28 August 2020

   I was raised in a “nice” family. Although my folks always tried to be agreeable, and to treat others with respect, we kids never got any specific training in “right” and “wrong,” or how to behave toward others. Despite the lack of instruction, I almost always had a sense of how I thought I ought to act. I didn’t always follow my senses, but I still knew when I was doing something that seemed “wrong.” All my life, I’ve assumed that was because of my Conscience.

   “Conscience” was never defined for me, but its presumed reality was illustrated by maxims like “Let your conscience be your guide,”  and statements like “My conscience is clear.” I assumed that all humans had a conscience, that it was strong enough in everyone to affect behavior, and that in some ways it separated us from all the other animals, which I considered (probably incorrectly) could only react in a way that satisfied their immediate needs – no good or bad, just survival.

   A corollary to the belief in Conscience – one that many of our parents taught us, and that we in turn taught our children – is that most people are fundamentally Good, that anybody can err on occasion,  but that real Badness is rare. Probably, believing in this concept has kept a lot of us from falling into deep despair, when life seemed anything but fundamentally Good.

    Now, in old age, I wonder if I’ve been wrong about both Conscience and the degree of Good in people. These are questions that have been growing in my mind for a long time, but have been greatly strengthened in recent years. No matter what I believe – whether it’s in politics, religion, economics, social mores – it seems like about half the American people believe differently – and not just nuanced differently, but almost the exact reverse of what I think. I’d like to say that I’m right and they’re wrong, but I’m sure they feel just the opposite. It seems like we live in parallel, but separate, universes when it comes to letting a presumed Conscience be our guide.

   I’m thinking that maybe there isn’t a species-specific, universal gauge of right and wrong. Or maybe there is, but it’s a lot weaker than I thought, and much easier to override, depending on individual response to economics, politics, religion, fear, education, or any of a host of other influences. Or, here’s a thought: maybe we’ve learned to adapt our “conscience” to match our beliefs, rather than basing our beliefs on our conscience. (We’ve seen this happen with religions: we start out following some “god,” but eventually figure out how to make this “god” our mouthpiece, rather than our leader.)

    If there never was such a thing as an innate human Conscience, I think over time we developed in our country an organic group-think that operated in society in much the way that my individual right-wrong meter works. We didn’t always do “the right thing,” and in our early years as a nation (considering our treatment of slavery and Native Americans, for example), our “compromises” completely eclipsed our moral compass. Later, we became “smart enough” collectively to know when certain differences had to be set aside (temporarily, at least), and certain things done to preserve our union. We did preserve it but, as recent events clearly show, our “collective conscience” has been a poor substitute for “doing the right thing.”

    If we ever really had a national conscience, I fear it’s gone. The question for me now is, is it possible to recover what I think we once had and to really bring ourselves together? I have a feeling that, as individuals, we’re beyond the point at which we can put societal issues ahead of our own wants and fears.




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