Tuesday, June 26, 2012
So we considered evil and how to avoid it. But what about doing good? Our notion of good comes from the same place as our notion of evil--the self perceiving structure of our moral consciousness or conscience. If conscience makes cowards of us all, i.e. fearful to do bad things, does it also make heroes of us all overcoming fear with courage?
Conscience and consciousness are translations of the same word in French--conscience. The Latin derivation means "with knowledge." It is the knowing that accompanies knowledge. When humans engage with the environment, they do so symbolically, i.e. through physical media, verbal and visual images or words and ideas by which they "know" things and the world to which these things belong and are connected.
But along with that mediated knowledge of things in the world is a more direct sense of one's self in connection with other selves knowing things in the world. This co-knowledge appears in every conscious symbolic act. In every moment we are present to ourselves and others, past and future, the real world and the ideal world. When we act consciously, we are in touch with the structure of our existence. In English we name the co-knowing that accompanies interior thinking "consciousness." We name the co-knowing that accompanies our acting, exteriorly oriented self "conscience."
Therefore conscience is moral consciousness. It is the structure of our moral existence aware of itself in every conscious act.
Evolutionary psychology can speculate on the origins of this moral sense and how it functions to bind humans together to act socially. Neuroscience can try to explain the moral sense in terms of the capacity of the brain to infer, feel, and relive another's actions through mirror neurons.
Socrates, Plato, Arendt explain the phenomenon as the "two in one," the sense of the self in the market place in dialogue with the self in solitude. I am co-knowing the self who acts in relation to the self I am--all the tensions of my existence and the responsibilities and obligations those tensions imply. Am I to act in accordance with my sense of what it means to be fully human if I am to maintain and fulfill my humanity?
In attempting to integrate my market place self with my solitude self I discover the golden rule and the categorical imperative to treat others as ends in themselves. But integration is not identity. The tension or two-in-one remains; the examined life is a never-ending process. If the tension were dissolved and identity achieved, my self would be extinguished and I die as a human being; for the human self is tension, in tension, and intentional.
Conscience tells us what is bad, that which will destroy the tensional relationships with ourselves, with others, with the world. But an examination of conscience can also lead us to what is good. The structure of moral consciousness guides us to structure our relationships with our selves, others, and the world. It instructs us as to the meaning and purpose of our life and how we must act to achieve our humanity.
And here arises the story of human progress and decline.
The structure of human existence present in my every conscious act reveals me as temporal, not only in time but also making time. I emerge from a past and so have a tradition. I thrust forward to a future and so facing change. My conscience tells me then to respect tradition, listen to the ancestors, appreciate their achievements. So great jazz artists study classical music. Great political actors learn from history. Great philosophers return to the sources. Great scientists study the methods and successes of earlier science.
But at the same time, conscience instructs us to innovate, to search for new evidence and new theories, to "push the envelope" and use imagination to envision other more comprehensive ways of encountering the world. That old time religion is not good enough for me. I should experiment, risk change, and above all keep learning.
Conscience also directs me to be true to my self and to treat others as innovating selves in their own right and to create a society and world in which all selves can survive and thrive, can achieve what they can become.
Doing good is having integrity, being integral, acting for integrity in oneself, in others, in our society, in our world. It means unifying our behaving self with the self that is present in our action. It means working towards a world in which all others are treated with integrity and our world and our social order is integral.