A Humble Attempt to Break down Conscience

In this piece of writing, I want to break down my understanding of the process of constructing a more reasonable and just conscience based on three levels of conscience coined by Timothy O’Connell: First, establish a general moral standard through understanding basic human rights. Second, applying the theories into the real world to form a more practical approach towards fighting against oppression to refine the moral standards constructed based on theories. Third, in the face of challenges, violence, and disapproval from the majority, we learn to stay true to our beliefs and always do what we believe is right. This definition or concept, however, has to be complemented with the use of critical thinking skills to deal with a couple of shortfalls of this process. In Richard Paul’s work Critical Thinking: What, Why, and How, he laid out 7 criteria for a critical thinker: intellectual humility, intellectual courage, intellectual Empathy, Integrity, Intellectual perseverance, faith in reason, and intellectual Sense of justice (54).

First, we form a moral foundation through learning about basic human rights and obtain the essential tool of critical thinking that helps refine and expand our conscience in units 2 and 3. In “Conscience,” McBrien introduced O’Connell’s understanding of conscience: “A the first and most general level, conscience is a fundamental sense of value and of personal responsibility” (1002). This definition made it clear that one’s conscience, as generally believed, is the basic moral sense of what is right and wrong, and how do we be a virtuous person or how to deal with injustice. In the beginning, most of us might think that experiences with a religious community or general knowledge already indoctrinated an impeccable moral standard in us and there would be nothing too radical to find when we reaccess our conscience through reading renowned texts concerned with human nature and freedom in soeicty. At least, I soon came to see that I failed to recognize the biases and narrowmindedness formed alongside many toxic social values. The solution, as I realized when reflecting at the end of the semester, is intellectual humility, which Paul defined as “awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively” (54). This awareness was consolidated by my reading of Allegory of the Cave, which used vivid and accurate imagery to help us conceptualize our limited vision at the beginning of the course. As the cavemen who never saw daylight and are only internalizing projected views controlled by others, our understanding of the world and social issues are often contaminated with western paternity and idealism as we grow up in a well-developed country and never needed to worry about enduring oppression or poverty (Plato). By opening up ourselves to see our narrowmindedness and biases, we can become more ready to critically and objectively analyze the hard topics and accept the “new” understandings we discussed later in the course. More importantly, we can reaccess our morality to construct a more nuanced and merited conscience, exploring beyond our preconceived notions. With this awareness of our susception to prejudices, the letter Pacem in Terries helped established the agreement that to treat one as fully human we need to ensure all basic necessities including food, shelter, medical treatment, clothes, are met. On top of that, all people deserve freedom of speech and publication, equal opportunity, and the right to truth and information (Pope John XXIII, par. 11). In this concept, people are not limited to individuals that fit into the common definition of “human,” but also include those with free will and a high level of intelligence. With this common understanding, all humans should concur that assistance must be provided to people who are disabled and discriminated against and laws that illegitimately censor speech or ban peaceful protests. This understanding was again reinforced and deepened by the experiences of the protagonist in The Elephant Man, who is acknowledged to be fully human and deserves to be treated justly. Expanding on basic human rights and characteristics of humanity, one should realize that humans are inevitably influenced by physical desires and spiritual pursuits, so one should seek religious guidance when encountering moral dilemmas or temptations rather than worldly values such as materialism and power-seeking. However, at this level of conscience, the practicality and precision of the values have not been examined.

The second step is to apply the theoretical knowledge to the real-world oppressive system to see conscience in action. “[people] will consult their own experiences, their parents, their colleagues, the findings of various scientific disciplines such as psychology.” This means the second level of conscience is to ground our newly formed theories in reliable evidence and experiences. By examining attempts of unsuccessful revolution to upend systems in Kaffier Boy and Dry White Season that result in intensified injustice, people will start to see the impracticality of directly preaching basic human rights or religious principles to induce a change-of-heart. In some cases, the entire class realized that defining oppression and freedom and categorizing who are oppressors and who are oppressed is difficult. This revealed an issue of the second level of conscience that O’Connell argued: such process of conscience-formation is subject to error of personal bias and limited knowledge, as McBrien points out (1002). However, one must deal with this challenge through exercising intellectual courage, which is “the willingness to face and assess fairly ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints to which we have not given a serious hearing, regardless of [one’s] strong negative reactions to them” (Paul, 54). There is no doubt that diverse opinions toward movies like Paradise Now, specifically regarding whether violence is justified and whether terrorism is reasonable under extreme conditions, will emerge. Yet, people need to discuss with open-mindedness how circumstances shape one’s behavior and moral standing, displaying intellectual courage and listening carefully to the merits in the opposite argument, such as the support the use of violence when “needed” and reflecting on how particular cases challenge the common understanding that all who use violence are nefarious. As we see conscience being carried out in radical action, we can start to examine how well our general moral standards established previously apply to real-world scenarios. If violence undoubtedly violates basic human rights by causing bodily harm and spiritual corruption, then how can victims get the justice they yearn for desperately? If people deserve to take responsibility for their wrongdoings, then who is responsible for civilian deaths? Those questions are presented straightforwardly in the second level of conscience, compelling us to recognize that oppression is not binary in the way that a group of people is either the oppressor or the victim. Reading books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed complicated the discussion: Freire argued that violence used by the oppressed to free all people, including the oppressors, is a justified act of love. Such arguments add nuances to our understanding of diverse approaches toward challenging oppressive systems, perceiving violence as a means to an end rather than the ultimate goal. All those discussions rooted in real-world struggles help put our moral codes into practical terms.

On to the third level of conscience, O’Connell said that one must “be true to oneself” to do things that we are convinced to be right (McBrien, 1002). In other words, the third level of conscience is centered within oneself and judged by spiritual righteousness rather than by social standards. This is made possible only if one intentionally practices intellectual perseverance. Intellectual perseverance refers to the “willingness to pursue intellectual insights and truths despite difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations” (Paul, 54). In the movie Romero, Father Oscar Romero experienced a transcendental transformation from a conservative and silent priest to a brave and adamant critic of the humanitarian violation in El Salvador. His strength came from realizing that his religion teaches believers to protect the vulnerable, feed the poor, and pacify the violent. Thus, being true to himself means carrying out those missions that he genuinely saw as morally just. By standing up unwaveringly in front of soldiers with loaded guns to retrieve crucifixes from the destroyed church, Romero achieved the third level of conscience. In fact, Romero not only saw a conflict between one’s own conscience and the social trend as reasonable but deemed it necessary. He said, “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what gospel is that?” (Romero). This stream of acute questions perfectly depicts the third level conscience, calling out individuals who succumb to fear of oppression and physical harm. When he resolutely criticized a man trying to resist the oppression with violence, he again stuck with his creed when society disvalues and mocks it with deaths and terror. While watching the movies of Romero and Gandhi, we are called to question more than one time how they can remain so hopeful in their nonviolent protests when the future is so bleak and victory so far away. However, as the movie progresses, one can gradually grasp the concept of real strength and authority. This was well explained in On Power, which defines authority as deriving from respect of the people for a cause or principle (Arendt). When using nonviolence to obtain justice, the followers of the movement know wholeheartedly that their actions are absolutely moral and justified, which gives them full courage and faith in their actions. In contrast, oppressors are confronted with the cruel reality that their exploitation is driven solely by self-interest and can never survive the judgment of their conscience, losing themselves in the spiral of power struggles. 

Though the discussion of conscience is only a small part of the exploration of social justice, human nature, freedom and oppression, I found it important because it directly shaped our moral values and can be directly projected to daily behaviors. Of course, my understanding of this complicated and fascinating topic is limited, but I am confident that critical thinking skills will certainly guide me and you on this journey.

Works Cited

  • Arendt, Hannah.  “On Power.” On Violence.  New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.  1970. Print.
  • Freire, Paulo.  “Preface” and “Chapter One.” Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2007.
  • Gandhi, Mohandas. “The Practice of Satyagraha.”  Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi.  Ed. Ronald Duncan.  Boston: Beacon, 1951. Print.
  • Gandhi. Dir. Richard Attenborough.  Perf. Ben Kingsley, Saeed Jaffrey, Alyque Padamsee, Roshan Seth, Rohini Hattangadi. Columbia Pictures, 1982. DVD.
  • John XXIII. Pacem in Terris: On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty. Encyclical Letter. 11 Apr. 1963. The Holy See.  <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jxxiii_enc_11041963_pacem_en.html&gt;.
  • Mathabane, Mark. Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Print.
  • McBrien, Richard P.  “Conscience.” Catholicism. Vol II. Minneapolis, MN:  Winston, 1980. Print.
  • Paradise Now. Dir. Hany Abu-Assad. Perf. Lubna Azabal , Kais Nashif, Ali Suliman. 2005. Augustus Films.
  • Paul, Richard W. Critical Thinking. Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA: Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, 1990. Print.
  • Plato.  “Allegory of the Cave.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.
  • Romero.  Dir. John Diugan.  Perf. Raul Julia, Richard Jordan, Ana Alicia, Eddie Velez, and Alejandro Bracho.  1989. Paulist Pictures, 2009. DVD
  • Shaull, Richard.  Foreword. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. By Paulo Freire. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.
  • The Elephant Man. Dir. David Lynch.  Perf. Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, and Sir John Gielgud. 1980.  Paramount Pictures, 2001. DVD.

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