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Why some people have no conscience


by Clifford Pitt 18.AUG.06

An old lady in the village, during my youth, missed her only goat a few days before Christmas. She had kept it under her board house which was raised on wooden stilts.

Word quickly spread about her loss and one villager, with tears in his eyes, went to offer his sympathies. Later that day, he was in jail. It was he who had eaten her goat.

How can anyone do such a dastardly thing? We say such a person has no conscience. We may think the same of persons who are now reaping other people’s crops and stealing their animals.{{more}}

So what is conscience and why do some people seem not to have one?

Many people say that conscience is the voice of God. If this were true, it would mean that those who do not hear the voice of God do not have a conscience. But there are many people who claim no real connection with God but seem to have a conscience, and many who are regular church-goers who seem not to have one. Others say conscience is the echo of the voice of God. If that is so, some people must be hearing a really messed up echo.

Conscience is neither the voice of God nor the echo of the voice of God. It is a mode of operation of the intellect, sensibility and will. It involves the mind, feelings and will. It never tells us what to do, or what not to do. Instead, it tells us that we ought to do what is right and ought not to do what is wrong. When we do not obey its voice, it beats us up. We feel badly. This is where sensibility comes in, for sensibility is feeling.

No skin off their noses

But one person can do something and feel very badly about it afterwards, while another can do the same thing and it is no skin off his nose. He does not feel a thing. How is this possible? It is because each person’s intellect has the responsibility of choosing the standard that is the frame of reference for his or her conscience. That is where the problem lies.

We do not all choose the same standard. Right or wrong for each person is related to the standard s/he chooses.

A man I know told me that he found a young man coming out of his house in broad daylight, with something that belonged to him. He asked the youth why he was taking his possession and he responded, “Man, I only tek one”. So there was more than one and as long as he took only one, he had no problem with his conscience. He was a modern day Robin Hood, robbing the rich to help the poor (himself). The standard chosen by his intellect, dictated that he could help himself as long as it was “live and let live”.

For some, the standard is “If what I do does not hurt anyone, I have done nothing wrong.” For others, the standard is lower. It could be “You hurt me; I hurt you back”, even if it means killing you. This will explain why the person who chooses the moral law of God as her standard, suffers severe pangs of conscience if she commits fornication or adultery, while it causes no grief to another. On the contrary, it may cause great pleasure. Some may even advocate that there is nothing wrong with having such fun and say such self expression is to be encouraged as long as one takes proper precautions to avoid pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. For many, pregnancy out of wedlock is not a factor.

The question then is whether one’s standard should be relevant to time and circumstances or whether it should be absolute. I heard a law professor of a class in Constitutional Law tell his class that when he was in the army, he stole cans of food from army stores to feed his family. For him, his family had to eat one way or another. Another would choose death, dishonour or any suffering rather than defile the soul by breaking the moral law of God.

The power of choice

So the intellect chooses the standard, and the feelings come into play when we do what we ought not to do. The remaining member of the triad is the will. The will involves our power to choose and power to act on our choice. Because of the natural depravity of mankind, we may have power to choose, but not the power to always act on our choices, for we are held in bondage to our total past experience and even the proclivities passed down to us through several generations of ancestors.

The crucial question for morality is, what standard should we choose and how should we deal with the tendency to do wrong, with our consciences beating us up again and again? If human beings are to live in a secure society, it will be helpful if we choose a standard that is absolute. Choosing standards that are relative is the reason for court houses, judges, lawyers and a penal system. They fine us or lock us away when we trespass on the rights of others.

The question of how to deal with our own tendencies is a bigger problem. Every thought and action results in a transient state. When those thoughts and/or actions are repeated over and over again, transient states turn into permanent states that are denominated character. The only way to change a permanent state that is bad is to change our thoughts and actions every time we are tempted to think or do something bad. The problem is that the natural depravity of our nature does not encourage or enable such a change.

There is need for a motivating force to consistently move us in the direction of right thoughts and actions. It has to come from outside of ourselves. Devotees of non-Christian religions claim to find it in the esoteric knowledge of their faith or in discipleship to a great personage.

Christians find it in the transforming power of a Christ who died for them and says “Now that I have given all for you, you owe it to me to make a living sacrifice of yourself and all that you are and have. I provide the power that can transform you into the very image of God.”

So everyone has a conscience, but the standard by which the conscience is guided is so low for some people, that for all practical purposes, they seem to have none.