The powerful little voice within

SUN JOURNAL

Conscience: Springing from divine law or from the wisdom of human society, we possess a personal knowledge of right and wrong.

May 30, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

My conscience has a thousand several tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.

-- Shakespeare, Richard III

When seemingly ordinary people commit unspeakable crimes, anguished onlookers ask: How could they? How could an American teen-ager gun down his classmates as casually as he might annihilate cartoon enemies on a video screen? How could Serbian militiamen, at the orders of Serbian leaders, methodically slaughter and rape villagers in Kosovo?

One direction to look for answers is inward, at the disturbed individual psyche, whether reflected in the Internet rantings of Eric Harris before his shooting rampage at a Colorado high school or in the troubled childhood of Slobodan Milosevic, whose parents both committed suicide. The opposite direction to look is outward, at the larger society -- the American culture of guns and media violence, for instance, or the noxious brew of ethnocentrism and historical myth that simmers in Yugoslavia.

Conscience, as a society's values voiced in the individual mind, encompasses both directions. It is an old concept that still has relevance at the end of a bloody century that has seen breathtaking technological progress -- and no obvious moral progress.

The word is derived from the Latin word "conscientia" -- literally, "with knowledge" -- suggesting a kind of knowledge or wisdom that is always with us. Cicero described conscientia as an inner voice that speaks with greater authority than any kind of public approval; his metaphor of the "bite" (Latin "remorsus") of conscience gave birth to the English word "remorse."

Christian theologians took up the notion, portraying conscience as an inner witness to divine law, a reliable guide to right and wrong.

"The Apostle Paul saw conscience as natural law, a law written into our very being by the creator," says the Rev. Robert M. Friday, a Christian ethicist at Catholic University in Washington. Traditionally, the church has seen conscience not as the voice of God, he says, but as something not far removed: "the deep interior voice of the person in conversation with his conception of God."

A more secular definition also developed, suggesting that conscience was a product of human society, not divine or natural law. As early as the 16th century, the French philosopher Montaigne declared: "The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom."

In this century Sigmund Freud proposed a still more diminished definition of conscience, which he called "superego." Freud said it was merely the internalized voice of the parents, an echo of your mother telling you, "No!"

Today, most experts on human development believe that conscience is shaped not just by parents, but by the broader culture of family and teachers, peers and the media.

"One way of looking at conscience is that it's our collective wisdom about how to live," says Lawrence M. Hinman, professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego. "It's a social thing."

Thus conscience is not some infallible moral compass, but a collection of values learned and imitated from infancy on. It is a mirror that can reflect the distortions of a family troubled by violent abuse or of a society warped by prejudice.

"The voice you internalize may have that blind spot for nationalism," says Hinman, who directs the university's Values Institute, which has recently held forums on school shootings and Kosovo. And in the rare case of an extreme sociopath, there may be no voice at all, he says.

Since World War II, the study of human conscience has unfolded in the long shadow of the Holocaust. Many psychologists have explored the extremes of human conduct.

A memorable example was the work in the early 1960s of the late Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale University. In Milgram's experiment, volunteers were directed by a white-coated "scientist" to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to human "subjects," purportedly as part of a scientific study. The "shocks" were not real, but the volunteers didn't know it; the "subjects" were instructed to mimic pain and plead for mercy.

A panel of psychologists and psychiatrists predicted that most people would stop at 150 volts, when the "subject" would first ask to be released. In fact, none stopped at 150 volts and nearly two-thirds proceeded past 450 volts, the level they had been told was potentially lethal.

"What it showed was that ordinary people in certain circumstances are capable of doing absolutely hideous things, especially if directed to do it by an authority figure," says Aubrey Immelman, a professor of psychology at St. John's University in Minnesota.

It's not that such people don't hear the voice of conscience, he says. But the voice that advises against hurting others is drowned out by another voice, one counseling obedience to authority.

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