A NOTE ON CONSCIENCE
A NOTE ON CONSCIENCE
D. R. Khashaba
[In a paper lately posted to my blog (“The Futility of Ethical Theory”) I wrote: “Conscience is another name for the moral sense. I prefer ‘moral sense since it is less open to the vagaries of occult interpretations.” It occurred to me to append a note on “conscience”. The following lines are just cursory thoughts that I may develop some other time.]
Conscience or moral sense, like the sense of beauty, is a sensibility that flowers under auspicious circumstances. It is natural in the sense that like a seed it sprouts from within in a favourable environment. Like a seed or young shoot it can be maimed, can be smothered, can be dried up.
Rather than asking whether the moral sense (conscience) is innate or acquired we should ask whether it is intrinsic or extrinsic. I would say that the moral sense flowers from within the person; we may say it is the personality of the person, it is the basic value one identifies oneself with; we may call that one’s integrity. (This usage widens the sense of the term so that ‘integrity’ no longer denotes an absolute moral value. Let us stick to the term personality.) One’s personality would then be what one will fight for and die for. That determines for everyone what is right and what is wrong, for we can define the moral sense as an inner firm conviction that there is right and wrong. One who does not have this inner criterion, inner standard, distinguishing right from wrong has no moral sense, has no ‘personality’ as defined here. Thus I would say that the moral sense unfolds within a person; it is not ‘innate’ but ‘inborn’. Specific rules and regulations are acquired but may be fully assimilated to the personality and would then assume the character of absolute values for the person concerned.
Individuals may be characterized with various levels of conscientiousness, but even a person with a normally ‘low morality’ will willingly sacrifice her or his life to defend one’s honour or defend another person.
‘Bad conscience’, the feeling of sin or guilt, comes when one infringes a maxim or value conventionally acknowledged but not fully assimilated. Macbeth was normally loyal to his king; had that loyalty been fully integrated in his personality he would not have succumbed to the temptation of assassinating the king and usurping the kingdom. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had enough ‘morality’ to feel that what they did was wrong but that ‘morality’ was not so fully integrated with their personality as to make them resist the temptation.
When the ‘emotions’ rather than ‘reason’ determine choice, the choice, whether a good one or a bad one, is not a moral choice. When Plato says that reason should control the passions he is not referring to moral will or moral action. Where choice is relevant we are on the amoral plane. We should only speak of morality where there is spontaneity. I am here only apparently contradicting what I said in the preceding paragraph. Here I am using ‘morality’ in a stricter sense.
What has been censured as Socrates’ ‘intellectualism’ comes from the fact that when he asserted that to know what is right ensures that one would do what is right – this is the gist of identifying epistêmê and aretê – he was thinking of a fully rational person. Socrates’ personality was so fully integrated – we have ample evidence in his life and death for that – that he assumed that all persons, once enlightened, could be fully rational. Sadly, as I have repeatedly asserted elsewhere, the best of us are only rational by fits and starts. When we are at our best we cannot fail to do what we know is right. Shelley’s Prometheus curses Zeus, but when he is reminded of it by Mother Earth he says: “It doth repent me: words are quick and vain: Grief for a while is blind, and so was mine. I wish no living thing to suffer pain.”
Cairo, February 2, 2016.