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Conscience and “The Good Life”

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By David Elmore

September 23, 2017

 

A very real and immensely disturbing aspect of the human mind is that it can blithely commit immoral actions and simultaneously attempt to morally justify the action.
The Antifa brutes believe they are justified in physically silencing alleged fascists, thereby violating the moral right to free speech. The criminals at the shoe store may be thinking they are “underprivileged” and have a “right” to get what’s “rightfully theirs.”

After watching a dozen urban hoodlums gleefully break into and then ransack a shoe store in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during Hurricane Irma’s mayhem, I again heard myself saying, “Those sons-o’-bitches don’t even have a conscience!”

I’ve thought the same thing over the last year while watching the “Antifa” savages pummel innocent opponents, or anytime Hillary Clinton is spinning yet another fabrication on national TV, or when hearing of a neighbor walking up the street at twilight and stealing pretty flowers from another neighbor’s front yard and planting them in her yard.

Each of these people, no doubt, rationalized their crooked actions—or gave no moral thought to the actions at all (sociopathic).

A very real and immensely disturbing aspect of the human mind is that it can blithely commit immoral actions and simultaneously attempt to morally justify the action.

The Antifa brutes believe they are justified in physically silencing alleged fascists, thereby violating the moral right to free speech—and refusing to see the irony of violating rights while professing to stand for rights.

The criminals at the shoe store may be thinking they are “underprivileged” and have a “right” to get what’s “rightfully theirs” when the getting is good (nine of them have been arrested, as of this writing)—thereby violating the moral right to property.

Clinton thinks that any Machiavellian means is necessary and proper to achieve ultimate power, wherein she will allegedly achieve the ultimate (fascist) “good”—violating the moral principle of honesty and, eventually, the right to body and property of citizens.
 

The separation (or absence) of conscience from action can be astonishing and immensely disturbing.

If none of the above perpetrators is an absolute sociopath, then each was using some sort of rationalization to justify action. They were deferring to some mental thought of “should”—some paradigm of “ought” in their minds, e.g. “I’m a victim, and victims can do as they please;” e.g. “I’m the only person who can save America, so lies aren’t really lies;” e.g. “I like that flower. They have too many flowers. I don’t have enough. I should take this flower. It’s only fair.”

But is the mental “ought” paradigm of these people a “conscience” guiding them—or is “conscience” something else entirely? Is it objective or subjective? What is a person’s “conscience”?

If we go by the standard definition for “conscience,” then it would appear that each of the above miscreants was indeed acting on conscience. With the standard definition, it is subjective: “An inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior.”

Is conscientiousness subjective or objective?

But no decent person would even think that the above people were “acting on conscience” or “being conscientious.” They were lying and stealing. But those who have similar rationales for such actions would sympathize and probably say that they were obviously being conscientious—that what was committed was not just OK, but actually fantastic and just.

So who is right? Is conscientiousness subjective or objective? Is the conscience defined as that which guides objectively good action or any action considered good by the subject? I think the term “guilty conscience” hints at the proper definition, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

I think the human conscience is an objective guide, but that it can only be called “conscience” when it is being objective about reality, promoting objective happiness, and fairness. Here’s my definition:

 

Conscience is the mental depository of moral conclusions, based upon a rational identification and integration of reality, and used as an objective guide to moral action in the pursuit of happiness and fairness.

 

In other words, it is an explicitly objective set of conclusions that rational beings have conceptualized, deposited, and automated and consciously refer to in all experiences requiring moral judgment and action.

The conscience is our rational “ought engine.”

If we’ve been diligent about our moral depository, it will guide us in all of our major “ought” decisions concerning our values, including our work (“Am I working hard enough?”), our interactions with others (“I must tell my friend the truth.”), our focus in any particular moment of life (“Should I give this more thought?”).

It is also, I think, a major aspect of our human identity—one of the primary essences we perceive in another human in their face, words, actions, and bearing. But that is perhaps the subject of another article.

The conscience embodies a set of principles linked directly to the objectively good values of life. If we’ve been diligent about our moral depository, it will guide us in all of our major “ought” decisions concerning our values, including our work (“Am I working hard enough?”), our interactions with others (“I must tell my friend the truth.”), our focus in any particular moment of life (“Should I give this more thought?”).

The reason I say “major” ought decisions is that the conscience is not necessarily involved in “minor” ought decisions, such as “I think I want another cup of coffee” or “I’m going to give my daughter a big kiss on the forehead” or “I need to mow my yard.”

(I say “necessarily” because conscience would come into play if the above examples became “major”, such as the coffee decision having to do with a plan to drink less coffee to ensure good health, or the daughter needing a kiss because of being put-upon by others recently, or the lawn having grown to limits that may violate a homeowners’ association rule on grass limits.)

Each of the above three “minor” scenarios is a simple ought situation. You think you should be doing that particular thing instead of another thing (coffee instead of tea or nothing at all). You are sending yourself into action to achieve a “quick” or “small” value that you think you should be achieving. Every single action in life is an ought action—a purposeful decision of should—even standing up to go to the bathroom instead of remaining on the couch in bladder misery. Nothing we do is without “ought.” Every act is purposeful, and purpose implies ought, with a value (goal) in mind.

 
This delineation between major and minor ought actions is, admittedly, arguable. It could be argued that absolutely every single objectively good action towards a value in life is determined by conscientiousness of values—even the conscious understanding that another cup of coffee will make us very happy.

But I think the common parlance of “conscience” being related to “important” things, “high” values, is generally a good thing. I’m pretty sure that everyone attending a party would erupt giggling if someone were to say, “I just love how conscientious Bob is about getting another cup of coffee.” Ha!

So where is the “conscience” line drawn?

It’s tempting to say that an action becomes conscientious at the point of “I know it when I see it”—as a U.S. Supreme Court justice famously said concerning the definition of “obscenity” in 1964.

But, instead, I think the clue to identifying “conscience” is to head back to the definition, specifically “moral conclusions.” What are those “big” rational conclusions about what we should do broadly in life? How should we generally conduct ourselves, both inwardly (introspectively) and outwardly (extrospectively) in a tangible, understandable existence in which happiness, self-esteem and fairness are the ends?

This appears to be the conscience talking, so to speak—this mental “conclusions” template of the just life, the good life.

Here are examples of some of those moral conclusions a rational person would have in their mental depository that guide living happily (personal) and fairly (others):

  • 1) I should find work that is creative, demanding and immensely satisfying
  • 2) I should always be honest with myself and with others in free association
  • 3) I should enjoy my emotions and even examine them, to ensure that they are coming from a good place—and if not, correct my thinking and actions
  • 4) I should not accept any proposition from others unless I deem it rational
  • 5) I should fully honor the rights of others to their bodies and property and expect them to honor mine
  • 6) I should create a hierarchy of high-level values and pursue them diligently
  • 7) I should always be rational
  • 8) I should assiduously examine my values and actions to ensure integrity and proper pride
  • 9) I should only have friends who respect me
  • 10) I should always be just with myself and with others

 

Our mental depository (our ought engine) of moral conclusions is considerably more expansive than the list above, but it gives an idea of the “bigness” of conscientiousness and its broad guidance of thought and action.

I think it’s interesting also that the above list aligns well with philosopher Ayn Rand’s itemized breakdown of rationality (independence, productivity, honesty, integrity, justice, pride) and her definition of the principal of individual rights—with the corollary of fully owning one’s body and property.

I said earlier that once moral conclusions are determined and integrated, they are automated. What I mean by that is that they become in our mind “standing orders” for our conduct. (Mental “standing orders” was a phrase coined by philosopher Harry Binswanger.) These rational standing orders guide our actions in all major moral situations.

We see an abandoned shoe store in a hurricane, and our standing order says, “That store and those shoes are rightfully the property of someone else, and I will not even think of violating their right to their property.”

We are running for political office. Our standing order says, “Politics should only be about protecting individual rights, so that is why I will run, and I will be honest at all times about my intent in what I say and do.”

We see our neighbors have planted and grown some wonderful flowers. As we are basking in their beauty, we think, “Those are their flowers and their property, so I would not think of taking them and not only violating their property rights, but also slighting their hard work in planting the flowers.”

 
Without a referential set of rational moral conclusions in our mind (conscience), the above three paragraphs of thought are literally impossible to accomplish (as shown by the hurricane looters, Clinton, and the neighbor lady). The potentially noble mind has been turned into a near-savage’s mind, capable of extremities of immorality with little or no bounds. The conscience of early childhood, if any, has withered into barrenness or extinction. The situational guidepost is gone.

So, if the actions of savages are not guided by a true conscience, what are those “standing orders” in their minds? Are they conclusions as well?

Yes, they are irrational conclusions—not based on reality but becoming a metaphysical mental reality. They are, as one of my college professors liked to say, “perfumed puffery”—subjectively nice-smelling nothingness. They are representations of a mind no longer interested in introspective discovery of right and wrong, mostly or utterly debased by mental “drift,” as Rand would say.

The conceptual nature of humans requires that we have something in our minds guiding us in our actions, some standing orders to refer to always in big moral situations. This requirement led early civilizations to manufacture religions—and eventually to obedience to artificial standing orders (kill disobedient children, don’t judge your enemies, slay the infidel, believe without facts, etc.).
 

But obedience is not morality or conscience, which must be arrived at by an assiduous discerning of reality, including determining the rational nature of humans and the necessary rational actions needed for that nature to be happy and confident. The conscience is developed. It is not copied and pasted from books or preaching, easily discarded or acted on without rationally developed conclusions.

The immoral conclusions of savages, both religious and non-religious, are simply random mental orders absorbed from culture, church and home—undigested and without reference to what is real in life. Even abiding by the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” isn’t conscience if it’s simply an obedience command, instead of a principle discerned and understood by the rational mind, which knows why we shouldn’t murder innocents (rights). The mind with a conscience always knows why.

An interesting aspect of the mental derelicts is that they still have a residual aspect of a conscience, buried in their minds from a time when they knew right from wrong. You can see it in their guilty faces and conduct after committing an immoral act.

If a thieving neighbor is truly proud of taking the other neighbor’s flowers, or had prior permission to take a few, she would hold them up for others to see and smile benevolently, instead of glancing sideways, hiding her face in shame, and becoming sullen that someone noticed her immoral act unless she’d slipped fully down the slope of mental drift all the way to the level of sociopath.

 
Sociopaths are a macabre, and thankfully relatively rare, instance of the drifting human mind that has fully disconnected itself from reality and reasoning. Even the once residual conscience has been fully abandoned to the depths of oblivion.

I bring up the sociopath only as a measure of conscience. There are two extremes to conscience: fully, rationally, and happily integrated with reality at one end, and utterly disconnected from reality at the other end.

The vast predominance of human beings reside somewhere in the middle: telling “white lies”; hitting children for “obedience’s sake”; stealing “small” things through rogue Internet sites because “it’s not like I’m breaking into a store”; withholding proper judgment; claiming “racial character”; demanding government “welfare” to take care of the “needy”; stopping contraception secretly to get pregnant with an oblivious partner; blowing leaves onto a neighbor’s lawn; throwing trash out of the car window; not doing chores; “working for the weekend”; cheating on a partner; drinking too much; falsely saying “I love you”; and committing other acts of immorality daily.

Unfortunately, this vast predominance of humanity has no conscious understanding of their compromises on rationality throughout their lives. They have no idea that they are acting without conscience, that they have accepted ideas without first checking them against the facts. Outside of the sociopath, they believe they are acting conscientiously, which makes conversation with them on many topics and many actions very difficult. This is a primary reason for bad marriages and failed friendships.
 

But the good life—the really good life—requires a conscience. It is a mental rock in storms of arguments and value decisions. It is a constant reminder of one’s fairness, with oneself and with others. It’s the always-reliable mental Sherpa guide in every big moral moment of one’s life, which one feels good about from the moment one’s eyes open in the morning until the goodnight kiss at bedtime.

Revisiting the irrational conclusions in their minds is extraordinarily difficult and would require a worldview change towards unflinching reason—and potentially away from almost everyone they currently know and rely upon. Neither party in such a relationship has much use for the other anymore. The conscientious person finds the other to be tedious and untrustworthy, and the person with a compromised conscience finds the other an affront and “judgmental.”

But the good life—the really good life—requires a conscience. It is a mental rock in storms of arguments and value decisions. It is a constant reminder of one’s fairness, with oneself and with others. It’s the always-reliable mental Sherpa guide in every big moral moment of one’s life, which one feels good about from the moment one’s eyes open in the morning until the goodnight kiss at bedtime.

It is the measure in others by which we gauge them as human. It is our universal reference point in our mind, always available for us when we need it. Our sacred and unique depository. It is a part of our identity that we can rightfully be fully proud of and keep as our tried and trusted friend in life.
 

 

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