Conscience is a universal experience that points to objective morality and God
During World War II the Japanese Navy transported Dutch prisoners-of-war in cargo ships from Indonesia to Thailand to make them work on a railway line that would connect Bangkok overland to India. Since the prisoners were usually kept below decks, Allied planes would attack the ships, and sink them with everybody on board.
Two Dutchmen, whom I will call Steve and Martin, were lucky enough to be scrubbing the upper deck during one such raid. It happened just before sunset. A bomber dived and released three bombs, one of which was a direct hit. It tore a huge hole in the ship’s hull so that the vessel began to capsize almost immediately.
Steve and Martin dropped their scrubbing brushes, ran to the railing and jumped over board. Martin had the presence of mind to grab a life saver that hung from the railing, before making the jump. It gave him a great advantage.
The ship sank within minutes. Both men struggled to regain their breath after the deep dive. Swimming in the rough, high sea proved very difficult. The few Japanese crew who survived had managed to put out a small life boat. They picked up their own survivors and disappeared in the dusk.
Steve, who was becoming extremely tired, noticed that Martin was propped up by the life-saver. He swam closer, and Martin grabbed his stretched out hand. But it soon became clear that the life saver, which was a simple ring made of cork, would not support both men at the same time.
On impulse, Steve wrenched the life saver from Martin and pushed him under water. Martin let go of the ring, crying out in shock and anger. Steve swam away as fast as he could. “Don’t leave me!”, Martin shouted after him, but Steve swam on. When he looked round he had a last view of Martin’s anguished and pleading face. Then they were separated by the waves.
It took Steve a full twenty-four hours before he was washed ashore near Atjeh on the northern coast of Sumatra. With the help of the local population he managed to escape discovery by the local Japanese garrison. After an eventful journey through the jungle, he made his way to an Allied army base at the other side of the island. There he was given a hero’s welcome.
After the war Steve received a medal for having shown courage and endurance in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Nobody knew what Steve had done to Martin, but he himself could never forget it.
Martin’s death remained on his conscience as an act of cowardice for which he could find no forgiveness. As Steve grew older, images of those dreadful moments would come back to haunt him. He would see Martin’s face and hear his anguished cry. Before he died, Steve made a full confession of what he had done. “I can fool the whole world, but I can’t fool God”, he said.
Steve’s story illustrates a general human experience. Whether we like it or not, we are censured by an inner judge who praises us when we do good and criticises us when we do wrong. We have a conscience which reminds us of the moral implications of our actions. Is it the voice of God?
Yes, says traditional religion. Or to be more precise: conscience echoes the presence of God in us. Conscience is the voice of our own reason which is aware of God and which reflects his judgment.
When a mother has told her ten-year old son who is left alone in the home, not to take biscuits from the tin, the child remains aware of this parental injunction. If he takes a cookie all the same, his mind keeps reminding him that mother disapproves. It makes the child feel fearful and guilty. His conscience reveals awareness of his parent’s will.
Could conscience work in this way on a deeper level?
Could conscience mean a profound awareness of our being responsible not just to earthly parents, or to our fellow human beings, but to a superior authority, the source of all truth and life, to God?
God is the ultimate basis of morality
Immanuel Kant, one of the patriarchs of modern thinking (1724 – 1804), pointed out that, when we accept free will, there must be an objective morality to guide it and that this requires a religious basis. He called it `the categorical imperative‘ and said it made him inevitably believe in the existence of God.
Kant’s fundamental tenet was that all our thinking is limited to sense experience and the realm of thought itself. Since we think in mental categories, our knowledge concerns ideas rather than reality in itself. Kant admitted that we have an idea of God which is an a basic concept unifying our whole world-view, but this idea could neither be proved nor disproved by any normal scientific proof.
According to Kant, God is the central idea in our mind. God is that on which everything that exists, depends. The idea of God makes it possible for our reason to consider all events, both external and internal, to belong to a greater unity. The idea of God is not fiction. On the other hand, as an idea God is not necessarily a reality. As far as pure reason goes, we only know God as a transcending thought, a unifying concept, a binding principle, an ideal.
“God is a mere ideal, yet an ideal without a flaw, a concept which completes and crowns the whole of human knowledge. Its objective reality cannot indeed be proved, but also cannot be disproved, by merely speculative reason.” (see: I.KANT, Critique of Pure Reason, London 1964, p. 531).
However, the reality of God can be proved in another way, Kant said. For next to pure reason, which concerns itself with scientific knowledge, we have practical reason which deals with how we need to act. After all, we have practical experience of how to survive in a complex world. This experience has its own logic. Practical reason, in fact, has priority over pure reason since our ultimate interests are always practical. Even knowledge has to find completion in practical realizations. Well, practical reason finds the fact of morality. “And it is morally necessary to assume the existence of God” (see: I.KANT, Critique of Practical Reason, London 1954, p. 222.).
Kant explains his reasoning as follows. Every human being has the undeniable experience of the voice of conscience. It demonstrates that we acknowledge an objective moral order of good and evil. For we find in ourselves a command to do good, which Kant called “the categorical imperative“: a Thou Shalt (therefore an imperative) with no ifs and buts – therefore categorical, that is: absolute.
This objective moral order, with its absolute command to do good, does not make sense without the following three realities:
- We are truly free to choose good or evil.
- There must be some transcending meaning in life, implying the immortality of our spirit.
- God must exist as the supreme source of the moral order.
Kant maintained that the objective moral order postulates human freedom, a transcendent meaning and the existence of God. They are necessary requirements for our practical reason to function. They have to be true to make sense of the world in which we live. These postulated realities are to our practical reason what axioms are to geometry, mathematics and logic: they cannot be proved but must be true for geometry, mathematics and logic to work.
Conscience is God’s internal tribunal in us
Kant has analysed conscience, and its relation to God, in another text, which I will render freely to improve its readability in English:
“The consciousness of an internal tribunal in a human being (before which `his thoughts accuse or excuse each other’) is known as CONSCIENCE.
Every person finds himself or herself observed by an inward judge who threatens and keeps that person in awe. Now this judge may be an actual or a merely ideal person, a person reason frames to itself. Such an idealised person, the authorised judge of conscience, must be one who knows the heart; for the tribunal is set up in the innermost part of a human being. At the same time, the judge must also have supreme authority. Yes, he must at the same time possess all power in heaven and on earth, since otherwise he could not back up his commands with proper sanctions, such as his office of judge necessarily implies. However, a moral being of that stature, with authority over all, is called GOD.
Therefore, conscience must be considered as the subjective acknowledgement of a responsibility for one’s deeds before God. In fact, the concept of God, however obscurely, is contained in every awareness of moral responsibility.” (see: I.KANT, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, Berlin 1780, p. 64).
All Kant’ theories have not been generally accepted, but his argument to prove God from objective morality stands. In our own days, it has been reformulated as a proof based on our living and considered experience of life (see: H.KÜNG, Does God Exist?, London 1984, pp. 536-551.).
When I consider the whole of my life, which includes my moral awareness, I realise with a practical certainty that I myself, my human freedom and God are not illusions, but realities. It is an act of fundamental trust on the part of my whole person, an affirmation of who I am and my responsibilities. For the whole of my experience makes no sense without accepting these realities.
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within!” (see: I.KANT, Critique of Practical Reason, New York 1954, p. 260.).
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of conscience