Conscience, A Very Short Introduction, by Paul Strohm, Oxford University Press, 152 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-0199569694
Many people were astonished by the size of the vote to repeal the amendment to the Irish constitution that protected the right to life of the unborn, 66.4 per cent to 33.6 per cent. In the moral climate of 1983, when the amendment was voted in by a majority of 66.9 per cent to 33.1 per cent, a reversal by this margin would have been unthinkable, even allowing for thirty-five years to pass. Voters in 1983 would have found it even harder to imagine Irish people voting for its repeal as a necessary first step for proposed legislation to introduce a social policy that includes allowing women choose a safe and legal abortion in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy without having to give a reason. Yet this has now been voted for and, coupled with the passing of the marriage equality referendum for gay and lesbian couples in 2015 by 62 per cent, it marks a profound change in values in Ireland, especially among the generation born around 1980 and later.
In the debate leading up to the vote, the medical, legal, human rights and social reasons for the desirability of the change, and for maintaining the status quo, were well aired and written about. Conscience, too, cropped up often enough as a reason, and its importance was acknowledged. The two main political parties were in favour of repeal but they allowed their elected members to campaign and vote according to their conscience instead of being required to follow the party line. And yet very little was said about conscience. It seemed inaccessible to public debate. No doubt this was at least partly because of the difficulty in understanding what exactly it means and why it should be important. There is also the difficulty that it is tied up with different beliefs and values, with the effect that were one side to claim it had conscience on its side this might well be cancelled out by the same claim from the other side.
In his very short book, Paul Strohm provides an accessible account of how the understanding of conscience changed in Western history and culture down the centuries to the present. He packs in a number of revealing and informative ideas from literary and other cultural sources as well as from theology and philosophy, and he weaves their connections together, enlivening them with his own observations. In the end, against the background of his account, the referendum result, insofar as it was influenced by conscience, does not appear all that surprising. Instead it appears that Irish society is belatedly catching up with changes in understanding that had already occurred in most other Western countries.
Conscience is difficult to understand because, while it can affect us deeply in our relation to ourselves and to others, it is hard to know what kind of thing it is. We can’t see it, nor can we hear it, though in tradition and common parlance it is imagined as a voice or a call. But it can certainly make its presence felt. It affects us through emotion, especially when we feel bad about something we have done or failed to do. It produces guilt and shame. Joyce conveyed something of its gnawing effect with the phrase “the agenbite of inwit” (drawn from Ayenbite of Inwyt, the title of a fourteenth century confessional book). It can also make us feel good when we think we have acted well. But for complex issues it can be confusing, sending us mixed messages. And we often have to “wrestle” with it to work out what it is telling us. Its influence is often persuasive, and at times decisive, overriding other evidence and arguments.
It can be clarifying too, and uplift us with a sense of moral purpose. For particularly challenging matters, it can test our courage when we consider the likely consequences of acting on its guidance. As Hamlet discovered, it can make “cowards of us all”. And yet those we associate with acting out of conscience in circumstances of great pressure and personal danger – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, human rights activists who work in countries ruled by oppressive regimes, humanitarian aid workers in war zones – we associate also with holding up a light for a better world.
We can ignore conscience, of course, or at least try, for even when we seem to succeed we can sense it has not gone entirely away. We can still feel it exerting a subliminal (retributive?) censure. It is also private and individual, but the conviction it carries can convince us that others should be affected by their conscience in the same way. As Strohm tells us, the meaning of the word is derived from co-scientia, knowledge held in common, and to some extent at least it would seem to carry still the meaning of providing the potential for shared understanding. Yet in practice for many matters it is likely to give rise to different responses in different people. It is malleable in the way it can be influenced by prevalent beliefs, and by the ideas and aims of social and political movements. It is even possible for some people, those committed to a rigid totalitarian ideology for example, to believe they are behaving according to their conscience by forcing their beliefs on others when in reality their methods are unconscionable.
Conscience would have played a part in inspiring the emergence of ethical rules, rights, and virtues. And there is some general understanding and acceptance of them. But they have not laid to rest the spirit and efficacy of conscience. It still hovers, influencing our ethical conduct. In its own inimitable way, it continues to affect us with calls for what we should and should not do.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has provided one major strand in its understanding. Strohm locates an early source in the Hebrew Old Testament. Though it doesn’t name conscience directly, it contains the idea that God has implanted in us moral precepts to provide us with the means of acting according to his will. Strohm mentions Augustine as one of the early influences on the Christian understanding. In his Confessions, Augustine describes his struggle with his conscience to end his procrastination about becoming a Christian and abandoning his hedonistic indulgence. In the Middle Ages, as a Catholic theologian and philosopher, Aquinas understood conscience in terms of God having endowed human nature with an innate conscience. We have a natural inclination or spark through which we are drawn towards what is good and away from what is bad. And conscience is exercised and clarified through applying knowledge and reasoning about our human nature to the consideration of moral actions.
In the Greco-Roman tradition there was also recognition of conscience. In Cicero’s writings it was understood to be part of human nature, just as the seasons were part of the ordered natural world. And Strohm tells us that in classical Rome a claim to have acted according to conscience could count as evidence before tribunals. It was seen to be in the public interest.
Surprisingly, Strohm doesn’t mention Plato as an early source. In his Dialogues, Plato tells us that Socrates believed he had a personal daemon, a guiding spirit or divine sign. It made him aware of how he should behave, and in particular what he should avoid. This daemon was a forerunner of what became known as conscience. The Socrates source is revealing because his life, and especially his reputation as a martyr at the hands of the authorities for sticking by his guiding spirit, has become a telling example of how individual conscience is often at odds with established beliefs. Also, by his interlocutory method of dialogue, Socrates was an early exponent of rational argument, and rational thinking in philosophy and science has led many people to find belief in God untenable. But rationality and disbelief in God have not killed off conscience. Whether we believe in a deity or not, conscience continues to exert influence as a source of moral guidance. It remains the pivot in our moral compass, still active after more than twenty centuries.
The Christian understanding helped provide the institutional church with knowledge and understanding to mediate individual conscience. The authority for conscience came to be seen as residing in the guardians of church teachings. Conscience had to be informed if it was to be authentic, and the authority for informing it was first of all the pope, who was believed to be infallible in matters of faith and morals, followed by the clergy, who learned the teachings and delivered them to the faithful. Catholics are familiar with the requirement to examine their conscience to identify their sins in order to seek forgiveness for them from a priest in confession.
There is a strong personal element to the experience of conscience, and in retrospect it is easy to see how it would have been in tension with the guidance coming from the institutional church. It made the Reformation, for whatever other reasons it may have happened, understandable. As Luther saw it, there is a direct line between each Christian’s reading and understanding of the Bible and how they experience their conscience. Conscience is informed by personal inner conviction. As is typical of revolutions, the Reformation brought an initial experience of liberation and euphoria. But it introduced a new circumstance fraught with problems. Individuals are believed to be fallible, lowly creatures compared to God. So how is anyone to know for certain whether a conscience claim is authentic or delusional? Strohm describes the position of the Reformation conscience in near Beckettian terms as that “of a lonely spy, parachuted into enemy territory with a shortwave radio and a dying battery, awaiting a message that might never come”.
The Reformation loosened the ties between conscience and institutional religion and made its understanding more personal. Strohm sees Evangelical Calvinism in particular as contributing to lessening the significance of the church’s mediating role. What counted was strength of faith and fervour felt by souls who were understood to be unworthy of an almighty God’s mercy and justice. Conscience had less to do with working out how to behave and more with anxiety and fear about not being fervent enough to please God. But this restricted the scope of conscience, and John Locke broadened its understanding by making it relevant to social and political realities.
Locke did not see conscience as innate. Nor as necessarily having a religious source. Instead, writing around the time of the European wars of religion in the seventeenth century, he understood conscience as a natural right that was being expressed through strongly held views by the different religious denominations. Also, because the different claims were a cause of civil strife, he saw how conscientious beliefs needed to be managed through civil laws and rational discourse to provide for toleration. In this way, Strohm sees him as having had a big influence in developing a more secular understanding.
At the same time, Locke’s understanding still left the problem of finding an acceptable outside authority for people’s conscientious beliefs and actions. God, as Strohm puts it, had become “a distant spectator”, and we were left with our own reasoning to determine what conscience should tell us. Meanwhile religious and civil strife continued to show that we are all too liable to be partial in our own subjective interest, to the detriment of other people’s. It became clear that, if the requirements of conscience were to hold sway for everyone, then an objective basis needed to be established for them. And Strohm includes the attempts of two eighteenth century philosophers, Kant and Adam Smith, to provide this basis.
For Kant, conscience manifests itself in a predisposition we have to judge other people’s behaviour as well as our own. (Hence the passionate abortion referendum campaigns by each side to convince the other.) But if our judgments are to have an objective basis binding on all of us, then they cannot come just from within ourselves. They cannot just come from what Kant calls our own “internal court”. As Strohm describes it, Kant was trying to find a way to avoid the conflict of interest that arises when the roles of prosecutor, jury and judge are fused. His solution was to say that if we are to gain objectivity then we need to consider our own actions being judged from outside ourselves. This ideal judge must be, in Kant’s phrase, “a scrutinizer of our hearts”, and the imposer of obligations. But it’s not the kind of judge that might be represented by a God figure. Rather it is a general principle whose independence and binding force can be attributed to its inherent rationality. It is still a subjective principle in that it comes from us, but it carries objective oversight in requiring us to judge from the outside how we should all behave. The principle is: “Act only on that maxim (or rule) through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Central to the principle is not to contradict ourselves by requiring rules of behaviour from others that we are not prepared to follow ourselves.
Though Strohm doesn’t delve into this question, Kant went to great pains to try to establish the principle as objective in terms of what it means to be a person with a will and capacity for reason. Basically he argued that if we will a rule that allows everyone to make a false promise, then we are contradicting ourselves since people will be on their guard against trusting others who may try to deceive them and this annuls the very intention to make a false promise. Also, under a rule that allowed people make false promises (or spread fake news), we would be willing, or at least allowing, that we ourselves can be a victim of other people’s deception, which makes no sense. In this way, Kant’s overall principle makes his requirement for a valid conscience – of adopting the outlook of an outside impartial spectator – a matter of behaving in an inherently rational way in accordance with the human capacities to will and to reason. And since this overall principle marks us in our humanity, it is our conscience that makes us feel beholden to it. Our conscience is (or should be) disturbed when our actions are in breach of the principle and at ease when they are consistent with it. He also called the principle “the moral law”. And he regarded this moral law that we carry within us as one of two things that filled him with “awe”, the other being “the starry heavens above”.
However, Kant still recognised that there was a real difficulty in being able to understand how our judgments could be objective. Such judgments presuppose that our will is totally free. Autonomy of the will is necessary to enable us to be completely free in our judgments from all personal influences, such as our own particular interests, inclinations and perceptions, so that they do not make us biased. But Kant accepted that in practice such subjective factors are always in play and compromise our capacity for objective judgement. His way out of the difficulty was to say that we must imagine a world in which things are experienced as existing in themselves outside of our subjective perception of them, and that we can draw from this world in making practical judgements. But just how this could be possible he was never able to explain or make clear.
Nevertheless, Kant’s attempt highlights the nub of the conundrum of conscience. We feel the guidance it gives both as personal and applying to others, and yet we cannot escape ourselves to provide it with an objective understanding which will give it that grip.
Kant is a more important figure in the history of ethics than Adam Smith, yet Strohm gives more space to Smith’s ideas, with which he tells us Kant would almost certainly have been familiar. Strohm credits Smith with broadening the scope of conscience by clearly making it a matter of our judgment and providing a basis for it that was effectively independent of religion. His basis, too, lies in adopting the perspective of an impartial spectator to make judgements on behaviour that are morally binding for everyone. More particularly, since we are essentially connected to society in all sorts of practical ways, not least through trade, the focus of the impartial spectator is on our individual interests in the context of the interests of society as a whole. It is “society and one’s place in it that provides the norm for assessment”. But, as Strohm further observes, this understanding leaves too much open to how we conceive the impartial spectator. It can lead us to see a figure who endorses the particular values that suit us from our economic and social circumstances and culture.
In the nineteenth century John Stuart Mill picked up on the idea of freedom being central to conscience. He accepted that we are naturally partial to our own interests and desires. In doing so, he laid the groundwork for the modern secular liberal understanding, one freed from unquestioning compliance with behavioural expectations coming from Kantian principles or religious or state authorities. Strohm quotes a passage from Mill’s Essay on Liberty in which he refers to the freedom of “doing as we like … so long as what we do does not harm them [our fellow-creatures] even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong”. Mill saw conscience as emancipatory, not something that should confine anyone. In a related passage, not included by Strohm, Mill pointed out that in “a civilised community” no state should have the right to exercise its power to force someone to do something against his or her will that pertains to them as individuals. “Over himself, over his own mind and body, the individual is sovereign.”
Mill was also among the first to recognise the psychological dimension of conscience. In his essay “Utilitarianism”, he writes of conscience as “a complex phenomenon”. We experience it as a simple fact, but in general it is “all encrusted over with collateral associations”. They include sympathy, love and fear along with religious feelings and childhood recollections. They include too a desire for “self-esteem and the desire for the esteem of others”. Collectively they amount to “a mass feeling”. We do not have awareness of all the details that compose the mass feeling, nor of how they interact with each other. And he suggests that “the sort of mystical character” we associate with the promptings of conscience can be attributed to the murky influence of the mass feeling. As for conscience’s “binding force”, once conscience has formed us in a particular mould, it is hard to break free of it. Even when we do, we can be prey to remorse.
Strohm has a particularly interesting chapter on Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Freud, all of whom questioned the value of a conscience that feels like a binding, restrictive burden, a conscience that holds individuals back from living the life they want and is difficult to throw off. In Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Raskolnikov experiences his conscience imposing restrictions on him and questions its value and authority. He feels the restrictions as a mixture of disappointing compromise and justifiable restraint, a compromise, he realises, that seems to be holding him back unnecessarily. He expresses the view that people of exceptional talent or ambition should not have to let their conscience prevent them from achieving great things. They should get beyond its punishing feeling of remorse. However, as Strohm points out, Raskolnikov’s view is challenged when it is put to him, with, as it turned out, chilling prescience for the history of the twentieth century, that such people can end up punishing others.
In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky presents a doubting and ardent Ivan tussling between the appeal of a Christian-based conscience as a means of protecting society and providing absolution from guilt, and a secular conscience that, without a feeling of responsibility to God, results in an extreme relativism in which “Everything … is permitted” and “nothing should be forbidden”. Ivan remains conflicted and ambivalent. But in these novels Dostoevsky has loosened the cultural hold of conscience by openly and sceptically questioning its authority and making us realise something of the price we may be paying by letting it rule us.
Nietzsche had no doubt the price was high. He claimed Christian teaching about individual responsibility to God for sin was an imposition by a majority who were weak-willed, to suppress and contain the natural individual inclination of those who were strong-willed to strike out for themselves in accordance with their own needs and desires. And he regarded a conscience that prods us with self-accusations about our supposed failings as particularly insidious from the way it has taken up a central place within individual consciousness. From there, it divides us from ourselves by dictating strictures and requirements to keep us in line with a church-based social consensus. It acts as a kind of “second self” whose restrictions we come to feel we are imposing on ourselves, or at least allowing to affect us against our own natural interest to realise, unperturbed, our individual daemon or inner spirit.
Freud was influenced by both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in developing his central ideas. From Dostoevsky he drew the idea that we can feel guilty for something we haven’t even done. Ivan Karamazov feels guilty for his father’s murder, as he had wished him dead. The source of this feeling lies in having internalised the commands of the father – an actual father, or a father figure that represents the demands and claims on us coming from society. We repress the commands due to an inability to live up to them under the whip of criticism, real or imagined. This repression then expresses itself in hostility as well as guilt towards their felt source. In Freud’s terms, a conflict is set up between our ideal-ego or superego, the location of conscience with its demands for how we are expected to behave, and our actual ego where our failings are acutely felt. Freud drew, too, from Nietzsche’s recognition of the central place of cruelty and aggression in human behaviour. As Nietzsche saw it, when these natural tendencies are blocked by religious and social constraint, we turn them in on ourselves in an act of self-cruelty and self-aggression through a lacerating conscience.
Strohm notes that all three critics of conscience focused on just one of its aspects: its capacity to restrain us through guilt. It is not the only aspect, and, in the end, conscience is not something they are able to see off. Like it or not, they see conscience as a deep-rooted human trait for which we continue to have need. Dostoevsky’s protagonists bridle at conscience and make it a subject for discussion. But “they are more conscience-driven than they are able to articulate and … display their acquaintance with conscience under a variety of impulses that do not even bear its name”. For his part, Freud suggests the authoritarian superego can also be a resort or refuge by providing some bearings for a troubled ego. And in his last book, Civilization and its Discontents, he sees conscience as a mechanism of sublimation through which instinctively selfish and harmful desires are channelled into providing for a civil society. Nietzsche’s inveighing against Christian conscience makes him the least likely to hold onto some notion of conscience. But, shorn of its Christian requirements, he sees it as essential to maintain personal integrity for living a life unfettered by myth and superstition and to provide a congenial culture based on enlightened thinking.
In the final chapter Strohm addresses the question of the influence of conscience today. In his view respect for it has diminished and its voice has become muffled. It is not heard strongly enough to be able to energise public opinion and political action to address adequately the world’s many injustices and social problems. Instead, he sees it as having become more individual and private, a feature of our presence to ourselves in what we want for our own lives rather than as members of a society. He sees the disaffected person of conscience represented by the character of Jean-Baptiste Clamence in Camus’s novel The Fall. In hearing a cry from a woman who is drowning herself in the Seine, Clamence is at first unable to respond. Then he feels guilt. But he is unclear about what he should do. He is not sure where the cry has come from or what it wants from him. And he remains stuck in a kind of paralysis.
It may be that, while it is now less likely for a response to be recognised as “conscience-driven” by name, conscience still exerts its influence under other names, such as “social activism” and “self-improvement”. But if the use of the word “conscience” is declining, so may be something of its traditional force. Conscience has always been regarded as something that needs to be fostered. In religious traditions it needs to be formed, examined and exercised. What then of the secular tradition? In the twentieth century, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the existentialist psychologist Eric Fromm recognised the huge importance of developing the understanding and practice of a secular conscience. Strohm doesn’t discuss Fromm’s ideas, but in recent years they have become highly relevant in view of the rise in popular support for far right governments in a number of European countries. Liberal democratic institutions and practices, such as the independence of the judiciary, press freedom, and equality of gender and sexual identity have again come under threat.
In Man for Himself: An Enquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, Fromm distinguishes between two types of conscience: the authoritarian and humanistic. Authoritarian conscience is formed when people unquestioningly or unconsciously accept the commands of an external authority as their own. And in Fear of Freedom he explores the understandable inclination we have to do this to escape from the fears and challenges of facing up to our own freedom and responsibilities. Humanistic conscience, on the other hand, involves maintaining a sense of personal freedom, rationality and critical reflection on what it means to be a human person. Its requirements come from “those principles which we have discovered ourselves as well as those we have learned from others and found to be true”. The danger is that we subordinate ourselves “to purposes that are supposed to have greater dignity” than ourselves. But he is not suggesting we can know all about human existence. It is a mystery to which we remain open. In The Art of Loving, Fromm acknowledges that rational understanding is unable to account adequately for “the secret” of ourselves and the universe. Hence the desire itself for a relation with a higher power believed to be God is “by no means irrational”.
In a functioning democracy there is also an issue of allowing for freedom of conscience in cases where citizens’ conscientious beliefs and actions clash with state law. The pacifist’s conscientious objection to military service is one contentious example. Strohm finds that, in the past, countries in the West, such as Britain and the US, have shown a willingness to allow for this refusal of military service provided the person can demonstrate that the objection is genuine. The Irish government too, in its legislative proposal to provide for a choice of abortion, intends to allow medical practitioners a right of conscientious objection to taking part. Given the diversity of conscientious views in a democratic, multicultural society, claims for special treatment on conscience grounds have the potential to crop up increasingly frequently. They can also be highly controversial. Making exemptions from state laws for certain groups, even for understandable reasons of genuine conscience, can be judged as allowing them to discriminate against others. Currently, in Northern Ireland, the Supreme Court is considering its judgement on whether a bakery is legally obliged to bake a cake iced with the message “Support Gay Marriage”. The owners of the bakery had refused to provide the message on the cake because it conflicted with their Christian beliefs. Rather than force people to suppress their own freedom of conscience by having to follow the law, in practice it can become a question of where to draw a line between allowing for the freedom of individual conscience and ensuring that no citizen is significantly disadvantaged by fellow citizens who are not prepared to provide them with a product or service they are legally entitled to have. In Strohm’s view, “some deference is owed to persons of religious or moral scruple, so long as that deference does not compromise the rights of patients to safe and prompt treatment, or clients to alternative and timely service”.
One place where Strohm finds the significance of conscience continuing to endure is within writing, which provides it with “solidification”. In Joyce’s Portrait, Stephen declares his willingness to throw off the old voices imposed on him, the duties of being a good Catholic and being true to his country, to embrace in exile a freedom through which “from the reality of experience” he can “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”. Stephen’s youthful cry fits aesthetically within the novel but, when extracted to represent the place of conscience in writing, it sounds grandiose and self-indulgent. Strohm might have been better served by picking a literary fiction or non-fiction book in which, under more socially and politically demanding conditions and pressures, conscience is portrayed in all its fragility, tenacity and human necessity.
Strohm’s book is not an attempt to get to the bottom of the origin and nature of conscience as a mysterious human trait, though its mystery lingers just beneath the surface of his historical account. Mill seems to suggest that conscience might be no more than the effect on us of a complicated feeling coming from entangled psychological and social roots. But there’s something inherently instinctive and distinctive about conscience as a human trait that makes such an explanation seem reductive. We experience it as having more to it than Mill suggests from the way it seems to draw its authority from something outside ourselves and connect us to a community.
In recent decades, neurobiology has been finding connections between the physical workings of the brain and our ethical sensibility, suggesting that the sensibility is part of human evolution that has contributed to our survival as a species. But it is not clear yet what empirical knowledge and understanding this approach will provide in the end. And it is hard to see science being able to explain adequately the origin and nature of conscience. Certainly for the time being a definitive understanding remains elusive.
Among the people who voted “Yes” in the 2018 abortion referendum to repeal the amendment which protected the life of the unborn were people who in conscience voted for the amendment in 1983. During the recent public debate they had listened to the stories of the plight of women in crisis pregnancies and found in conscience that they had to vote for its repeal. It would be good if this motivation for its repeal, coupled with the motivation of those on the “No” side of the debate who took a pro-life stance, could now be channelled into support for adequately resourced policies to end the plight of people who suffer from conditions such as homelessness and child poverty. These are, after all, large moral issues too.
Manus Charleton is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books