But a conscience seems to be more than that. If you had to define it, you might call it the sum of our inhibitions. It's what keep us from doing bad things. (I'm using the word "bad" because it's such an all-encompassing, vague term.) But how exactly does a "conscience" keep us from doing those things?
Part of it is fear -- fear of reprisals from wronged people, but also the fear of having to experience the three unpleasant emotions mentioned in the first paragraph. (But fear of reprisals shouldn't be overlooked; remember, sociopaths generally don't feel fear the same way.)
Part of "a conscience" is the ability to put oneself into other's shoes, knowing how they would feel should you wrong them.
Some of it seems to be tied into not thinking that you're better than you are. All of us are guilty of overestimating ourselves at times; but some of us are consistently guilty.
Another element of a conscience is awareness -- and therefore avoidance -- of your own possible hypocrisy. Anybody who criticizes others for doing exactly as he does probably has a pretty weak "conscience."
A conscience is really just a matter of instincts. You could describe it as the part of your mind which regulates your comfort zone -- or more specifically, your discomfort zone. The less comfortable you are when you're doing something you know you shouldn't be, the more of a "conscience" you have.
And the easier it is for you to justify your own actions, the less of one you have.
If you feel perfectly comfortable buttering up a distant relative in hopes he'll remember you in his will, then you may have less of a "conscience." If you are reluctantly going along with the plan only because, say, your wife is pushing you to, then you have more of one.
Discomfort zones, instincts, and hypocrisy: these terms are easier to relate to than that nebulous, intangible concept known as a "conscience."
And when they feel schadenfreude, or envy, or resentment, or even hate, it makes them doubt themselves. But those emotions are universal: everybody feels them from time to time. And it's not how we feel, but how we act, that's evidence of a conscience.
The word "conscience" is nothing more than a metaphor for a broad collection of instincts steering one in the general direction of the Golden Rule.
Your "conscience" is simply you. To think of it as being as a separate entity, like Jiminy Cricket, is misleading.
But people who lack what's called a "conscience," because they lack one, tend to think that it's an actual thing, and that if they claim its existence, it will prove their goodness. So these are the people who who talk about their conscience the most.
One of the things that give sociopaths away is their attempts to appear normal -- or even better than normal. What betrays them is that their act is always a little overdone. So they say things like "my conscience is clear," as if their conscience is a tangible part of them with absolute authority over what they can and cannot do.
I once knew a sociopath who would occasionally say, "Hey, I'm the guy who's gotta look at himself in the mirror the next day" -- as if this rendered him incapable of doing anything immoral. Obviously, "looking in the mirror" is a metaphor, just like "a conscience" is. But because that sort of thing never troubled him, he figured that it was the actual physical act of seeing one's own reflected image that bothered normal people.
So, like all those sociopaths who blather about their consciences, he gave himself away with his words.