Conscience is a concept extrapolated from the feeling I, and some people, get when contemplating a questionable action, or after having committed one. It will either make me make a correct choice, or wish I had. But, looking at the behavior of so many people -- carjackers to con men (and, of course, women) -- I have begun to wonder whether it's a universal possession. For a long time religion tried to instill conscience by hope of heaven and fear of hell. It never worked. Humanists try by suggesting: " Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." But that's vague, and of course it has no mechanism to guarantee success. Is conscience something some have and some lack? Do some people succeed in beating theirs to death? What's your take?
Darwin thought that any animal endowed with well-marked social instincts would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as its intellectual powers approximated man's.
I think that's right and therefore there is such a thing as conscience.
Surely conscience is our capacity to store away prescriptive commandments in the mind. Then if we fail to follow those prescriptions, we may feel the prick of conscience. The structure of the prescription should carry a message of a lessening of self-worth, social worth or one of more generalised failure, when the prescription is not followed.
Take murder for example. The prescription is that one must not kill another person except under special circumstances, (self-defence, necessary defence of others <eg. in a life threatening hold-up> or during war <ie. national defence>). That's not a comprehensive analysis, but the idea is we have to have a concept of what murder is.
So the consequence of having committed a murder is tagged onto the message the perpetrator has accepted as valid, and stored into their brain. Having transgressed the prescriptive imperative, one has failed in meeting one's own values, and thus has a feeling which we call conscience.
Different people have different ideas stored in their minds, which make their internalised prescriptive messages of commandment different. Adolf Hitler for example, it seems, regarded certain groups of humans as non-people, and so killing them was not a matter for conscience. Of course he must have recognised that the people of other nations, did not hold the views which he did, and knew that he would be treated as a criminal with crimes against humanity if captured. So he took suicide as a way of avoiding that.
I am not sure if animals have the capacity to think as humans do, in the way that I have described. However, social animals do understand their position in the social hierarchy, and will be submissive if 'caught out' or threatened. On the other hand, they will try to climb up the social ladder. It makes sense that the animals with any kind of mental powers approaching that of humans, and which depend on social groupings for living, may well have some capacity for a conscience.
There seem so many recent examples of people who, for many years, appeared to lead exemplary lives, but are found to have stolen huge sums of money, forced themselves sexually on children, and in other terrible ways. Ponzi scheme perpetrators are one example. Did they fake a conscience for years, even decades? Or did the learn to overcome what they were being told by their "Jiminy Cricket?"
As far as I can tell conscience is some kind of instinctive emotion. It appears to be a product of evolution, as we have a better chance of survival in a society if we have and internal mechanism forcing us to follow our own morals.
Like other emotions and instincts we can ignore or supress it to a certain extent, which explains how people can commit atrocities despite of it.
I should note that this is not my field, so I speak under correction.