Is conscience a guide like Jiminy Cricket appointed by the good fairy for Pinocchio? Is it the voice of my guardian angel? Does it make "cowards of us all?" Or is it the way of courage of the warrior in the face of adversity?
We know we feel bad when we are doing the wrong thing. But knowing that we are doing wrong or right is a matter of judgment. Judgment whether fast or slow means making a decision weighing the pros and cons in the light of certain criteria or principle. But where do those principles or criteria come from?
Do those principles and criteria come from the outside--from our environment or culture and the training in that culture by our parents, teachers, ministers, artists, politicians, and media.
Ot do they come from inside? How did Huck Finn decide to free his friend Jim, a slave by law, even if it meant going to hell? What criterion was he using? And the reader knows that it was the right one. How is it possible to think critically and put all of our conventional wisdom, all that we have been taught as true doctrine or divine revelation, under scrutiny? Where do those criteria and principles come from? Is there a human nature and natural law that can guide us? If so, does that nature need to be redeemed or graced to function well?
Conscience is moral consciousness. It is therefore the consciousness we have of ourselves in our action in and to the world. It is our awareness, not just as thinking but also as acting. Conscience is our moral judgment aware of itself.
Kant spent a book critiquing moral judgment and identifying the built in categories and criteria of the mind in action. Ethics and Politics as philosophical enterprises are inquiries into and analyses of human consciousness in its intention towards goodness. The articulation of that inquiry becomes a part of the culture and its teachings subject to further inquiry. Helpful, but not sufficient because all of us personally and socially can review and revise these teachings based on our own judgments and criteria.
Mark Twain and other novelists probably do it best by telling stories of decision making that describe the circumstances within which people choose and act along with the consequences for themselves and others. It is up to us to approve or disapprove what the protagonists do and become. In doing so we have to consult our own conscience. We have to decide what we want in the world and for ourselves.
I experience consciousness unmediated, i.e. directly; but of course as soon as I talk about consciousness, it is no longer unmediated or as it is. I experience it in my own existence which "stands out" (stans ex) from the world. And from this experience I take the meaning of existence which I apply abundantly to all things in the world. I say for instance that the pavement on which I tripped and cut my knee exists; and so do all the billions of stones glued together to make up the pavement. I say these things exist, participate in being, are real. So are other things which I discover by giving them categories.
But I know that my existence is different from those things because I experience my agency (though I sometimes naively attribute agency to objects). I experience my act of "standing out" from objects which I make stand out from other things. Real things are not mere figments of my imagination--even though it is through these figments of imagination that I can verify them as real.
In the primary, unmediated experience of my own conscious body and those of other persons with whom I am entwined, I discover the meaning of being, existence, and reality. I experience my and others' subjectivity as "out-standing" in our shared projection out to things in the world through speech. Standing-out is our sense of physical and communal space. It also is the source of our illusion of the absolute.