A conscience is a slippery thing.

In one sense, it’s the most subjective thing in the world–it’s your personal code of ethics, your view of morality, the motivations and fears that drive the reasons for why you do certain things, or decide not to do them.

Yet in another sense it’s objective–and can it help being so, when there is somewhere a standard of conscience that makes it what it is, and determines one thing to be a matter of conscience, and another not to be; without which understanding, standard, or being a conscience becomes more or less than itself, thus ceasing to be rightly so called?

A Standard for Conscience

For the word “conscience” to have any meaning, there must be something it means, some foundation by which we understand the elements that make up its common definition (from the 1828 Miriam-Webster): “the sense or┬áconsciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.”

The definition itself presupposes a standard of what goodness and blameworthiness might mean, implying that each person’s conscience is a variation of objective moral standards that govern our inner beings–whether we’re aware of them, or are obedient to them or not. The law of God written on our hearts in a way, as the Apostle Paul might say?

The variations between consciences emerge as different cultures, life situations, and individual personalities come into play, creating endless shades of conflict between what’s good and what’s not, what’s allowed in society and what’s not. (Which are not always the same thing, might I add; and there are such things as different consciences within a single person, I think, such as the “public”, the “personal”, and the “private”, for example–but that is beyond the scope of this essay.)

To Form and Be Formed

Choices are a feedback loop: with observation and deliberation, one comes to an intention, speaks or acts accordingly, then absorbs the outcome–which then is presented to one’s inner self, and judged by one’s conscience.

Yet this feedback loop has the power to be shaped by a changing conscience–where something that once one does not allow becomes permissible; it can also change the conscience itself–where new factors within a situation or an unexpected outcome causes a revision of one’s hierarchy of ethics, values, and principles, sometimes temporarily but often as a gradual, lasting process.

Growth and Maturity

The way you were raised, the communities you were and are a part of, the expectations placed on you–even the slightest off-handed comment that somehow lodged itself into a prominent corner of your mind–all impact the way your conscience has developed since those early days when you learned not to hit your baby sister or brother with a block of wood.

As your sense of personhood developed and you grew big enough to stand eye-to-eye with your parents, more and more your own fears, beliefs, and choices began to shape what you see as good and evil.

This reality implies that our consciences never quite reach a point where it’s “perfect” or even dependable; can it be that “following our conscience” can sometimes blind us to what is even better, to decisions that are even closer to truth and beauty than what we could conjure up from the depths of our late-night (or early morning) ponderings and limited experiences?

Is There Actually An End?

I believe so. But because our first premise is true–that there is a standard by which a conscience can be examined, judged, and corrected, our integrity–defined here as adherence to the highest good, truth, and beauty we can and do perceive, through our thoughts, words, and actions–matters.

Staying true to that conscience with your entire being ensures soundness in your soul as you align your life with your values with your principles with your fundamental beliefs. Strive to live a life free of lies, starting with the ones within you.

Remember too, sometimes, to let that conscience breathe, reorient itself, and become stronger, clearer, and more beautiful.

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