“See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.”
Wednesday, 26 August 2020
Although the author of Ecclesiastes has a (probably justified) reputation for being a bit of a world-weary cynic, this comment helps us in our reflections on conscience because it warns us how conscience can be subverted – by ourselves.
We have as a species a near-infinite capacity to rationalise things to suit ourselves, sometimes to and beyond the point of delusion. In such a situation conscience can become a two-edged sword.
It is all too easy when making moral decisions to subvert conscience. We can construct marvellous schemes in our heads to justify what is wrong. This can take a variety of forms. One of them is conforming to evils in our society by appealing to values that ‘conscience’ may tell us are right. An example that leaps to mind is loyalty, whether to family, church, party or state.
The classic film trilogy The Godfather illustrates this brilliantly. The central character, Michael Corleone, is hostile in the beginning to the family’s business – which is organised crime. But his sense of loyalty to family gradually erodes this, and he becomes an even more terrifying Mafia don than his father. And all the way through, he rationalises it by saying that he did it for his family. Real conscience – which we see slipping in and out throughout the films – is dulled. His ‘conscience’ justifies his action by an appeal to the real virtue of family loyalty, resulting in the virtue of loyalty becoming in effect a vice.
There are loads of other examples one can use – read the newspapers for the latest corruption scandals in southern Africa or the subversion of US democracy by Donald Trump – but I think I’ve made the point.
So should we bother about conscience? Should our ethics simply be one of rule-following? The trouble with that is that this assumes that rules are always right, unchangeable, or can always be applied in every case the same way. No, we need a conscience. We need too, to be always informing it and using it with discernment.