Consulting the Conscience

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.1

This advice, given by Polonius to his son in Hamlet, provides a means to harmonize our relationship with the world and one’s inner self. But what does the advice actually mean? Indian philosopher A. Parthasarathy comments on the above quotation:

Be guided by the voice of your own conscience and conviction in thought, word, and deed.  Never falter in this discipline.  Your life will then be truthful and fruitful.2

Following this advice requires distinguishing conscience from conviction. Both are expressions of the same human faculty: the intellect, the fundamental function of which is discrimination. However, the intellect has been designated as either gross or subtle depending upon its area of operation. Understanding these areas of operation requires an understanding of the two components of the human experience.

Experiences arise as the ‘union’ of subject and object. The object is the world, termed dvandvas in Sanskrit, meaning pairs-of-opposites. The world comprises a multitude of opposites: war-peace, wealth-poverty, hot-cold, health-illness, joy-sorrow, fame-infamy, morality-immorality, and so on. This realm of operation is known as the terrestrial, and discrimination within these pairs is the function of the gross intellect. The gross intellect discriminates from the simplest functions of daily living to the most complex themes of (say) science and technology.

The gross intellect develops a conviction in life: a conclusion regarding the appropriate direction for one’s activities, arrived at by sincere and deliberate questioning and reasoning. A strong intellect will form resilient and healthy convictions, without developing fanaticism. A weak intellect’s convictions are either fanatically-held; or flimsy and capricious, changing according to the whims of the mind or the direction of the herd. Hence the need to develop one’s critical thinking capacities from an early age.

The subtle intellect is present in every human being but is rarely recognized. The subtle intellect posits the Transcendental in contrast to the terrestrial. Transcendental refers to the Subject contacting the terrestrial world, and imbues all experience with the sense of subjectivity. That Subject is one’s own Self, and stands entirely apart from the terrestrial, transcending ego and individual perspective. It is recognized through consistent application of self-development practices to reduce mental agitation, followed by meditation. The implications of the subtle intellect are thus far-reaching for individual self-development and spiritual growth. However, this blog focuses only on one aspect of the subtle intellect: the conscience.

Conscience is said to be ‘the voice of the subtle intellect,’ and its significance lies in revealing the relationship between the choices we make and our resulting mental state. Just as a compass always points north, the conscience is always directed towards the inner Self, away from terrestrial gain/loss, away from the limited, egocentric perspective. When we violate our own ethical standards, the conscience reveals this to us as disturbing feelings of remorse, regret, guilt. These feelings prompt us to retrospectively analyze the quality of our choices and the intentions behind them. For example, a businessman who recognizes corruption as a moral weakness may yet accept a bribe because the temptation of individual gain is more that he can withstand. After the fact, he becomes disturbed by feelings of guilt and paranoia. An examination of conscience would reveal the cause of the mental agitation, enabling a corrective course of action to be taken.

However, of greater significance than enabling post hoc analysis is the potential for the conscience to discern the quality of an action before it is executed. As soon as we seriously consider executing a particular action, the conscience reacts and ‘speaks’ through foreshadowed feelings of unease and remorse. And yet we ignore these warnings, disregarding our own wise counsel. Thus the violation of one’s own ethical standards occurs because egocentric desire and attachment are felt as more urgently pressing. They consume and divert one’s attention, and thus the voice of the subtle intellect is drowned out by the noise of desire. An analogy is given to illustrate this concept. Imagine a busy market-place. Sellers hawk their wares, buyers haggle and argue over price, friends debate and discuss the times. Amongst the throng a young boy sits alone, having been separated from his father. He calls out, ‘Father, I’m here, where are you?’ Yet the noise of the busy market-place renders his efforts futile. His father may be just one stall away, yet cannot hear his calls. As afternoon cools into evening, buyers and sellers start to head home. The throng thins out, the noise reduces. In that quietude the boy’s voice comes through clear and sharp, and he has no trouble being heard and found by the father.

This example begins to illustrate why we are advised to confirm our conviction before consulting conscience. The conscience can only be discerned in a calm mind. A mind even moderately busy with the noise of personal interests will drown out the message of the conscience. In fact, the problem of an agitated mind is not just in rendering the conscience inaudible. The mind’s feelings may be mistaken for the conscience, and justify an action that it does not support. Since the mind can only function through memory, it will react to a potential choice of action based on past experiences. The feelings and emotions that arise will thus conform to existing preferences and aversions, which bear no necessary connection to our higher ethical standards. (Recall the example: the businessman’s mind felt good about the financial gain despite knowing better). People often speak of being guided by their ‘gut instinct’ or ‘intuition.’ However, with an agitated mind there is no way to discern between the mind’s feeling and the guidance of the conscience. The process of questioning helps to both quell and rise above the agitations of the mind; while also providing reasons that support or oppose a particular course of action.

Only the intellect can question. Questioning therefore provides the impetus for this ‘shifting of gears,’ from the reactive, agitated mind to the intellect. As we withdraw identification with the mind’s emotion and feeling, we cease to ‘feed the flames,’ and agitations naturally calm down.

The Process: Conviction then Conscience

Arriving at a conviction involves first discerning possible courses of action, then weighing their different facets, including the mind’s reaction to each option. Understanding the mind enables us to discount any potential bias towards choices that merely cater to likes-dislikes.

Proposed choice of action:
What am I considering doing?

Consequences; Pros & cons:
Who would be affected and how, both positively, and negatively?
What is the effect of rejecting this action?
What effect would it have on the external environment, including various relationships?

Internal motivation
Why would I do it? What am I trying to achieve?
How does it relate to my likes-dislikes?
Is it my obligation? How does it relate to my goals and ideals in life?

This analysis allows us to envisage ourselves carrying out the various options. Aside from revealing any mental bias for or against a particular course of action, it also offers the opportunity to reconcile ourselves to carrying out each option. Accepting each possibility puts them on a more equal footing, and de-emphasizes the mind’s preferences.

In most cases, exhaustively investigating each possible course of action yields an obvious conclusion as to what ought to be done. However, in rare cases the intellect may still be unclear. It is at this point that we are advised to consult the conscience. By this time, certain options will have been discarded through questioning, limiting the choice to the bare minimum. Further, the period of quiet self-reflection is a time to dispassionately weigh arguments for and against.  Thus to some extent we will have ‘disconnected’ from egocentric preferences, reducing the bias and agitation they bring.  Finally, the failure to arrive at a conclusion is a humbling recognition of the limitation of our current reasoning ability, and our need for further guidance. In that mental state of relative quiet and receptivity, the conscience has the best chance of being accurately discerned.

In consulting the conscience, the question under consideration is succinctly posed to oneself. The message of the conscience then rises to the surface with a feeling of certainty and rightness. Although we borrow the term ‘feeling’ here, the conscience is more than the feelings that we are used to experiencing as our daily emotional reactions. While most feelings are personalized reactions to circumstance, which themselves become stimuli for further reactions, the message of the conscience is received with quiet equanimity. To hear the conscience is to at once know what ought to be done, to feel it, and to be reconciled to it.

1 Shakespeare. Hamlet. Act 1, Sc.3, 78-82

2 A. Parthasarathy. (2004). Select English Poems. A. Parthasarathy, Mumbai.