My Conscience Is My Judge
Surely I can’t be the only person who, time and again, fails to see the obvious. I look at a crossword clue and fail to make sense of it. Then someone comes along and says, smugly, “I’m surprised you haven’t got 7 across. A pig that plants seeds is sow. Sow. Get it?” They give the answer and I wonder why I was so obtuse not to have got a simple solution that everyone else had seen. Then it might be the joke at which the whole room laughed whilst I struggle, as the saying goes, to get it. Once I knew a man whose given name was Harry. He was born and bred in Yorkshire, so I puzzled why every body called him Paddy. Paddy was the nickname for those who hailed from the emerald isle. It was quite a time before the penny dropped; his second name was Ireland. Get it?
It would be comforting to know that there are other sufferers from this embarrassing failure of intelligence, if that is what it is. To share blushes with others would ease the discomfort.
Sometimes I realise that the reverse of the coin applies. I am convinced that something is as plain as the proverbial pikestaff. The road ahead divides. I’ve missed the signpost but clearly the left fork is the correct road to take. Then it turns out I have made the wrong choice. Obstinately I refuse to believe that my sense of direction is wrong, so press on, compounding the initial error, like Harris in “Three men in a boat” negotiating the Hampton Court maze. Finally, I reluctantly admit to being lost, so have to ask for help, or drive back the way I have come and start again. Does anybody else experience the same odd trait of character, I wonder?
The other day I discovered that a word whose meaning I knew perfectly well, didn’t mean what I thought it meant at all. When I found out, by checking in my well-used dictionary, the real meaning, it was perfectly obvious. Again my old blind spot had got in the way of clear thinking.
The word in question was ‘conscience’. Though I’d never set it down in writing, I had regarded conscience as an absolute set of moral values. The dictionary tells me it is rather a personal sense of right or wrong. In other words a code, if not devised by, certainly accepted by the individual. This set me thinking. Yes, we build up our own moral benchmark, unique to us, by which we measure and moderate our conduct.
Take war for example. No sensible, right-thinking man or woman regards the use of armed force other than with at least distaste and more commonly with horror. Yet good people have divided opinions in any particular set of circumstances. My father, a lifetime pacifist, was a conscientious objector in the 1914-18 World War. Many thousands of others, good, honest men of principle, as was my father, saw it a matter of duty to fight for their country against, in the language of the time, the marauding Hun. Two decades later, a majority of men and women had clear consciences as they enlisted into armed forces to defeat the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Others, as in the First World War, and with equally strong convictions, believed it was morally unjustifiable to take up arms against fellow beings.
The difference between two opposite points of view is not the difference between right and wrong, but that between two opposing strongly held judgements. Each one of these contrary views could be justified as right in the view of the believer.
Differing perceptions about what is done, or not done, as choice faces the individual are not limited to war and peace, but crop up many times in the course of life for all of us. Sometimes the dilemma is about the fairly trivial, at other times the deeply profound. We measure what we do against our standards of what we think is right, that is morally justified.
If conscience is not about a personal sense of right and wrong, but becomes a purely external set of values, determined by others and to be imposed the rest of us, then we move to fundamentalism. “Why should I do this?” we ask. “Because I say so”, comes the answer.
Many early examples of fundamentalism are found in the first books of the Old Testament, with strict rules covering every aspect of life. Modern examples are not difficult to find in the United Kingdom, in America, in Africa, in fact throughout the world. Often prefaced with “Thou shalt not” the rules show little regard for ideas like tolerance, mercy, understanding, and compassion.
Our consciences are built up by ourselves; moderated, refined, expanded possibly, questioned certainly, as we grow up, mature and acquire different experiences, and meet fresh challenges.
The construction of our own set of values relies upon many sources and influences. In spite of what I said about fundamentalism, external rules formulated over time by society at large must help to form the structure. As Harris discovered, when in a maze, help from others is not to be scorned. To think arrogantly we are wiser than everyone else leads to humiliation. A starting point is the right of others to life, to freedom, to be able to fulfil their hopes and aspirations, as we would wish to fulfil ours. But that is a broad sweep and we gradually add conditions. Freedom, we may feel, has to be conditional on not denying it to others. The oppressor, whether operating on a national or a family scale, may have to be resisted, even lose his or her freedom. We have to face in reality a whole number of questions around such questions as self-defence, euthanasia, abortion, and medical intervention, amongst them.
The law of the land also impinges as we build up our own set of values. Do we, for example, pay our taxes in full, or do we put our money into tax havens abroad? Maybe not illegal, but folk will divide on the morality. That question might not arise for anyone here this morning, but breaking a traffic rule when late for an appointment might. Does the end justify the means is a question we may have to decide. Was the appointment at the hairdressers, or to conduct a funeral, or maybe to comfort a sick, distressed friend.
Decisions, judgements and reactions to particular circumstances are before us throughout each day. The decisions are often straightforward. I took but a moment in the super-market the other day to decide not to strangle the obnoxious child who was jarring everyone’s nerves. I went for a cup of tea in the café instead. This was partly from fear of the legal consequences, but I insist, mainly through the promptings of conscience. But not all decisions are as simple. Some are deeply divisive, and hotly debated. (Though I think silencing the screaming infant might have won some sympathetic approval).
Apart from Acts of Parliament and society’s rules for civilised behaviour, there are other influences on us as we compile a personal conscience volume that is our reference book for choosing what to do. There are our past experiences as one recalls one’s feelings when others made choices affecting us. We have regrets, we learn from the wisdom, occasionally from the foolishness, of others.
We absorb the thoughts of others; preachers and teachers, statesmen and saints, neighbours, parents, and youth leaders, all may help us to add to that personal code of conduct. The role of religion can be a crucial factor in guiding us to a live honourably, truthfully and mercifully.
But if we are compiling our own code of conduct is there not a system of checks? Teachers in schools, colleges or universities may mark their students exam papers, but, to use technical jargon, external assessors moderate the results to ensure consistency. So there are judgements about our own compilation of ethical standards. I have referred to some – the law, society’s expectations, adhering to the teachings of one’s faith for example. Also crucial is the challenge from those who hold sincere if contrary views.
We listen to the arguments that confront our beliefs, or perhaps they are prejudices. We make our responses, either upholding our view, or modifying it, and
sometimes changing it altogether. Maturity refines our ability to make right choices, but it does more. It increases understanding of human frailty, to judge when tolerance and mercy should guide our opinions.
Many Unitarians have followed a course of discussion and learning titled, Building your own Theology. In the same manner, though it may not be formally called so, we are all involved in building our own conscience.
This is a lifetime, open-ended course, with no end point. There may be, indeed there must be, fixed values within it, but details are ever being added, others dropped, many amended, as fresh problems face up on life’s journey. This process, in my view, is at its most effective when others challenge and compel us to defend our views. The challenges come for me in the framework of religious faith, and in the company of those who also try to lay a sound ethical foundation upon which to build a life of truth.
“I am surprised your conscience let you do that.” But why should I be? Maybe it was my conscience that is at fault.
C. J. Rosling May 2006
Hucklow 7 May 2006
Stannington 9 July 2006