The conscience is a mystery. More than a feeling, but not a black-and-white set of rules, it’s like a mirror through which we view and navigate the world. Unfortunately, sometimes the reflection is distorted and we don’t see properly. Here are some steps I’ve taken to sharpen my conscience and clear my sight.
Begin with the end in mind
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Steven Covey says we should keep the future in mind before beginning any project. This helps with persistence when difficulties arise. A builder can’t build a house without a blueprint. It’s the same with the conscience — it helps tremendously to envision what sort of person I want to be and to keep that end in mind in my everyday actions.
How often do I bitterly complain about other drivers on the road, only to realize a few seconds later that what caused me to moan was totally explainable? How many times have I read a text message and assumed the worst intentions of the sender? I need to understand what motivates other people before I react. This is empathy, and it’s central to a well-developed conscience.
In Psychology Today, Izzy Kalman writes, “If you are neurologically incapable of feeling empathy, you can be punished and lectured to and trained … and you will still never develop a conscience.”
Even if, by accident of nature or nurture, some of us struggle with empathy (ahem), we can improve by “identification.” Experts on child development emphasize the way children identify with the values of the community in which they grow up. This can happen with adults, too. Although it doesn’t come as naturally anymore, we can still learn. If we actively identify with our heroes, a thoughtful friend, or even the nice store cashier who’s always smiling, we will take on some of the conscience that presumably makes these people great.
All the personality tests I’ve ever taken insist that I’m an insensitive jerk. I have so little natural empathy I may as well be a robot, so improving my conscience can be a struggle. Luckily, as in most endeavors, practice makes perfect. We cannot expect to become conscientious overnight, otherwise every New Year’s resolution ever made would not have been broken. I’ve taken a note from the Stages of Change Model used by behavioral psychologists which demonstrates that change isn’t easy so small steps are best. I practice following my conscience in little decisions and try not to cut corners.
If I want to practice listening to my conscience, it helps to think ahead. Otherwise, situations sneak up and I don’t always respond appropriately. For example, if I know I have a work meeting coming up with a particular person who annoys me, I think ahead, brace myself, and plan how to be polite. Otherwise in the moment my reactions to such a person are, let’s say, less than saintly. The combination of planning and practice is called the virtue of prudence. If we develop prudence, it will guide us through lots of sticky situations. Having a good conscience doesn’t require a degree in moral philosophy, but planning and practice over a lifetime.
Confession is good for the soul, right? Not that I spill the beans about my darkest secrets to every person I meet, but to the right person, such as a priest (or a pastor, peer, or counselor), admitting serious failures unburdens the conscience. For me, the Sacrament of Confession is a necessary and frequent habit. It brings the knowledge that God has forgiven me and provides me the strength to continue wrestling with my conscience as I go forward.
Confession works best if I examine my conscience beforehand, to notice what I may be getting wrong. Fr. Jonathan Mitchican recommends examinations of conscience “because no one ever grows in holiness without really looking at oneself. You can’t reinforce a bridge without first looking it over to see where the cracks and weak spots are.”
Examining my conscience sometimes leaves me conflicted. I’m not always sure of what’s right or whether my opinions are correct. Answers aren’t easy. For instance, is it wrong to genetically engineer babies with three parents? This takes some thought. I need to constantly take in new information from trustworthy sources to inform my conscience or I’ll lack the knowledge to make the best decisions.
Learning requires an admission that I don’t already know everything and my lightning-quick opinions aren’t the gold standard of human achievement. I need to remind myself to think carefully before drawing conclusions. Being open-minded and diligent allows me to keep my pride out of it and seek the truth.
I want to follow my conscience no matter how difficult it is. Many times we know what’s right, but struggle to follow through because of social pressure. For example, in the documentary Making a Murderer, at least one juror admitted to changing his vote “out of fear.” This isn’t unusual; the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment shows how a few strong willed people can sway others to act against their consciences.
We can’t just blame other people, though. I’m all too willing to bend the rules for my own benefit. No matter how small, these choices add up and influence my behaviors when confronted with larger choices. Like every Super Villain in every comic, I fool myself into thinking my actions are justified, but if I’m dishonest and ignore my conscience for long enough, eventually it will stop talking to me.
Beauty reveals goodness, and beauty is all around us — in the sunrise, the sound of waves on the beach, a baby’s giggle, music, movies, and the fine arts. Beauty helps me see the universe more accurately and broadly, and it also helps me understand other people. Artist Brian Prugh says, “When encountering a work of art, you encounter another person in a really intimate way: you meet the artist from the inside-out, as it were … your conscience meets with theirs — and it can grow from the encounter, if you let it.”
The great books count, too, and fiction in particular. One study shows how reading novels improves empathy. This is because the characters often make surprising choices and since we don’t know why, we guess. This helps us discover new ways of approaching our choices.
Perhaps love seems unrelated to this, but the conscience is more than “doing the right thing” or achieving perfection through willpower. What and who we love, we wish the best for. Each situation I face and every person I meet is an occasion to love. If I fail at all of the other things on this list, but am able to learn to love a little better each day, to see the good in people and delight in doing good for them, then I will have taken a step in the right direction.
“Conscience has rights because it has duties.”