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What does Conscience Mean?

Gini in a Bottle
Al Gini
“What does Conscience Mean?”

According to the Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, a person of character is someone who has a conscience. Unfortunately, to most modern ears, says Zorn, the word conscience” is too abstract, ephemeral, and downright old-fashioned to be used in most conventional conversations. What comes to mind, for a lot of people, is the image of a little person sitting on your shoulder who is whispering in your ear and offering you advice and judgment on the moral goodness or blameworthiness of your actions. Nevertheless, Zorn argued, even though the word is rarely used, its meaning, function, and purpose is neither obsolete nor irrelevant.

The term “conscience” implies care for, concern with, or, at the very least, recognition of others. Our conscience is not just a nagging, fault-finding, superego cop. Conscience is from the Latin conscire, “to be conscience,” “to know.” Conscience is the faculty, the power, the instinct, the ability to reflect on, be sensitive to, evaluate, and make judgments about our interactions with others. It is not an infallible instinct. It is not a perfect emotional buzzer that can always distinguish between right and wrong. It is not a perfect truth detector. But if we are lucky, if we are not totally lost in the emotional maze of our own narcissism, conscience at the very least forces us to ponder our relationships with others and to make judgements about what we consider to be acceptable or unacceptable behavior in their regard. If character is living out what we value, conscience is its inner counterpart, that part of us that makes judgements and evaluations about, when, how, and with whom that value should or should not be applied. Conscience is frequently the first step in making a moral decision, the internal uneasiness that prompts us to ask ourselves some hard questions, which may well take the shape of the following:

• Is it legal?
• Is it right and fair for others as well as myself?
• Can I truthfully defend my decision to others: family, friends, colleagues?
• Would I feel comfortable seeing my action reported in the news media?
• Can I live with my conscience as well as the consequences of my action?
• Am I treating others in the same way that I would treat myself or people I know and love?

In the words of Carol Gilligan, conscience requires us to listen to “other voices.” In 1982 Gilligan published her landmark book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. In Gilligan’s view, caring for others, being responsive to others, and helping others begins with talking and listening to them. According to Gilligan, “the moral person is one who helps others; goodness is service, meeting one’s obligations and responsibilities to others.” For Gilligan, the most basic moral imperative is the “injunction to care, [the] responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world.” According to Gilligan, we are by nature interdependent, not independent, creatures. We have a responsibility to care for and help others, we cannot do nothing. In an ethical predicament, neutrality is unacceptable. In this regard, Gilligan’s thinking may echo Dante’s in the Devine Comedy: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

To lift a page from a much older tradition, one might say that Gilligan saw all of us as having a responsibility to be a mensch. The word “mensch” (rhymes with bench) is Yiddish (a language written in Hebrew letters with primarily but not exclusively a German vocabulary). A mensch is a person of character, and individual of recognized worth and behavior. James Atlas says a mensch is a person of fundamental decency, a person of high values and standards. A mensch is both compassionate and proactive in her relationships with others. She tries to so the right thing, for the right reason, purposefully. A mensch is not a saint or a hero or always perfect in conduct, but she does always see her life in the context of others and, when necessary, in the service of others. Perhaps, the concept of mensch is best understood by offering an example of its converse. In the words of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the fictional Botswanian female detective of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame, “He was a bad man, a selfish man who never once put himself out for another—not even his wife.”

Of course being a person of character is an ongoing activity and not a one-time affair or an episodic experience. Ethical character is formed over time and can withstand the test of time. Character, like a skill or art form, must be practiced to be perfected and maintained. And yet some mistakes, some actions, some behavior, intended or not, can change our lives and our reputations forever. As Warren Buffet said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation for character and five minutes to ruin it.”

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