We All Speak of “Conscience”—But Are We Talking About the Same Thing?

“Conscience” keeps popping up in contemporary political and ethical debate. Think Hobby Lobby and the offended consciences of those who would deny contraceptive coverage to their employees. Think about minimal religious exemptions to President Obama’s executive order on equal hiring practices that sent the U.S. Catholic bishops into paroxysms of scruples. What is this thing called “conscience” anyway?

Many a substantial intellect has tried to find the roots and essence of conscience as a key to unlocking the depths of human experience. Philosopher Simone Weil came to believe that some communal responsibilities trumped personal choices. Political theorist Hannah Arendt pushed for critical reflection and tagged remorse as one manifestation of conscience. Law professor Robert P. George laments “Conscience and Its Enemies” in his 2013 eponymous book. He writes as if conscience were a beleaguered Republican member of Congress. I prefer to think of it as the name we give to our individual and collective efforts to make good moral choices. Every generation seems to struggle with this concept reflecting the prevailing winds of their time in how they think about it.

There is a general trend today toward imagining conscience as a thing, a kind of moral hard drive, or an ethical GPS that shows the way—indeed often offering several options on how to get there. Such metaphors reflect contemporary experience of things that function seemingly by magic and contribute to an orderly society. But they do not change the reification of conscience, thinking about it as a thing that exists rather than a process in which we are engaged. These images reinforce the “garbage in, garbage out” dynamic that makes computers so remarkable, and at the same time so finicky. The ill-fated roll out of the Affordable Care Act insurance plans gives new meaning to computer glitches; can conscience be any less problematic insofar as its product also reflects its input? The process of making moral choices holds more promise than the mechanized view.

It is a bit of a parlor trick to expound on conscience, left, right, or center, without acknowledging that the concept is amorphous at best. It’s hard to think of another dimension of human life for which there are philosophical, neurological, and theological explanations, as well as speculations from evolutionary biology and moral reasoning, all of which describe the elephant by its tail and trunk but never really name the animal. Remarkably, there is still no general agreement as to whether conscience is given or constructed, essential or accidental, something real or simply a placeholder we insert when needed for a reasonable explanation of behavior.

Conscience frequently functions as a moral proxy in the toughest equations of human life. Recourse to conscience is a common strategy in moral decision-making. When all other arguments fail, many people, especially those who are religious, fall back on the notion that conscience is a sacrosanct dimension of human life, that which guides and shapes one’s choices. Religions take differing approaches to what forms a conscience, but there is still a rather strict one-to-one correspondence between input and expected result. The prevailing view is if one shapes a child in a faith tradition then one can expect to produce an adult who will act accordingly, though lots of evidence debunks that myth.

The Conscience Monologues: Women Stories of Conscience within the Catholic Church, directed by Lindsay Porter and written by Liz Deligio and Mary Ellen Madden and sponsored by the 8th Day Center in Chicago offers some counterexamples to the prevailing view. In the style of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, these vignettes reflect some of the conundrums of contemporary Catholic life. For instance, they include struggles with sexuality and abortion that pit women against structures and teachings that they’ve had no input into creating. The composite stories that make up the characters in the play are mostly women who have been brought up asking Catholic kinds of questions. But their consistent choices for other than institutional Roman Catholic Church moral policy—whether the nun who worked with a hospital ethics committee to allow a life-saving abortion in a Catholic hospital, or the woman who embraces her call to priestly ministry—reveal that conscience-based decisions quite often end up as the opposite of what one is taught.

The working definition of conscience for this play is “The still small voice within each person; a soul voice that speaks from our essence and guides our lives.” Many will resonate with that definition. However, I sense that there’s a lot more at stake that would be helpful to recognize lest we diminish or ignore aspects of conscience that are important.

What about the stomach-churning, head-pulsing messages we get in certain situations in which the only good option is to go ahead and break with tradition? What about the righteous anger that wells when wars are carried out in our name, though we prefer pacifism rather than joining in (and/or paying for) the killing? What about the legacy of those whose lives are a testament to deeply-held-unto-death values, those who self-immolate, or fast to the end for important causes? If all we pay attention to is the “still small voice” we miss enormous clues that have the power to reshape society and culture. Media is a real help in this, sometimes even flagging things as too brutal to show on television. Now there’s a clue about what’s moral!

I counsel against making conscience too small, a dainty thing, part of the private sphere, when conscience has an equally compelling public character. I urge an expansive view of conscience, seeing it as a way to read the big picture, to hear the compelling stories, to react to the major claims for justice. I am not content with the notion that conscience is finally what one person chooses, whereas another might choose something else. Such a mechanistic approach is tempting, but it consigns conscience to a small personal role when I think it plays, or ought to play a bigger, essentially political one. It is a process not a product.

A frequent argument is that on the “big things” like justice and love all Catholics agree. But the pitched battles over sexuality and reproduction that play out in the public arena make clear that such is not the case. Much more is at play including questions of power—especially the power to shape religious teaching itself. Minus that important ingredient, all bets are off as to how closely people will adhere to any group’s teachings—conscience or not. Adjudicating power is an essential part of the process.

In my view, the postmodern ethical task is to get conversations going in which we explore good options without prejudging the outcome. The very construction of conscience as a thing that whispers right answers prevents this more robust approach to hearing a cacophony of questions and options, all of which have their adherents, and among which one picks and chooses for the common good. But getting the conversation started is the hardest part.

The process is not easy. I have received letters from Catholic clerics, for instance, in which they refuse to take part in dialogues because—and they say this quite unselfconsciously—they do not agree at the outset on the conclusions. Wait, what am I missing? Isn’t the point to engage in conversation with people who see the world quite differently and yet still have the same right to shape it? No wonder there are such deep divides in our culture when some of the very people one would expect to have skills to bridge them miss the ethical boat so completely.

My suggestion is that we begin by acknowledging the personal aspects of conscience, but move quickly to explore the collective, process side. The role of moral leaders is not simply to set the moral compass, but to invite others to bring their orienteering tools as well, letting the presumption of the common good ground a process that leads to change. When lots of people put the loud cries of the common good ahead of the little squeaks in their own souls the results may be surprising.