Our conscience is an extension of our emotional attitudes toward specific situations. For example, most people’s conscience will inform them that abuse is unacceptable. We’d like to think that without a conscience we would still treat other people with respect and dignity. However, psychology seems to indicate that although our conscience can be informed by experiences and learning, what ultimately determines how we react to situations is our emotions.
For example, a person can see a child being bullied and, hopefully, feel obligated to intervene. Without a conscience, they might know they “should” intervene. However, our conscience and our emotions are what make us function as human beings. A computer has a specific process it undergoes to ensure it completes its objectives. If the computer is not properly functioning, it can receive communications about what it should do, but it still is unable to perform those tasks. Similarly, our conscience operates as a means to act on what we believe to be moral and just.
There are dangers associated with ignoring our conscience. For one, we will feel guilty if we do this. For instance, my conscience tells me to give the homeless people I see some sort of assistance, and I feel guilty when I do not. If we ignore our conscience too often, we can become hardened people. We need to allow our conscience to operate. The infamous character Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens ignores his conscience. When he is reminded of its importance, he becomes a much better and happier man.
Sometimes we have to keep our conscience under control, too. For instance, I felt obligated to be generous as a child. People quickly saw this and took advantage of my situation. I still felt like I should give them what they wanted. However, I slowly realized that I was being used, and I eventually stopped feeling bad for denying them. In fact, I felt good for standing up for myself.
Additionally, people mistakenly believe the conscience is fixed. Evidence suggests this is not the case because people regularly change how they feel about actions. Vegetarians previously felt fine about eating meat, but they might change their mind and feel guilty if they do so. A child soldier is indoctrinated to feel his actions are good, but if they are fortunate enough to escape that life, they will likely change their attitude.
It’s important to listen to your conscience. There are times where I ignored my conscience, and I felt terribly guilty. In fact, I have ignored my conscience only to later realize I did the right thing “despite how I felt at the time.” I still felt terrible because I had went against my conscience, and some people might argue you should do so occasionally. I’m not sure where I stand on that issue, but it’s certainly makes me feel better listening to my conscience.
Even though our conscience guides our decisions, we must carefully evaluate our actions with our intellect as well. Throughout history, many people have had their conscience guide them towards horrendous courses of action. It’s important for us to stop and think about our conscience. It’s designed to make us feel certain we are correct, but we should remember that our conscience is often mistaken. The truth of what is right and wrong is determined by reason not our gut. The conscience is the fuel to act. The mind should provide the destination.