A clear conscience is a soft pillow— old German proverb
A friend recently asked me as a minister to help her better understand the term “conscience.” I was unsatisfied with my somewhat rambling, overly theological definition. I wish I had simply referred her to the story of Pinocchio, that little wooden puppet made famous by the 1940 Disney film. As moviegoers recall, every time Pinocchio told a lie, his nose grew longer, ultimately creating a major mobility challenge.
Yet Pinocchio was not without hope. A tiny helper arrives in the person of Jiminy Cricket. This winsome little creature serves as Pinocchio’s conscience, gently whispering into his ear, offering guidance to steer the puppet toward right choices. Naturally, as we expect from a feel-good Disney movie, all ends well. (By contrast, in the original 1881 novel by Carlo Collodi, an unrepentant Pinocchio is hanged for his misdeeds. Wikipedia.)
Is everyone born with a “Jiminy Cricket” to guide them toward right choices? Like Pinocchio, does our facial expression betray us when we are telling a lie? What is “conscience” and how does it develop? Like most complex questions, the answer depends from which perspective we are examining the issue.
It was the 17th century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who famously defined conscience as that “God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man—.” He believed that God has placed within each human an empty space which is then to be filled with religious truth and morality. Through church teaching and life experience, we become fully equipped to discern right from wrong. Choosing the good leads to a feeling of spiritual well-being and inner peace—like sleeping comfortably on that soft pillow. Choosing a wrong path triggers a heavy sense of guilt and a resultant restless night.
As a Christian, Pascal recognized that no one could always remain free of wrongdoing and resultant guilt. His understanding of God including the concept of receiving forgiveness and restoration of a clear conscience.
From an evolutionary perspective, many anthropologists believe conscience developed as a necessary genetic tool within the early human mind to help ensure successful living in tribal community. It balanced another innate drive toward violence and warfare. Freud furthered this concept by describing the “superego,” an unconscious component of personality which serves to offset the powerful, unconscious, raw, primal drives of the “id.” in Freudian psychoanalysis, conscience becomes one component of the superego.
It is important to remember that conscience does not automatically lead to right choices but, rather, it informs us about the better path to follow, based on our learned and internalized values and ethics. Acting out of free will, we then make the decision to follow that path—or not. Putting it more simply, we know from parental teaching we should not steal a cookie from the cookie jar, but we may impulsively still do so because it tastes delicious.
By definition, a criminal psychopath lacks conscience and feels remorse only for getting caught. Many years ago, as a rookie parole officer, I was an easy “mark” for the cons on my caseload. The Bible describes how a conscience can become so “seared” by neglect and lack of use that so that it no longer functions (I Timothy 4:2.)
In my Christian counselling practice, I spent many hours helping some clients to let go of “false guilt,” which had been unfairly imposed on them over a lifetime spent in certain Fundamentalist churches. They would carry feelings of self-condemnation for missing a Sunday service, for having a social drink or displaying anger. I clearly recall a humorous incident which happened about 15 years ago. After leading the morning service in my church, I stopped in to our local grocery store to pick up an item I’d forgotten to purchase the previous day.
Outside the market, I came across a parishioner who had been absent that Sunday. Even worse from his perspective, he was smoking a cigarette. In response to my friendly greeting, the man began to stammer and rushed an unsolicited explanation for his truancy. All the while he had unconsciously held the lit cigarette behind his back. I soon noticed smoke beginning to waft up from his backside like it was on fire. I tried to assuage his needless burden of false guilt, but never succeeded. Refraining from smoking is obviously good for one’s health but a failure to kick the habit is not a mortal sin. Even Jiminy might agree with that.