Culture Psychology Spirituality

A Return to Conscience

Values are important but are we ready to pay a price for our values? That’s why we need to cultivate conscience.

I’m thinking more and more about the importance of conscience as distinct from values.

Values are certainly important. As kids we absorb the values of the adults around us (which may or may not be a good thing!) Part of growing up is finding what our own values are – whether through trial and error or serious inner reflection. Finding people whose values are somewhat aligned with our own is an important foundation of the trust required in all our relationships – whether intimate partners, friends or work colleagues. We could all benefit from some serious reflection about what we value individually and as organisations/institutions.

But conscience is more than just having values.

We might declare that we value freedom, or justice/fairness, equal opportunity, the environment, family, community, our religion, honesty.

But life is complex and often our values come at a cost.

Sometimes it goes like this: “I know my organisation did something unethical or illegal, but if I speak up about it I may be seen as a trouble-maker and miss out on a promotion or even get fired.”


“I’m running late for a very important meeting. I know I should not speed, accelerate when the traffic lights turn yellow or park in the spot reserved for people with special needs, but if I’m late it will reflect badly on me.”


“I really need that government contract/permit. If I make a political donation and wine and dine the right politicians and decision-makers on an all-expenses “fact-finding” trip overseas then I might sway the decision in my favour.”

Conscience is about not only having good values, but being ready to pay a price for them.

Sometimes the price is very high. One of the most striking examples of conscience I found is in the essay Spirit: A Force for Survival by Donald Nicholl published in The Beatitude of Truth:

In 1984 I was invited to the commemoration in Marzobotto, a community in the south of Bologna, of the massacre that had taken place there 40 years previously of some 2,000 citizens of Marzobotto. One of the abiding memories of my visit is that if ever one of the guests at the commemoration happened to speak of ‘the massacre by the Germans’, then one of the citizens of Marzobotto would politely correct them, explaining that it was not the Germans but the Nazis who had been responsible. The reason why the people of that community were always so careful to make that correction was because on the day of the massacre, one young German soldier had refused to take part and had himself been shot in consequence. That young soldier, in his stark loneliness, had saved the good name of his nation.

Donald Nicholl The Beatitude of Truth p94

What strikes me about this example is that from a purely rational perspective it must have seemed crazy for that young German soldier to sacrifice his own life. There was no way that he could prevent the evil that was about to unfold. What would be the point of him refusing and then being executed? Surely it would have been better to co-operate and live so that he could do some good at a later time!

Conscience is not rational or calculating. It doesn’t come from the head but from the heart, and is closely related to courage (a word which is has origins in the French word Cour, meaning “heart”). Conscience is the moral compass which gives instant clarity about what we should do or not do.

Like all the virtues, conscience needs to be cultivated

Like all the virtues, conscience needs to be cultivated and grown by practising ethical decision-making.

A good analogy would be the gym. When we first go we are not capable of lifting the heavy weights, so we start at the level we are at – feel the resistance and push through it. And as we do that more often our capacity increases so that we can lift heavier weights.

In the same way we can cultivate our capacity for conscience by listening to it and doing what we know to be right, regardless of what it may cost us. We may start small – perhaps by not telling little lies that make us look good, or not criticising or disparaging other people for our own advantage. These decisions have a cumulative effect and it becomes easier to do the right thing.

The cumulative effect is also felt by others. By default, much of our ethical behaviour is influenced by the way we see people around us behaving. I notice, for example, that when I’m driving on the motorway if everyone is going faster than the speed limit then I also drive that fast, whereas when everyone else is keeping to the limit I tend to curb my own impulses to drive faster.

When I was facilitating workshops in Eastern Europe in the 1990s on the Foundations for Freedom it was common for people to feel it was pointless trying to live by the ethical values that were in their hearts and souls. The world they saw around them acted in a way that was the opposite of those values – it was a “dog-eat-dog” world. Often the most transformational moments in those workshops were when people realised that everyone else in the workshop felt the same way and wanted to live by the same values. The support they felt from others in the workshop made it easier for people to decide to live out their own values, knowing that they were not alone.

When I consider the state of the world today it can be depressing. We face existential threats of war, pandemics, climate change, ecosystem collapse, corruption of our political and economic systems, and an ever-growing sense of distrust in our institutions and in each other.

There is no shortage of good thinkers and rational analysis and well educated leaders. But I suspect that rationality and thought will not be enough.

We need a return to conscience. The courage of the heart.

How different things might be if more and more people chose to do the right thing regardless of the cost to themselves – putting people and planet before profits, refusing to go along with corruption, lies, and distortions even when they are legal; refusing to fight or fund unjust wars; refusing to participate in economic systems of oppression and exploitation.

This has been at the core of some of the great movements for change – Gandhi’s non-violent movement to liberate India from British rule; Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement; the end of Communist totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union and countries of Eastern and Central Europe.

It has happened before. It can happen again.