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Conscience today

By Paul Strohm


Among ethical concepts, conscience is a remarkable survivor.  During the 2000 years of its existence it has had ups and downs, but has never gone away.  Originating as Roman conscientia, it was adopted by the Catholic Church, redefined and competitively claimed by Luther and the Protestants during the Reformation, adapted to secular philosophy during the Enlightenment, and is still actively abroad in the world today.  Yet the last few decades have been cloudy ones for conscience, a unique time of trial.

The problem for conscience has always been its precarious authorization.   It is both a uniquely personal impulse and a matter of institutional consensus, a strongly felt personal view and a shared norm upon which all reasonable or ethical people are expected to agree.   As a result of its mixed mandate, conscience performs in differing and even contradictory ways.   It lends support to the dissenting individual or exponent of unpopular or even aberrant claims.  But it is also summoned in support of the norm, and broadly accepted ethical standards.

Each of these authorizations—the personal and the institutional—has its pitfalls.  The fervent individual, summoned by burning personal conviction about the rightness of his or her cause, lies open to suspicions of solipsism or arrogance. But, on the other hand, institutionally or state-sponsored conscience, or conscience speaking for settled public opinion, risk complacency or ethically stunted orthodoxy.  One recalls the predicament of Huckleberry Finn, who suffers what he identifies as conscience pangs for his decision to assist Jim to escape from enslavement, when this bourgeois or ‘churchified’ conscience is obviously a false friend and enemy to his superior ethical intuitions.

Despite such issues, conscience remains a force for much good in the world.  Its most crucial function, and perhaps the one most in need of support, is its encouragement to the private  individual struggling with institutional tyrannies—most dramatically, with various forms of state tyranny.  We have witnessed the incarceration and continued surveillance of China’s Ai Weiwei.  Ai has recently been called ‘China’s conscience’, but his more urgent need might be less public and more personal, the need to enjoy his own conscience undisturbed by governmental or other external intervention.  Remarkable individuals like Ai have proven willing to endure sacrifice for conscientious belief–and sacrifice they have.   Recently Lasantha Wickramatunge, a courageous Sri Lankan journalist, gave his life to expose corruption.  He wrote a farewell dispatch, which amounted to his own obituary letter, which concluded, ‘There is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security.  It is the call of conscience.’ Salman Taseer, governor of the Punjab province in Pakistan, declared in a 1 Jaunary 2011 television interview that ‘If I do not stand by my conscience, then who will?’—three days before his assassination. Less dramatically, but still tellingly, one may consider some of the smaller cases of conscience that people confront daily.  Explaining his break with his political party to support a faltering gay marriage bill, Fred W. Thiele Jr, a  New York state Assemblyman, explained, ‘There’s that little voice inside of you that tells you when you’ve done something right, and when you’ve done something wrong. . .  That little voice kept gnawing away at me.’ Anh Cao, the sole Republican congressman to vote in support of an embattled American healthcare bill and marked for defeat in last year’s elections, explained, ‘I had to make a decision of conscience.’   Such figures become exemplars of conscience exactly by articulating positions that their larger social group or sponsorship does not encourage.

Conscience’s voice is a stern one.  Its mode is to ‘prick’ or ‘nag’, and its vistations are rarely welcome.  Those who follow it have no guarantee or reward or success, or even of conscience’s own infallibility.   Thomas Aquinas treated it as a form of applied knowledge which intends the good but is prone to err in its particular applications.   Still, with Thomas, we can agree that intending the good is better than intending nothing at all—that hard choices must be made in the world and seeking to make good ones is our only option.   Additionally in conscience’s favour is the fact that it not only seeks to do good, but demands that we stir ourselves; that, having heard conscience’s voice, we do something in consequence.   The only way to silence a nagging conscience is by choices and deeds.  As a spur and stimulant to act upon our views and beliefs, conscience remains an urgently needed clarion in the world.

Paul Strohm is the Anna Garbedian Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. He was formerly J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, where he continues as Research Fellow of St Anne’s College. His new book is Conscience: A Very Short Introduction.

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