Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Conscience development

I have been involved in a study regarding ethics and the role ethics, or lack of ethics, had in the 2008 financial crisis.  The study is called Doing the Right Thing, by Chuck Colson and Robert George.  Last night one of the topics for discussion was our conscience.  One of the participants in my group asked the question, "What is a conscience?"  I gave a quick, maybe flip, answer that a conscience was like a barometer of right and wrong in our bodies.  A conscience is the part of us that allows us to feel whether a decision we are making is a morally right decision or a morally wrong decision.  Webster's first definition of conscience is the sense of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.  I was close.

One of the things discussed last night was the endless ability of the human mind to rationalize and in so doing, we weaken our conscience to the point of uselessness.  We all know this is true.  One of my favorite lines from a movie is from the movie, The Big Chill.  The character Michael, played by Jeff Goldblum says, "I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex."  Then the character Sam, played by Tom Berenger says, "Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex."  To which Michael replies, "Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?"  This movie was made in 1983.  I'll bet today, most of us can't go two days without a good rationalization.  Most of us can remember watching our president rationalize away his bad behavior by asking his prosecutor to define the word "is."  There is just something about the president of the United States rationalizing away bad behavior that gives permission to everyone else to rationalize away their own bad behavior.  It doesn't take too many repeated rationalizations to erode away the conscience developed at your mother's knee.  Before you know it all things right or wrong become a matter of relevance.

What can be done to develop a conscience?  I googled this question.  Not surprisingly, the first four pages of my google search had to do with child rearing.  This tells me two things.  First, a conscience is developed after birth.  We are not born with a conscience.  We learn what is right and wrong at our mother's knee.  We begin the development of a conscience by learning to please our mothers.  Secondly, there doesn't seem to be much interest in developing a conscience later in life.  If you've erased your conscience with all the rationalizing of your poor choices and bad behavior, you seem to be stuck with a crippled conscience.  This may be the reason our nation finds itself in the financial mess it is in today.  There were a lot of people doing whatever they wanted to do with other people's money with no regard of what was the right or wrong thing to do.

Last night we discussed ways to develop a crippled conscience.  We talked about how to reinforce right thinking back into our lives.  We looked at institutions that are based on developing moral codes.  Institutions like the U. S. Marine Corps.  Like the Boy Scouts of America.  Like any 12 step program following the principles of Bill W.  First we need to be broken down.  We need to come to the end of ourselves.  The Marine drill sergeants are great at doing this.  Then we need to remind ourselves of what the right things are.  Kind of like memorizing the boy scout oath and law.  We then need to accept the reality we cannot accomplish this conversion on our own.  We need a higher power.  Lastly, we must have accountability from others, in our similar circumstances, to keep us on the straight and narrow.  The reality of our condition is that we KNOW what the right thing to do is.  Yet, we find ourselves having a difficult time DOING what we know to be right.  There is nothing like peer pressure.  We just have to use peer pressure in a positive way.

Here's one more thing.  You know the saying, "Let your conscience be your guide," well, maybe not.  Not just yet. 


  1. totally interesting

  2. Really interesting, particularly the point about recognizing the need for a higher power.  Without that recognition (or acknowledgement or belief), do you think that a conscience is possible?

  3. Sounds like a good discussion group you have there.

  4. I think the higher power can be whatever it needs to be.  Sure, it can be God.  It has to be something outside of yourself.  We already know we are not trustworthy in ourselves.  We've made bad decisions when left to ourselves.  The rub is, we have to do the work to develop our conscience on our own, but we need the truth (that can be known and we could use this as a higher power) and thesupport of other to accomplish this conversion.

  5. i think part of it is a decision on boundaries...a set of convictions we decide one...these are taught to us as we grow but we can change them...there is also the intersection where societal expectations meet those as well...and in there can lie some tension...

  6. God puts conviction in our hearts and I'm glad for it :)


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