A look at the contrasting forms of conscience

Sophocles, a Greek poet in the fifth century B.C., told the tale of a woman named Antigone who disobeyed the king’s decree by burying her brother, Polyneices.  This burial was so important because the Greeks believed that a person had to be buried before their soul could go to the afterlife.  The king, by decreeing that Polyneices should not be buried, was barring a soul from its life after death.  Erich Fromm, the writer of Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem, made a distinction between two types of conscience.  He explains that there exists an authoritarian conscience and a humanistic conscience.  Both reside as voices inside a person’s head, but they are in opposition to each other.  The actions of Antigone affirm Fromm’s description of the humanistic conscience while her sister, Ismene, exemplifies Fromm’s authoritarian conscience.

The humanistic conscience gives light to what will be beneficial to human well-being.  The worst fear a policeman has is to be in a situation where they have to shoot someone.  Terminating a human life, even with just cause, is very hard to do.  This is because of the humanistic conscience.   The authoritarian conscience is what motivates us to stop at a red light.  It warns us of the potential consequences of running the red light.  Running the red light could cause an accident or result in a traffic violation.  The authoritarian conscience reminds us of rewards also.  If a person’s attire is compatible to the norm, people will accept that person.

The humanistic conscience is the voice innate in all humans, which tells us what promotes and hinders life.  Fromm states that this is “the voice that calls us back to ourselves, to our humanity” (379).  This conscience takes us away from external wants and desires and makes us aware of our humanity.  Birth, the beginning of life, and death, the end of life, are fundamental aspects of our humanity.  Antigone is faced with a conflict.  The king’s decree is keeping her brother’s soul on the mortal plane.  The dead cannot bury themselves, so it is the duty of one of the relatives to bury them and return their soul to the astral plane.  Antigone’s humanistic conscience tells her of this duty to the dead.  Antigone shows this when she says, “I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living; in that world, I shall abide forever” (Sophocles 95).  The gods had made it the right of a person to be buried and thus to enter the afterlife.  Antigone gives Polyneices a ceremonial burial by putting earth upon his body because she respects this right.  Antigone believes that a soul’s return to the afterlife is more important than her own life.

The authoritarian conscience is the voice inside us that tells us of the potential rewards or punishments resulting from a particular action.  The fear of possible punishment or the desire for rewards leads to obeying the authoritarian conscience.  Fromm describes this as “the internalized voice of authority whom we are eager to please and afraid of displeasing” (379).  Ismene’s authoritarian conscience warns her of the punishment for burying Polyneices.  Ismene is afraid of violating the king’s decree.  She says “but to defy the State; I have no strength for that” (Sophocles 95).  Ismene also says that she and Antigone were raised as women.  She was taught not to go against authority and to obey the king.  She will have no part in what Antigone is planning and calls Antigone a fool for her opposition.

The authoritarian conscience is the conscience most people obey because it makes us aware of the immediate satisfaction that most people strive for and the punishment we try to avoid.  Even though the humanistic conscience is obeyed less, it is a powerful motivator when in control because, to follow his conscience, the individual must believe that their cause is more important than what others believe and the consequences of their actions.  Fromm worried that someone would be able to push a button and launch a nuclear attack with a clear conscience because they were obeying their authoritarian conscience.  We must think carefully before we act because what we believe to be correct is relative to what conscience is in control.

For more information

Fromm, Erich. “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Ed. Lynn M.Huddon. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 2000. 377-381.

Sophocles. “Antigone.” Sources of World Civilization. Ed. Oliver Johnson. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall



About The Author


Eric Vanderburg

Eric Vanderburg is an author, thought leader, and consultant. He serves as the Vice President of Cybersecurity at TCDI and Vice Chairman of the board at TechMin. He is best known for his insight on cybersecurity, privacy, data protection, and storage. Eric is a continual learner who has earned over 40 technology and security certifications. He has a strong desire to share technology insights with the community. Eric is the author of several books and he frequently writes articles for magazines, journals, and other publications.

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