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Jan 142014

conscienceWhat is a conscience? We frequently talk about some people not having a conscience, or having a conscience, but what really is a conscience?
The Merriam Webster on-line dictionary defines it thusly.

noun ˈkän(t)-shən(t)s
: the part of the mind that makes you aware of your actions as being either morally right or wrong
: a feeling that something you have done is morally wrong
Full Definition of CONSCIENCE
a :  the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good
b :  a faculty, power, or principle enjoining good acts
c :  the part of the superego in psychoanalysis that transmits commands and admonitions to the ego

Wiki says in part:

Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. Moral judgment may derive from values or norms (principles and rules). In psychological terms conscience is often described as leading to feelings of remorse when a human commits actions that go against his/her moral values and to feelings of rectitude or integrity when actions conform to such norms.[1] The extent to which conscience informs moral judgment before an action and whether such moral judgments are or should be based in reason has occasioned debate through much of the history of Western philosophy.[2]

An article about how the Bible defines conscience written by Gary T. Meadors states in part:

Conscience is a term that describes an aspect of a human being’s self-awareness. It is part of a person’s internal rational capacity and is not, as popular lore sometimes suggests, an audience room for the voice of God or of the devil. Conscience is a critical inner awareness that bears witness to the norms and values we recognize and apply. The complex of values with which conscience deals includes not only those we own, but the entire range of values to which we are exposed during life’s journey. Consequently, there is always a sense of struggle in our reflective process. The witness of conscience makes its presence known by inducing mental anguish and feelings of guilt when we violate the values we recognize and apply. Conscience also provides a sense of pleasure when we reflect on conformity to our value system.
Conscience is an aspect of self-awareness that produces the pain and/or pleasure we “feel” as we reflect on the norms and values we recognize and apply. Conscience is not an outside voice. It is a inward capacity humans possess to critique themselves

The bottom line in all these comments and definitions boil down to accepting what our culture sees as right and wrong, and wanting to do what is right, feeling guilty if we violate what we believe is “right” and trying to correct our behavior to conform to the “right.”
Of course not every culture has the same beliefs about what is right or what is wrong. Western culture decrees that a man is entitled to only one wife at a time, but other cultures allow a man to have multiple wives and still be in conformity with a conscience of right and wrong. Generally Western culture decrees that a man should not beat his wife, though this particular idea has evolved in Western culture from the legal rule that a man must not beat his wife with a stick bigger than his thumb.

Basically, though, our “conscience” is what WE think  is right versus what WE think is wrong. Many times we will say that a psychopath/sociopath “has no conscience” because their thinking about what society’s “rules” is that to them whatever they want is what is okay, so they can violate the rules of society without feeling any “guilt” or “remorse.” They refuse to accept society’s rules of “thou shalt not steal, or thou shalt not murder, etc” as rules that they should obey or feel guilty about if they violate those rules.
A devout radical Muslim might feel that diving an airliner into the Twin Towers was “right” and feel no remorse for the men, women and children that it would kill because he was taught and believed that these people were evil and deserved to die. His conscience would be “clean” and he would have no remorse for his actions. Western culture saw this as a horrible killing of innocent people because we had been taught that kind of behavior is evil.

“Reasoning” with someone who does not share your views of right and wrong who does not have a conscience that prohibits them from engaging in behavior that you consider evil is impossible.

One can look at the nightly news and see episodes depicting murder, robbery, rape, child abuse, spousal abuse, thefts, road rage ending in murder and every kind of madness and mayhem and if you are taught that these things are wrong, be bewildered at why anyone would even think of doing these things, how could they allow themselves to behave in such a manner. Didn’t they know it was WRONG to kill or steal?

I doubt any of the people who engage in criminal and/or immoral behavior don’t know what the rest of our culture thinks is right or wrong, these people have been taught in school or at home that “it is wrong to kill” or “it is wrong to steal” and they know that the police will arrest them and send them to prison if they get caught, so with few exceptions (mostly by people who are mentally ill) they attempt to hide their crimes because they know that others consider these acts as “bad” behavior, but they just don’t care, or they feel like “if it benefits me, to heck with what other people think.”

In terms of Western cultural thinking, my son Patrick “has no conscience” or internal “voice” that tells him “it is wrong to kill” and makes him decide not to kill or steal or makes him feel guilty if he does illegal or immoral things . Frankly there have been times in my life where I WANTED to kill someone, but my conscience would not allow me to do it. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had murdered someone just because they had done something really bad to me.

The desire for revenge is a normal, natural desire that is fueled by an injury. In fact, when we even think of revenge, researchers tell us that our brain gives us a “shot” of a “feel good” chemical in the pleasure center of the brain. At the same time though, my belief is that revenge and the bitterness which it entails is “wrong” and  as well will harm my own mental health. So my conscience made me give up these thoughts of revenge and the anger and rage that made me really WANT to kill someone. It didn’t stop Patrick though. He felt no guilt about wanting to steal, and stealing, about wanting to kill and then killing. Nothing in his conscience stopped him or changed his path. He feels no guilt or shame for what he has done.

Conscience, or that feeling we have inside that makes us want to conform to what is “right” and avoid what is “wrong” and makes us feel guilty when we do something we have been taught is “wrong” is what keeps most people obeying the rules of society. Without a general agreement within a culture of what is “right” or “wrong” and a conscience that “pricks” us with “guilt” when we fail to conform to those rules, society would fall apart completely.

It is part of our religions, but even people who are without a religion generally conform to society’s norms. People with empathy, or the ability to “feel” the emotions of other people are naturally caring about other people. People without empathy, or who have been taught that it is okay to kill others such as the Twin Towers atrocity don’t care what happens to other people, or even believe it is “right.” Psychopaths are unique though, that they are in every culture, and violate the norms of every culture without any twinge of guilt. They fail to have empathy for their victims, and in fact generally experience what we call “duping delight,” in that they actually enjoy breaking rules just to “get away with” breaking rules.

People without an active conscience, without empathy for the victims of their behavior, cannot be changed by anyone else’s opinion, because they do not value the opinion of others. Not only that, but strangely enough, they sometimes want to admiration of the very people they despise for how ruthless they can be.

Conscience is the glue that holds any society together that makes the majority of the people in that culture conform voluntarily to the rules even when there is no one else watching, and they could “get away” with breaking the rules. It is the internal watchdog on our behavior. It is essential for people to live together in any kind of harmony. Laws are not for those who follow them, but are for those who break the norms of society by offenses against others or against society in general.

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  4 Responses to “What is a conscience?”

  1. Thanks for this article, Joyce. I especially like the quote from Gary T. Meadors. Lots of food for thought there.

    It never ceases to amaze me how different people live by different moral codes. There is no consensus, so people have much to discuss and disagree on.

    But I think that if you find a person who lives by SOME kind of moral code, there is a place where we can meet somewhere in the middle. Through discussion and empathizing, we can see each other’s perspective.

    On the other hand, there are those who are empty of values so they have no code to live by at all. With these people, no amount of talking will make any difference. The worst part of dealing with these twisted people is that the only thing that matters to them is winning through deceit. They will pretend to see your perspective, pretend to care about what you care about. Then they betray.

  2. Sky, I think there are some cultures (the RADICAL Muslim one for example) that there is NO “middle ground” or a way in which we can come to a middle ground. Prejudice against anyone that is strong, be it prejudice against Christians, or Muslims or blacks or whites or any race, religion or national origin is not FACT based, but emotionally based. Children are taught so that the “other” is demonized so that with a CLEAR conscience we can hurt them.

    Just as my conscience is clear and clean when I set a mouse trap to kill mice in my barn, there are people whose religious teaching would say that I am evil, or because I eat meat I am evil. Some of those people are radical and feel like they can hurt me because I eat meat or kill mice, PETA for example I consider a very radical animals rights group….but I also know that some of the things that they crow FOUL over are valid. Just recently there were videos of Tyson food’s pig farms mistreating pigs by workers. I know that happens and I am totally against it and think these people should be prosecuted for animal cruelty. I’m not against raising pigs to eat but I do not want them tortured or abused before they are HUMANELY and without pain dispatched so they can be processed as meat.

    Each of us may hold some generally different views on what is “right and wrong” but at the same time, we can not harm each other because of our different views because we have EMPATHY for other people and even empathy for the humane care and treatment of animals intended for food.

    I always went to the butcher with my cattle and stood there while they were shot, to make sure that they were not afraid. With me there talking softly to them they didn’t fear what was happening, being put in a chute as they had been put in a chute for vaccines etc. I would also not let the butcher use an electric prod to get them to move through the chute faster…give them time and they will go on their own.

    Where you said above:
    QUOTE Skylar

    On the other hand, there are those who are empty of values so they have no code to live by at all. With these people, no amount of talking will make any difference. The worst part of dealing with these twisted people is that the only thing that matters to them is winning through deceit. They will pretend to see your perspective, pretend to care about what you care about. Then they betray.

    I totally and completely agree with you there…and that’s where people along the psychopathic continuum lie, without a moral code, without empathy and without conscience. Scarry folks.

  3. Joyce & Sky, I’ve heard the word, “continuum” quite a bit, lately, in session and in reading about emotional healing and disorders, etc. I think that this is a very important concept to understand: there are levels to everything, including psychopathy. The one common thread in the fabric of the disordered is precisely what Sky wrote, above: “They will pretend to see your perspective, pretend to care about what you care about. Then they betray.” It’s all an illusion of what they believe to be “normal” behavior, and not everyone who is clearly toxic and/or disordered is a serial killer. MOST of these people never are charged with a crime and commit their “murders” by destroying people’s souls.

  4. Yes, everything is on a continuum, or a bell curve….and conscience is one of those things as well…some people have “too much” conscience because they blame themselves for everything that goes wrong in the world, others, like Psychopaths, have little conscience and blame everything they do that goes wrong on others, not ever feeling any sense of remorse or guilt or learning from their mistakes.

    Conscience is partly innate in humans and partly taught. Just as the radical Muslims were taught that they did a GOOD thing by blowing up the twin towers, and most other people in the world thought it was a cowardly inhumane thing to do.

    Most psychopaths though are on the LOW end of the empathy scale with even a few of them having “zero” empathy. Those are your Hitlers, your Chairman Mao’s, Stalins, your Ted Bundys, etc.

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