“What is Conscience?”

“What is Conscience?”
By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
January 12, 1947

When the Normans crossed the English Channel in the eleventh century they took with them to England their own language, which, in the course of time was blended with the native Anglo-Saxon, producing what we now know as the English tongue. One of the words added in that way to our vocabulary is the word with which we are concerned this morning, the word conscience. We do not pronounce it as the Normans did but the spelling remains the same. It comes from the Latin, of course, (conscientia) and means “with knowledge,” or “awareness” and especially “inner awareness.”

In bringing this new word to the English language, did the Normans also bring a new idea? We would be mistaken if we thought so. Long before the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon people, like all other people, had experienced inner awareness and had used a word of their own to denote it. It is an interesting word, “inwit.” “Wit” in the sense of knowledge or awareness, which is, of course, always the old sense of the word, and the prefix “in” to show that the awareness was “inner” or psychological, rather then anything that came through the senses. As a matter of fact, there is probably not a language on earth, certainly not a well developed language, in which there is no word for conscience. The experience of this inner awareness must therefore be virtually universal.

What kind of awareness is it? What is it of which we become aware? To begin with what we are most sure of, we can say that we are aware of emotional disturbance when we think of things we have done ill or of emotional satisfaction when we think of things we have done well. We have the same emotional reactions to things we are considering doing. We call some things “right” ==the ones which bring a feeling of satisfaction; and other things “wrong”–the ones which cause us to feel disturbed. These feelings are not always uncomplicated; sometimes they are rather confused. Yet, they exist and in one way or another everybody seems to experience them.

Ancient people found this very puzzling. How is it, they asked, that we feel this difference between good and evil? Why do we call some things good and others evil? Why do we feel so strongly this inner disturbance or inner satisfaction? They thought about it a great deal and some of them evolved what we now call myths and legends to explain their experience. Of such myths and legends there exist many hundreds but the most familiar, so far as we are concerned, is found in the Old Testament.

In the beginning, the Book of Genesis tells us, there were just two people, a man and a woman, and they had no experience of conscience but lived in ignorance of right and wrong. Consequently, they were very happy and dwelt in a beautiful garden. But in this garden, unfortunately, was an ill-omened tree and the name of it was “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” It was extremely important that the two people–Adam, the man, and Eve, the woman–should never taste its fruit. In the cool of the evening when God walked in the garden to refresh himself after the heat of the day, he would tell Adam and Eve to be sure to leave that particular tree alone; all the other trees they could do as they pleased about, but this one must never be touched.

They were deeply impressed but after God had gone back to heaven, the woman used to look up into the sky and think and think and think. This tree worried her. Perhaps she talked to the man about her curiosity and perhaps she didn’t. The story doesn’t say. But anyway, sooner or later, she found herself wandering about in the general direction of the tree; it was astonishing how often she unintentionally chanced upon it, accidentally getting a little nearer to it every day. Finally, she got near enough to notice a serpent coiled about its roots; not an unpleasant serpent, no, a very agreeable serpent with an interesting line of conversation. Eve was fascinated; she stood a little way off but she listened. Not having eaten of the tree as yet, she didn’t know that she ought to go away. “Don’t be silly!” the serpent said. “God is treating you as though you were a child; he wants to keep you childish all your life. Grow up! Eat this fruit! It will give you knowledge, the same kind of knowledge God himself has, the knowledge of good and evil. Try some! Give some to that doltish man of yours….What’s he so timid about, anyway? Is he a man or a mouse? Or are you, too, afraid? Poor Eve! Poor simple, silly Eve. Why she’s just a frightened little baby!”

“Who’s a baby?” Eve demanded. (The story doesn’t say so, but we know it must have been like that.) “Who’s afraid? Give me some of that fruit!” And so she ate it. And having someone else to blame it on, which was just what he had been waiting for all along, Adam ate some too. He certainly wasn’t going to be outdone in enterprise by a mere woman, especially as he was probably jealous of the serpent. If we may judge from the story, the effect was immediate. As soon as God appeared in the garden, they both wanted to hide. The inner awareness made them afraid. The knowledge of good and evil had arrived with a vengeance. Conscience had come to earth.

Now this old story, suitably interpreted, could have a certain amount of meaning, even today. Folklore should never be regarded superficially: the people who developed it did so out of a great deal of experience, and they were not without wisdom. Furthermore, they knew how to tread softly when they came to the threshold of mysteries and what they knew and could not express they hid as an open secret in the fabulous stories they wove. In some ways, we are wiser than they were, but in other ways, not so wise. However that may be, we must leave the folklore explanations and ask how the problem of conscience was dealt with as time passed on.

When men began to have words in which to describe experience more exactly, they spoke of a conflict of good and evil everywhere, one instance of which was the warfare in every individual soul. Sometimes they adopted the idea of a God and a devil engaged in a mortal struggle. Wrong was what the devil tempted men to think or say or do, in the interests of his own evil purpose of rebellion against God; right was the law of God. Conscience was the agency implanted by God in every soul to warn men of the devil’s temptings and to make them anxious and unhappy when they sinned.

Upon this, in one way or another, a great deal of doctrine has been built up, most of which is no longer persuasive to a modern mind. Yet we cannot deny the actual experience: that we continue to have an inner awareness of right and wrong. It is not uniform from person to person; it is not the same from age to age; it is not always entirely clear or definite, but nonetheless, it is there. We would like to know what it is.

Now, to this problem, the greatest of modern psychologists, Sigmund Freud, has diligently attempted a scientific approach. He does not begin with doctrines or with theories, or with generalities of any sort. He begins with clinical experience. Individuals come to him to be cured, if possible, of various psychological ailments and abnormalities. In many cases, these people were inhibited, prevented by something obstructive within themselves from living normal lives. They could not think or speak or act as ordinary people did, because of unresolved conflicts buried below the surface of their minds. What caused the repression, Freud asked? What forced the conflict out of sight? What were the elements that conflicted? And the answer he gave to these questions involves, of course, more explanation than we can put into a few sentences this morning. But we shall not be wrong if we say that one of the discoveries Freud made was that inner conflict and the repression of the conflict both resulted from the reality of conscience. Many patients had badly educated consciences, perhaps because of psychological injury or harmful conditioning, and Freud, as part of the treatment, would try to reeducate the abnormal conscience, making it act more as it does in ordinary people’s lives. This is not a clinical or technical description of what Freud tried to do, but so far as we can put it into ordinary language, it sufficiently reports the facts.

Freud, then, was up against conscience as a factor in psychological problems. Undeniably, there was such a thing: it could be a very obstinate thing, it could prevent a cure, for even a diseased conscience is a powerful influence, more powerful at times than a healthy one. But where did this conscience come from? Freud did not believe in God, he did not really believe in any religion he knew about, at all. The universe, he said, is neutral; there is no evidence that it contains spiritual realities such as religions try to describe. Conscience, therefore, could not be the voice of God. As a scientist, Freud had no patience with such an idea. Clinically speaking, the voice of God was not audible. Therefore, all the ancient beliefs should be discarded.

But this still left him with the necessity of accounting for conscience. Not only neurotics, but healthy people, too, had this inner awareness of right and wrong. Freud himself had it. It prevented him from making his life a good deal easier by soft-pedaling some of his beliefs. Where did it come from, he asked? And he began to look for his answer in the study of primitive religion. Immediately he discovered the phenomenon called “tabu,” concerning which there is a tremendous literature. And no serious scholar would deny that he was on the right track. Prehistoric man, he reminded us, did not understand the true causes of what brought him harm. He did not know, for example, that dead bodies could cause disease from physical causes. All he knew was that harm came if he had anything but the most guarded and careful contact with a body that was dead. And so dead bodies became tabu. They could only be dealt with according to precise rituals. We would call it hygiene but primitive man thought it was all a matter of gods and demons, of goblins and ghosts. These entities must not be offended, and if the slightest mistake was made, the penalty might be very painful. The same idea extended to everything that was dangerous–and for primitive man, this included so much that we might almost say that it included everything whatever. So that he surrounded his life with prohibitions. There were tabus of death, tabus of birth, tabus of marriage, tabus of war, tabus of blood-relationship, tabus of worship, tabus of holy or forbidden places, tabus of royal persons–hundreds and hundreds of tabus, and sometimes when the original cause which produced the tabu had been left behind due to intellectual progress, the tabu itself remained.

An illustration of this may be seen in the state of bad conscience people sometimes experience if they use blasphemy. At one time, all names were tabu, but especially the names of kings, priests and gods. This was because names were supposed to be a powerful means of working magic, by casting spells and in practicing the arts of witchcraft. If the name of a god were used, the god might take a terrible vengeance. Very few enlightened persons believe that such a vengeance is probable, today: it would be an unscientific belief. Yet they may feel uncomfortable in the presence of blasphemy. And we might mention that quite apart from blasphemy, orthodox Jews, from Old Testament days onward have studiously avoided the use–even the liturgical use–of the Hebrew name for God. They say, “the Lord,” instead.

Now Freud would doubtless have insisted that to regard the use of the name of God in this way is merely superstitious–that blasphemy may be in bad taste and an offense to what is associated with precious experience, but that it will cause none of the harm the ancient tabus associated with it. It is an example of those things left over from ancient conditioning and which still persist–irrationally. To this example, psychologists might add many another. So that Freud recorded his own opinion that conscience may have very little to do with sound reasoning or good judgment. Conscience may persist in condemning us when a clear view of the matter would exonerate us, and if this leads to an inner conflict which we are not able to resolve, perhaps we will suffer an anxiety neurosis, or at the very least, have to put up with a good deal of emotional disturbance.

Therefore, he argues, conscience does not simply mediate between rational right and rational wrong; it carries into the present a great deal that might better have been left in the past. But when it comes to dispensing with conscience altogether, Freud is not able to do it. Indeed, his own clinical experience taught him that anyone who tries to bring about a cure by uprooting a patient’s conscience is doomed to failure. Even a bad conscience seemed better than no conscience. So that Freud concluded that all that could be done was to try to re-educate a neurotic conscience wherever you had the opportunity, and meanwhile continue to explore the matter.

Which, from his point of view, may have seemed all right; but where does it leave the rest of us? Well, the 1920’s thought it left us free to do exactly what we wished–or at any rate, whatever we could get away with. Why take any notice of a conscience that grew up out of tabus? Why not leave it to the psychologists and the sociologists and meanwhile live an unfettered existence? Conscience was out of date, so strike up the band!

Yes, but how did it work out? People had a lot of fun–or did they? There might be some doubt even about the fun, but there was no doubt at all about the advent of Hitler and Dr. Goebbels. This was what you got when conscience was thrown aside. Here were the men who openly and deliberately threw it aside. Hitler announced that this was what he was doing in his book Mein Kampf. Dr. Goebbels made it clear every time he spoke over the radio. And so we had to wreck half the world in a war that has made the entire human future dubious because we did not have conscience enough to recognize evil when we saw it and conscience enough to take steps to end it before it threatened to dominate the world.

Do you say, But wait a minute! Most of the western world had a great deal of conscience about war–that is why they hesitated to do anything to end the new evil. Nonsense! It was not the horror of killing that made the multitudes pacifist, it was fear of dying. They were not concerned for their consciences; they were afraid for their skins!

Now, I want to suggest this morning, not that conscience ought to be allowed to creep back because we are not getting along so well without it; or that superstition or no superstition, it is indispensable. I have no use for things that creep back, and no more willingness than anyone else for superstitions. What I want to suggest is that conscience is no more a superstition than the air we breathe. Nor, because it comes out of the primitive past, does it need to be primitive.

Everything comes out of the primitive past. Because our hands were once forepaws, it doesn’t mean that they are not really hands at all but only misshapen feet. The fact that our remote animal ancestors once lived in the ocean does not require us to regard ourselves as fundamentally nothing but fish. The changes wrought by the ages are real. They may not be complete; there may be too much of the past in the present; but nonetheless, the changes are not only real but decisive. It is not in the least scientific to say that what science has not yet understood can be left out of account. It must not. If the physical sciences had left out of account what they could not explain, they would still be infant sciences. And now the social sciences, the science of what man is and what human society is, must be just as scientific as the physical sciences. They must admit openly that conscience is something they know a little about–just a very little by delving into the past–but that this little is hardly even a beginning. They must admit that conscience is real though they do not understand it, just as it once had to be admitted that electricity was real though no one understood it. Nor will it do to say that conscience is just “tabu” any more than it would do to say that electricity is only found in the form of lightning or in the shock that comes from an electric eel.

We must admit that whatever the difficulties, there really is a distinction between right and wrong. There really is a penalty for wrong decisions, for the refusal of what calls upon us for justice and righteousness. We must admit that generosity and kindness really do improve the quality of a human being. We must admit the facts of moral heroism. You cannot explain a Jeremiah or a Jesus by talking about “tabu.” It will not be enough to wait for the social sciences to catch up and tell us all about conscience. Unless we have some conscience in the meanwhile, there will not be time for the social sciences to catch up. The world will go back to the primitive and conscience will have to begin again with “tabu.”

The truth is that no matter how incomplete the explanation we can give, conscience is not only real but very vigorously so. It is not something that somehow happened to life in the process of its evolution: it is something that life caused to happen to itself. Conscience is part of whatever life is. Part of its inner force, insisting upon its own development. It no more “merely happens itself. Conscience is part of whatever life is. Part of its inner force, insisting upon its own development. It no more “merely happens itself. Conscience is part of whatever life is. Part of its inner force, insisting upon its own development. It no more “merely happens” than the sight of the eye merely happens. Sight is something that life needed to see the world in which it was working out its destiny: so sight was produced. Conscience is something that life needs to see its way to higher levels of fulfillment: and conscience is produced. Produced by whatever is the final, innermost reality of the existence of the living being called man. Conscience is the sight of the soul. It indicates to whoever wants to know–whoever sincerely wants to know–what should be the direction of his life, what he must do to remain at peace within himself. And it indicates these things increasingly better to anyone who gives it a chance. It is not some separate thing implanted in the brain or heart by God; no, but it is the creative spirit of life itself moving within the thoughts we think and struggling for victory in the things we do. As to the imperfections of conscience, imperfection of every kind testifies to the perfect towards which it moves. Error testifies to the truth from which it errs, and by which it must be amended. If conscience had already reached its final form and were perfect, it could not grow–and growth is essential to it. Only the imperfect can still grow. None of the difficulties, none of the uncertainties, excuse us from what conscience is clear about. And conscience is clear about a great many more things than people like to open their eyes to. Not only clear but rational–reasonable: utterly reasonable. What is more reasonable than the justice a man owes to his brother man? If justice to himself is reasonable the same reasons apply to all others. What is more reasonable than the golden rule? Yet how far have we got in doing to others as we wish hey would do to us?

To try to discard conscience is not only risky, as this generation has discovered for itself; but it is bad psychology as Freud discovered, though he didn’t carry his discovery through to a sufficient conclusion: it is also unscientific as any scientist must admit if he is honest, for a reality is a reality whether it be tangible or intangible, and realities must not be left out of account because we cannot yet explain them. Yes, and besides being these things, the attempt to impugn conscience is frequently the device of a cheap and shabby mentality: one that wishes to escape the truth of its own insight and the justice of its own demands.

There is a skepticism that is useful but there is also a precipitate and unreasonable skepticism that corrodes the very meaning out of life and blights and withers all the higher qualities of personality. Let us admit what is real and try to grow with it, not destroy our souls by suppressing it. Ignorance is a frontier, not a barrier, and faith precedes knowledge when we push a frontier back. Let us have faith, then, for religion is venturesome. Let us follow the good we see toward the greater good we hope for. Let us know in this as in all things that man is not man until his reach exceeds his grasp. And thus answer our question: What is conscience? Conscience is a growing awareness of right and wrong, of good and evil, demanding that we choose between them. Conscience is part of the essence of life itself–the life we know as inner life, the life that forms itself into truth and righteousness and beauty. Conscience is the sight of the soul.

Prayer: O God, by the truth our own heart speaks, make us worthy of our task. Amen.

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