Conscience as Internal Sanction Essay

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Conscience is the “voice within” that an individual perceives when doing (or contemplates doing) something that he or she knows to be morally wrong. This “voice” is a set of physiological mechanisms that engage the primary emotion of fear and the social emotions of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. Ever since Charles Darwin, evolutionary scientists have viewed conscience as an evolved adaptation that functions to resolve conflicts between the pursuit of individuals’ selfish goals and the larger goals of the community. Possessing what theologians think of as “the voice of God” would have strong fitness benefits for individuals since it marks them as persons of good character who desire to do the right thing and who are cognizant of the rights and concerns of others. Individuals with a sturdy conscience show themselves as people who would make conscientious and agreeable mates, employees, colleagues, and friends. The bite of conscience is discomforting, and people seek to avoid or ease the unwelcome feeling. Conscience is both self-and other-centered. It warns individuals not to damage their relationships, because the consequences of doing so are detrimental to the self, and to repair these relationships if they have damaged them. Because group living requires cooperative relationships, conscience is the mechanism of civilization. Sigmund Freud proposed that civilization is bought at the cost of individuals surrendering the right to do what they please.

The concept of conscience is central to criminology because it is something that is severely compromised in criminals who “do as they please” to the detriment of others. The goal of socialization encompassing all other goals is the development of a conscience. Most social scientists tend to view socialization as simply a cognitive process whereby others pour prescriptions and proscriptions into empty heads, but the process is more complicated than that. If Darwin was correct that conscience is an evolutionary adaptation, there must be other biological mechanisms in addition to the prefrontal cortex dedicated to conscience development.

If social animals are to function cooperatively in groups they must possess the ability to respond to signals of reward and punishment with socially appropriate approach and avoidance behavior. Many philosophers have written about the hedonic tug-of-war within humans as they struggle to meet their wants and needs while being aware of the wants and needs of others. The classical model of approach-avoid behavior is Plato’s tripartite model of the soul: the appetitive, rational, and spirited parts. The appetitive part motivates individuals to seek the pleasures necessary to sustain individual life and the continuation of the species (food, water, and sex). The rational soul urges individuals to make wise decisions when seeking their goals, and the spirited soul emotionally enforces the dictates of the rational soul. In Plato’s famous chariot allegory, the charioteer is the rational soul fighting to control the spirited noble white horse (emotion) and the ugly black horse (appetite). Both horses are necessary to move the chariot forward, so none of the parts are bad in and of themselves; they just have to be reined in.

Freud’s tripartite model of personality (the id, ego, and superego) also posits that a harmonious relationship must exist among the constituents of personality to ensure individual well-being. The id is like Plato’s appetitive soul, the superego is analogous to the spirited soul, and the ego is the rational or reasoned soul. People are born with the id, the norms and values of their socializing agents provide the superego, and their capacity for reason provides the necessary balance between the two. While there are differences between the Platonic and Freudian models, the underlying concept is the same: Individuals are in a perpetual war with ourselves as the three components vie for supremacy when they are confronted with temptation.

Criminal behavior is the failure of the spirited soul to enforce what the reasoned soul knows to be right; or to remove the metaphor, it is the failure of socialization agents to mold criminals into the kind of moral beings cultures expect. A large part of a successful socialization revolves around individuals’ relative sensitivity to reward and punishment as they contemplate the responses of others to their behavior. Individuals must learn cognitively what is expected of them, but how well lessons are learned is more a function of how the lessons engage limbic system emotions than how they engage rational reflection. After all, even psychopaths know cognitively what is right and wrong, but neuroimaging studies have shown that they lack the ability to engage the social emotions, and it is this inability that lies at the bottom of their condition.

Conscience is thus the social emotions coupled with the moral learning that evokes them. Reinforcement sensitivity theory (RST) is a neurobiological theory focusing on the conditioned suppression or expression of behavior. RST posits three interacting systems of behavioral regulation located within separate brain circuits and governed by separate neurotransmitter systems: the behavioral activating (or approach) system (BAS), the behavioral inhibition system (BIS), and the fight-flight-freeze system (FFFS). The BAS and BIS are part of the central nervous system’s limbic system and prefrontal cortex (PFC), and the FFFS is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) of the peripheral nervous system.

The BAS is sensitive to signals of reward from conditioned and unconditioned appetitive stimuli. The BAS motivates individuals to seek things vital to survival and reproductive success; their built-in reward system. Of course, seeking appetitive goals such as alcohol and drugs was not part of the evolutionary plan. These novel stimulants hijack the natural reward system and use it for unnatural purposes. The BAS is like the Freudian id; it obeys the pleasure principle, craves instant gratification, and unless governed by a watchful avoidance system, it cares not (or is oblivious to) whether the means used to satisfy them are appropriate or injurious to self or to others.

The BIS is activated when the search for reward stimuli exceeds reasonable limits and is sensitive to conditioned and unconditioned threats of punishment. It inhibits approach behavior by inducing feelings of fear or anxiety when negative consequences are anticipated. The BIS is like the Freudian superego striving for the ideal and representing all the moral “dos and don’ts” internalized during socialization. An overly strong BIS is related to anxiety-related disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a weak BIS is correlated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and psychopathy.

The biological substrates of approach and avoidance have been neurologically and genetically mapped out in RST. The BAS is primarily associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine and with mesolimbic system structures such as the ventral tegmental area (an area rich in neurons that synthesize dopamine) and with the nucleus accumbens (the “pleasure center”), the major target of dopamine. The BIS is associated with the neurotransmitter serotonin and with limbic system structures such as the hippocampus and the amygdala that feed their memory circuits into the prefrontal cortex (PFC) where judgments and decisions are made in accordance with rationality.

An unbalanced BAS-BIS system may produce a “craving brain” that leads someone into all sorts of physical, social, moral, and legal difficulties, such as addiction to gambling, food, sex, alcohol, and drugs. A faulty BAS is essentially a brain less efficient in binding dopamine, overly efficient in transporting it back into the presynaptic knob, and/or overly efficient in clearing it from the synaptic gap. Defective “brakes” are associated with similar deficiencies of the serotonergic system. Carriers of any or all of the genetic variants responsible for these deficiencies are led on an incessant search for more pleasure-inducing experiences to increase dopamine levels. A balanced BAS/BIS system obeys the Freudian reality principle; it does not deny the pleasure principle, it simply adjusts it to the demands of social reality.

The third part of the approach-avoidance system is the FFFS, a subsystem of the ANS. The FFFS also includes the amygdala and hippocampus, which suggests that the BIS and the FFFS may be a single integrated inhibition system. Because BIS and FFFS components are engaged simultaneously in approach/avoidance situations, the reactivity level of the ANS is considered a major determinant of the development of a conscience. The conscience is the basis for forming moral judgments and for moving one’s behavior into conformity with those judgments, but it is more than a reasoning mechanism as it typically moves individuals in one direction or another before they have had an opportunity to consciously contemplate options. This emotional component of the conscience precedes cognition and serves to adjust their behavior by modifying neural activity in ways that lead them to choose moral responses over possible antisocial responses in approach-avoidance situations.

The modern view of conscience is that it is the cooperative output of limbic emotional and rational cognitive mechanisms. Individuals with strong consciences feel guilt, shame, and anxiety when they violate moral rules; those with impaired consciences do not. Differences in the emotional component of conscience are observed in infancy, long before children are able to reflect cognitively on their behavior as morally right or wrong. Variation in ANS arousal and neurotransmitter patterns lead to significant variation in how well the prescriptions and proscriptions of moral behavior are learned via classical conditioning of the ANS.



  1. Hare, Robert. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York: Pocket Books, 1993.
  2. Kochanska, Grazyna and Nazan Aksan. “Conscience in Childhood: Past, Present, and Future.” MerrillPalmer Quarterly, v.50 (2004).
  3. Krebs, Dennis. “The Evolution of a Sense of Justice. In Evolutionary Forensic Psychology, J. Duntley and T. Shackelford, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  4. Walsh, Anthony. “Right and Wrong-Conscience.” In Theoretical Criminology: Assessing Philosophical Assumptions. Waltham, MA: Elsevier, 2013.

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