Miscellany: on conscience and community

I appreciated that you brought up consciousness in counterdistinction to conscience. I think that achieving clarity on their relation and their difference can help in understanding the nature of each of them. I have come to think of conscience as “diachronic consciousness,” which is to say, “a continuity of consciousness that persists through time.” Inversely, consciousness could be thought of as momentaneous conscience. I think this is related to people’s inclination to mistake oblivion for blessedness. “Ignorance is bliss” is a profession of facile epicureanism and the opposite of philosophy. A person who affirms this merely demonstrates that he esteems his personal pleasure higher than truth and goodness. The “clear conscience” of an amoeba or of a psychopath is nothing to be envied, as I see it.

Returning from this digression: conscience seems to me to be the faculty that gathers and integrates diverse moments of consciousness and organises them into a coherent form. In this way, consciousness is the faculty by which we “know ourselves,” while conscience is that by which we “remember ourselves.” I described conscience as “continuity of consciousness” above and perhaps my intention will be clearer now. The notion of “self-remembering” may not immediately appear to contain a moral element until it is noticed how inclined we are to form one-sided images of ourselves. These self-caricatures serve at once to over-represent particular features while repressing others. This allows us to compare ourselves against others in unrealistic ways. It also encourages projection and scapegoating as any element repressed in one form will impetuously seek expression in another. As a rule, we have to induce a temporary state of amnesia as to our own imperfections in order to justify faulting others for the same things. This pertains to the point about blessedness and oblivion above. Conscience means bearing in mind and in memory the whole of ourselves, especially the unflattering elements and especially in the face of trying conditions. Often the return of conscience makes itself felt as a pang of remorse because we suddenly remember ourselves and regret having done something that we would not have done with continuity of consciousness. Do you think this is a correct view of conscience and consciousness? The question of whether conscience is the voice of Christ speaking in us is a theological and Christological question that perhaps it is a topic best suited to be taken up on another occasion.

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You mentioned that conscience is both responsible for the longevity of communities as well as their disintegration. I wonder if you could expand on what you have in mind here. Can conscience be mistaken or misinterpreted? Is it self-evident that the party acting in good stead with its conscience is in the right, or is it possible that it is in fact the persecutor in spite of its pretense of righteousness? To me, this seems to happen all the time but I look forward to get your take on this.

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You noted that the angel-devil dichotomy is a very useful imaginal symbol for the inner conflicts we may experience over ethical issues. I agree with you. I expect you recognize the same principle at work as when we enlisted various parables in an attempt to depict for ourselves elements of our own intellectual processes, which, per se, do not look like anything. We give them “vicarious” forms, as it were. I wonder, though, how you conceptualise a situation in which the voice of conscience is wrong. Is it similar to making a cognitive or intellectual error in that there is an objective order that we are failing to gain adequate insight? Or is it more like a situation in which something in the future may lead to us feeling remorse over a given action in retrospect while at the time, the action was neither right nor wrong? The first case would be analogous to forgetting to add one of the values to the final product in the square of a binomial while at the same time, imagining that one were performing the operation correctly. The second case would be akin to deciding to walk around a lake clockwise instead of counterclockwise.

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I remain especially curious about the connection that you may have implied between beauty and conscience. Do you think there is a relationship between beauty and goodness? Some people seem to be insensitive to beauty: do you think the same people are likely to be insensitive to the voice of conscience? This is a question that has always intrigued me. Personally, I cannot believe there is no connection between the appreciation of an object beauty and the beauty of the subject or soul who appreciates it. I look forward to hear your thoughts.

I think you are right about this. When we pray, we are not praying for God to give something to us because God is already perfect in beauty and goodness and he does not hold it back in a selfish way. Instead, we are praying that the scales may fall from our eyes, so to speak, so that we are no longer blind to the glory that surrounds us. Does this seem correct?

***

Thank you for submitting your reflection. I was especially interested in your comparison of conscience to morals. “A similar word for conscience would be morals,” you observed. This left me somewhat confused because, although I see that those concepts are related, I’m not sure I can see that they are similar. In fact, their relation seems to depend on maintaining a sharp distinction between them. My understanding of the relation between morals and conscience is that it is analogous to the relation between truth and intelligence. Morals are to conscience as truth is to intelligence, or morals:conscience::truth:intelligence. The second term is a faculty or power that our souls possess which allows us to perceive or apprehend the first term in various aspects and appearances. So intelligence allows me to grasp various elements of the truth in the same way that conscience allows me to grasp various elements of the good. Is this how you see it or have I made a mistake?

***

I was especially curious about your statement that promptings of the inner voice can be wrong. Perhaps you could unpack this a little bit. Do you have in mind that the promptings of conscious are wrong insofar as they are incongruous with one’s beliefs or wrong insofar as they fail to communicate an objective moral fact. By analogy, if someone always shovels his neighbor’s walk but one day does not, he may feel a pang of remorse of conscience when he remembers his omission. But it is not exactly equivalent to persecuting an innocent person in a violent way. I don’t mean to point to the difference between sins of omission and sins of commission but rather to illuminate a distinction between individual standards of conduct and objective moral standards. Perhaps you can comment on how you understand conscience in this connection.

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First, you observed that each of us is born with a conscience. Then you observed that the community forms our consciences. Finally, you observed that members of a community tend to share similar consciences. Are these things related? Does the similarity come first and incline people to the community, or is it the other way around and the community inclines people’s consciences toward similar beliefs?

I also wondered about what it would mean to say “my conscience was wrong.” If conscience is the voice of God speaking in our hearts, this would seem as contradictory as a bicycle with no wheels, or having a fever without an elevated temperature or having ice-skates with wheels instead of blades, etc. I say this because God is the standard of truth so it wouldn’t make sense to say he was “wrong.” In this case, if we propose that the voice of conscience was wrong, we really mean “I was unable to interpret the voice of conscience correctly.” Maybe it is like the proverbial “game of telephone.”  If, however, conscience is merely a subjective inclination towards the good, then certainly it could be wrong and the process of moral evolution would consist in educating our intelligence so that it is able to adequately appraise a given situation. Which of these views seems more correct to you?

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I agree with your observations about conscience in respect to guilt and I would like to hear more about how you understand Christ’s relation to the expiation of our sins. Surely it would be amiss to imagine Christ’s sacrifice as a sort of “blank check,” morally speaking, or “get out of jail free card.” To affirm that Christ’s sacrifice atones for our sin is not the same thing as saying we have supreme license and need no longer feel remorse when we do something wrong—or is it? I wonder how you see this. One distinction that may be helpful is to consider two aspects of a sin that are at stake whenever one is perpetrated: the objective aspect or effect that it has on our fellow beings, and the subjective aspect or that manner in which it is a blemish on our souls. To which aspect does Christ address himself foremost, or to both? I look forward to hear your thoughts. 

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You observed that you often confuse me when you type your thoughts as they come to you. The purpose of this class is to develop critical thinking and I have been encouraging you, as a way to practice critical thinking, not to submit your thoughts to me as they immediately come to you but instead to think over them critically first. I have written this on a number of occasions so forgive me if it is repetitive or tedious. 

In respect to your concern about the election: I share similar concerns though it is much less clear to me that the conflict breaks down to a division of rational people from fanatics. Instead it seems to me that people are encountering projections of their own shadows (e.g. their own tendencies towards fanaticism, for instance, or other things) in those whom they take to be their political or cultural enemies. You seem to perceive this dynamic on one side of the aisle and I will only suggest to you that someone from the other side would not consider himself irrational and, in fact, that you would probably agree on many things in the abstract at least. Perhaps this goes without saying but it is to be recommended that a person familiarize himself with the opinions of those with whom he disagrees so that he can at least see where they are coming from. The less we do this, the more we increase the likelihood that conflict will result in violence because each side will be increasing assured of its own moral superiority and the correlative inferiority and sub-humanness of the other side. As I see it, usually we recognize our enemies doing this but fail to notice our own inclination to do the same.

In short, I don’t think it is so simple as some people appealing to trustworthy news sources and others to propaganda. MSNBC et al. were instrumental in deceiving the public in the leadup to the Iraq War in the early 2000s, for instance. As a result, the notion that they can be regarded as “trusted news sources” might be considered somewhat naïve. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then as well and I think it only serves to further erode the banks of the conceit that legacy media necessarily deserves our trust. Perhaps it is worth distinguishing between “trusted” and “trustworthy.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously observed that “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” And then he added, “Who would wish to remove a piece of his own heart?” I mentioned “the scapegoat mechanism” in last week’s discussion and I am afraid that this is just what is playing out as our society tries to let off steam, as it were. The difficulty is that various subcultures are trying to save themselves at the expense of scapegoating everyone else and this leads to an intensification of conflict and a decrease in the likelihood that their methods will actually work. In a strange way, the staunch bi-polarity and pluralism of our system is granting us a modicum of stability. This goes to our question about “diversity” and “community.” Were our political system not so sharply divided, it is likely that one majority faction would have risen to power by making the various minority factions its footstool.

You wrote that “patriotism and nationalism seem to be warring right in front of us.” Can you explain what you mean by those terms? I gather that you are contrasting them and that “patriotism” probably has a positive valence for you and “nationalism” a negative one but I would like to understand what you mean. I also encourage you to consider this question in light of our study of community.

I hope the above gives you some good stimulation for your reflections on this subject and I look forward to hear your thoughts.

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I agree with you about the difficulty in separating conscience from community and from religion. I think it is a hallmark of modernity that we even try to do this. Pre-Modern thinkers were basically univocal in affirming that these are aspects of the same thing. That is why St Paul writes of the Church as “the body of Christ” in his first letter to the Corinthians and why conscience was understood as the voice of God speaking into people’s hearts. Obviously, many people still see it this way but, just as obviously, many people do not. 

I was curious about something you wrote about having a clear conscience. Do you understand having a clear conscience as merely not being burdened by guilt for sins in the past? This seems to present a difficulty because I don’t know how we would be left to distinguish someone with a clear conscience from a psychopath, for instance, or an inanimate object. Later, you seem to suggest that the burden of guilt that we carry can actually serve to encourage us towards moral rectitude. This made sense to me but I was confused as to how to reconcile it with your earlier suggestion. Perhaps you could explain your view to me.

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