The Cost of Denying Conscience

The Cost of Denying Conscience

For millennia the concept of conscience was prominent in virtually every religious and secular ethical system, though interpretations of its nature varied. Some defined it as an “inner voice,” but disagreed about what kind of voice—Desire? Discernment? Emotion? Reason? They disagreed, too, about whether the source of the voice is society, custom, God, or ourselves. Others defined conscience more vaguely, as a moral “sense.” And many avoided the difficulties of definition by focusing on what conscience does, and that is to determine whether an action is right or wrong. 

Without conscience, thoughtful people agreed, we would be unable to apply the fundamental rule of morality—Do good and avoid evil.

Human experience has made clear that conscience is not equally strong in everyone. Some people are more aware than others of the moral quality of their behavior, and they feel remorse when they do something wrong. Others have no such awareness or feelings. The difference is explained not only by personal inclination—wanting conscience silenced—but also by cultural influences and pressures.

Catholicism has historically placed great emphasis on conscience as the “proximate norm of morality”—that is, the kind of guidance nearest in time to the moment of choosing our behavior. Catholicism therefore emphasizes that conscience should be formed according to Scripture and Moral Theology, rather than fads, feelings, or urges, and that it should reflect our obligations to God and our fellow humans. 

The appropriate attitude of conscience toward immoral acts, in the Catholic view, is the one expressed in the Act of Contrition: “I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend Thee my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love.”

That attitude has been strongly challenged, particularly since the 18th century Romantic Movement led by Jean Jacques Rousseau. As Rousseau’s biographer, Irving Babbitt, explains, Rousseau believed that people are inherently good and, accordingly, evil does not come from within them but from society. He therefore rejected the notion of sinning against God or neighbor as well as any effort to examine one’s conscience. He once claimed, in fact, that “the man who reflects is a depraved animal.” (For more on Rousseau see Irving Babbitt, Rousseau & Romanticism, 1919, 1991)

The influence of the Romantic Movement continued into the 19th century, was diminished during the early 20th, and then revitalized in the 1960s by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. 

Rogers argued that feelings are more reliable than reason and that we create our own truth about important matters such as right and wrong. Abraham Maslow claimed that high self-esteem is necessary to achieve self-actualization. He added that self-esteem should be deserved—that is, earned—rather than claimed, but as he acknowledged years later, his qualification was too weak to be meaningful. In time he also questioned whether children are inherently good, and admitted that previously he had not appreciated the human need to make “ethical decisions,  . . . to renounce gratification, [and] to control one’s impulses.” Even more significantly, he observed that “liberals lack a theory of evil” and can’t “get really indignant at a wrong . . . because they don’t really know right from wrong.” (He included Carl Rogers in that group.) 

Maslow’s admissions suggested that he was an honorable man, but they did little to slow the revitalization of Rousseau’s notions that he and Rogers had aided. Their “Humanistic Psychology,” in fact, strengthened the idea that people create their own truth and therefore have no need ethical or theological principles, or conscience, to guide their behavioral choices. Whatever individuals chose would be unerringly right simply because they chose it.

The works of Roger and Maslow rode the wave of advancement in the communications media and became a powerful shaper of the new mass culture. So quick and thorough was this shaping that only a few years after Maslow’s death in 1970, psychiatrist Karl Menninger wondered how our culture had abandoned the concept of sin! In Whatever Became of Sin (1973) he explained how actions that for millennia had been considered moral offenses had been reclassified as crimes or diseases. 

Thus, after more than a century of assault, the importance of conscience was significantly diminished and in some cases denied altogether. As a result, more and more people began to think, “If, as the experts say, I am inherently wise and good, and therefore not capable of evil, I have no need for introspection, reflection, or self-examination. Moreover, feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse are not only inappropriate but an obstacle to the self-esteem necessary for achievement.” 

People not only embraced these ideas, they taught them to their children. Educators did likewise, and the communications and entertainment media reinforced the message.

The progression that has followed the elevation of self-esteem over conscience is as follows:

  • Egocentrism and ethnocentrism have increased, the former claiming, “I am more important than others,” and the latter, “My ethnic group and religious and political affiliations are superior to other people’s.”
  • Defense mechanisms have become more prominent, notably rationalizing to excuse one’s personal failings, scapegoating to project responsibility and guilt onto others, and dehumanizing those targets to justify denouncing them. 
  • The more people have resorted to rationalizing, scapegoating, and dehumanizing, the more they have believed their own message; the more they have believed their message, the more resentful they have become of the people they blame; and the more resentful they have become, the more they have been inclined to obsessive, irrational behavior, including in extreme cases, condoning or even committing violence.

I submit this progression has been a major factor in most of the aberrant behavior in contemporary America. For example, mass shootings, violent protest demonstrations, journalists’ violation of their profession’s fundamental principles, educators propagandizing instead of teaching, sexual harassment in the workplace, the sexual abuse of children, the denial of free speech on college campuses, and dereliction of duty and corruption among government officials, 

Until we abandon the nonsense that has passed for wisdom for the last half-century and recognize the role of conscience in maintaining private and public virtue, these and other aberrant behaviors are likely to lead to social chaos.

Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero