DRMacIver's Notebook

Chatting with your consciences

Chatting with your consciences

From Voices: The Educational Formation of Conscience by Thomas F. Green, page 61:

The voices of conscience are various. There is no reason to believe either that they can be or that they ought to be always - or even very often - in agreement. [...] The aim is not to calm the quarrels of conscience, but to encourage their enlargement an their elaboration.

I talked before in How to be a better person that what we need is not just a theory of ethics but a practice of it. Green's book, Voices, is the closest I have to a book on that subject.

Voices is a book about philosophy of moral education that neatly sidesteps the question of what morality should be like by focusing on what it's actually like: Where, and how, do people learn their sense of moral?

Green argues that our experience of morality is structured around a number of different voices of conscience, which we learn in different contexts and communities, which each provide a sense of reflexive appraisal about what matters. We have e.g. a conscience of craft which tells us to feel pride in doing good work and to feel guilt about doing shoddy work. Lisa has written about these voices in more detail previously.

I've never entirely liked the metaphor of these consciences being a voice per se. The experience of conscience is, first and foremost, a felt sense (in the Gendlin sense - a felt bodily experience of your emotions), rather than a voice. But it is useful to think of them as being their own self-contained entity. An aspect of the way we are, as Meg-John Barker plural and in progress. Each of these "voices of conscience" can be thought of one of the various ways of being we can emobody at any given time, and we are constantly learning to be them.

Green is, here, arguing that we should embrace that plurality. If our conscience is intrinsically plural, then we should not expect those plural voices to agree all the time, so instead we should focus on getting them to disagree better:

The aim must be to make those quarrels more incisive, more rational, more passionate,more perceptive, more discerning, and more expansive in their scope.

I think for a lot of us engaging with our consciences is quite unpleasant, because we've developed very unhealthy relationships with guilt and shame. As a result, this exhortation to spend more time arguing with our conscience probably sounds deeply unpleasant.

One of the reasons I'm so big on the distinction between obligation and virtue is that I think part of the problem is that we overuse guilt in structuring our moral experience, which is why the process of engaging with morality is so unpleasant.

Guilt is important - it's a felt sense of having violated an obligation - but morality has to go above and beyond obligation. Obligation is a baseline of adequacy. Ideally we would aim beyond adequacy and into excellence, and we should feel good about being excellent.

Perhaps a key part of this is that our model for these disagreements between our voices of conscience is wrong. What if a conversation with our voices of conscience can just be an interesting discussion - a pleasant chat? Our voices may disagree, but are fundamentally on side with each other - they are us, and we should not hate parts of ourselves.

A disagreement between our consciences need not be an argument, let alone a fight, it can be a collaborative activity. If these disagreements are painful, we need better internal moderation skills.