We commonly call “the voice of conscience” that part of ourselves that acts as a moral guardian of what we think, feel or do. It’s like “another me” that engages in an inner dialogue about our lives. In this dialogue, it warns, criticizes, or even punishes. That voice is generally there to guide us towards a sense of guilt.
The voice of conscience is the expression of the moral authority within us. That source of authority usually corresponds to a father, or a god, or a religion. Or can correspond to any other form of power that defines our rules of conduct.
“The conscience makes us discover ourselves, makes us denounce or accuse ourselves. Due to a lack of witnesses, it testifies against us as well.”
-Michael de Montaigne-
Our “voice of conscience” speaks to us of morality and decency. It seems like an officer, because its role is accusatory and for some people it could even become extremely insidious. In fact, there are some who physically experience that voice. For example, a whisper in their ear that is always pointing at them, threatening and abusing the listener.
Moral conscience and prejudice
We are all able to live in a civilized manner within a society because somebody taught us, as the song says, “you can’t say this, you can’t do that, you can’t touch that.” In order to coexist with others, we must give up acting based on what we want or our whims. We have to give up on some of our wishes, in order to adapt to the basic rules that govern the world.
We are also taught from a very young age a series of moral “laws.” In it, things are separated by a thick red line: what is wrong and what is right. Generally, our parents are the transmitters of this morality, which has already been established by some authority. Thus, we learn to value what is good and bad based on religion, the law, culture or any other set of principles that society sets.
Some of us, for example, are taught that racial discrimination is positive. That it protects the “purity” of a certain group of people. Others are taught that masturbation can drive you mad. In both cases, what is being transmitted is irrational, and yet it is still passed down as something valid.
Moral rigidity and arbitrariness
Moral conscience, generally, is transmitted arbitrarily. At first, parents and the world consider that it is a duty to help children understand the moral mandates of society. Kids don’t necessarily get to develop their own conscience. They simply follow the already established moral rules. Thus, for them, “educating” consists in making everyone obey.
In some families and certain societies, especially the ones that transmit behavioral principles that are at odds with reason, they use threat and punishment in order to instill respect for the rules.
This is what happens in cultures in which, for example, there is strong discrimination against women. The behavioral norms for them are extremely strict and full of restrictions. This way, they get them to accept practices such as physical violence from men.
Moral conscience and moralizing
All moral systems include some sort of irrationality. Many of these have to do with sexual behavior and relationships with power. Childhood, in many cases, serves as a period of “indoctrination” in which society seeks to basically break the will of the individual. So that they don’t develop conduct that “deviates” from the norm.
They feel “bad” if they question their parent’s behavior or the conceptual validity of their religion. The “voice of conscience” becomes haunting and perturbing. It “keeps an eye on them” and makes them punish themselves severely if they drift from the mandates.
Indeed, one of the tasks of a healthy adult is to examine the values, or anti-values, with which one has been raised. Unlike morality, ethics are developed through investigation, and are based on a more objective assessment of oneself and the world, in the light of reason.
Ethics justify actions with logical evidence and reasons of personal and social convenience. Morality is based on prejudice, that is to say, on arguments that result in arbitrariness. On thoughts such as “because that’s how it should be”, “because you will be punished in the afterlife” or “because that is what’s customary.” More ethics and less moralizing is what we all need in order to have a healthier coexistence.