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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Follow your conscience

The Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More, is mostly celebrated not for his position as chancellor to the king, not for his writing, not for his wealth but for acting on his conscience.  I reflect on him during this time of political campaigning when candidates and their handlers often model a lack of conscience.

Conscience, as the word's roots indicate, is a "with knowing." It is the awareness of oneself acting in the world.  In another meditation, I showed that it is consciousness in crisis, decision, and action. It is the background experience of the person as intending to do right or good while she focuses on what she is doing or deciding to do.  It is the primary experience of a person's existence as in tension in the world.

Like Jimminy Cricket for Pinocchio, conscience is always there whether followed or not--the "little voice" we say telling us to do the right thing and be the right stuff. "Follow your conscience" is the sage's moral advice. And following one's conscience is the hero's way.

But most sages also add: "follow your informed conscience."They recognize that conscience can be false and needs to be examined from time to time. For conscience is more than a moral experience, it is also a moral judgment. Judgment means application, reflection, and testing in situations. Conscience is informed by discussions in one's clan or congregation or community. It is informed by religion, art, and myth, especially the stories of heroes and anti-heroes in film, novels, and legends. It is informed by the study of sages and most of all by thinking.

Saint Thomas Moore acted on his conscience, not only by holding true to his oath to a higher power than the king, but also when he burned books of and punished heretics. Saint and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, S.J. was following his conscience when prosecuting Galileo or assenting to the burning of Giodarno Bruno and John of Prague. I accept that Roosevelt was following his conscience when interning Japanese Americans, Truman when deciding to drop the bomb, Kennedy pursuing the war in Vietnam, and Bush when invading Iraq. But that does not make these persons or their actions right.

Nor does it make them evil unless they did not consider or care about the implications of resolving the tensions of their being in this particular situation and in this particular way or unless they refused or neglected information that might give them cause to reconsider their actions. Adolf Hitler's evil was the suppression of conscience because it got in the way of his personal ambitions. Adolf Eichmann's evil, according to Arendt, was rooted in his suppression of conscience by his failure to think.

Conscience is the awareness of one's intentional existence. My conscience is my very existence  intending good in this particular situation--and in tension between what is good for myself and for others, what is true between the past and the future, what is one between my inner world of knowledge and the outer world of actuality, and what is whole between my real and my ideal.

Whether you believe that it was infused in the soul by a supernatural entity or is the result of adaptation by natural selection, conscience develops and belongs to every human being (unless abnormal through defect or illness) and I argue belongs to us as a social group. I would also argue that there is no absolute moral prescription or prohibition or principle except for conscience itself.

I cannot think of a moral maxim or commandment that cannot be overturned by conscience. Certainly all the Judeo-Christian ten commandments have exceptions. The Hippocratic "do no harm" must be carefully interpreted.  The only prohibition I think can claim some degree of absoluteness is against cruelty which includes slavery, child abuse, sex trafficking, and other acts of dehumanization. But capital punishment, saturation bombing, and torture are still advocated by good individuals even as our social conscience develops.

So, Sir Thomas, while a man of your times, a 16th century humanist with all the limitations of your understanding, your works, and your society, you are indeed a man for all seasons in your affirmation of the primacy of thoughtful conscience which is ironically the root of reformation and the renewal of our institutions and world.

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