Uncommon Sense

March 29, 2021

You Have a Conscience, Right?

I have been writing about the major axis existing for all sentient social species, that of dividing up our collective responsibilities from our individual responsibilities. In science fiction there are species with “hive minds” in which the individuals are totally subordinate to the collective (think of bees or the Borg). There are also species that are total individualistic. These are, of course, fictional, because we do not see these on Earth, where we are basically the only sentient social species.

I had a bit of a revelation when I heard a recent discussion of what we call our conscience. It was referred to as a subconscious function of our minds but I don’t see it that way. It seems to me that our morality is either taught to us or learned by us and so is like any other knowledge that we acquire. Possibly it is tinged with emotion more than anything else. I am sure you can remember occasions when as a child, you had an inner debate that began with the thought “If I do I am going to get in trouble!” (or feelings that amount to those words). Such thoughts/feelings come from where thoughts come from (which we still don’t know) and are conscious, not subconscious. They may be accompanied by emotional affect (tingling sensation, quivering, shuddering, etc.).

So, what is this “conscience thing”? I suspect it is a label we give our thoughts on issues that fall into the category of morality. I don’t think it is a thing in itself, like curiosity seems to be. It is, in my humble opinion, a social construct, the monitor so to speak of our social compact with one another. This is why in some cultures our consciences include feelings of how to deal with witches and in others this is absent.

So, basically, the fact that we recognize that “having a conscience is a good thing” is a recognition of our collective responsibilities to one another. It is rare, I suggest, that our consciences provide any guidance for us when the only person affected by the triggering action is us ourselves. Some claim that individual responsibilities come up in such a context religiously, but I suggest that those are collective feelings brought about by the teachings of a religious community. It is not a god which is the enforcer of our behavior but the approval or disapproval of those in our religious community. This is supported by the wide variations of what is acceptable behavior in various religions.

What this amounts to, if my supposition is correct (that our conscience is a monitor of our collective responsibility of others), is that if a matter impinges upon one’s conscience, then the responsibility is communal, not individual. If you see a child suffering because his/her parents’ cannot afford to take them to a doctor and you “feel bad” about that (empathy) but also pangs of conscience, then you are acknowledging that this is an area that belongs under our collective responsibilities and not just an individual responsibility.

Of course, there is no such thing as complete honesty when sharing feelings, consciences, etc.

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