When I was a child my parents told me what was right and wrong, school had its rules and church had its sins. To be a good boy, all I needed to do was obey all the dos and donts. If I did, I was led to believe I was following my conscience.
This view of conscience can carry into and through adult life so that ones perception of right and wrong is shaped totally by the dictates of others. Is conscience just a product of nurture? Are we mere blank moral slates at birth or do we have an inherent sense of ethic from the get-go? I have come to believe the latter is the case because of my own internal reflection from the time of self-awareness in early youth, and the fact that society throughout time has had the same basic thread of ethic. I have sensed right and wrong from earliest memory. Ill bet you have too, if you reflect. It is there from the beginning just as the homing instinct is within a migrating bird breaking from the shell.
We spend a lifetime tinkering with our conscience, testing its limits, compromising, suppressing, denying and ignoring it in an attempt to cheat life and gain unfair advantage. But it remains solid and true at our core always ready to be re-discovered and acknowledged. We often learn best by making mistakes and feeling the pain. It is those pangs of conscience and guilt remaining with me for a lifetime that have taught me the lesson to listen-up when conscience speaks.
The first step, however, is to reach within and decide what is your conscience as opposed to that of another. Somebody elses moral dictate does not equal your conscience. If we had been brought up in another society, with other parents, a different school system and religion, then the rights and wrongs would be different and our consciences would be different. Some societies practice cannibalism, infanticide and suicide bombing because that is the way their conscience is groomed by others. But the conscience I am pointing to is not contingent. Conscience is like a receiver. We can tune it to the immutable law of universal truth or try to tune it out. Nevertheless, it remains there beaming to us whether or not we change the dial.
To make conscience dependent upon the whims and seasons of humans is to marginalize it into ethical meaninglessness. For example, who to kill and how to kill is formulated by military leaders and an ingrained patriotic conscience. Each side in a conflict sees it as moral to kill the other. If we kill and maim one or hundreds of people, as long as they are the enemy, we are doing our moral duty and our conscience is being properly exercised. In the legal profession, attorneys will defend the guilty and prosecute the innocent and do so completely in line with their conscience because the law (which others have devised) dictates that such is proper and right. In medicine, physicians prescribe drugs and practice surgery and other therapies that may do more harm than good. But they do so in good conscience because this is what medical school taught and it is in line with conventional standards of practice. If a patient dies as a result of therapy, the doctor can take comfort in thinking he has done all that can be done as defined by accepted medical standards. His conscience is clear. If a food manufacturer makes food composed of a variety of synthetics and food fractions, thats considered fine as long as the food meets certain regulatory requirements and the label is designed properly. The product is perfectly legal to sell and the company need suffer no problems with conscience regardless of the health consequences to consumers.
On the other hand, consumers feel they need only follow all the societal norms to be of good conscience. Let doctors take care of health, the government take care of the economy, the military take care of security, the attorney take care of disputes, the accountant take care of finances, the church take care of ethics, and the food industry take care of food choices. Sit back, watch TV, overeat, pay the bills and follow the rules. All is well.
This surrender of conscience first became apparent to me during a time in my life when I questioned the organized religion I was brought up in because I discovered it was committed to conformity to human edicts (church leaders), not the search for truth. This brought me to the following question: If I were to deny such outside institutional moral authority and be left alone with only my own conscience, would I become a thief, rapist and murderer? To my surprise, rather than a sense of amoral freedom, over time and with more life experience I found myself like in one of those rooms in the movies where all the walls start pushing in. Listening to the inner voice of conscience was far more exacting, demanding, constricting and at the same time liberating (the true inner me was in charge) than decades of religious mandate ever was. Virtue is choice, not obedience a true (secular) epiphany for me.
We think we exercise conscience in our careers and personal lives, but few of us do. We usually are following the choices others are making for us. And these choices are too often designed primarily to benefit those who are giving us our dos and donts. We are moo-ing along back to the barn to be milked by the conscience givers. Surrendering to others makes us too vulnerable to their self-interests. The end result, all too often, is that we become pawns, victims, experimental subjects, tools and objects of tyranny, resources and profit centers. Rather, we should reach out to become full human beings each individually exploiting our full potential and helping to bring the world to a better place through our own innate and cultivated inner voice.
Im not sure how to properly define conscience other than to say it is innate within our being, an instinct to serve as an ethical guide. We will never come to know our conscience, however, until we free ourselves of the imposed consciences of others. This is not to say the views of others shouldnt be considered, just that it seems to me that each of us are at least as justified in deciding what is right and wrong for ourselves as someone else is in deciding it for us.
Im not suggesting just dropping out and being self-willed. It means taking on the heavy lifting of being informed and exercising ones own judgment. A conscience nurtured by search, openness, and a commitment to reason and truth is a responsibility each of us must shoulder. To not develop an informed and self-reflecting conscience, but rather to follow the rules of various surrogate mommies and daddies through life, is to remain a child.