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Philosophy as Quest Part II

Page 6 of 11

Many of us have the experience or at least idea of a kind of inner voice that warns us when we struggle with impulses to do wrong. It may not be anything like a voice but just a pause or hesitation. Some people feel the pangs of the conscience long after a wrong has been done. Perhaps you know the experience of flashes of shame over a long past action that no one other than you even knows about. However it is described, the conscience seems to be an experience that has long attended human awareness of right and wrong.

The word “conscience” comes from the Latin conscientia meaning "knowledge within oneself” (scientia = knowledge). Paul used the concept in Acts 24:16; “I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.” The word conscience was brought into the English language by Joseph Butler in his Fifteen Sermons upon Human Nature (1726) in which he sought to ground human morality in the moderation of self-love by the authority of a divinely-produced conscience.

Since it is often conceived as provided by God, the conscience has a role in moral philosophy related to divine command theory. Unlike the traditional authority of scripture and the prophets, the conscience is a very personalized communication of divine ethics. Certainly one need not be religious to experience one’s conscience. Yet, the experience still seems like a source of guidance that is separate from the one’s desires, values, and struggles. My own experience with conscience is like a hunch or intuition; not so much an inner voice as a it like a motion on periphery of my awareness that catches my attention long enough to make a pause in my flow of thought. It is not that my conscience tells me what is right or wrong. Rather it signals me to hold off for a bit and reassess the situation. It in the second look that I see the values involved more clearly. If not for my cautionary conscience stepping in just the moment before I hit the send button, I’d have sent several email messages that I’d later regret. A reliable conscience is a valuable friend.

Psychology recognizes types of human individuals who appear not to have any conscience or moral sense at all. Called sociopaths and psychopaths, such individuals seem to have no concept that causing harm to others is morally significant. Of course, many ordinary people also accept harm to others without any twinge of concern, so long as they are distant or different. We can all see the horrible suffering that wars cause. Still, many of us remain distant and passive observers of these tragedies. In the morning we see on the news that dozens of children were killed by our own military, then go on as if it mattered hardly at all. In war, peoples of different nations regard one another with the passive indifference that the psychopath regards his/her victims. Those who protest the immorality of war tend to be viewed as extremists or fools (if not traitors) by fellow citizens. Perhaps conscience has its limits as a moral guide after all.

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2004 © Jon Dorbolo