A dictionary definition of a conscience is ‘an inner sense that judges one’s actions and makes one feel guilty etc’, and this definition is accurate. Or is it? Can a conscience be defined so simply? Does the dictionary include a way of understanding a conscience, what lies beneath the ‘simple’ exterior? During the course of this account, I wish to explore two views that have been taken. A psychoanalyst by the name of Erich Fromm had a rather significant view on what a conscience is. He argued that the development of our conscience was greatly influenced by external authorities such as our parents, teachers and perhaps society in general.
He stated that these external authorities eventually become internalised within us as to such an extent that we feel morally responsible to them. This authoritarian conscience is what then controls our moral judgement and is an easy way of controlling someone’s behaviour. People then become trapped by these internalised echoes. An authoritarian conscience also works on the principle of fear as it promotes a feeling of guilt when the authority has been displeased. Fromms interpretation was then based on the fact that a ‘good conscience’ was one that is pleasing to that ‘external authority’.
This can create greater fear as it can imply punishment or detachment by displeasing the authority. The worst offence then being disobedience whilst being submissive may revoke reward or feelings of success. This can lead to dogmatism, which is when orders are accepted without question! Fromm continued to argue that an external authority will make us feel guilty, should we try to be independent or use our own initiative. In conclusion, the basis of an authoritarian conscience is that submissive and obedience behaviour becomes a ‘good conscience’ (to the authority), whereas independence revokes the notion of guilt which forces you to conform.
An alternative interpretation to this view is the humanistic conscience. This basis of this view is that one will fight for freedom and does not comply with an external authority, striving to be their own person and fulfil their full potential. Feelings that develop human personality produce a feeling of pride, whereas those that produce unease are a characteristic of guilt. It can be interpreted as the voice within ones self that will encourage us to be productive, develop and achieve harmony.
‘True conscience’ therefore becomes the ability to preserve the knowledge and understanding that aims to maintain these principles in life. Fundamentally, a ‘good’ conscience, a feeling of pride, is one that is created self development and desires to fulfil potential. A ‘bad’ conscience, a feeling of guilt, is created when one where failure occurs. A conscience is not always completely reliable in aiding a person to make moral decisions. As Blaise Pascal once said ‘Men never do evil so fully and so happily as when they do it for conscience’s sake’. This statement is wholly true and raises important questions.
Firstly, can a conscience always be right? I would believe not. Sometimes we act irrationally and end up in tricky situations. We follow our conscience and yet situations sometimes degenerate. Secondly, as Blaise said, if our conscience tells us something is good, but in reality it is evil, then how will that person know? A good example of such an instance is the Holocaust. Hitler believed it was a good action to put into practice ethical cleansing. This however was clearly not the case. Millions died needlessly because Hitler and his comrades’ conscience told them it was good.