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Conscience and Moral Competence


Admission requirements

Admission to one of the following programmes is required:

  • MA Philosophy 60 EC: specialisation Ethics and Politics

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Law

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Political Science


The issue of conscience is often dismissed in the contemporary literature on philosophy and moral psychology. In this course, the nature of conscience and its function in our moral lives will be discussed. Different models for understanding conscience will be presented. Kant’s conception of conscience will play a central role, as it is still a viable alternative. Furthermore, psychopaths are usually portrayed as individuals without conscience and the notion of conscience is therefore usefully analyzed in relation to their moral flaws. In light of this, this course explores the current debate on psychopaths’ moral incompetence as an avenue for more insight into the importance of conscience for moral agency. Along the way, the course will touch upon closely related topics in moral psychology, such as moral judgment, moral motivation, self-assessment and moral responsibility.

Course objectives

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • different conceptions of conscience;

  • Kant’s account of conscience and its relation to some basic concepts of his moral theory, such as “maxim”, “moral end”, “imputation”, “duties of virtue” and “truthfulness”;

  • the current rationalism-sentimentalism debate regarding psychopaths’ moral incompetence (the debate involves discussions of the moral/conventional distinction, moral judgments, moral motivation and moral responsibility).

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • infer which model for understanding conscience an author applies in a text;

  • relate different interpretations of Kant’s account of conscience to some other conceptions of conscience;

  • situate different models for understanding conscience within the contemporary debate regarding psychopaths’ immorality and apply these models to another context;

  • explain the relation between different conceptions of conscience and the other aspects of moral competence.


The timetable is available on the MA Philosophy 60 EC website and on the MA Philosophy 120 EC website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Class attendance is required.

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Attending seminars (13 × 3 hours): 39 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature and preparation for seminars: 135 hours

  • Preparation of presentation: 25 hours

  • Writing of research proposal: 16 hours

  • Additional literature for final paper: 10 hours

  • Writing of final paper: 55 hours

Assessment method


  • Seminar presentation (25-30 minutes) with handout and/or PowerPoint (20%)

  • Research proposal (10%)

  • Final paper (70%)

Class attendance is required – without sufficient attendance students will be excluded from submitting a final paper.


The final mark for the course is established by determination of the weighted average of several subtests. A subtest can be graded as unsatisfactory.


The resit will consist of a final paper. The mark for the resit will replace all previously earned marks for subtests.No separate resits will be offered for partial results.
Class participation and completion of practical assignments such as the oral presentation is a mandatory requirement for taking the resit. Students who have obtained a satisfactory grade for the first examination(s) cannot take the resit.

Exam review

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.


Blackboard will be used for:
To be announced

Reading list

  • Hill, Thomas. (2002) Human Welfare and Moral Worth: Kantian Perspectives. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Chapter: “The Four Conceptions of Conscience”)

  • Thagard, Paul and Tracy Finn. (2011) Conscience: What is Moral Intuition?. In Carla Bagnoli (ed.), Morality and the Emotions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 150-170.

  • Howard, Jason. (2004) Kant and Moral Imputation: Conscience and the Riddle of the Given. American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 78, 609-627.

  • Wood, Allen. (2008) Kantian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. (Chapter: “Conscience”)

  • Nichols, Shaun. (2002) How psychopaths threaten moral rationalism: Is it irrational to be amoral?. The Monist, 85, 285-304.

  • Kennett, Jeanette. (2010) Reasons, emotion and the moral judgement in the psychopath. In Luca Malatesti and John McMillan (eds.), Responsibility and Psychopathy: Interfacing Law, Psychiatry and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 243-259.

  • Aharoni, Eyal, Walter Sinott-Armstrong and Kent Kiehl. (2012) Can psychopathic offenders discern moral wrongs? A new look at the moral/conventional distinction. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121, 484-497.

A full bibliography will be posted on Blackboard.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

Students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number, which can be found in the timetables for courses and exams.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. M. Vujosevic (contact details to be announced)


Not applicable.