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Is Conscience a Product of Internalised Prohibition?

Another major moderating agent of the instincts and impulses of the human psyche is moral conscience. Since the beginning of man's appearance on the earth until today long ages have passed and man has throughout been inclined towards goodness and abhorred vice. He has always heard an inner moral voice calling from within called 'conscience'. His rational life throughout the ages has existed by the side of the life of conscience.

When man can distinguish between thorns and flowers, avoiding the former and relishing the latter, when he can distinguish between filth and cleanliness, certainly he does not confuse between virtue and vice. The fundamental nature of the conscience is one of the most attractive phenomena of creation.

Man in a state of spiritual equilibrium is attracted to honesty and justice and is repelled by dishonesty and injustice. In fact moral conviction is more pronounced than rational conviction, which has a definite value for ascertaining facts. That is because the mind is well aware that the knowledge of external objects perceived by it, which carries the stamp of conviction put on it by the intellect, pertains to a reality separate from and external to the mind, where as the certainty created by the conscience stands above the kind of certainty that goes with perception and observation. In the case of moral conviction, the object is felt as a part of the subject.

Some psychoanalysts, like Freud and his followers, deny that moral conscience is inherent in man. They believe that repressed wishes and social inhibitions that become deposited in the unconscious mind make up what is called 'conscience'. In other words, conscience is a product of civilisation and has no essential roots in the human psyche.

Freud in his psychological investigations and analysis of various phenomena looks for sexual roots and pays no attention to other inner factors that form the source of good and bad actions.

There has been no society in the world that may consider dishonesty, injustice and breach of trust as something good and honourable, or honesty, justice and loyalty as bad and improper, or one which should consider its welfare and felicity to lie in vices and moral evils.

Freud's theory would be applicable if man had learnt to distinguish between good and evil through experience. But those virtues and vices which have been recognised by all men on the surface of the earth, civilised and savage, and even by peoples ignorant of the teachings of prophets and reformers, can never be said to be products of social prohibitions and repressed impulses.

Freud's denial of the innate nature of conscience-in the sense understood by ethics-and his degradation of the human being to an assembly of purely physical impulses and instincts, leads him inevitably to a total negation of all moral values and spirituality as well as the worth and sublimity of man's sacred urges so active in the depths of his psyche. This denial makes all its manifestations, such as compassion, justice, goodness, and helpfulness for the weak and the helpless, meaningless and absurd.

On the basis of such a doctrine, no one can take a step towards the world of spiritual and moral values without repressing his natural urges and instincts and forego pleasures by relying on his will power. Rather, according to it, all inner restraints are totally a product of external forces of social compulsion.

Should the conscience be considered a product of the forces of external environment, the actions of those who without any selfish benefit in view voluntarily deny themselves many pleasures for the sake of attaining to higher ideals and goals, and put up with pains and sufferings in the way of higher interests, remain unexplained by Freud's inadequate ideas, which view them as a subterfuge of the unconscious as a compensation for repressed wishes. The majesty of surrender to the guidance of the conscience will always remain a difficult and insoluble enigma for such theories.

The great reformers who have been humanity's vanguard have drawn the people to the world of human purity. The people too did not submit to these leaders in the way tyrants and strongmen are obeyed. Man takes to the path of merit and edification voluntarily and out of his free will and love for sublimity, and he refrains from carrying out some of his carnal impulses without confronting any psychic complex. It is with voluntarily zeal and enthusiasm that he responds to his sublime human feelings and performs goodly services which have not been forced upon him by custom, religion and society.

These are facts which show that man's inner psychic reality is not made up of a dark, pleasure-seeking principle pursuing merely the fulfilment of base desires; rather there is also grounded in him the urge for the highest good. There is a principle within him that is an independent source of virtuous actions and conduct. It is the conscience that reminds him that everything in life is not to be sought for selfish ends and that life is not mere pursuit of desires.

There are many individuals in the world who consider a life devoid of conscience to be a disgrace and an affront to their personal dignity as human beings. They are prepared to forego life and embrace death but are not ready to violate their conscience. When they perform a good deed by following their inner impulse, they have such a profound feeling of its worth and beauty that they would not be prepared to exchange the value of that moment of life for the entire world.

Had the foundation of man's personality been a subjective principle of an infantile character in which the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain are the only functions that count, man's science and industry would not have attained such a level of progress and development.

Adapted from: "Ethics and Spiritual Growth" by: "Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari"

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