conscience – a moral sense of right and wrong especially as felt by a person and affecting behaviour; an inner feeling as to the goodness or otherwise of one’s behaviour.Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002
Conscience is one of those human peculiarities which we have traditionally identified as setting us apart from the animals. With all the ultra-progressive ferment to abolish traditions and moral categories as sexist gender-oppression, Western racism, and capitalist exploitation, the existence of this quirk of homo sapiens has become rather inconvenient for those pushing hard to change (and even abolish) how society deals with questions of right and wrong and justice and injustice.
The simple truth is that conscience has always been bloody inconvenient. From the Book of Job (perhaps the oldest literary work in the Hebrew language and one of the oldest philosophical and theological treatises in the world) to the ruminations of Plato and Cicero, it has flayed the dealings of every generation and plagued the footsteps of humans from Emperors to beggars.
Everyone who reaches the age of reason and accountability has experienced the discomfort of a guilty conscience. Whatever else might be argued from psychology, philosophy, and ideology, no one can deny that they have, at some point, offended their own sense of fairness and rightness in some way they have treated others, even if only for a fleeting moment.
Occasionally, you meet people who appear to have no operative conscience to speak of. (It seems as though there are more of them than ever these days.) A few such whom I have met have been downright scary! I suspect that most callous people have developed the art of successfully ignoring and denying any sense of guilt about (ab)using and manipulating others for their own ends. Strangely, they are very quick to decry offences committed against them and usually cry for vengeance upon the offender.
The desire for vengeance is the flip side of conscience. It comes from a sense of moral right and wrong in which the avenger is seeking to redress the balance of wrong committed against them or someone or something they care deeply for. The irony of successful revenge is that it does not absolve the avenger of guilt for now having reversed the balance of right and wrong by in turn wronging the first wrong-doer to an equal or greater degree.
People of my age and older sometimes marvel at the lack of integrity and sense of shame that appears to be so pervasive in our current version of Western society. (In all conscience, we must admit that we helped create this sorry state with all our “countercultural” zeal of youth fifty years ago.) But it is not as if the situation has never existed before, either in the West or every other civilization that has ever existed. (Of this more later in this series.) The real question is why we humans fight so hard to rid ourselves of the burden of guilt-sense, regardless of the era.
No amount of psychologising about how we’re all victims of social conditioning has yet made conscience go away. No amount of mental gymnastics guided by Freudian psychoanalysis about repressed sexual desire has rid anyone of having a bad conscience about how they have done and do wrong to others and themselves. No amount of anthropological research has traced this inconvenient aberration back to some ultra-remote ancestral hominid who somehow evolved this the faculty of feeling badly about inflicting pain and suffering on other humans and even on other creatures.
Is conscience an instinct bred into us by our evolutionary heritage? If so, it is a strange one. As far as we know (but of course we cannot know for sure), it is not an instinct shared by any other higher order creature. Some other “higher” animals seem to share elements of understanding about death and caring and even love. Some can learn to flee when they have done something they know displeases humans and get caught. Some even punish members of their pack, pod, or flock for neglecting their role or crossing boundaries. While such behaviours demonstrate remarkable animal intelligence, they are not bred from conscience, but self-preservation.
If conscience were an instinct, it would seem to be related to the general good of protecting and preserving the species rather than the narrower purpose of self-preservation, although that may coincide from time to time. If nothing else, conscience is closely allied to our superior intellectual and abstract reasoning faculty. Animals cannot lie and feel bad about it. They readily steal without compunction. Predators kill their prey without remorse. In reproductive rut competitors will fight an opponent to the death without hesitation if necessary. Many other natural examples of the absence of this weird human behaviour in animals could be cited.
A once well-understood and very descriptive phrase has dropped out of public discourse in the last generation or two. It is “the seared conscience”. Think of cooking a steak or chop or a stir-fry with meat. One of the first things to do is to sear the meat in oil on both sides under high heat in order to seal in the flavour. The New Testament writer known as the Apostle Paul originated the phrase “having a seared conscience” to describe individuals who, by repeated violations, have burned away the tender, delicate exterior layer of their conscience in order to avoid feeling guilty about doing the things they (used to know) are just wrong, regardless of how the general culture and society may view them. In that sense, they have inoculated themselves against guilt-sense and that nagging inner voice of conscience.
Globally, there is much talk these days of developing “herd immunity” to the COVID-19 virus. Vaccination seems to be one of the keys to achieving this. Historical examples of this abound – polio, smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, etc. While it is true that our immune systems can learn to resist infection, without inoculation there really is no such thing as “herd immunity” for a great many diseases once seen as “plagues”. Even now, for some of the worst diseases and plagues which can and do generate far worse pandemics than the present one, there never has been a vaccine and there remains none on the horizon. Cancer, diabetes, Bubonic Plague, leprosy, and cholera come to mind as examples. The only remedy for these is prevention by concerted discipline in hygiene and strict quarantine and treatment should they break out anywhere. Where COVID will fit in this spectrum we do not yet know.
But the point of this reflection is not our current fight to control the COVID pandemic, as critical as that is. It is an even larger and, in a general humanitarian sense, more important issue. It is about a malignant spiritual plague that has set itself deeply in the very core of our personal and collective souls. It is the searing of our consciences to the point that we have culturally, as a society, reached a condition described by the Hebrew Prophet Yeshayahu (Isaiah to English readers of the Hebrew Bible) 700 years BCE. There is no “herd immunity” to a bad conscience. However, we may well be facing the development of the appalling phenomenon of a collective seared conscience. Here is how Yeshayahu refers to it:
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
Who change darkness into light and light into darkness,
Who change bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter.”Chapter 5
It is not so much that this sort of social degradation has never been seen before. Indeed it has, many times. But when it appears on a mass scale, it is a sure symptom of a truly sick society. Perhaps even a terminally ill civilization.
As the great British Meta-historian, Arnold Toynbee, exhaustively demonstrated in his monumental magnum opus, A Study of History, civilizations and cultures (the two are inextricable) have a life-cycle, much like individuals, as indeed do particular nations within civilizations. When a civilization is approaching its end it shows advanced signs of decay, just as a human body nearing life’s end will.
We cannot do justice to Toynbee’s twelve volume analysis here. It must be said that his work has largely been discounted by many of the professional historians of note since he first published it. The main thrust of those critiques is that all attempts at what is called Meta-History (the academic mortal sin Toynbee committed as he ended a previously brilliant career) are really only an imposition of the author’s already formed worldview on the material. In this case, Toynbee has been disavowed by his peers as a scion of the Old Western elite imperialist academic establishment and a white male besides. So categorized, his whole approach can be discarded a priori and the man himself dismissed into academic oblivion while others like Herbert Marcuse are elevated into demigod status and their blatant ideological bias declared anointed.
In truth, nobody in any discipline can avoid imposing their already formed worldview on the material studied and what they produce. Thus the charge against Toynbee is spurious, for his critics commit the same sin, even in criticizing him. That sort of criticism is a ploy to avoid having to actually seriously engage with the astonishing profundity of what Toynbee produced. (Even supposedly objective disciples as the “pure sciences” (physics, chemistry, mathematics) are practised within a preformed worldview.)
The worst part of Toynbee’s offence is that his whole worldview smacks of the moral categories of the West derived from the now discredited perspective of Judaeo-Christianity. Judaeo-Christian social philosophy holds that there is a definite gradation of values based on moral scruples and elements of advancement even in a sort of secularized version of “the Kingdom of God”. In our much more enlightened phase of Post-modern, Post-Christian, decolonialized (etc., etc.) Western society (which is supposedly morphing into [viz. imposing – shades of the old imperialism!] a global, progressive society that will liberate everyone from all conceivable forms of oppression and repression), moral categories must be eschewed, especially any left over from that old paradigm.
Which brings us back to the old notion of a moral conscience. For there cannot be any other form of conscience. Bloody hell! That is so inconvenient!
TO BE CONTINUED
One thought on “Inconvenient Conscience, 1”
Love it! Well done, Vince.