Humanist Perspectives: issue 153: more on conscience

letters from our readers
more on conscience
by Bob Mcquarrie

page spread from Humanist in Canada issue 152.

Important questions were posed by Trudy Govier in the article What Is Conscience (issue 151). I enjoyed reading her answers. Yet it is remarkable that such questions need to be posed (and they do need to be posed) at the dawning of the 21st century. They need to be posed because moral philosophers (humanists among them) have not yet clearly understood the origin, nature and purpose of morals even after two and a half millennia of discussion on the matter.

This failure has occurred, I think, because a mistaken, dogmatic belief has gripped and fixated their minds. The belief, fostered by Christian ethics, is that noble, other-centred conduct (altruism) is the essence of morality. Because of this pervasive belief, there is a continuing refusal to seriously examine the obvious alternative: that enlightened self-interest is what actually gives rise to morality and can be its firmest support. When it is seriously entertained as a hypothesis for examination, it soon becomes apparent what conscience is and why it exists. Moreover, other outstanding questions about morality are cleared up as well. Here are self-interest responses to the questions Govier raised concerning conscience.

what is conscience? Evolution indicates that our ancestors had a more primitive brain at an earlier stage in our history — perhaps at a level similar to sentient animals today. It was a brain that spontaneously assessed sensory information and arrived at various understandings. Even in the absence of language, it grasped the import of particular situations. Following its own host’s and others’ experiences, it understood that some situations should be avoided because they would probably lead to harm of some kind, perhaps even death. It also grasped that other situations were promising: those that allowed for the satisfaction of needs with the resulting enjoyment of pleasure. These were wordless and imageless understandings, spontaneously arrived at. That was each brain’s natural job: to look out for the interests of its host. Surely, like other animals, our ancestors automatically acted in accord with these understandings. There was no conscious reflection on this. The promise of pleasure: stay and approach. The threat of pain: run! Even after later evolutionary overlays (e.g., reflection, foresight and imagination), these spontaneous understandings continued to be generated by the naturally reasoning brain (called the nrb from now on). They were brought to our ancestors’ (and our) conscious awareness as feelings, which we have since come to name ‘intuitions.’

This process is still going on. Without conscious reflection, and without the influence of emotions, our nrbs spontaneously assess sensory information and draw conclusions. As David Hume observed, we are made by nature to judge just as naturally as to breathe and to feel. At the core of our intellect, we have an nrb that day after day does it natural job without having to be instructed to do so by the conscious mind. Proof of this is that a human infant learns to decode and use a complex language without either reflectively knowing that she is faced by a problem to solve or that she has a brain to solve it. The nrb can be accessed by the conscious mind and deliberately employed to address problems. But when it is not so employed, it carries on with its natural function, spontaneously assessing, judging and drawing conclusions. And it does this dispassionately, like a computer.

When the conscious mind employs the reasoning capability of the brain to choose ends and means, it may for example, swayed by strong emotion, have decided to choose an end that has the probability, broadly speaking and over a longer term, of bringing the host more pain than pleasure. The nrb, like the good computer it is, having considered only the facts, uninfluenced by emotion, has drawn its own conclusion. It concludes that the act would probably (it can only calculate probabilities, for little in life is certain) be damaging to the host, broadly speaking and over the longer term. This understanding then arises to conscious awareness in the host as a feeling that she should not do what she is planning to do. This experience of negative intuition is commonly called a pang of ‘conscience’. The nrb persists in making its rational, dispassionate assessment known even if the conscious mind doesn’t want to be troubled by facts.

Conscience is a bit like a warning light that lights up on the panel of a car. It persists in letting the driver know there’s something wrong, even if that information is bothersome and inconvenient. If the host performs the wrongful act despite the pang of conscience, the feeling turns to one of ‘guilt’. If the host habitually ignores conscience, she may soon become oblivious to the fact that the warning light is on. But it’s still there, glowing, all the time. And the consequences to the host from ignoring it will impact her nonetheless. As Nietzsche put it, they’ll grab her by the scruff of the neck regardless of the fact that she may have reformed in the meantime.

what voice speaks to us as conscience? The voice of reason, uninfluenced by emotion.

what is the source of its authority? Its authority and justification reside in its reasonableness, which is persuasive to beings capable of rational thought when they are actually willing to employ rational thought for sound reasoning rather than for rationalization. For example, your nrb has attained the eminently reasonable understanding that you ought not to do to other innocent persons what you would not want others to do to you. It has also grasped that if you disregard this principle and do wrongful things to innocent others, they will probably seek to take retaliatory measures against you — hence, the warning light goes on.

is conscience a special faculty of the mind functioning to represent moral knowledge within us? There is in nature no ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Things are just what they are. There is only one kind of natural knowledge we can possess and that is a more or less approximate understanding of the ways things are. What we call ‘moral knowledge’ has its origin in the minds of human beings. It is generated as we evaluate our own acts and the acts of others in the circumstances of the universal human condition. Given these circumstances, we find some ends to be good for us (they bring us pleasure without pain, or with little pain proportionately), and some ends bad (they bring us some pleasure, but they bring us more pain, in the long-term, if not immediately). We also find some means to be right because they deliver the good, and some wrong because they do not deliver the good, or if they deliver the good, do it only at the cost of undermining our fundamental wellbeing, if not immediately, then over the longer term. The latter occurs for example when we try to enhance our lives at the expense of others.

is conscience a matter of feeling? It is both thought and feeling. It has its origin as understanding. Because the understanding is wordless and imageless however, it is brought, as needed, to an awareness in the conscious mind as feeling. Contemplating a wrongful act, one feels uncomfortable, ill at ease, troubled. These feelings are generated by the nrb’s awareness of damaging consequences that will probably, sooner or later, result from the contemplated act.

does the ‘voice’ come from social teachings? No. In fact, social teachings ought always to be subjected to moral evaluation as many of them bring greater harm than good to individuals — religion, for example, or rabid nationalism. Unfortunately, early indoctrination with such social teachings can obfuscate natural intuitions.

is the notion of conscience so embedded in faith and theology that it needs to be eliminated from a scientific worldview? Definitely not! Conscience is not merely a theoretical notion. Conscience actually exists. Billions of people have experienced it and readily understand what others are talking about when they mention it. It would be outrageously unscientific to eliminate an obvious existent from future scientific consideration.

should humanists relinquish the notion of conscience? Once again, definitely not! But we should get our moral values right. We should espouse clearly secular values instead of relying on, and trying to justify, naïve religious values. This particularly applies to altruism, which has no rational justification as moral obligation. Yet a well-known American humanist publication, Free Inquiry, lists altruism in first place as one of ‘the common moral decencies’. Our caring for (some) others may, and often does, lead us to place them ahead of ourselves and do good things for them without any expectation of reward. And that’s fine if that’s what we desire to do. No secular morality however can rationally assert that that is what we ought to do. On the other hand, a secular morality can rationally assert that we ought to come to the aid of others in their time of need. But that’s the virtue of benevolence and it’s a whole other matter. It will have to be dealt with on another occasion.

Bob Mcquarrie,
Spruce Grove, Alberta