The word ”conscience”, derived from Latin conscientia, has a long history, beginning perhaps from Latin translations of Bible. The German equivalent Gewissen was fixed for the precise purpose by Luther's translation of the Bible. Conscience began thus its course as an essentially religious term – bad conscience was that nagging awareness within you that you had sinned and thus deserved some punishment.
Conscience was thus a type of knowledge, as the original Latin and the German translation imply – namely, it was a knowledge of the morality of one's own actions. In its original conception, conscience was a voice sent by God, while in the post-Kantian German philosophy it became a a direct certainty over all moral questions – an idea that Hegel was quick to criticize.
Wolff accepts the idea of conscience as the source of ethico-moral knowledge from the tradition – Gewissen is the capacity to estimate the worth of actions, which have either already taken place or which have only been planned. Indeed, one and the same action could be evalued even both when planned and after its actual occurrence, and the judgement need not be same in the two cases: we may regret our decisions later.
In Wolff conscience is then identified with moral judgements and not with moral feelings. True, he admits, conscience may cause a number of feelings – we might, for instance, feel pangs for some evil action or be proud of morally upright choices. Yet, these feelings are mere effects of conscience, but not conscience itself – they are mere tools which conscience uses in order to promote good actions.
Furthermore, Wolff would deny that the source of the judgements of the conscience is some mystical faculty for immediate moral knowledge. Instead, moral judgements are properly based on knowledge of the characteristics of things and their connections – that is, on reason, by which Wolff refers to the faculty used in sciences in general. Wolff is thus assimilating the account of conscience into the general account of scientific reasoning, in opposition to many former and later theories of conscience.
Undoubtedly Wolff does not assume that people would go on making explicit mental calculations over the worth of their possible and actual actions. Instead, they will often just e.g. implicitly apply some ethical principle to a particular case. Still, Wolff is convinced that animals are incapable of even such implicit reasoning and are therefore without conscience.
In addition, one should remember that Wolffian reasoning is not the reasoning of the caricature rationalists. True, Wolff would undoubtedly accept some of his ethical principles as conceptual truths – his definition of perfection would probably be a good example. Still, Wolff does accept also reliable experiences as a basis of proper reasoning – in philosophy in general, and also in ethics in particular.
Finally, Wolff does accept also the possibility of faults in ethical reasoning. Sometimes we don't know the proper information to decide the issue, at other times we may be confused by sensuous information and in yet other cases our conscience might be deceived by our desires. In other words, erroneous conscience is a possibility.
Next time something about how to find the highest possible good.