Conscience and Truth

Often I’ve asked my students to consider this question: “If you were doing something objectively morally wrong, would you want someone to tell you and try to convince you to stop?” 

Many students immediately shake their heads no. Most, when asked, will reply: “It depends.” “Depends upon what?” Their answers vary from “It depends upon who it is,” to “It depends upon how they try to tell me I’m wrong,” to “It depends upon what it is and how much I really want to do it.” That, it seems to me, is a pretty accurate assessment of the human predicament.

Some students insist that yes, they would want to be corrected in some sense, because of course, if they were doing something wrong, the person correcting them would be helping put them right. But even they, when pressed, will usually admit that, although they should welcome correction, they probably wouldn’t.

“Why? Isn’t that person trying to help you, to make you better, to keep you from doing something harmful to yourself, even if they’re not doing an absolutely perfect job of telling you?” 

“Sure, but it’s hard.” 

“Hard in what way? Hard the way integral calculus is hard? Hard like running wind sprints is hard? Hard like hitting a home run or making straight A’s in school are hard?” 

“No, not hard like that.” 

“So how?” 

“Because it’s hard to hear things about yourself,” a young woman tells me. “Is it?” I ask. “Don’t people like to hear things about themselves?”

“Sure, if they’re good things.” 

“If that’s so, then why are people so eager to be on television or YouTube that they will do very bad or very silly things to get people to film them?” 

“Well,” she tells me, being very bright, “because that’s not the real person they’re revealing. That’s just a person they’ve made up for the camera. They’re keeping their real, true selves someplace hidden away – someplace nobody can see.” 

“Do you suppose even they can’t see it after a while? Could the real you (if such a thing exists) disappear completely, do you suppose, in the confusion of selves they keep ‘putting on’ and ‘taking off’ like masks in a Greek drama?”

“Which bothers you more,” I ask my students. “When your mother just doesn’t understand you, or when she understands you all too well?”  There is usually general agreement that the second is the bigger problem.

Young people will often complain: “People just don’t understand me. I wish people could just understand this one thing about me, and then they’d get me.” I’ve heard that complaint enough times that I used to make it my practice at the beginning of the semester to ask my students for a picture of themselves – any picture – on the back of which I asked them to write their name and three things I ought to know about them.

This assignment always bothered them immensely. “Like what? What do you want to know?” 

I say: “Whatever I should know about you. Only you know what I should know about you — whether you love stamps or take long bike trips or saw your mother and father killed when you were a child or are from a small town in Idaho. How would I know? All I’m asking is for you to tell me what I should know – so that you’re not so misunderstood.” 

Most of my students are puzzled for days. Many end up putting down just their name and their college major – as though that were the most defining thing in their lives, which would be frightening to imagine if I thought for a moment it were true.

I have also often assigned my students a self-reflection exercise, one I borrow from Steven Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, because I assume most of my students want to become successful in business. The questions are all about how they plan to get “quality-in-life” results in various areas of their lives: physical, relational, spiritual, and professional. I tell my students that I will not collect this and read them – this exercise is merely for them – but that they must do it.

What’s interesting is that almost no one ever does. I’ll ask them several days later: “Who has done the self-reflection exercise?”  One or two hands go up tentatively. “I started it,” says one student, “but I didn’t finish it.”  “Why not?” “It was hard,” he answers. “Why hard?” I ask. “It’s not like these were questions in advanced physics or something; they were simply questions about you, and presumably you’ve spent a great deal of time with you.” 

I’ll ask them again several weeks later, “Who did the self-reflection?”  No new hands go up. “What was more important,” I ask them, “between that day and this than reflecting a bit on your own life?”  They can’t tell me.

“Know Thyself,” says Pope St. John Paul II at the beginning of his encyclical Fides et Ratio, echoing a proverb that goes back to Plato and the ancient Greeks. Nice saying: the only problem is, it’s hard.

Do we refuse to hear moral correction because we’re all moral relativists and we think “who are they to try to tell me?” Or is it that we don’t want to hear the truth about ourselves because the truth would be just too hard to bear?

Who would we be trying to escape from but ourselves? Isn’t the great tragedy in such cases – isn’t the essence of what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “the sickness unto death” – that we never really can escape from ourselves? 

But God knows, we do keep trying. “Stupid Church,” we say. “Just keep your moral teachings to yourself.”

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.