CONSCIENCE is, of course, very important in the contemporary world, which is threateningly marked by inadequately justified wars, militant attacks and other forms of crimes. In addition to tragic death of millions of people, such behaviours negatively impact psychological, economic, social, political lives across the world. Undeniably, conflicts existed in the past, but it has escalated gravely in recent times. Most importantly, it has impacted the moral cohesion of any society. Surely, adequate formation of conscience can largely minimise the possibility of misdeeds and secure peace in the world, but this issue is also inadequately emphasised today.
Before moving further, it is essential to say something on what conscience means. The concept of conscience lacks universal understanding and has perspectival differences — theological, secular and philosophical. Yet, there is a common understanding that refers to deeply held moral principles through which individuals perceive what is right and what is wrong. Some common metaphors — the voice within, the inner light, the inner-court, moral guide, other imaginary witness(es) — are often used for conscience, which may change over time and has subjective and pluralistic characters. Its subjective character means that one’s moral principles can differ from others’, even if some moral principles are considered objective. Its pluralistic character means that one’s conscience may be formed through various sources including natural or spiritual moral instincts, religious moral values, family values, social norms and other moral contents including academic readings on ethics and morality.
An individual’s moral principles are values that guides him/her to control, monitor, evaluate and execute one’s actions, and that help assess rightness and wrongness of actions of others. The problem is that conscience may be erringly formed. Consequently, individuals may be unable to know which moral principles are reasonable and which principles to apply in any particular case. Moreover, individuals may not apply conscience in desires and actions or may go against conscience in desiring something and performing certain actions, even if moral principles are reasonably formed. Indeed, most individuals across the world have either one or both types of problems with conscience. Both wrong formation and lack of reflection of conscience may be explained by various individual, relational, community and societal reasons.
Firstly, individual reasons are very important for both formation and reflection of reasonable conscience. However, various individual reasons — lack of or improper education (including moral education), unjustified beliefs in extreme political, religious or any other ideology, inability to assess or analyse erring moral values existing at family, community and society, excessive greediness, erroneous perception of personal interests, extreme egoism — can negatively affect formation of reasonable conscience and its reflection in behaviours. Indeed, many individuals in the world have inadequate moral education; as expected, they are more likely to internalise mistaken sets of moral values and may act accordingly. Even if good conscience is formed, extreme egoism sometimes can put hindrance to reflection of reasonable conscience in behaviors and result in unjustified wars and/or civil wars.
Secondly, family members, relatives, peers and colleagues play very significant roles in forming rightness and wrongness and performing morally right actions. But various relational reasons — including perception of rightness and wrongness, behaviours and level of greed among family members, relatives, peers and colleagues — may affect conscience, both formation and reflection. Indeed, erring moral values among such relational groups often lead many individuals across the world to internalise wrong set of moral values and act accordingly. On many occasions, such relational individuals or groups motivate to do morally wrong activities, even if morally right actions are known. Indeed, it is sometimes criticised that family members encourage for crimes including corruption. Hence, individuals may accept erring moral principles as right principles and perform morally wrong actions.
Thirdly, community in which an individual lives is very crucial for the formation and reflection of conscience. Indeed, communities with more appropriate norms and values are more likely to development of good conscience and its reflections among its members. However, different community factors such as erring conception of rightness and wrongness in community, community norms supportive to some criminal activities (including violence against minority or any other groups) and the presence of criminals or terrorists in a community can negatively influence formation and reflection of conscience. Indeed, many communities across the world support to morally wrong deeds — including intolerance and hatred of religious and ethnic minorities — which impart wrong moral principles among many community members and generate behaviours accordingly.
Fourthly, overall society also plays vital roles in developing conscience and securing its reflections in behaviours. Indeed, many societal factors such as erring societal norms and values at national and beyond-the-boundary level, lack of adequate punishment of crimes, unjust social policy (inducing unjust distribution policy), unjust priority of one group over another in a society, inadequate freedom or might biased social system, lack of adequate good governance and inter-state factors put significant barriers to formation of good conscience and its reflection. Undoubtedly, such societal factors are present in many countries around the world; consequently, individuals internalise erring moral principles, reflect such principles in behaviours and, knowing right moral principles, perform misdeeds.
Of course, reasons for erring formation of conscience and inadequate reflection of reasonable conscience are likely to vary across countries and different reasons may differently affect formation and reflection of reasonable conscience. As expected, adequate steps should be taken for identification of context specific reasons and addressing such reasons accordingly by different countries. It is, however, to note that conscience may not be formed perfectly and individuals may not perfectly reflect reasonable conscience in every action; moreover, it is difficult to say which moral principles or values are universal and which are morally relative in any particular action in a specific context. Thus, identification of universal and context specific reasonable moral principles or values based on existing moral values — including philosophical, social and religious — are very important.
For developing good conscience and reflection of it in behaviours, moral education needs to be emphasised and given from elementary to top level education with the reflection of the identified reasonable moral principles or values. But moral education is inadequately emphasised in different stages of education. As expected, more effective measures including making moral courses mandatory all through educational stages are needed. In addition, a few other measures including (1) providing punishment against all sorts of crimes with implementation of rule of law; (2) removal of social injustice through enacting and implementing just laws and social policies in all aspects; (3) securing good governance at all levels; (4) reduction of all sorts of crime causing moral harms at family, community and social level; and (5) promotion of reasonable norms and values may be very important.
Good conscience is needed among all human beings. Since moral education cannot be given to all, promotion of reasonable norms and values at family, community and social level can be effective for formation of good conscience and its reflection in behaviours among others. Indeed, development of reasonable conscience among all individuals and its reflection in behaviours can greatly reduce conflicts/wars and various misdeeds (including crimes) and build peaceful and just world for all as per expectations. I think, people in positions of authority must reflect more on good conscience.
Amir Mohammad Sayem, an independent researcher, writes on social, issues, politics, environmental issues, international relations and current affairs.
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