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Title: Conscience, ethics and politics : beyond beautiful souls
Author: Greene, Rachel Elizabeth
ISNI:       0000 0004 8501 0434
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2019
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This thesis examines the conceptual and practical difficulties posed by the use of conscience. In order to address those difficulties, it looks at the figure of the beautiful soul in romantic literature as an important resource with which to re-assess the problem of conscience. To show how this thesis stages a conversation between three thinkers: Charles Taylor, Gillian Rose and Rowan Williams. I offer a critical survey of efforts to respond to the difficulties that conscience presents, before examining Taylor's work on moral inarticulacy and secularity, so as to contextualize the problem of conscience and show why people are pressured to rely on conscience as a moral principle despite the problem. Then I introduce the beautiful soul as a compelling depiction of what it feels like to organize your life by following your conscience. I focus first on the story of the beautiful soul in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, in order to build up a picture of the key movements in the beautiful soul's understanding of conscience as an expression of individuality and to see why cultivating a beautiful soul might be a modern temptation. Then I consider the story of the beautiful soul in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, which interrogates individuality as a justified norm and indicates how we might avoid the temptation to cultivate a beautiful soul. Next I examine Gillian Rose's claim that Hannah Arendt succumbed to that temptation. I argue that Rose's claim has its basis in Arendt's struggle to rework the concept of conscience after the trial of Eichmann. I return to Taylor's proposal that we take a theological approach in this secular age and set out the distinctive features of conscience, drawing up the insights of Rowan Williams. This thesis argues that the beautiful soul issues two important warnings about conscience. With regards to efforts to theorize conscience, the beautiful soul offers a salient reminder that conscience is formal and that its formalism always has the potential to undermine its purported morality. With regards to the use of conscience in practice, the beautiful soul warns of serious pitfalls associated with responding to ethical and political issues as if they were personal matters that could be addressed by curating your life according to conscience. It is still possible to make public appeal to your conscience and avoid the fate of the beautiful soul, but only if we heed these two warnings. That means we must not assume conscience to be a self-explanatory moral principle, and we must resist treating it as a single, weighty decision for or against institutional life without considering the virtues, social practices, and institutions shaping it.
Supervisor: Morris, Jeremy Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: conscience ; Scho¨ne Seele ; politics ; ethics