Is Your Conscience Real and Does It Matter?
Did you ever see the Disney Pinocchio movie when you were little? Looking back, I realize one of the enduring ideas that stuck with me from that movie was his audible talking conscience, Jiminy Cricket.
If you don’t remember, Jiminy is commissioned early on to help guide Pinocchio in his quest to become a real boy. Jiminy was always there, ready to pipe in with the perfect guidance.
The movie has many wonderful themes beneficial for young children (kindness, loyalty, honesty), but this understanding of conscience was not all that helpful to me. I grew up pretty much expecting big moral decisions to be obvious and avoiding evil to be as simple as listening to the loud and clear message of my conscience.
As I grew older, other popular media (cartoon angels on the shoulder of Tom & Jerry, Eminem’s “Guilty Conscience”) reinforced this idea of an automatic, infallible, vigilant conscience — as if every moral dilemma in my life would be as obvious as a musical number.
I quickly learned otherwise.
One experience, in particular, highlighted this misconception. When I was 15, I switched from public middle school to a private Catholic high school and I did not transition particularly smoothly. I didn’t have friends at first, and I desperately wanted to be cool, which meant that I sometimes sought attention in less-than-healthy ways.
One day I got a ride home from an upperclassman on my wrestling team and I really wanted to show him how cool I was. I decided that the best way to do this was to give the middle finger to a car that had honked at us.
No crickets came and sang songs. I had no thoughts of caution, no pangs of guilt. I just did it without thinking and I actually felt pretty proud of my “tough guy” moment. That was until we stopped for gas and the guy followed us into the parking lot so he could yell at me for several minutes straight. He threatened to call my school (I was wearing a polo with my school’s name on it). By the end of it, I was a blubbering mess and felt nothing like tough or cool. The rest of the car ride was very awkward and when I got home I laid down in the middle of the living room, and I thought — I thought long and hard for the rest of the afternoon.
I had always prided myself on being a “good kid” so this hit me pretty hard.
Why did I do that? How could I have done something so stupid without even thinking about it, or feeling anything really? Who am I? I’m not the sort of person who does stuff like this — how did this happen?
I don’t think I realized it at the time, but that experience was a kind of catalyst for me. I started to think more critically about my actions, who I was, why I acted the way I did, and who I wanted to be. In other words, it woke up my conscience.
Here are a few lessons about conscience that I’ve learned since.
Conscience is not just a “gut feeling”
There’s more to it than just “following your heart” or “being yourself.” Sometimes my gut is greedy, my heart is apathetic, and my “self” is immature. Conversely, sometimes I feel awful about things that (when I think about them) aren’t a big deal or even my fault. Given our frequently dysfunctional culture and, for some of us, our dysfunctional upbringing, we can have all sorts of moral blind spots on the one hand, or scrupulous hang ups on the other. Conscience is one area where you can’t always trust your heart. Just ask Paramore.
Conscience is not just following the rules
There’s no reference book that lists every possible moral situation with a clearly marked “yes” or “no” next to each. Rules are helpful, but they are principles that require application in specific situations. Sharing sensitive information can be forthright in one situation, but gossip in another. Just like a textbook on basketball will not make you Lebron James, the 10 Commandments won’t make you a saint unless you internalize and practice them — until applying them on the fly becomes second nature.
Conscience can change
In my own life, I’ve seen that my decisions, my prayer life (or lack thereof), the friends I’ve chosen, the subjects I’ve studied, the media I’ve consumed, the girls I’ve dated — all impact my conscience for better and for worse. This change is happening all the time, whether I want it to or not, and if we want to be moral people, being intentional about forming our consciences is one of life’s most important tasks.
So what is it?
Conscience is something you do, not just something you feel or have or listen to. It’s an active process that balances and listens to the head, the heart, and the gut, but is monopolized by none of them. Our conscience is all of these. It knows the rules but it also thinks critically about how to live them out well in specific contexts. It is our entire deliberation and decision-making mechanism.
To paraphrase Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons”: we have no greater loyalty than to our conscience, for it is our soul — our very self.