Conscience vs. conscious?

The noun conscience relates to one’s inner sense of right from wrong. The adjective conscious describes someone as awake and self-aware.

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What is the difference between conscience and conscious?

The words conscience and conscious are homophones, which means they have similar pronunciations but different spellings and meanings: 

  • The word “conscience” is a noun that describes your inner-moral compass.
  • Conscious” is an adjective or noun that relates to the state of being awake and having self-awareness. 

You know the little voice in your head that judges what’s good and bad? That’s called your conscience. As children, we have a limited understanding of morality and ethics. But as we mature and learn from mistakes, we develop a complex, inner sense of right from wrong. 

When we feel bad or remorseful for acting immorally, we might say, “I have a guilty conscience.” Likewise, if we admit our wrongdoings and make amends to someone, we might say, “I’ve cleared my conscience.” 

A “consciousness” is simply the state of mental awareness. You have to be alive to be conscious, but that doesn’t mean that every beating heart has a conscious brain. For example, when you’re asleep, you have little-to-no consciousness (awareness) of your environment and reality. Additionally, psychologists describe our suppressed memories or feelings as “subconscious” because we’re unaware of their existence. 

Therefore, the adjective conscious describes someone’s mental processes or actions as being ‘alive’ and ‘awake,’ ‘aware,’ ‘perceptive,’ or ‘intentional.’ The noun conscious simply describes the state of consciousness

What does conscience mean?

The word conscience is a noun that the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) defines as ‘an inner feeling or voice viewed as an acting guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior’ (“Conscience” 369). 

The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) adds to this definition of conscience by explaining how the inner voice is ‘part of the superego in psychoanalysis’ that submits one’s moral judgments of their ethics to their ego for consideration. 

Example sentences: 

  • “I enjoy living my life with a clear conscience.” 
  • “Without a conscience, psychopaths have no feeling of obligation toward other people.”
  • “I hate lying because I have the worst guilty conscience.” 
  • “To this day, the accident weighs heavily on her conscience.” 
  • “He cannot, in good conscience, allow this to happen.”

Phrases of conscience:

  1. In good conscience: The phrase “in good conscience” means ‘by any reasonable standard’ or ‘by all that is fair.’ 
  2. On one’s conscience: When someone says something is located “on one’s conscience,” it means something is ‘weighing heavily on their mind’ or causing them to feel guilt. 

Synonyms

Character, duty, ethics, heart, inner voice, mind, morality, morals, principles, scruples, sense of right and wrong, sense of right, soul, standards, still small voice, superego, values, the voice within, qualms. 

Antonyms

Immorality, sin. 

Etymology of conscience

The noun conscience is a Middle English term derived from Old French and Latin cōnscientia, from cōnscient-, which means ‘being privy to.’ According to AHD and NOAD, the noun derives from the verb cōnscīre (‘to be conscious of’) and consists of con- ‘with’ + scīre ‘to know’ (369). 

Did you know?

Latin cōnscientia also gave way to adjectives such as “conscientious,” which arose in the early 17th century from French consciencieux. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, the term “conchie” is a derogatory adaptation of the adjective from the First World War (1914–1918), which described ‘conscientious objectors of the military for reasons of pacifism’ (Chantrell 114). 

What does conscious mean?

Conscious is an adjective and noun that describes one’s state of awareness, perception, and intention (“Conscious 369). When broken down into individual definitions, the adjective conscious describes someone or something as: 

  1. ‘Mentally aware and responsive or awake to one’s surroundings.’ 
  2. Showing an awareness or knowledge of something.’ 
  3. Painfully aware,’ ‘inwardly attentive,’ or ‘sensitive to something(i.e., self-conscious). 
  4. ‘Concerned or preoccupied about a particular issue.’ 
  5. Deliberate and intentional (of thought or action).’ 
  6. Capable of cognition and will.’ 
  7. Directly perceptible to and controlled by a person concerned.’ 

Example sentences: 

  • Maintaining a conscious awareness is key for rational decision-making.”
  • “He was knocked unconscious while fighting in New York.” 
  • “You cannot make conscious decisions while under the influence of sedatives.” 
  • “The New York Times makes a conscious effort to deliver their papers on time.” 
  • “A conscious mind is aware of their own actions.”

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the noun conscious is also a psychoanalytical term that means “consciousness” or “the component of waking awareness perceptible by a person at any given instant.” 

Example sentences: 

  • “Meditation enables us to reach a higher level of consciousness.” 
  • “After a week, the patient regained consciousness.” 

Synonyms

Alert, alive, attentive, apprehensive, aware, calculated, careful, cognizant, compos mentis, deliberate, designed, intentional, knowing, mindful, observant, premeditated, purposeful, responsive, sensible, sentient, strategic, studied, vigilant, voluntary, willed, witting. 

Antonyms

Accidental, aimless, desultory, careless, heedless, impetuous, insensible, involuntary, mindless, nondeliberate, nonpurposive, oblivious, unaware, unintentional, unconscious, unmindful. 

Etymology of conscious

The adjective conscious entered the English language in the 16th century to describe ‘the awareness of wrongdoing.’ Additionally, the term initially stems from Latin cōnscius (‘knowing with others or in oneself’) and consists of cōnscīre (‘be privy to’) + -ous” (“Conscious 369). 

Additional reading

To learn more English grammar tips involving psychology and philosophy, check out The Word Counter’s recent posts on commonly confused words, such as: 

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between conscience and conscious with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. The noun conscience relates to one’s _____________.
    a. Capacity to make decisions
    b. Moral sense of right from wrong
    c. Alertness
    d. A and C
  2. The adjective conscious describes someone as _______________. 
    a. Aware
    b. Deliberate 
    c. Perceptible
    d. All of the above
  3. The definitions of conscience and conscious both relate to _______________.
    a. Morality 
    b. Religion
    c. A cognitive process
    d. A and C
  4. The opposite of conscious is _______________
    a. Immorality
    b. Mindless
    c. Apprehensive
    d. Scruples
  5. The opposite of conscience is _______________
    a. Involuntary
    b. Superego
    c. Oblivious
    d. Sin

Answers

  1. A
  2. D
  3. C
  4. B
  5. D

Sources

  1. Chantrell, Glynnis, Ed. “Conscience.” The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 114.
  2. Conscience.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  3. “Conscience.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 369.
  4. “Conscious.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 369.
  5. Conscious.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  6. Consciousness.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.