It's hard to believe that in this world where we have crime, injustices, and people taking advantage of each other, that each person is born with a moral compass. I do think that for the most part, each person does what he or she believes is the right thing to do. And this would include criminals, politicians, or virtually anyone that most people would associate with immorality. I do think it's possible for people, labeled by society as "evil", to sleep well at night. Because perhaps deep down, they believe that what they're doing is good (regarless of whether it truly is or not). What might bother some people might not bother others. So I guess the question is, is it enough to follow your conscience?
I think the true problem arises from the fact that people have different definitions for the word conscience. Most would probably associate it with doing what they believe is right. And to a certain extent, that is true. I mean how many of us, if given the choice (assuming that there's no consequence or we gain as much pleasure for doing the right thing), would choose to do something against our conscience? Back in high school, I was in a class full of cheaters. It didn't bother them that they were cheating. To a good number of them, they were thinking that what they were doing was right. "It's about teamwork, about cooperation," some would say. "If you don't allow us to cheat, you're betraying your classmates, your whole class," was another statement I'd often hear. Others would continue to cheat, not because they thought it was the right thing to do, but had circumstances which made them desperate. Of course for the latter students, given the opportunity to get a high grade without resorting to cheating, I'm sure they'd go for that option (but that's not always possible). So what's my point in bringing this up? Well, suffice to say, each person usually acts on what they think is good and right. I haven't truly met a person who thinks that "I'm evil and I'm here to sow havoc and discord". The worst is probably someone who thinks that "I'll do what's good for me and to hell with the rest of the world" but that doesn't mean that person acts on what he thinks is wrong, but rather has a different definition of what is good (which in this case means himself alone rather than the common good) and uses that belief as the basis for his or her lifestyle. So if that's the case, what is conscience, or at least what I think its definition should be?
Perhaps the simplest formula is the one I learned from my Jesuit education in college. It's a three-step system and I'll share it with you: doing what's right, finding out what's right, and acting on it. Clearly, the first one isn't a problem. I think most people perform what they think is right. What most people lack is the second one, discovering whether what they're doing really is right or not. I mean we all get this feeling of contentment and pride when we do something right, don't we? It can be as simple as giving money to the needy, to doing something that no one else would do. Naturally, we don't want to do anything to jeopardize that feeling. So whenever our actions are put into question, our initial reaction is to defend it. It's a natural tendency for people to resist criticism and change. I mean who really wants to get blamed for anything? People usually want praises. We also don't want to be wrong. Yet it takes a person of great humility to acknowledge their mistakes and accept responsibility. The problem with step number two is that it usually entails a paradigm shift, and people usually don't want to change their system of beliefs. Most of us think that our current set of ethics is enough hence we stop looking for alternatives. We usually go against the beliefs of other people, especially when it clashes with our own values. We claim that we're following our conscience and that we sleep well at night. Yet is this really the case?
When I was a kid, I was unfair to a lot of people: my parents, the maids, and my classmates. I did a lot of selfish actions. Yet I didn't realize I was being selfish. I think we all have childhood memories where we performed actions that hurt others. We initially didn't think it was wrong but later, as we matured or as our mistakes were pointed out, we came to realize that what we did was wrong. And that's when we undergo a paradigm shift, where what we formerly believed in gets discarded and is replaced by a new belief. Before realizing that what I did was wrong, did I sleep well at night? Of course I did! Was I bothered by guilt! Definitely not. The only time my conscience really bothered me was when I discovered that what I did was wrong. Or rather, other people found it to be wrong (because as far as I was concerned at the time, I was right). One of my favorite statements is "ignorance is bliss". I continually strive for knowledge and wisdom, but I know doing so hurts. Because when you look for more sources of information, you come to realize that your former actions are not always as perfect as you thought it was. Former triumphs might transform into the biggest mistake you made in your life. But I take consolation in the fact that armed with the new knowledge I possess, I won't repeat the same mistake and hurt other people with it in the future.
What makes step number two, finding out what's right, difficult is that we have to accept the possibility that we might be wrong. And our pride usually gets in the way. Take notice that for the most part, the people we deem as "selfish" or "evil" are usually stubborn and unyielding. Why? Because they believe that what they're doing is right. And obviously, no one would yield to another person when doing so is morally and ethically against their beliefs. It's also easier to fight against someone you demonize. When you have the moral high ground, you can justify all your actions. So evaluation of what is really right or not is important. A lot of people do what they think is right. Yet there's so much wrong in the world. What's lacking? It's not a lack of people doing what they think is right, but rather it's a lack of people evaluating whether what they believe in is right or not.
I saw on TV recently an interview with the mayor of New York. He mentioned that what makes a great leader is knowing your set of beliefs. And I agree. It's not enough to do what's right because "you feel it's the right thing to do". Whenever you get that feeling, examine in. To not examine it would be laziness; we're just accepting things as it is because to do otherwise would mean expending effort and energy. Yet this is probably the reason why a lot of injustices are perpetuated. Take for example the concept of stealing. Is it really right to steal or not? In order for me to justify that stealing is wrong, I find an ethic system I can adhere to. In my case, I usually follow Kant, where he follows a "universality test", in which he basically asks "what would happen if everyone did this". Following Kant's universality test, personal property would hold no meaning if everyone stole, and of course, everyone would be hurt because a lot of their possessions would be gone. I'm not saying that you should follow Kant's ethic system, but rather, find the basis for your current beliefs. What made you think that doing this is right (or wrong)? Is it something that will change over time or as we gain more knowledge regarding it (and a good example of this was how history has perceived homosexuality)? Is it something only I adhere to, or do other people share a similar belief? Who benefits and who is at a disadvantage following this kind of belief? Personally, before I criticize other people, I also find it helpful to understand things from their viewpoint. Do they have valid points? Or what would I do if I were in their situation?
Finding out what's really right is a difficult thing to do. Which is perhaps why a lot of people don't do it. The easiest thing to do, after all, is to accept things as they are and blame all that's wrong with the world on other people. Seldom do we ask ourselves what have we done to contribute to all this. It will probably also be frustrating to people that they examine their own lives, yet meet other people who don't reflect on their own actions and generally act self-righteous. I can sympathize. I have friends who blame the world for everything, whether it's the masses, the celebrities, the wealthy, or the politicians. My only consolation is that if you don't examine your own lives, you'll just be like them, the people who look for scapegoats and go on blaming people left and right (not that those people aren't responsible for what they're accused of, but life isn't something that should be oversimplified as to say that this person or group is responsible for this; there are a lot of factors involved, and while this person or group plays a significant role, they're not the only ones who dictate the current situation) without looking at what they themselves are doing. One of my favorite emotions is doubt. Doubt allows me to question my own actions. It's only through doubt that I gain true confidence. I mean any ignorant person can claim that what they're doing is right And they will have the confidence to do so because they didn't study something carefully. But when you doubt, one is forced to look for answers and make sure that what one is doing truly is right. So when a doubter finally makes a claim, they'll have true confidence, confidence based on wisdom rather than on ignorance. Of course my other warning is not to doubt too much. In the vaguest sense, everything can be doubted. Some things you have to take on faith. I can doubt my very existence, after all, and all I'm left with is Descartes conclusion that the only thing we can be sure of is that we're doubting. Where does that leave us as human beings? A healthy dose of doubt is good, but don't overdo it.
Lastly, let's also not get too much caught up in deciding whether one action is truly right or wrong. We must remember that there's also a third step when it comes to conscience, and that's doing what's right. Doing means action and not mere deliberation. I can talk all day about what's right or wrong but when it comes right down to it, are my words in tandem with my actions? As much as I love the virtue of wisdom, I also value courage. Because wisdom without courage is useless. If you don't act on what you know, you're just like the ignorant person (except for the fact that you know you're ignorant, or worse, doing what's wrong). I find that what's wrong with people's definition of conscience is that they fall under one of two scenarios: either they follow steps one and three and skip number two, or they dwell too much on number two and fail to act on step three. Either alternative is disastrous. The former has ignorance as their comfort blanket, while the latter might use ignorance as an excuse for not acting. I admit I probably fall under the latter. Which is also why now, I value action and actualization.
Remember that conscience is a three step process. Just because we do what we feel is right does not make it right. The true exercise of conscience is examining our lives and coming to a conclusion whether what we believe in is truly right or not. And of course, we should act upon it. After all, why bother pondering on something if in the end, you're not going to do anything about it?