By David Hegg
When we ask the question of what distinguishes mankind from the rest of creation, the possible answers usually include the presence and activity of the conscience. This “inner referee,” as it has been called, acts to pull us toward the good and away from the bad.
The conscience acts as our internal alarm clock. It goes off to alert us that it is time to change direction, to wake up. And just like an alarm clock, sometimes it goes off when we’d rather it didn’t. On these occasions we often engage in a struggle with the conscience, using rationalization or other means to hit the equivalent of the ethical “snooze button.” We silence our conscience in order to pursue our own desires. Done over time, the conscience becomes re-programmed to follow our desires rather than our previous convictions.
And therein lies the weakness of the apparatus we know as the conscience. It can’t fight back largely because it is not an independent entity. Like the alarm clock, it only acts as it has been programmed to act.
In reality, we “set” our conscience to go off at particular times to warn us of certain missteps, and we do this setting through our personal sense of ethics. The worldview we adopt informs our conscience, and to the extent that our worldview is cohesive and consistent, the conscience is enabled to render a powerful and beneficial service. It helps us remain true to what we have determined to be right and best.
But the conscience is only as strong as the convictions that inform it. This is where the question of a “cultural conscience” comes into play. It would be wonderful if we all shared a common view of what was essentially right and wrong. But whose worldview gets to form the basis of a mutually agreed-upon definition of how the conscience should act?
Many have informed their conscience that the best course of action is whatever brings about the greatest personal happiness. We see this everywhere gaining the majority. The highly individualized society in which we live has become intoxicated with personal well-being, ostensibly as the offshoot of our national conviction on personal liberty. Increasingly, personal liberty is redefined as personal license, and freedom from all restraint. “If it feels good, do it” is the simple, yet dangerous banner for this understanding of how the conscience should operate.
Others would suggest that the best course of action is that which brings about the best results for the society at large. And certainly this is a step in the right direction. But right away we can see a problem. Who gets to decide what is “best” for society? It is apparent from even a casual examination of our political parties that wherever two politicians are together we can find at least three different views on what is “best.”
Perhaps the answer lies down the path of a redefining of the role of the conscience in the first place. Instead of training the conscience to allow us to do what we think is best, we ought to heed the advice of the brilliant 19th-century English intellectual John Henry Newman, who said “conscience is a stern monitor.”
By this Newman meant that the conscience should not be our slave but our master.
As Robert P George has written, “It is one’s last best judgment – an unsentimentally self-critical judgment – informed by critical reason and reflective faith of one’s strict duties, one’s feelings or desires to the contrary notwithstanding. Authentic conscience governs – passes judgment on – feelings and desires; it is not reducible to them and it is not in the business of licensing us to act on them.”
Our consciences must be informed and strengthened, not by our desires, but by the laws of God, the great Law Giver. Only an ethical system that comes from outside of our own souls, grounded in the word of our Creator, can allow for a collective conscience that promotes the good, binds the bad, and enlarges the heart to both compassion and courage.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.