Conscience and Choosing the Hill to Die On

As of this writing, Maine nurse Kaci Hickox is under house arrest for her resistance to what she considers a fear-based, anti-scientific, and politically-motivated quarantine.

In 2012, the US military experienced a odd occurrence: for the first time in US history during time of war, more active duty troops died as a result of suicide than combat.

Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhiseng disappeared in 2009. He reappeared recently, in prison, with no charges against him, and no release date.

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer, risked torture, imprisonment, and death fighting in the courts for the rights of women and children in Iran.

All these stepped out of line. They disobeyed their governments. Some disobeyed the dictates or their religions. Most are disliked by a majority of their fellow citizens. Some of them chose death rather than a life of guilt and shame.

Why do people do things that sometimes get them killed; sometimes imprisoned; sometimes demoted or fired or exposed to the scorn of millions of their fellow citizens?

What drives all of this crazy, counter-intuitive, behavior?

Conscience. And the mental punishment inflicted by conscience, guilt.

Conscience. The feeling that some actions cannot be condoned, no matter how “legal” they are.

The feeling that enables we human beings to take actions for the good of others rather than ourselves.

The Great Leap into Sapiens

Why do human beings have a conscience? Isn’t a conscience merely a drag on getting ahead?

Henry David Thoreau said in his handbook for rebellion, Civil Disobedience: “If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”

Despite the fact that Thoreau’s thoughts have become the template for those acting on conscience, notice that word “machine.” Thoreau saw conscience as an individual attribute against a deterministic mass. But it isn’t always, is it? Sometimes, as in the case of Edward Snowden, the machine is ambiguous.

We still don’t know why homo sapiens sapiens—the “wise man,” as scientists have (perhaps over-confidently) called our species—began to have a conscience. My vote for best hypothesis goes to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.

Dunbar theorizes that human language developed as a result of the need to socially interact in larger groups. Neanderthal, for example—also known as homo sapiens neanderthalensis—traveled in very small bands—and were for the most part inbred. They didn’t use a whole lot a gray matter figuring out what other people were thinking or trying to get along with an extended group.

They didn’t use their words much, and so didn’t have a need for a great many. They probably didn’t have much of a conscience, either.

Navigating the deep and often stormy waters of multiple relationships, however, required a good many words and concepts. And this may be why the children of homo sapiens sapiens—the “wise man”—developed complex language. It was a matter of talking about it or dying. It was also a matter of considering multiple goods in the gray shades that human existence swims in.

Emotions are in the gut. But it takes gray matter and complex language to make the complex decisions a Solomon or an Edward Snowden have to make.

The Critical Mind

Philosopher Peter Singer says there are two types of conscience—the traditional and the critical. This goes some way into an important distinction. Most people have that traditional form of conscience. It’s the stuff of traditional religions. It’s the level of confidence in others that allows us to work in offices and live in communities. Almost all human beings have it.

The people who get the Nobel Peace Prize are of the critical variety. A Malala or Shirin Ebadi. They have considered the arguments of the majority. They have heard the arguments of traditional religion. And they have decided to act for a greater good.

The right thing to do isn’t always clear. Human governments aren’t faceless machines of conformity, as Thoreau appears to have thought. The individual isn’t always correct. (The deluded decision-making of Timothy McVeigh demonstrates that point.) Yet, homo sapiens sapiens gets wiser only though the actions of brave individuals risking themselves and thinking way outside the box.

It is that accumulation of brave thinkers that may, someday, made us truly wise.

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