Because it is the right thing

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 30, 2002

How well developed is your conscience? Do you use it enough to keep it in good shape? Is it vibrant and strong, or is it weakened from being pummeled by avarice and vanity?

And just what is your conscience anyway? According to Webster's Dictionary, conscience is, " a knowledge or sense of right and wrong, with a compulsion to do right; moral judgment that opposes the violation of a previously recognized ethical principle that leads to feelings of guilt if one violates such a principle."

We've all, from time to time, suffered the pangs of a guilty conscience whether from overt or covert actions and motives. That's part of human nature. Our "humanness" means that we err. It's unavoidable. But it seems that as our society evolves, acting without conscience is becoming increasingly less unacceptable. We seem to be developing the ability to substitute rationality, or more correctly, rationalization for uprightness.

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The end results of relaxing moral and ethical codes are on front pages of newspapers every day. In the business world it seems that conscience has often given way to amassing profit and power. That's how we get an Enron.

In public life, conscience is too often exercised only after discovery. That's how the Monicas' get to make the talk show circuit, and it is how we get S&L debacles. On the international front, lack of conscience kills thousands of innocent people as they sit in their tower offices.

Obviously, a well-developed conscience is a good thing to have. The results of not having one are unpleasant at best, and sadly horrific in some circumstances. Conscience can keep us operating within the bounds of decency and restraint. Speaking both globally and individually, it keeps us on good terms with others. So why are there so many of us living, loving, and interacting with others as though "conscience" is an unknown concept.

When did the "compulsion to do right" become pass? For the most part, we were brought up if not on theology surely on morality. Granted, there are many unfortunates on all socio-economic levels who have not had the benefit of parenting with either theology or morality, but the numbers are far outweighed by those who have. We've been taught ethics, but we've also seen how to circumvent the rules to our supposed benefit. We've allowed a little too much of the "do as I say, not as I do" to creep into our homes and our society. We've watched as seemingly ruthless people prosper. We've seen celebrities receive slaps on the wrist for atrocious behavior. So why should we try to do what's right.

As the recently popular song says, "What's in it for me?" How does it benefit us to feel guilty when we violate an ethical principle? That's where self-respect and self-worth come into play. If we cannot behave in irresponsible and unethical ways without feelings of guilt, regret, or shame, then we have a pretty good chance of living a decent life. Conversely, if our actions are unchecked by our innate codes of conduct, then we have the potential to create havoc in both our lives and the lives we touch.

As small children, when we violated rules, authority figures reinforced the differences between responsible and irresponsible behavior. Our conscience was developed, and we were taught to use it. That was a part of a two-pronged maturing process designed to keep us safe within our environments and to turn us into responsible beings. In the adult world, our judicial system serves the same purpose, albeit not always as efficiently.

As children we felt bad when we ran into the street chasing a ball, especially if our bottoms smarted from a sound parental smack given to help us remember that the street is dangerous. We knew the street was off limits and going there was not acceptable. As adults we should feel equally bad when we violate the rights of others or defile our environment. Going there should not be acceptable. We should smack our collective bottoms when they need it. Behavior that endangers our world and its people is just as deadly as the street into which the ball rolled.

So how do we go about developing a good strong conscience? If we've been falling a little short in that area, can we change? John Lilly said, "Our only security is our ability to change." That says change is possible. All it takes is a desire, a determination to hold more strongly to our ethics and moral sense. It takes effort and courage. But it's not outside the reach of any of us. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke very eloquently to this very subject.

"Cowardice asks the question-is it safe? Expediency asks the question-is it politic? Vanity asks the question-is it popular? But conscience asks the question-is it right?

And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe,

nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it BECAUSE it is right."

Carolyn Clark McGinty is a weekly columnist for The Greenville Advocate. She can be reached at