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My Little Buddy
I have often joked with my family and others about ‘My Little Man’ and how he helps guide me through life, ringing alarm bells when things are wrong and sitting quietly or throwing a party when things go right. First of all let me clarify what I mean by My Little Man, so this article doesn’t immediately go some place that I don’t want it to go ... when I say My Little Man, I am referring to the little guy (or girl) who sits on my shoulder and ‘helps’ me make decisions.
Just for the record, I do not hear voices !!
The correct term for my little buddy is my conscience and I have to admit I was shocked to find out how many people are aware of their little helper and choose to ignore him (or her).
Sigmund Freud regarded conscience as originating in the superego (Id, ego, and super-ego are the three parts of the "psychic apparatus" defined in Freud's so-called structural model of the psyche; they are the three theoretical constructs in terms of whose activity and interaction mental life is described. According to this model, the uncoordinated instinctual trends are the "id"; the organized realistic part of the psyche is the "ego," and the critical and moralizing function the "super-ego.1"), which takes its cue from one's upbringing during childhood. According to Freud, the consequence of not obeying our conscience is "guilt," which can be a factor in the development of neurosis. One's conscience is a societal construction which keeps one operating under the social ideology through the negative-feedback system of guilt.2
Apparently discussions about our conscience and its role in determining whether our actions are right or wrong has been around for a long time.
Before we get into that, I thought that I would provided the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definition of conscience for you, mostly because I thought it was interesting and also because it was an excellent segway into the reason that I wrote this article. Here is the definition ...
Main Entry: con·science
1 a: the sense or consciousness 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 b: a faculty, power, or principle enjoining good acts c: the part of the superego in psychoanalysis that transmits commands and admonitions to the ego 2archaic: CONSCIOUSNESS 3: conformity to the dictates of conscience: CONSCIENTIOUSNESS 4: sensitive regard for fairness or justice: SCRUPLE
A faculty, a power, maybe even a sixth sense ... the reason I wrote this article is because I have seen so many people over the years searching for that edge (i.e. advantage) to help them be successful in both business and/or life, it amazes me that these same people don’t pay attention to their Little Man ... I wanted to throw my two cents into the ring. I believe that the edge so many of us are looking for is right in front of us (so to speak), and we are for the most part, ignoring it !!
Think this is a foolish concept ? Before you make up your mind, let’s look at some of the historical thoughts behind the power of our conscience.
St. Thomas Aquinas (an Italian Catholic priest in the Dominican Order, a philosopher and theologian in the scholastic tradition, known as Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Universalis and Doctor Communis. He was the foremost classical proponent of natural theology, and the father of the Thomistic school of philosophy and theology3) claimed that conscience was “reason making right decisions”. He still argued that, if one is doing good, then it must come from God.
For Aquinas, our God-given reason, by synderesis, has an innate awareness of good and evil that cannot be mistaken – we all have this ability to distinguish from good and evil in the same quantity, and feel a moral obligation to avoid evil and pursue goodness. Aquinas also described synderesis as an awareness of the five primary precepts as proposed in his theory of Natural Law (a theory that posits the existence of a law whose content is set by nature and that therefore has validity everywhere 4).
Aquinas referred to the conscience as the conscientia and defined it as the acting out of the information given by synderesis, or the process of judgment which acts upon synderesis - the "application of knowledge to activity."
Aquinas also discussed the virtue of prudence to explain why some people appear to be less 'morally enlightened' than others. Prudence is the most important of all virtues, as it helps us balance our own needs with those of others and to reason out the knowledge of synderesis. Our conscience may be mistaken if we haven't acquired enough of the virtue of prudence, which can lead to a breakdown of communication between synderesis and conscientia.
To clarify things, take the analogy of a locked safe. The safe itself is the moral knowledge of synderesis, the key to the safe of moral knowledge is the virtue of prudence, and the hands of practical application apply the key to unlock the safe is the conscientia.
Aquinas reasoned that acting contrary to your conscience is an evil action, since although it may be mistaken at times it is our only guide. The 'erring conscience' as Aquinas termed it, explains the differences that may arise in different people's conscientia. You have an erring conscience if you are mistaken or confused about the moral course of action. The question could be raised however: is an erring conscience blameworthy? For Aquinas, an erring conscience is only blameworthy if it is the result of culpable or vincible ignorance of factors that are within one's duty to have knowledge of. If however, an erring conscience is the result of an invincible ignorance of factors that are beyond your control, your actions are not culpable. One must also be aware of Aquinas’ distinction between real and apparent goods. Although real goods are from God, apparent goods (when we follow the wrong path believing it to be a real good) are not. An erring conscience may lead us down the path of an apparent good, which will not lead to human flourishing.
Aquinas reasoned that we should educate our consciences in order to act well and align our actions towards the highest good. Although conscience should be applied before an action, it may also retrospectively cause feelings of guilt or satisfaction.
Joseph Butler (an English bishop, theologian, apologist, and philosopher5) argued that conscience is God-given and should always be obeyed. Butler also said that it is intuitive, as we have the ability to perceive things beyond empirical evidence, and therefore it is considered the ‘constitutional monarch’ and the ‘universal moral faculty’. It would appear that Butler is in striking accordance with Situation Ethics – Fletcher (an American professor who founded the theory of situational ethics in the 1960s, and was a pioneer in the field of bioethics6), which may have played some part in this. Butler refers to the use of ‘self-love’ and ‘benevolence’ in conscience, which can be attributed to the Agape of Situational ethics. As Situational ethics is teleological and assesses each scenario on an individual basis, it would stand to reason that it supports the use of conscience in every decision. However, as Vardy claims, there is no such thing as a conscience in Situational ethics – only the attempts of making appropriate decisions in situations. One could argue that these ‘attempts’ are in fact the conscience itself, and it therefore does support its use in decision-making.
According to Simon Soloveychik (a Russian publicist, educator and philosopher7) the truth distributed in the world, as the statement about human dignity, as the affirmation of the line between good and evil - lives in people as conscience. Millions of people for thousands of years sought the truth and reached it, and so, gradually the common knowledge (science), the common message about the truth was defined - con-science.
He stated that conscience - is a common, one for all, knowledge about what good is and what evil is for humankind. Not for a man, not for his time, not for a group of men, but for humankind as a whole. As language, conscience is individual in each person and it is common for all.
He explained that the truth-conscience enters the man not with genes and not by upbringing: if conscience depended on upbringing then many people would not have known about it at all. It enters the man with a bearer of the common knowledge of good and evil, of the truth - with a common thing - human language. To his opinion, the answer about human conscience is as follows: a man obtains the moral law, which is conscience, through his native language. His consciousness, his self-consciousness, and his soul are forming during the obtaining of speech, his consciousness and his speech - are practically the same thing. In speech and in the language all major images of good and evil, the concept of the truth as well as a concept of the law is available; these concepts and images are becoming a child's own consciousness similar to language. Studying language, its lively phrases, its proverbs, perceiving the folklore, art and literature of his nation, a child is absorbing a common message of good and evil, - his conscience - and besides, he doesn't notice that, it seems to him that conscience occurred somehow by itself.
Soloveychik wrote, "A child sinking in a moral atmosphere of language and culture absorbs drops of the ocean of public consciousness. Genius people by their immense life work raises to such highs of the truth, that these great people are called the conscience of humankind. But both a two year old child, who feels something similar to a sense of guilt for the first time, and a well-known writer, who is called a guardian of human conscience, drink from the same source of common human knowledge of the truth." 2
Finally, the specific date of birth of Lao Tzu is unknown. Legends vary, but scholar’s place his birth between 600 and 300 B.C.E. Lao Tzu is attributed with the writing of the “Tao-Te Ching,” (tao—meaning the way of all life, te—meaning the fit use of life by men, and ching—meaning text or classic). Lao Tzu was not his real name, but an honorific given the sage, meaning “Old Master.”
If you aren’t sold by now ... then you probably never will be, but if you are then maybe you have a new addition to add to your collection of resources ... Your Little Man.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not for a moment declaring that we abandon our empirical tools for successful decision making in business or in life ... but I am suggesting that there is more involved in the decision making process than what we can see or touch, there is also (as Lao Tzu said) intuition and faith in our personal power.
When all is said and done, listen to your Little Man (or Woman) ... he or she may know something you don’t.
1. Superego: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superego
2. Conscience: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscience
6 Joseph Fletcher: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Fletcher
7. Simon Soloveychik: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Soloveychik
All pictures are royalty free.
Many more articles in Ethics in The CEO Refresher Archives