The Fragile Moral Compass: Reflections On the Constructed, Relative, and Changeable Nature of the Conscience

By Adam J. Pearson

The conscience is a personal and social construction. As a social construction, the conscience is the product of internalizing a set of moral codes. A given culture within a given social group states that certain actions are good, right, permissible, or obligatory and others are bad, wrong, impermissible, and blameworthy and the individual internalizes these categorizations. She then judges her own behaviour relative to these internalized standards and feels guilty when she does things that the moral code deems wrong and feels pleasure when she does things that the moral code deems right or praiseworthy.

There are many possible socially-constructed consciences. Not only even religion, but every denomination thereof, every political ideology, and every creed has an associated conscience that an individual can construct if she internalizes it and adheres to its beliefs. Any belief system with moral categories for right and wrong, good and bad actions, can give rise to a conscience if internalized. Such consciences are ‘socially constructed’ because they are constructed by and within particular groups of people. Sometimes, the internalization of a given type of conscience is a criterion for being accepted as a member of a group. A Christian is expected to be a person with a Christian conscience and to act accordingly. Failure to do so can result in ostracism from the group.

There is also a sense in which consciences can be personally constructed, however. If an individual develops her own set of designations for what is considered acceptable and unacceptable, right and wrong, or good and bad behaviour, then she can develop a conscience based on this idiosyncratic moral code. The ‘promptings of conscience’ are simply a measure of the extent to which an individual’s behaviour matches up with her beliefs about what are ‘good actions’ and what are ‘bad actions.’

To act according to one’s conscience is, in this case, entirely a relative matter. Indeed, the very feeling of guilt itself is a product of the particular conscience one has constructed. Most believe that killing innocent people is fundamentally wrong and were they to do it, would feel tremendous guilt. However, others see nothing wrong in killing innocent people; when they do it, they feel no guilt whatsoever. This phenomenon is a product of the relativity of the conscience. Because their internalized moral code or set of moral categorizations does not classify killing the innocent as wrong, guilt does not arise for them when they kill innocent people. Most sociopaths, for instance, generally do not believe that using other people as objects to satisfy their own personal desires is at all problematic; they feel no guilt or remorse when they use others. This phenomenon, too, is an expression of relative nature of consciences.

All consciences are either personally constructed or socially constructed and, as such, are fundamentally relative to either individuals or social groups. There is no universal conscience common to all human beings. There are many consciences of different kinds, each of which is relative to a different set of moral codes. Moreover, not only is there no universal conscience, there is also no permanent conscience; the conscience within an individual can change over time. For example, a person can grow up Roman Catholic and feel that sexuality is something dirty for which they should feel guilty. Then, in their later years, they can begin to question their faith and the moral codes and socially-constructed conscience that go along with it. If they reject these moral codes and develop a different personal conscience, it is very possible that the very same action that one gave rise to tremendous guilt will now give rise to none at all.

Indeed, there are many cases throughout history in which people have transformed their consciences for better and for worse. Killers have reformed themselves and set their behaviour in line with different moral codes by which killing is wrong. Conversely, people that previously believed that killing was wrong can come to believe it acceptable and to kill without guilt. Consciences are not fixed in stone; they can flip from one side to the other. The very same action that gave rise to guilt relative to one form of conscience can give rise to guilt-free pleasure relative to another. In short, consciences are either personally or socially-constructed, intrinsically relative, and changeable, even, in many cases, fragile.

There is no universal moral compass or law within us all; there are many possible moral compasses, each incredibly fragile, and with the terrifying power to lead us in countless contradictory directions.


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