Making Sense of the Conscience

imagesWhere do morals and conscience come from? No matter what period in history or culture, it is plain to see that man has always felt a law pressing down upon him telling him, in essence, that there are some things he should not do. Making sense of this, and where it comes from, is an important component of a worldview. When it comes to the competing worldviews of atheism and Christianity, which has a better explanation for what we experience?

The atheist will say that morality is simply a social construct. It’s what turns out to work for a particular group of people or society. That’s why we see different rules in different places and times. For example, the moral rules relating to premarital sex and birth control in this country have changed radically in the past 75 years. What was considered “wrong” then is no longer considered so today.

This answer begins to address the question, but requires further examination. Yes, societies do possess rules, and some are mere social conventions. For instance, what’s permissible to wear at the beach changes with time, and such attire would not be suitable for the courtroom or a formal dinner. But such rules are not necessarily moral rules. Murder, on the other hand, is not merely a social convention. Of course, some homicides may be considered permissible – for example, a killing that occurs in the exercise of self-defense – but the deliberate and premeditated taking of human life with “malice” – is universally condemned. True, some individuals will nonetheless practice it, but they either lie about what they are doing (through the use of propaganda or euphemisms) or use raw power to enforce their will regardless of the morality of their actions.  There are many other examples; for instance, different societies approach human sexuality differently, but no society adopts a rule that a man can have any woman he wants any time he wants. Even where exceptions are made for rulers or kings, these exceptions are understood as precisely that: a concession to power carved out of the underlying, basic rule.

There is a deeper reason why social conventions cannot be the basis for morality. Take slavery in the antebellum South or institutionalized racism. When we say these things are wrong and worthy of condemnation, we are not expressing an opinion about how our society, as opposed to some other society, should treat these issues. We are instead recognizing something that transcends both our culture and our time. Mindful of the inherent value of the human person, we realize that such practices are wrong, and are worthy of condemnation. If we didn’t have this realization, then leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King would themselves be wrong for acting against the prevailing mores – the social conventions – of their time. But of course we know better, and as the writings of Dr. King so eloquently expressed, there is a law above that which governs any particular society, a transcendent law that grounds morality.

Where, then, does this higher law come from, that we all seem to be aware of its functioning? Moreover, what makes sense of the universal experience of guilt that human beings experience when they contemplate the fact that they have violated the law? The atheist must respond that it is a product of evolution. Without a designer who both sets the rules and leaves within us the capacity to become aware of them, these rules must simply have developed over time because they conferred some advantage. But how does this explain anything? Am I to believe that a future society that develops rules permitting murder or rape or slavery would be implementing proper and moral rules? Moreover, conscience and guilt may make for better societies, but evolution relates to the development of a particular human being. How does feeling guilt confer an advantage in a setting in which “survival of the fittest” is the driving force?  Would guilt not inhibit the survival of someone who feels, due to its influence, that they don’t deserve to survive? In short, the evolution of a society may explain why slavery or racism develops, but it provides no mechanism for making sense of why so many people, though part of the majority that is benefiting from the practice, nonetheless can see the evil that it contains.

Christianity, by contrast, can make sense of both conscience and guilt. The human mind emanates from a brain specifically designed to provide a basic knowledge of right and wrong. Embedded in the “operating software” of the mind, we know it as the conscience. How we dress and how we interact with each other are things that may change over time; but there will never be a time when murdering or raping the weak would be acceptable, even if a particular culture developed such a rule.

What we can discern from this is that the capacity for moral functioning is in each of us. We intuitively know that there is a law that applies to us and we seek both to evade it, and to justify ourselves when we do. While this law does not apply to every choice we face, there is a core set of actions that it does control. In other words, our consciences have deep knowledge of the moral framework within which we were meant to live. This is the stuff of the Ten Commandments, relating to our relationship with God and our interactions with each other. This knowledge is shaped and formed by our upbringing, both by our parents specifically and the culture generally. Sometimes these things are in direct conflict, as where a society endorses behavior that violates the conscience, such as racism, slavery, or the current culture of abortion. Prolonged exposure can damage a person’s ability to make proper use of the conscience, which is probably what the Apostle Paul was referring to in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, when he said that men suppressed the truth in unrighteousness and suffered a darkening of their minds. And there are some who, due to mental illness, do not have a conscience that is functioning properly.

In the end, we are forced by our maker to confront the consequences of our actions. The guilt we feel through the functioning of the conscience cannot be evaded by pretending that the rules are whatever we want them to be. Conscience acts as both a beacon to guide us, and as prosecutor and judge to indict and punish us. Even the obligation to properly form our conscience seems to be part of our knowledge of how we should behave, which explains why even criminals have their own code of conduct.

Of course, this alone is not a proof of Christianity. But a worldview which cannot make sense of something as central and pervasive as conscience and guilt is not much of a worldview at all.

Posted by Al Serrato

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