Do we need a conscience?
The concept of “right” and “wrong” are pretty easy to grasp. Every day physical reality involves right and wrong choices all the time. For example, how do you get to the 7/11? Left turn? Right. Right turn? Wrong. All questions about physical reality can be answered correctly or incorrectly and most are pretty easy to verify.
But what about morality? How do we verify the statement that a particular action is morally right or wrong? That’s more difficult. Some people believe right and wrong come from a supreme being who provides the “correct” guidelines and tells us what to think. That’s a pretty childlike mindset. We’ve all been told what is right or wrong by our parents. We were usually rewarded or punished based on which one we choose. No wonder so many look to “god” to give them a moral compass. It’s the first thing we learned about morality.
Friedrich Nietzsche made a distinction between good-bad and good-evil. The former involved competence. You can be a good or bad dancer, soccer player, writer, etc. The other duality involves morality, meaning, not how well you do something but whether you should do it at all. The underlying assumption is that one has the ability, the power to do something. But there are laws or rules that would stay one’s hand even if one is able to do whatever. Nietzsche named these two sets of opposites “master morality” and “slave morality.” The master does whatever he is able to do. The slave does what he ought to do. The reason the latter is called “slave morality” is the assumption that rules concerning what one should do are usually preached and imposed by those who aren’t able to do it. By telling those who can, not to do something, those who can’t gain power over the former.
Nietzsche preferred master morality and saw slave morality as a way inferior beings could control their betters. That ethic has been called “Might Makes Right.” Of course, there are various ways of achieving might. A large group that works together can have greater might than an individual who is just by himself. Society is more powerful than a single person. Those who buck the rules of society are penalized by that society. Everyone has a will to power regardless of whether he is a “master” or a “slave.” The slaves get power by imposing their own morality on those who could have power over them if they just resorted to their abilities being the stronger of the two. Robert Hare described it by imagining what a mouse might be thinking when a cat is coming after him, “The mouse tries to impart it’s own values on the cat. The cat has a set of values of it’s own based on it’s evolution. So we have predators and prey.” Of course, mice can’t really impart values on predators. But people are very good at that very thing.
Nietzsche blamed Jews for subverting the classic, pagan cultures of the Greeks and Romans by substituting “good-evil” for “good-bad” by means of Christianity. Although Christian values are used to stay the hand of the strong against the weak, stronger people have managed to insert their own will to power into Christian societies. Such societies have a complicated set of rules of right and wrong which often favor the strong over the weak. Power in such societies is hierarchical. Still, values based on empathy are recognized and can be resorted to by those who want to change the balance of power in favor of those lacking in it.
The Golden Rule is a powerful statement placing empathy in a position of importance in determining morality. As stated in Matthew, the rule is “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” Seeing oneself in others is the key to morality derived from empathy.
The philosophy of Thelema, formulated by Aleister Crowley, is critical of Christianity and says, instead of following a list of rules, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law, love under will.” “Will” in this context refers to a certain kind of awareness called “true will” which really means alignment with the “will” of the universe. Everyone is a sovereign being (“Every man and woman is a star”) but, unless one is in touch with his “true will,” he is out of step with what might be called “divine will.” “The entire momentum of the universe” is behind those who do their “true will.” In other words, a Thelemite is still doing the will of God. However, as Robert Heinlein stated in Stranger in a Strange Land, “Thou art God.” Everyone is (or can be) the deity. The idea that everyone is God is popular in New Age thinking. Thelema is really a form of New Age philosophy. Only it is called The Age of Horus.
It is commonly thought that the key to conscience is empathy. The Golden Rule makes a lot of common scense. It is fair. In a democratic society, everyone has the same rights. Or should have. Once the Divine Rights of Kings went the way of the Dodo Bird, it just made sense that everyone was equal. Every man and woman is a star. Of course, it doesn’t mean we all have the same ability. The Book of the Law has a lot of warlike pronoucements, “love is the law” notwithstanding.
“Therefore the kings of the earth shall be Kings for ever: the slaves shall serve. There is none that shall be cast down or lifted up: all is ever as it was. Yet there are masked ones my servants: it may be that yonder beggar is a King. A King may choose his garment as he will: there is no certain test: but a beggar cannot hide his poverty.
“59. Beware therefore! Love all, lest perhance is a King concealed! Say you so? Fool! If he be a King, thou canst not hurt him.
“60. Therefore strike hard & low, and to hell with them, master!” (Book II)
The New Age is basically mystical and mysticism is solipsistic. Everything is itself and it’s opposite. Charlie Manson identified himself with Love. If everything is one, the language of duality is meaningless.
What is Conscience? do we need it?
Do we know what is right or wrong? Do we care? Do we have empathy? Does empathy make people any kinder? Psychopaths are feared because we have neither empathy nor conscience. Some psychopaths have done done terrible things. Some of us have led rational and reasonable lives. Some have contributed to society, pursuing careers and taking good care of ourselves. Some of us are Christians. Many are atheists. Some are Thelemites. Some are Wiccans. No doubt, some are Muslims. On the other hand, some people with empathy and conscience have been terrible people. But it is the crimes of psychopaths that fascinate the world.