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Conscience in the contemporary world

Debates about conscience arise constantly in national and international news. Appropriately so, because these debates provide a vital continuing forum about issues of ethical conduct in our time.

A recent and heated debate in the United States concerns the killing of an unarmed African American youth named Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Questioned by a reporter after learning that he would not be indicted by a grand jury after the shooting, Wilson declared himself untroubled by matters of conscience, explaining that “The reason I have a clean conscience is because I know I did my job right.” In reply, Brown family lawyer Benjamin Crump stated that “It was very hurtful to the parents when he said he had a clear conscience. They were taken aback…. I expected him to say my heart is heavy, my conscience is troubled. He didn’t say that.” Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden added of the shooting, in which officer Wilson fired six bullets into Brown’s body, “His conscience is clear? How could your conscience be clear after killing somebody even if it was an accidental death?”

At large in this disagreement are two different and contending understandings of conscience. In the police officer’s view, conscience is an external matter, involving adherence to the code and norms of one’s peers and profession; in this case, a matter of doing one’s job correctly, performing one’s duty as dictated by training and the values of fellow officers. In the family’s view, conscience is an internal matter, involving personal and subjective decisions about right and wrong.

This is a recurring debate, as old as conscience itself. Is conscience a private matter of individual ethics or is it a public trust defined by civil codes and collective agreements about duty and responsibility? Sometimes the answer seems rather evident. Arguments about “duty” and “following orders” were brushed aside at the Nuremberg Trials, and few disagree with the verdict. At other times, though, the issue is more closely contested. When Martin Luther pled the anti-institutional promptings of his personal conscience (“This I believe . . .”) before the Diet at Worms, and prosecutor Johann Eck countered with the contrary conclusions of Catholic theology, opinion divided according to the beliefs and loyalties of the beholders.

The very etymology of “conscience” registers its division. The Latin conscientia consists of two elements: scientia (knowledge or awareness, which may be personal in nature) modified by con (meaning “together” or “together with” suggesting that this knowledge should be shared or collective in nature). Conscience thus operates both internally and externally, as knowledge at once personal and shared, sitting at the very boundaries of the self.

This ambiguity was evident in conscience’s first full-dress appearance on the Western European stage. Augustine, in his Confessions, describes a chiding visit from his own conscience (conscientia mea), speaking to him in a voice which is and is not his own, critiquing his irresolute state of mind about the matter of Christian conversion, but also citing the public example of others who have already converted. Augustine’s conscience achieves a balance, between the highly personal on the one hand and more collective decision-making on the other. But we’re not all as subtle as Augustine.

Memorial to Michael Brown. Photo by Jamelle Bouie. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Memorial to Michael Brown. Photo by Jamelle Bouie. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The location of conscience has shifted from inner to outer and back again, throughout its long history. In the Middle Ages, conscience was normally treated as a collective matter, a set of norms or beliefs held in common by all persons.With the Reformation and the fragmentation of religious belief, the idea of a personal conscience–of “my conscience” and “your conscience”–surged to the fore, especially in vigorously Protestant circles. Then, with a general moderation of Christian belief in the Enlightenment, came a revival of collective conscience, a view that certain norms were shared by all reasonable persons. Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant located conscience in the person of an impartial and objective observer, standing outside the self and speaking from the standpoint of a broader social platform.

These disagreements will never be resolved. Some parties will always situate conscience in community values or professional codes of practice, even as others treat it as an inner capacity or inviolable personal resource. The question is, are these disagreements to be taken as signs of conscience’s weakness or the source of its strength? After wrestling with these questions in the course of writing my Very Short Introduction, I’ve come to the conclusion that, yes, conscience is inherently ambiguous and may be viewed in this respect as imperfect. But that its ambiguity is also the key to its unprecedented survival, its continuing relevance to seemingly incompatible belief systems. A robust view of conscience must embrace both aspects: conscience as general consensus and conscience as personal code: conscience as public duty but also conscience as personal responsibility.

My purpose here isn’t to retry the Michael Brown case, but to think about what the standpoint of conscience brings to the discussion. A robust definition of conscience must embrace its long and rich history; it must, that is, include a sense of its internal as well as its external claims. Just “doing one’s duty” isn’t enough; Michael Brown’s family is correct in its belief that the taking of a life under any circumstances should involve some perturbations of personal conscience.

Recent Comments

  1. R

    “But that its ambiguity is also the key to its unprecedented survival, its continuing relevance to seemingly incompatible belief systems”… applicable to most religions today as well?

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