If right and wrong was as distinguishable as night and day, then why are we often faced with dilemmas? If the angel sitting on your right shoulder was always deemed correct, then why are we still tempted by the devil on the left? The dichotomies of our moral construct are often challenged when we have to make a decision that impacts us. So how do we make the correct decision? What is the correct decision? Are there certain factors that influence how we make choices?
I’ve asked this question many times, to many people and the most common answer has been, ‘Oh, our morals or our conscience.” Their careless use of these words got me thinking. Is it morals or is it conscience? What is the actual difference? You see, morals are the principles that determine right and wrong, which are dictated by the standards of our society. Conscience, the voice inside our head, allows us to be aware of our own moral principles which dictates our final choice.
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Think about this simple example. By societal laws, it is morally wrong to steal. The voice in your head reminds you that it is wrong, helping you come to the decision of not stealing. Yet, the world is full of thieves; humans have continued to sin, over and over again. We even write stories about criminals; about how evil they are. Why? Perhaps because there’s a message that has always been placed in front of us, in literary works that we know and love, embedded deep within the pages.
In any event of the human history, Conscience is bound to play a major role, think of it like - the lead in a play. All plays contain minor characters, in this case, let’s call them; Vengeance, Greed and Lust. However, through the years of performing this play titled, “Making Decisions”, the audience has pushed aside the main, and casted their spotlights on the subordinate roles. So today, let’s show some love for our main guy.
In The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin presented that, “All the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.”
Darwin is saying that what makes us different from savage beasts, is our ability to make moral decisions using our conscience. He thus reminds all of us that having a conscience is heavily important. If we detach ourselves from our conscience, we revert back to the base of humanity, mere animals, and we do not want to go back there.
</p><p>Remember the story of the first man and woman? God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and warned them not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Unable to resist the temptation of curiosity (or the sweetened words of Satan), they both ignored their inner voice of reason and committed humanity’s first sin. Some may argue, “But the serpent deceived Eve!” No, Eve made a choice, a choice that made her morally weak, a choice that opened the doors to feelings of shame and guilt and a choice that she had to accept. So, since the beginning of time, the consequences of ignoring our conscience was already declared and warned against, but surely, this couldn’t be the only tale.
I kept pondering; there had to be more since the creation of the universe, so I jumped a little further in time. What about stories from one of the most renowned playwrights of all time? William Shakespeare, the playwright, the Bard of Avon. Many of you probably don’t recognise Shakespeare’s stance on conscience because we often only name-drop titles to show off around friends; “I know, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello, Romeo and Juliet and some more I can’t remember.” Do you really know, though? Do you? Because most fail to recognise that, the most exciting battle wasn’t a battle for love or power, or wealth, but rather, a battle with one’s conscience.
I remember studying King Richard III in English and getting bored by the history lesson I was suddenly sitting in. My chin resting on my palm, waiting for time to crawl slowly to when we finally begin the play. I was more interested in his bloodthirsty actions and the juicy details of his maleficent character. The man lied, manipulated and murdered and was fully aware of his actions, meaning he purposely rejected his conscience, for the prize of power. To him, getting to the throne was more important than doing the right thing. Big mistake.
He left himself susceptible to human fallibility and became the King that nobody wanted, fell to his demise and killed in a battle he started. All because he ignored the moral voice inside his head.
And while I'm on the topic of Shakespeare, an honourable mention to Macbeth who committed deplorable acts of evil. Look what happened to him when he pushed conscience aside. The guilt ate him alive!
I’m telling you, conscience is more important than we give credit.
There's more; about 200 years later, Robert L.Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Honourable doctor by day, merciless killer by night; he was another villain hiding in the shadows of their angelic facade. I told you, we love writing about villains. He masked his immoral actions and was fully aware of right and wrong, and even found a joy in killing. Yikes.
Remember Darwin’s theory about the separation of humans from animals? Well, Hyde didn’t kill for survival, like animals would, he made a decision against his conscience (like all the others) and killed for pleasure.
An interesting point critic G.K. Chesterton remarked was: 'The point of the story is not that a man can cut himself off from his conscience, but that he cannot'
He is absolutely right. There is no way us, humans can cut off our conscience like a slice of butter, despite what people may think. Stevenson once said that between good and evil, ‘One must conquer.’ But in the hands of humanity, first lies the power to choose. The good must be chosen with the goodness of our conscience or else, evil with fester.
That being said, conscience is necessary in our lives, it is necessary in humanity. It guides us and teaches us to be better as humans. We seem to have taken it for granted and tossed it aside, but literature has constantly reminded us of the importance of listening to our conscience when making decisions. Without it, humans will make the wrong decisions, and the future of humanity will come crashing down. Just think about any book or play you have read, or even a film you have watched; evil characters don’t get the luxury of good endings because they isolated a vital part of themselves, leaving them to face the consequences of their own decisions alone.
Here, I end with a quote, said by Martin L. King Jr., “And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.” Let’s listen to our conscience, and do what is right.