Conscience is hard work. So, don’t blame Jiminy Cricket, or Pinocchio, or even Walt Disney if you haven’t heard a small voice telling you exactly the choice to make in a situation where there is likely more than one answer. Turns out it’s up to you.
The good news is that you have everything you need to recognize and make the right choice when confronted with sometimes competing options. And when that happens, conscience gets the last word.
Popular culture recently gave us a couple of reminders of that truth in the just-ended year. The 2016 Mel Gibson film Hacksaw Ridge told of a soldier who, for reasons of his faith, refused to carry or use firearms, and went on to become the first conscientious objector to be awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor for service above and beyond the call of duty. In another example occurring on December 19, 2016, a member of the U.S. Electoral College departed from his predictable script and chose not to vote for the candidate he was expected to name. Presumably the judgment of conscience occurred because of information observed, discovered, or revealed after being named an elector, but before having to act by casting a vote. Both examples show us what is meant by the phrase “a resolved conscience.”
The road begins with recognizing that conscience is a judgment. It’s the decision you come to when you’ve looked at the various sides of a question, weighed the evidence, consulted the experts whose opinions carry weight, including your own beliefs and principles. It comes about as the result of a process not unlike what happens in a court room. Depositions are gathered. People tell of what they have seen or experienced, or read or studied, of how it looks or looked to them. Analyzing all that varied input, all the parties of the trial go to work to make a case for what they are presenting, what at that point they believe is the truth of a situation. How it really is, versus how it looks on the surface.
That’s not as easy or automatic as it sounds. It takes some courage, maybe a jot or two of humility. I’m hoping I’m not the only one who tends to listen most carefully to the people, the media, the preachers, the pundits who agree with my current or favorite point of view. A piece of advice I read at the time or our recent (interminable) campaign and elections came as a happy illumination. Make sure not to isolate yourself from “the other point of view.” Listen respectfully and let it add a dose of honesty to your own. You don’t have to adopt it as your own, but it will help you resolve your own conscience so that it includes respect for those who come down on a different side of an issue. So in those battlefield scenes or in that gathering at a state’s designated voting place, we can take it that there were serious differences of opinion that made individuals take different paths, both or all choices made in “good faith.” Individuals weighed similar evidence and reached different resolutions.
That process of resolving is a key ingredient of a judgment of conscience you can trust. Unless and until you come to that key point of “resolution” you’ll be standing on shaky ground. An unresolved or doubtful conscience can’t support a good, ethical or moral decision. Or think of it this way: you want to get to the top shelf of the bookcase or the highest shelf in the closet. As you plan your path, would you want to count on a one-legged ladder? You tell me. That’s why the experts on ethics warn that a doubtful or unresolved conscience can never lead to a morally acceptable path to action. If the process of an honest look at the evidence leaves you with a “maybe,” you proceed at your own risk.
Two other bits of wisdom about conscience are the “two Cs.” If you want to be guided by your conscience, don’t copy and don’t condemn. Nobody else’s conclusions or resolutions can provide you the support you need. And don’t be quick to conclude that another person’s or group’s honestly resolved conscience should be discounted or disrespected.
With all due respect for Jiminy Cricket, each one of us is equipped to be a much more successful, supporting actor in our own life stories. No charming insect on our shoulders. But a really authoritative voice. So, farewell, Jiminy. Hello, the voice of conscience we are prepared to tune up by a lot of hard, rewarding work that delivers peace of mind and the courage of our own well considered convictions.
Top photo from Bigstock.