Conscience and Escape From One's Own Conscience
When we don't do what we feel is right (moral), we feel guilty. Our conscience hurts. We feel self-contempt, according to Bandura (1977). To avoid this discomfort, we usually do what is right (as we see it). But sometimes when we want to do something against our values strongly enough, we can deceive ourselves, "con" ourselves, so that we don't feel badly about doing it. We humans have a variety of self-excusing, guilt-escaping mechanisms (from Bandura, 1980b):
Bandura believes that most inconsiderate, immoral behavior is due to these self-excusing mental mechanisms rather than a faulty value system. So one could "believe in" and espouse a highly moral philosophy of life and still find many ways to cop out. "To thy own self be true." Hopefully, by recognizing some of these defense or escape mechanisms, i.e. ways to escape from your own conscience, you are in a better position for judging if you are being cognitively honest with yourself and behaviorally true to your values. Do you use any of the rationalizations above? See chapters 4, 11, & 15.
- Moral justification --believing our actions are for a just cause. "I stole to provide for my family" or "I lied to protect my friend" or "I cheated because I just had to pass" or see statements #9 and #10 above.
- Euphemistic labeling --using a mild term to hide the actual harmfulness. "I took it" or "sort of borrowed" instead of stole. "I messed them up a little" instead of brutally assaulted. "I didn't tell him/her everything" instead of lied. "We have to take care of our own country first" instead of disregarding others' needs. "Freedom" is often a handy justification for doing whatever you want to do; see #9 above.
- Looking good by comparison --"I didn't cheat nearly as much as John/Mary did." "A lot of millionaires don't pay any taxes." "The rich in India don't give to their own poor, so why should I?"
- They told me to do it --"They talked me into going with them." "I am told what sales pitch to make, don't blame me if it isn't all true." "He/she just kept pushing until I gave in." "I do whatever the law says to do; if I was supposed to do more they would tell me to." See statement #5 above.
- Denial of responsibility --"I just went along with the crowd." "I felt certain someone else would help her, there were people all around." "One person like me can't do anything about poverty." "I'm going to cheat on my taxes because of all the free-loaders on welfare." See statements #5 and #6 and #7 above.
- Denial of consequences --"I just dropped the bombs on the coordinates I was told and flew back to the base." "I only shoplift from big chain stores; they never miss it." "Paying farmers to not grow food doesn't really affect hunger." "TV just sensationalizes about hunger; there is enough for everyone to eat."
- Dehumanization --"There is nothing wrong with taking their land; they are just savages." "If they are that dumb, it's their fault they are taken advantage of." "Those godless Communists kill anybody in their way; we'd better get them before they knife us in the back." See statement #8 above.
- You (the victim) caused me to do it --"If you hadn't been so nasty, I wouldn't have hit you." "You seemed like you were mad, so I went out with _____." "Those poor countries would take over this country if they could, I wouldn't give them a damned cent!" "The poor cause their own problems." See statement #8 above.
Pitfalls: repressing our moral standards or remembering our morals only if we are observed
Besides using rationalizations to avoid the responsibilities imposed on us by our own morals and values (remember the Golden Rule is very demanding), we may have experiences that desensitized us to human cruelty and suffering. As Jerome Kagan (1984) observed, we are in danger of loosing our moral standards when our emotional reactions decline, e.g. when we see violence on TV or in horror movies and are not repulsed, when we see starving children and do not scream "this must stop," when we realize that someone is cheating on taxes, a test, or their spouse and let it pass. Negative emotions--indignation when injustice occurs--are a vital part of being moral. We should treasure and encourage these intolerant emotional reactions to immorality, not mimic the psychopath's indifference to law breaking. Moral action is based on emotions, not just on ideas of justice. The seven deadly sins are all based on emotions: caring for others instead of greed, admiring achievements instead of laziness, hating injustice, etc. Wrong-doing, our own and others', should offend us (Keen, 1992b) .
Is it important to avoid lying or cheating or being cruel even if you know you won't get caught? Yes! Why? Because you would know you did wrong. How could a person believe he/she believes in a certain value or moral if the moral is freely disregarded whenever no one is looking? Obviously, even to the wrong-doer, such professed morals are simply gimmicks or lies to impress others, not guidelines for living. Morals must be practiced in order to grow strong (perhaps practice in situations where you are not observed is especially valuable in establishing a moral character). Furthermore, Frank (1988) suggests that looking like a good person, which both the honest and dishonest strive for, is best achieved by actually being good. In short, a person should be honest and faithful and considerate, even when he/she won't get caught, because by doing so he/she cultivates the emotions and moral principles that help him/her be good in other situations. Don't cheat on your taxes, don't lie about your accomplishments, don't pretend to be something you aren't; instead be honest and proudly tell yourself you are building your moral character.
Other guidelines for living
Many books have been written about values and ways to live. I have cited several helpful ones at the end of this chapter.
I have pushed loving one another, following the Golden Rule. Aren't there other good "rules" for living? Of course, but none, in my opinion, as important as the Golden Rule. What are some of the other rules?
Have hope, courage, and self-direction. Without hope, we would do nothing. It helps us through hard times (Pines & Aronson, 1981). Having high hopes gives us the zeal and drive to do our best. Where there is little hope, it takes courage to do what you think is right. The soldier asked (by all of us) to assault a machine gun bunker must have enormous courage and devotion. The person who has different ideas from others must have courage to speak up.
Courage is the mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.
One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to
lose sight of the shore for a very long time.
Emerson and Thoreau, offered us the idea that societies progress, not so much by the will and ideas of the masses or rulers, but by the power of the independent, self-reliant thinker, who discovers new inventions, knowledge, solutions, and ways of living. That idea lived 100 years and influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the resistance to the Vietnam war, the Women's Movement, and the Nuclear Freeze Movement. Maybe Eisenhower will eventually be right, perhaps it will be independent, thinking, caring persons all over the world who drag their governments into peace.
Cynicism and pessimism abound today. Nihilistic intellectuals tell us that we have lost our way because religion no longer tells us what is good, that our "minimal self" can't find meaning and, therefore, has lost hope, that our "saturated self" is overwhelmed by information, ideas, and choices, that we can't really ever know the "truth" because every view has some basis in reality, that science only creates myths in the same category as religious or political dogmas, that ultimately life is meaningless. Against this gloomy view are calls for "remoralization," the development of values and goals that provide meaning and hope to every life (Bellah, et al., 1985; Etzione, 1993; Prilleltensky, 1994; Wallach & Wallach, 1990; Smith, 1994). The use of psychological knowledge in the caring for others is central to all these views. If your life plan ignores morals, scientific truths, and reality, it will probably not serve you well.
As with the intellectuals, there is a tendency everywhere--workers, students, poor, affluent--to pessimistically ask, "What can I do?" or say, "You can't do anything about it." We all have excuses: "I'm too busy," "it's not my fault," "Somebody should do something; they will." And, thus, we do nothing. Yet, some people, acting on their conscience, have done a lot for the rest of us. It takes thought, courage, and commitment to an ideal bigger than oneself. If your cause is self-serving, you will not persuade many. If your cause is others-serving, almost everyone respects that.
We all need a cause, a dream, a hope for something better. We need a plan. There is a thrill, a satisfaction, a feeling of fulfillment when we struggle to achieve our dream, if it hurts no one and helps others. Many of us cry with joy and feel pride in being human when we see someone struggle for a great cause and/or overcome adversity or misfortune. Don Quixote faced overwhelming odds; Lincoln and 529, 272 others died in the struggle to free the slaves and save the union; President Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you..." and we joined the Peace Corps by the thousands; Jill Kinmont, a paralyzed skier, became a teacher; the abused woman next door with five small children leaves her alcoholic husband and starts college. It takes determination and courage to act.
Be open to new ideas, experiences, and emotions. Live! Life is a series of new challenges: how to eat, crawl, walk, potty, talk, count, read, etc. How to find our place in the family and in school. How to accept ourselves and our growing bodies. How to get along with the opposite sex, how to handle our sexual and overwhelming love needs. How to cope with children. And the challenges go on and on. Some people stay young and continue to want new adventures, new ideas, new experiences, while others want quiet, familiar security, and decide they know "the truth."
Be not just open to adventures in the world, but more importantly be open to adventures with ideas and with emotions. There are tests of sensation-seeking which show it is related to having more fun and being better able to handle unhappy events in life (Zuckerman, 1979). From Freud to Jourard (1971), psychologists have proclaimed the wholesomeness of expressing our feelings. As we hold back the negative feelings--sadness, anger, fears--we stifle the positive ones--joy, humor, excitement, love for humanity. How sad.
Perhaps worst of all is a closed mind, one that does not welcome in new ideas. There is some wisdom, some justice, some validity in every belief, every theory, every ideology. Absorb every idea you can, love it (like George Washington Carver, who studied and "loved" the peanut) until it reveals its secrets, its gems of wisdom, its usefulness to you. Especially study the ideas and values and beliefs you have an aversion to or dislike. After hard thought (Socrates) take the best ideas for your own.
"The hardest thing of all in life--
The conquest not of time and space,
But of ourselves, of our stupidity and inertia,
of our greediness and touchiness,
of our fear and intolerant dogmatism."
Be good to yourself. Take care of your body, your mind, and your soul (Moore, 1993; Canfield & Hansen, 1994). Enjoy today and remember the important things in life, the sacredness of life. There is a saying: "If we fill our hours with regrets over the failures of yesterday, and with worries over the problems of tomorrow, we have no today in which to be thankful." Prepare for the future, but value the preparation enough that you will not feel cheated if you never achieve the goal you are seeking. Don't value a degree or promotion or income so much that you desert friends and family and joy altogether. Thinking little of yourself is self-humiliation; thinking of yourself little is humility.
Some find solace in religion; some find moral guidance and inspiration; some find hope beyond this earthly life. Others find guilt; others find excuses for doing very little except seeking their own dubious salvation. Some see God giving us the potential and responsibility for doing good and loving; others see humans as helpless and believe that all progress is up to God. (A caution: Thomas Moore, a former monk, says that everything that happens in the heart--emotions and relations--can only be understood through religion, poetry, and fate. This is at odds with science.)
If you believe that God is responsible for everything that happens, it may be hard to understand "When Bad Things Happen to Good People ." Rabbi Kushner (1981) wrote a book by that title after his teenaged son died from a rare disease. He says God gives relief from suffering, not protection from tragedy. Illness, failure, hunger, quarrels, unfaithfulness, hatred, loss of love, greed, death, and so on are acts of nature, not acts of God. God does not start or stop them for us. What does God do? According to Kushner, God gives us strength and courage to get through and go on after a tragedy; God gives us love and helps us forgive and love others.