Conscience  

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"Conscience ! is it possible that thou canst be but a phantom of the imagination, or the fear of the punishment of men? I ask my own heart, I put to myself this question: "If thou couldst by a mere wish kill a fellow-creature in China, and inherit his fortune in Europe, with the supernatural conviction that the fact would never be known, wouldst thou consent to form such a wish?" [1] --Mandarin button excerpt from The Genius of Christianity

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgement of the intellect that distinguishes right from wrong. Moral judgment may derive from values or norms (principles and rules). In psychological terms conscience is often described as leading to feelings of remorse when a human commits actions that go against his/her moral values and to feelings of rectitude or integrity when actions conform to such norms.

Charles Darwin considered that conscience evolved in humans to resolve conflicts between competing natural impulses-some about self-preservation but others about safety of a family or community; the claim of conscience to moral authority emerged from the "greater duration of impression of social instincts" in the struggle for survival.

In such a view, behavior destructive to a person's society (either to its structures or to the persons it comprises) is bad or "evil". Thus, conscience can be viewed as an outcome of those biological drives that prompt humans to avoid provoking fear or contempt in others; being experienced as guilt and shame in differing ways from society to society and person to person. A requirement of conscience in this view is the capacity to see ourselves from the point of view of another person. Persons unable to do this (psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists) therefore often act in ways which are "evil".

Conscience in literature, art, film, and music

Philosophy and literature

The ancient epic of the Indian subcontinent, the Mahabharata of Vyasa, contains two pivotal moments of conscience. The first occurs when the warrior Arjuna being overcome with compassion against killing his opposing relatives in war, receives counsel (see Bhagavad-Gita) from Krishna about his spiritual duty ("work as though you are performing a sacrifice for the general good"). The second, at the end of the saga, is when king Yudhishthira having alone survived the moral tests of life, is offered eternal bliss, only to refuse it because a faithful dog is prevented from coming with him by purported divine rules and laws. The French author Montaigne (1533–1592) in one of the most celebrated of his essays ("On experience") expressed the benefits of living with a clear conscience: "Our duty is to compose our character, not to compose books, to win not battles and provinces, but order and tranquillity in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live properly". Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales recounts how a young suitor releases a wife from a rash promise because of the respect in his conscience for the freedom to be truthful, gentle and generous.

The critic A. C. Bradley discusses the central problem of Shakespeare's tragic character Hamlet as one where conscience in the form of moral scruples deters the young Prince with his "great anxiety to do right" from obeying his father's hell-bound ghost and murdering the usurping King ("is't not perfect conscience to quit him with this arm?" (v.ii.67)). Bradley develops a theory about Hamlet's moral agony relating to a conflict between "traditional" and "critical" conscience: "The conventional moral ideas of his time, which he shared with the Ghost, told him plainly that he ought to avenge his father; but a deeper conscience in him, which was in advance of his time, contended with these explicit conventional ideas. It is because this deeper conscience remains below the surface that he fails to recognise it, and fancies he is hindered by cowardice or sloth or passion or what not; but it emerges into light in that speech to Horatio. And it is just because he has this nobler moral nature in him that we admire and love him". The opening words of Shakespeare's Sonnet 94 ("They that have pow'r to hurt, and will do none") have been admired as a description of conscience. So has John Donne's commencement of his poem Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward: "Let man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this, Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is;"

Anton Chekhov in his plays The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters describes the tortured emotional states of doctors who at some point in their careers have turned their back on conscience. In his short stories, Chekhov also explored how people misunderstood the voice of a tortured conscience. A promiscuous student, for example, in The Fit describes it as a "dull pain, indefinite, vague; it was like anguish and the most acute fear and despair...in his breast, under the heart" and the young doctor examining the misunderstood agony of compassion experienced by the factory owner's daughter in From a Case Book calls it an "unknown, mysterious power...in fact close at hand and watching him." Characteristically, Chekhov's own conscience drove him on the long journey to Sakhalin to record and alleviate the harsh conditions of the prisoners at that remote outpost. As Irina Ratushinskaya writes in the introduction to that work: "Abandoning everything, he travelled to the distant island of Sakhalin, the most feared place of exile and forced labour in Russia at that time. One cannot help but wonder why? Simply, because the lot of the people there was a bitter one, because nobody really knew about the lives and deaths of the exiles, because he felt that they stood in greater need of help that anyone else. A strange reason, maybe, but not for a writer who was the epitome of all the best traditions of a Russian man of letters. Russian literature has always focused on questions of conscience and was, therefore, a powerful force in the moulding of public opinion."

E. H. Carr writes of Dostoevsky's character the young student Raskolnikov in the novel Crime and Punishment who decides to murder a 'vile and loathsome' old woman money lender on the principle of transcending conventional morals: "the sequel reveals to us not the pangs of a stricken conscience (which a less subtle writer would have given us) but the tragic and fruitless struggle of a powerful intellect to maintain a conviction which is incompatible with the essential nature of man."

Hermann Hesse wrote his Siddhartha to describe how a young man in the time of the Buddha follows his conscience on a journey to discover a transcendent inner space where all things could be unified and simply understood, ending up discovering that personal truth through selfless service as a ferryman. J. R. R. Tolkien in his epic The Lord of the Rings describes how only the hobbit Frodo is pure enough in conscience to carry the ring of power through war-torn Middle-earth to destruction in the Cracks of Doom, Frodo determining at the end to journey without weapons, and being saved from failure by his earlier decision to spare the life of the creature Gollum. Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote that Albert Camus was the writer most representative of the Western consciousness and conscience in its relation to the non-Western world. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird portrays Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck in the classic film from the book (see To Kill a Mockingbird (film))) as a lawyer true to his conscience who sets an example to his children and community.

The Robert Bolt play A Man For All Seasons focuses on the conscience of Catholic lawyer Thomas More in his struggle with King Henry VIII ("the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing"). George Orwell wrote his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four on the isolated island of Jura, Scotland to describe how a man (Winston Smith) attempts to develop critical conscience in a totalitarian state which watches every action of the people and manipulates their thinking with a mixture of propaganda, endless war and thought control through language control (double think and newsspeak) to the point where prisoners look up to and even love their torturers. In the Ministry of Love, Winston's torturer (O'Brien) states: "You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable".

A tapestry copy of Picasso's Guernica depicting a massacre of innocent women and children during the Spanish civil war is displayed on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City, at the entrance to the Security Council room, demonstrably as a spur to the conscience of representatives from the nation states. Albert Tucker painted Man's Head to capture the moral disintegration, and lack of conscience, of a man convicted of kicking a dog to death.

The impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo in 1878 that "one must never let the fire in one's soul die, for the time will inevitably come when it will be needed. And he who chooses poverty for himself and loves it possesses a great treasure and will hear the voice of his conscience address him every more clearly. He who hears that voice, which is God's greatest gift, in his innermost being and follows it, finds in it a friend at last, and he is never alone!...That is what all great men have acknowledged in their works, all those who have thought a little more deeply and searched and worked and loved a little more than the rest, who have plumbed the depths of the sea of life."

The 1957 Ingmar Bergman film Seventh Seal portrays the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) returning disillusioned from the crusades ("what is going to happen to those of us who want to believe, but aren't able to?") across a plague-ridden landscape, undertaking a game of chess with the personification of Death until he can perform one meaningful altruistic act of conscience (overturning the chess board to distract Death long enough for a family of jugglers to escape in their wagon).

The 1942 Casablanca centers on the development of conscience in the cynical American Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in the face of oppression by the Nazis and the example of the resistance leader Victor Laszlo.

The David Lean and Robert Bolt screenplay for Doctor Zhivago (an adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel) focuses strongly on the conscience of a doctor-poet in the midst of the Russian Revolution (in the end "the walls of his heart were like paper").

The 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner focuses on the struggles of conscience between and within a bounty hunter (Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford)) and a renegade replicant android (Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer)) in a future society which refuses to accept that forms of artificial intelligence can have aspects of being such as conscience.

J.S. Bach wrote his last great choral composition the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) to express the alternating emotions of loneliness, despair, joy and rapture that arise as conscience reflects on a departed human life. Here JS Bach's use of counterpoint and contrapuntal settings, his dynamic discourse of melodically and rhythmically distinct voices seeking forgiveness of sins ("Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis") evokes a spiraling moral conversation of all humanity expressing his belief that "with devotional music, God is always present in his grace".

Ludwig van Beethoven's meditations on illness, conscience and mortality in the Late String Quartets led to his dedicating the third movement of String Quartet in A Minor (1825) Op. 132 (see String Quartet No. 15) as a "Hymn of Thanksgiving to God of a convalescent". John Lennon's work "Imagine" owes much of its popular appeal to its evocation of conscience against the atrocities created by war, religious fundamentalism and politics. The Beatles George Harrison-written track "The Inner Light" sets to Indian raga music a verse from the Tao Te Ching that "without going out of your door you can know the ways of heaven'. In the 1986 movie The Mission the guilty conscience and penance of the slave trader Mendoza is made more poignant by the haunting oboe music of Ennio Morricone ("On Earth as it is in Heaven") The song Sweet Lullaby by Deep Forest is based on a traditional Baegu lullaby from the Solomon Islands called "Rorogwela" in which a young orphan is comforted as an act of conscience by his older brother. The Dream Academy song 'Forest Fire' provided an early warning of the moral dangers of our 'black cloud' 'bringing down a different kind of weather...letting the sunshine in, that's how the end begins."

The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) presents the Conscience-in-Media Award to journalists whom the society deems worthy of recognition for demonstrating "singular commitment to the highest principles of journalism at notable personal cost or sacrifice".

The Ambassador of Conscience Award, Amnesty International's most prestigious human rights award, takes its inspiration from a poem written by Irish Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney called "The Republic of Conscience."

Winners of the award have included: musician Peter Gabriel (2008), Nelson Mandela (2006), the Irish rock band U2 (2005), Mary Robinson and Hilda Morales Trujillo (a Guatemalan women's rights activist) (2004) and the author and public intellectual Václav Havel (2003).

See also




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