Conscience and Ethos: Thinking across the Limits of Normativity

Open Access
Wang, Hua
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
December 07, 2005
Committee Members:
  • Dennis Schmidt, Committee Chair
  • Charles Edward Scott, Committee Chair
  • Vincent M Colapietro, Committee Member
  • On Cho Ng, Committee Member
  • Christopher P Long, Committee Member
  • Conscience
  • Ethos
  • heart
  • Heidegger
  • Freud
My dissertation intends to develop a new way of ethical thinking through an in-depth inquiry into the meaning and origin of the phenomenon of conscience. I will first focus upon two contemporary interpretations of conscience: the existential interpretation by Heidegger and the psychoanalytic interpretation by Freud. My investigation of the phenomenon of conscience in the context of these two interpretations would reveal the question of ethics, which according to Heidegger is a question of human dwelling, as a question of hermeneutics. By instigating a dialogue between Heidegger’s thinking of the essence of human dwelling and the early Confucian moral teaching, I anticipate to work out a new horizon for the question of ethics. Traditional interpretations take conscience as the voice of the divine or social authorities that stipulate the norms and principles of our actions. Freud identifies the source of the traditional “moral conscience” in the categorical imperatives of the super-ego or ego ideal, which answers to “everything that is expected of the higher nature of human.” Religion, ethics and social institutions, accordingly, constitute different forms in which the ego ideal, which represses the primitive Oedipus complex, asserts itself. Heidegger, in contrast, developed an existential interpretation that takes conscience as a reticent summons that discloses the authentic situation of human existence in the world. Conscience calls us toward the authenticity of our being in that it calls us to think the tragic situation of human existence and the plight of human dwelling upon the earth. Through a dialogue between these two incisive interpretations of the phenomenon of conscience and its relation to ethical thinking, I would make manifest the central strife in the question of ethics as a strife between two fundamental kinds of interpretation of human dwelling, which is in essence a strife between the “powerless superpower” of heart and conscience and the demonic power of the super-ego that speaks in the voice of everyday “moral conscience.” Since both the reticent summons of heart and conscience and the commanding voice of the super-ego can be viewed as different interpretations of the message from the divine, the question of ethics turns out to be a question of hermeneutics. The clarification of the meaning and origin of conscience and its relation to the question of ethics in the west set the stage for a new possibility of ethical thinking and pave the way for a dialogue with the early Confucian thinkers. In contrast to western normative ethical theories, early Confucian teachings did not understand the essence of human being in terms of an ideal of existence. Nor did they base human moral practice upon a system of norms or principles. Rather, it is by following the reticent summons of one’s heart and conscience that one is capable of appropriating the message of heaven and of bringing forth one’s humane nature to the full. This dialogue between Confucian moral teaching and Heidegger’s thinking of human dwelling would thus open up a new way of ethical thinking without resorting to a metaphysics of normativity. This new way of ethical thinking will have broad and profound significance for rethinking a wide range of ethical and political issues today.