You refrain from making prohibited right-on-red turns, even when the way is clear and there are no police around. You follow the laws and pay your taxes, on time and without exaggerating deductible expenses. You tell the truth, even when it’s hard and you could probably get away with lying.
You behave this way not because you’re worried about a deity watching over you, ready to punish your sins, and not because a lengthy prison sentence is at stake. You do it because you have a conscience.
Ever wish you were free of this limitation? Free to reap the apparent benefits of shamelessness, from skipping to the front of lines to making money off people by deceiving and harming them?
I suspect most of us find the thought attractive at times. But freedom from conscience is nothing to wish for. It’s our consciences that keep the world turning.
The profits of ‘sin‘
As I think about Putin’s war on Ukraine, about Trump’s continued evasion of legal charges, about media outfits like Fox News profiting off the anger they sow and falsehood they spread—about everyday people I’ve known who get a step ahead by cheating—I wonder if conscientiousness doesn’t burden its practitioners with a substantial disadvantage.
As declared by a recent New York Times headline, this is an age of high-profile impunity. How about some impunity for me!
As I drive in my East Coast city of residence, where people frequently stop their cars and block traffic wherever, whenever they want and blow through red lights when it suits them, I ask whether I’m not subjecting myself to a lot of time-sapping inconvenience by virtue of being a (mostly) legal and considerate driver.
How much time and hassle might I save if I availed myself of these same practices? How much farther might I get in life—how much richer!—if I took what I wanted, whenever I wanted it, and freed myself from having to worry about how my actions might affect other people?
Alas, I know I’d be stressed out if I stopped in the middle of the road and blocked traffic to figure out why my playlist stopped playing or to wait for the friend I’m picking up to finally emerge from his door. I’d be worried and sleepless if I were running complicated schemes to advance myself and my bank balances and to avoid getting caught.
All those other drivers honking their horns at me, mad at me? No thanks. All those complicated stories to keep straight—what I said to whom about these or those machinations and fabrications? Please, no.
Those of us “burdened” by a conscience know we’d feel bad if we screwed someone out of money or extricated ourselves from trouble by falsely pinning blame on someone else.
Feel bad? It might sound corny to think of it this way. Do you think Trump or Putin lets himself be restrained by something so weak as “feeling bad”?
We must not stop feeling bad when we’ve done something bad. And allowing the prospect of it to motivate moral decision-making.
We must not forget what a good feeling it is to have our consciences clean.
‘Getting away with murder’
It’s good to interrogate our conscience, of course. To what degree is it full of harmful myths shoved down our throats by our upbringing or the media we consume? Or—better—filled with carefully cultivated ethics and values that reflect the truest part of ourselves and your identity?
For example, if our conscience tells us we’re bad for not attending church on Sunday mornings, even though we’ve searched our “souls” and discovered that secularity is our truth, we should stop listening to our conscience, at least on that score.
But when our conscience makes a good point and we can’t silence the nagging, I suggest we listen and take heed.
And when we envy people who seem to be “getting away with murder,” we ought to consider the price they pay.
Take Trump. Sure, he’s made shamelessness his “superpower.” He derives undeniable advantage from his willingness to say or do anything. Look at his life: fame, wealth, rounds of golf at all the best courses (which he happens to own), four years in the highest political office in the land.
Look at his life: a constant churn of anger, turmoil, envy, conflict, and legal threats closing in on him.
Personally, I don’t want Trump’s life or his so-called superpower.
You’re stuck with your conscience. Appreciate it.
For those of us stuck with a conscience, it would be nice to know we’re being rewarded for our efforts to be moral and ethical.
We are, actually. But before contemplating the nature of those rewards, let’s consider a fascinating reality about the way evolution shaped our brains. For most humans most of the time, conscientious behavior is not driven primarily by rewards and punishment.
Aside from born sociopaths and those who have had their consciences beaten out of them by hardship and trauma, humans try to do good and be good because it’s our evolutionary heritage. Conscientiousness is our nature. We value decency and altruism as intrinsically good, and we expect them from ourselves as well as from others.
Perhaps surprisingly, research in the field of social psychology finds that rewarding conscientious people causes them to lose interest in doing the good they’re otherwise inclined to do.
Which is to say: Our consciences have a pretty serious hold on us. We couldn’t ditch them even if we tried.
But I don’t think we’d want to. Not after we’d worked it all out.
A human being should be glad to have a conscience. It’s a good thing, in and of itself.
And while conscientiousness is not motivated by the prospect of rewards, I suggest there are benefits—immense benefits—from being conscientious, and it’s more than OK to remind ourselves of them, to celebrate them, in low moments when it feels like the Machiavellians are taking advantage of us and winning the game.
We get to live in a society that still sort of works. Because of us. The world is a mess, but it would be a far bigger mess, no world at all, really, if all or most people did life without a conscience. There is definitely too much red-light running and crazy driving in my city. But I can still get from A to B for the most part—because most people are still driving legally most of the time. Imagine the roads if everyone drove like aggressive maniacs.
As a species, our real “superpower” is conscientiousness, not shamelessness. Our consciences are the glue that holds our communities and world together. It’s how we got this far as a species and it’s how we will survive.