Conscience is that part of our mind that provides our moral compass. Now, morals have to do with societal norms and standards. And norms have a habit of changing over time. Still, some values and principles have long endured. That’s because they’ve proven their social merit. Forming a good conscience is largely about taking these timeless values and principles to heart. First, we bother to learn and understand them. Then, we freely make them a part of our overall belief system. It’s this belief system that guides our social behavior.
Conscience and Character
Character disturbance largely results from poor conscience formation. And there are many factors that can contribute to this. However, to fully understand these factors we first have to overcome some misconceptions.
For a long time, we thought everyone had a conscience. In fact, many thought a sense of right and wrong was innate – simply built into all of us. Accordingly, we believed that even the seriously character disturbed among us had some sense of right and wrong. So, what made them behave so badly? Well, we also thought them too quick to unconsciously employ various primitive defenses to escape pangs of guilt and shame. (The ego defenses of denial and rationalization being principal among them.) Today we know better. Sadly, some folks simply don’t have much of an internal ethical guide.
Why don’t some folks develop a good moral compass? Why do they so often do bad things to themselves and, especially, to others? The underlying reasons vary. In some cases, superego development wasn’t nurtured very well. In other cases, trauma arrested its development. Some folks are predisposed to actively resist (i.e. fight) the socialization process. (See: Aggressive Personalities.) Moreover, in extreme cases the very capacity to form a good conscience is lacking or even absent. This is hard to accept. But there’s solid research to back it up.
As I assert in all my books, workshops, and other writings, character disturbance exists along a continuum. Accordingly, the more lacking in conscience a person is, the more character-impaired they’re likely to be.
Conscientiousness is mindfulness guided by conscience. I’ve written about mindfulness before. (See, for example: Self-Mastery Requires Mindfulness.) It plays a key role in learning control over your impulses. (See also: Thinking First, Impulse Control, and Mindfulness and Mindfulness through Empathy.) Conscientious folks exercise diligence and self-discipline. They’re not just mindful about the things they do. Their values drive them to do the more noble thing.
You can be too conscientious. That’s the case with the folks I describe in Character Disturbance as neurotic. Overly conscientiousness folks are mindful individuals with overactive or even oppressive consciences. They put all sorts of undue pressure on themselves. Consequently, they end up quite anxious and miserable.
Character-impaired folks aren’t mindful and they lack conscience, too. Consequently, they’re not very conscientious at all. They not only act on impulse but do so without reservation. Sometimes, they can experience some after-the-fact regret. That is, when their behavior has cost them enough. But that doesn’t keep them from acting irresponsibly again.
Disturbed characters know how to spot the conscientious. And they’re eager to exploit and abuse them. Sadly, sometimes overly conscientious folks delude themselves. They think they can “fix” the morally broken among us.
A Not Uncommon Scenario
A woman once told me she simply had to take charge of the bills because her husband “never learned” the importance of paying them. And she believed if she set a good model, in time, he’d learn. In fact, he always knew that if the electric bill weren’t paid, the power might go off. (He’d experienced that many times before.) But he also knew how conscientious his wife was. He knew she’d be sure the money was there and that the bill was paid on time. And he was happy to let her shoulder all the household responsibilities. That left him free to go about his daily business of self-gratification and indulgence. The problem was never that he was unaware. The problem was that he didn’t care. He didn’t have to. In her over-conscientiousness, she did all the caring for everyone.
Responsible characters have mastery over their appetites and aversions. And they’re mindful, value-driven folks who voluntarily exert control over their impulses. To do both of the aforementioned things requires that we properly exercise our will. And that’s next “commandment” of good character we’ll begin discussing next week.
Check out the two new additions to the 2019 workshop schedule on the seminars & workshops page.