian conscience.

The humanistic conscience

"Different from the authoritarian conscience is the"humanistic conscience"; this is the voice present in every human being and independent from external sanctions and rewards. Humanistic conscience is based on the fact that as human beings we have an intuitive knowledge of what is human and inhuman, what is conducive of life and what is destructive of life. This conscience serves our functioning as human beings. It is the voice which calls us back to ourselves, to our humanity". (Eric Fromm On Disobedience)

The humanistic conscience, in contrast, is "our own voice, present in every human being, and independent of external sanctions and rewards" (1947:118). Fromm sees this voice as our true selves, found by listening to ourselves and heeding our deepest needs, desires and goals.

kafka.s_trialThe result of so listening is to release human potential and creativity, and to become what we potentially are; "the goal is productiveness, and therefore, happiness" (1947:120). This is something gained over a life of learning, reflection and setting and realising goals for ourselves.

Fromm sees Kafka's The Trial as a parable of how the two consciences in practice live together. A man is arrested, he knows not on what charge or pretext. He seems powerless to prevent a terrible fate - his own death - at the hands of this alien authority. But just before he dies he gains a glimpse of another person (Fromm's other conscience) looking at him from an upstairs room.

"His glance fell on the top storey of the house adjoining the quarry. With a flicker as of a light going up, the casements of the window suddenly flew open: a human figure, faint and insubstantial at that distnce and that height, leaned abruptly far forward and stretched both arms still farther. Who was it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathised? Someone who wanted to help? Was it one person only? Or were they all there? Was help at hand? Were there some arguments in his favour that had been overlooked? Of course. there must be. Logic is doubtles unshakeable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living. Where was the judge whom he has never seen? Where was the court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers". Franz Kafka, The Trial

Exercise: to what extent can Kafka's The Trial be seen as the story of the two consciences described by Eric Fromm.


St. Augustine of Hippo (334-430): De Trinitate

St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274): Summa Theologica, 1273

Joseph Butler (1692-1752): Fifteen Sermons, 1726

Eric Fromm (1900-1980)  Man For Himself,  1947

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) The Grammar of Assent

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939): The Outline of Psychoanalysis, 1938; Civilisation and its Discontents, 1930