Thomas Green on Moral Conscience

Today I was introduced to the writings of Thomas Green, a professor of education at Syracuse University who studies the philosophy of moral development. He views the educational development of conscience as “the elaboration and continuing juxtaposition of the different voices of conscience as craft, membership, sacrifice, memory, and imagination” (p. 1). By conscience Green means the capacity of ours to be judge, each in his own case (p. 3). That conscience has different voices, existing side by side. Let me explain the various types of conscience Green outlines, and then see if I can tie these concepts to our study of becoming.

  1. Conscience as Craft occurs when a novice or expert in any craft adopt the standards of that craft as his or her own, acquiring the capacity for to judge one’s own performance by the standards of that craft. (see p 4) Like the Greek concept of arete (excellence according to one’s kind, or virtue), we do “count skill in conduct as a virtue” (p. 7).
  2. Conscience as Membership recognizes that our conscience is formed only “in the context of some public and for the sake of life within that public” (p. 8). Green believes that the proper unit of consideration is not the individual, but the member (p. 15).
  3. Conscience as Sacrifice acknowledges the claims of prudence (or self-interest) yet says that at times we have a reversal, a turning from self-interest, wherein we perform “perfectly gratuitous acts of grace and kindness” which results in self-indifference and even self-sacrifice (p. 20).
  4. Conscience as Memory discusses the human need for rootedness and the fact that only through education can we acquire a social memory that extends beyond the reach of our own individual memories.
  5. Conscience as Imagination posits that only through imagination can we speak to others about the chasm between our hopes and expectations as a community and the failures in our lived lives. This conscience has the “capacity to draw us out of our presumed world of thought and action and to grant us once again the ears to hear, the eyes to see, and the courage to act in different ways” (24). This conscience gives us the possibility of transformation.

Green concludes with this vivid statement: “Rootedness and vision ultimately are what provide both the only salvation there is for those institutions and the only fixed point for the guidance of persons engaged in public policy” (p. 25).

So: we become a fully developed moral being as we learn to judge by these different aspects of conscience. What does each aspect of conscience tell me about becoming or about learning in general (including knowing and doing).

  • When I judge using my conscience as craft, I judge my own performance (deeds/doing) by the standards of excellence, the standards of the expert. This sounds kind of like the language of cognitive apprenticeship used by Wegner, Lave, and Rogoff (among others). I become an expert as my acts (doing) or performance nears the performance of expert.  But more importantly, I appropriate the values and standards of the expert or the greater community I am seeking to join. In this way I become through conscience of craft.
  • Conscience as membership also overlaps with ideas of apprenticeship. I got a little lost in his discussion of normation, at least in terms of how to relate it to learning. I guess his argument is that some moral learning or normation is done primarily because of social relationships (he tells a story of two friends), and thus we should not look at the individual alone, but at the context of our public lives (see p. 8). In this section Green wrote that the distinction between cognitive (mind) and affective (heart) education does not make sense in moral education (see p. 11). Green argues that we gain empathy when we operate in collective settings, wherein we learn to acknowledge the legitimacy of others’ interests (see p. 14). Perhaps this ties to the charity I wrote about in my last post, which seems most vital to becoming. Do we become or transform ourselves more readily when we acknowledge others’ interests (or, more profoundly, feel charity towards them)? Must charity exist for learning, at least in the sense of becoming, to occur?
  • I’m not sure how to connect Green’s thoughts on conscience as sacrifice to learning or becoming.  Green says that prudence, or self-interest, is prior to morality in the order of learning (p. 16). In fact, prudence doesn’t really have to be learned at all; it is innate. Sacrifice, or what Green terms self indifference, must be learned. But he doesn’t really explain how that conscience of sacrifice or self indifference is developed or learned; he spends most of his time just defending the fact that it does exist.
  • In discussing conscience as memory, Green argues that “Roots…may leave us free to choose what we can choose without closing off possibilities that are real…. We are not free to choose [our social inheritance], but we can reach a point where we possess as our own what already we have been given. There is a third possibility. We might attain that point where we learn to work not only within but upon our inheritance. That is rootedness, and it is hard to suppose that there can be any education complete without it or any moral education at all without it” (p. 21). This aspect of conscience foregrounds the being but also gives room for becoming. I’m not completely sure how to tie it to learning.
  • The conscience as imagination definitely ties in to the possibility of transformation that is part of becoming. Through imagination we gain new eyes and ears, and the courage to change (learn?). How do we promote this conscience of imagination in the classroom? Like charity/empathy/pure love of Christ, it seems absolutely vital to becoming.


Green, T. F. (1985). The Formation of Conscience in an Age of Technology. American Journal of Education, 94, 1: 1-32. doi:10.1086/443829.


One thought on “Thomas Green on Moral Conscience

  1. One thought about your musings on conscience as sacrifice:

    Green talks about “prudence” being a natural state of humans. That is we don’t have to be taught to put our own self-interest first. As we become “moral beings” we learn to put other interests before our own self interest at times.

    This makes me think of the “natural man” as talked about by King Benjamin in Mosiah 3:19 ( and also charity which you have mentioned in other places that involves “seeking not her own” (see Moroni 7:45 –


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