When someone acts well in regard to values and in particular in relation to other people in a way consistent with a system of values, even when it requires some effort or cost that brings no obvious immediate and personal benefit, it is often said that the agency or cause of such acts is his or her conscience. Conscience here is a general motivation and the methods used to apply the pursuit of values, particularly in regard to other people, but can also be applied a bit more broadly.
I read a book about psychology (which I will bring up later) that in passing considered the issue of conscience in regards to a pet. In the author’s example, a young man might have recently acquired a puppy, but in haste to get to work, rushed out of his house, forgetting to leave food and water for the dog. It takes little imagination to to think that if the young man remembered his failure to provide for the dog on the way to work, and then decides to go back to put down food and water, even if the dog would be able to wait for him at the end of the day and that the man would be late for work, getting him into a bit of trouble – if he still acted that way, most people would say that he did that because of his conscience.
What was the motivation precisely? If he did not care about the puppy, no return to home would have occurred, but since the man did in fact return, we can say he cared about the puppy. That caring is actually affection for the puppy that would bring the man to feel discomfort if the puppy suffered during the day without food or water. This is, of course, a type of love. We can identify with the puppy, the man, and this constitutes a type of love applied to our minds. When this is considered as a general capacity to address our values here, we call it conscience. More succinctly, Conscience is Love, rightly understood.
It is sometimes said that character is doing the right thing when no one looking. This saying has several premises that should be addressed. If X does the right thing only because Y is looking, I submit that the thing to be done is NOT a value for X, but for Y only. Why should X care what value that Y has for something? X would care if Y were to provide some other value for X, or not withdraw a value, because X had performed the action in question. Without Y, X would not do the “right thing.”
However, suppose Y is not in the picture and X does the right thing without any witness. If the term “right thing” is to be a rational one, it means that the action taken is consistent with morality. Why does someone do the right thing without a witness? Because the value is meaningful and reflects a person’s character formed on the basis of meaningful values. To hold puppies or people as meaningful to oneself is to love the puppies or people from a small scale on through the spectrum to the passionate, depending on one’s context in life and one’s values overall.
If everyone were driven by conscience, as a rational benevolence to all people, many contemporary ethical problems would disappear. But we know that some people seem to act unconscionably. There are in fact evil people in the world. There are many concretes about such people, but one might just say, in all accuracy, that evil people are truly without conscience. To adequately address morality, we must bear in mind that in the context for moral action we will often enough encounter evil people. I begin to address the nature of good and evil in my next post.