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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

Questioning Our Conscience

It’s one of the quirks of our brains that we don’t notice as sharply as we might when we move from one area of their functioning to another. Our thoughts about wanting to eat a sandwich, reflect on the meaning of love, move our left elbow away from the radiator, or repair a tension with a friend flow in a single seamless uninterrupted sequence, even though our thoughts will have originated in quite different regions of the brain, with their own evolutionary histories, priorities, drives and levels of maturity.

Part of this neglect for the varied origins of thoughts means we seldom notice as sharply as we could when a distinct part of our minds takes command that we can call our conscience. It’s our conscience that directs what flows through consciousness when we are five minutes late for a meeting and start to chide ourselves energetically for not having left the house earlier. Or when we realise we forgot to pay a bill or answer a message from a colleague or when we note, at midday, that we are far behind on the goals we had set ourselves for the day. It’s our conscience that is home to our ‘shoulds’ and our ‘oughts’; to our guilt and our shame, to our self-exhortations and our self-criticisms.

Photo by Steffan Peterman on Unsplash

Not only do we tend to fail to give a name to this mental region, we also often overlook how peculiar and partial it might be. We lack points of reference in this, because it isn’t immediately clear what other people’s consciences might be like and therefore what might be particular about our own. We might have been on the earth a long while before we become aware – perhaps under the prompting of a kind friend or an observant therapist – exactly how stern and at moments even plain violent, our conscience seems to be. We’re not only a bit embarrassed to be late for the meeting, apparently, we’re always a fucking damn idiot for messing up again. We’re not only somewhat ashamed for how we performed at work, we’re without doubt a bloody disgrace who never gets themselves together and doesn’t begin to compare with our sibling or our father – and though our ex explicitly told us it really wasn’t our fault that the relationship ended, our conscience is in absolutely no doubt that this is another example of our pervasive incompetence and thoroughgoing unlovability.

Once we realise we have a conscience and that it speaks to us in a very partial manner, we are in a better position to reflect on the issue of origins. To compress the matter: the way we speak to ourselves is an internalisation of the way others once spoke to us. Our conscience has been formed from the voices and actions of our earliest caregivers. Though it is rarely apparent as we rush to catch the train or sit in shame on reading a message from an angry colleague, our internal dialogue mirrors the way particular people whom we loved and esteemed once responded to us.

The thesis opens up an opportunity for questions. Do we like the way we speak when we are late? Do we think it’s useful to treat ourselves as we do when we have been rejected in love? In response to our errors, do we approach matters with constructive intelligence? And more broadly, how do we feel about the people who taught us about right and wrong, about guilt and duty, about effort and necessity? Did things work out well for them? Was their way of life admirable and fit to be emulated?

Our conscience may be speaking to us in voices far removed from the values we otherwise esteem. How hard do we really need to hit our minds when we have made a mistake? If we saw someone else treating a stranger the way we treat ourselves, would we be impressed? Or might we – perhaps – be tempted to call in the authorities?

We may no longer think of them every day, but a set of dominant figures from our pasts have – unbeknownst to us – taken up seats in our minds. It may be time to disentangle their voices from the gentler and more productive attitudes we long for and hold dear at an intellectual level. It was bad enough to suffer what we did; we don’t on top of everything else need to continue to lacerate ourselves internally to appease a coven of unknowingly ingested ghosts. We want to be on time. We can perhaps learn to be so without the screaming and the swear words. We can build ourselves the conscience we would want for a child or a friend we love.

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