Sunday, 17 March 2013

Always let your conscience be your guide

An inconclusive chapter that tackles the issue of human conscience – that inner voice which guides one to do right – versus the Church's teachings. The discussion in the seventeenth chapter of Tischner czyta Katechizm takes me back to religious education classes as school. “Please Father, do we know for certain that Adolf Hitler is roasting in the fieriest pits of hell?”

Such questions do not move us forward. We need to take a look at that internal voice that guides us – often in complex moral issues that are far more nuanced than 'thou shalt not kill'. Fr. Tischner draws on Socrates, who "saaid he hears within him a voice, which rather prohibits than commands him. When you listen intently to that inner voice, you will confirm that it makes itself heard at times when a person is aware of his fall, when he begins to lower himself below his own level."

Fr. Tischner also cites Emmanuel Kant: “Act in such a way that your action could serve as a pattern or guide for all. So that whoever finds themselves in the same situation, should do the same.” A neat way of saying that altruism is for the common good. This is borne out in genetic theory – the point made by arch-atheist Richard Dawkins, that it is the survival of the gene that counts, a gene that is shared by our kin. The selfish gene theory gives animals – sentient or otherwise – the reason to sacrifice their own self-interest for that of others.

But back to the catechism. “In the depths of their own conscience, people discover law, which is not imposed, but which we should obey, and whose voice always calls us there, where we should go, to love, and to do good, and to avoid evil, that voice commands us from within...” Fr. Tischner calls this statement – from the Church “extraordinarily positive”. He draws on the example of Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment [I am so glad I read that book – it is so frequently cited!] who believed that the end justified the means – until he committed his crime, and finds himself totally alienated in face of the new reality. Raskolnikov is redeemed by Sonia, who has a far clearer moral compass.

The nature of this human compass comes up for review. Does one have to be educated to have a sense of moral direction - or is it innate? Fr. Tischner believes that education can lead to a falsification of the mind, and leans towards the innate vision of conscience.

Jacek Żakowski calls it “dangerous”, as it assumes that all people have a similar innate conscience (what I'd rather call 'sensibility' – in particular sensibility towards others. And indeed, as Żakowski points out, a new-found sensibility towards the environment.) The balance between what the Church teaches and what one's conscience commands has been a thorny one, culminating in the Holy Inquisition, and people tortured and killed for being deemed heretics. But today, the Church gives the individual's conscience the upper hand in determining what's right and what's wrong. “The Church says this: after weighing up all the pros and the cons, try to form in yourself a certain conscience and go according to that conscience.”

I must say I agree that innate conscience is a better guideline, but would question to what extent it is healthy in all people. Various disorders of the mind can distort what's considered the right and the wrong thing to do - religious fundamentalists are as often as not suffering from delusions that stem from variances from generally held norms of mental health.

This time last year:
Lenten recipe with prawns

This time three years ago:
Polish economy - recession thwarted

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