The Furies of Conscience
Denial & the Wages of Sin
Everyone knows that conscience works in two different modes: cautionary and accusatory. In the cautionary mode, it alerts us to the peril of moral wrong and generates an inhibition against committing it. In the accusatory mode, it indicts us for wrong we have already done. The most obvious indictment is the feeling of remorse, but remorse is the least of the five Furies. No one always feels remorse for doing wrong; some people never do. Yet even when we fail to feel remorse, our knowledge of our guilt generates objective needs for confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification.
These other Furies are the greater sisters of remorse. They are inflexible, inexorable, and relentless, demanding satisfaction even when mere feelings are suppressed, fade away, or never come. And so it is that conscience operates not only in the first two modes but also in a harrowing third: the avenger, which punishes the soul who does wrong but refuses to read the indictment.
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J. Budziszewski is Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, and the author of What We Can't Not Know (Spence) and Ask Me Anything (NavPress). is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, where he also teaches courses in the law school and the religious studies department. His books include What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (2d ed. Ignatius, 2011), Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2017), and On the Meaning of Sex (ISI Press, 2012).
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