Weighing Your Consciences

Weighing Your Consciences

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We have all watched cartoons where conscience comes into play. In the situation, the character is confronted with the angel and the devil on his shoulder. Based on how each plays up his side of the story, the character either chooses the angel, his conscience, or the devil, his carnal desires. But is everything as simple as the cartoon makes it seem? Erich Fromm, in "Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem" states choosing the "angel" because of the perception of good is just as bad as choosing the devil. Fromm also states disobedience of authoritarian conscience increases the ability to "be and to judge oneself." Because of this, humanistic conscience is more important. (2-3)

Authoritarian conscience, according to Fromm, is not the conscience from the perspective of a ruler. On the contrary, authoritarian conscience is "the internalized voice of an authority whom we are eager to please and afraid of displeasing." This voice is what most people experience when they hear the word conscience. Whether the voice is of an angel, a deity, or a parent, the morals of the authority figure, not necessarily the morals of the person, are the morals that are weighed. (2)

In contrast, humanistic conscience "is the voice in every human being and (is) independent from external sanctions and rewards." The concept of humanistic conscience assumes all men have a grasp of morality. The distinction between authoritarian and humanistic consciences is based on motivation. If a person obeys a conscience out of fear of hell, or the reward of heaven, they are obeying an authoritarian conscience. However, if a person acts, or does not act, because they know in their heart the action (or inaction) is moral, they are following a humanistic conscience. (2-3)

Because the differences between the two are subtle, it is necessary to weigh the importance of following the two. When taken at face value, both consciences seem to be equal. However, when further evaluating authoritarian conscience, a concern comes up. Throughout the entire essay, Fromm stresses the importance of thought free from the chains of authority. While following your conscience seems internalized, one must remember authoritarian conscience is followed because of fear or anticipation of a reward. Whether heaven or hell, acceptance or disownment, the voice in authoritarian conscience holds a reward or a punishment the person either wants or does not want to get.

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Humanistic conscience, on the other hand, is followed because the person knows that acting or not acting would be wrong. No reward or punishment is expected from following or not following this conscience. The person must be content with their humanity, or lack thereof. As Fromm puts it, following an authoritarian conscience "tends to debilitate...the ability to be and to judge oneself." (3)

In our cartoon, more likely than not, the character chooses the angel. Children are brought up to follow this example, to choose good over evil. But the question should not be if what we are doing will get us a reward or a punishment, the question is how will this action or inaction affect our humanity. People are not mice going through a maze to get a piece of cheese. People are people. We live our lives trying to be human. That means doing things without a pat on the back, but with the satisfaction we did something right.

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