Don't Feed Your Conscience to the Dogs
Manifesting One's Innermost Thoughts and Moral Convictions Should Never Be Done at Gunpoint
“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” —Mt 7
We live in a society where people are forced to manifest their conscience on issues ranging from sexuality to geo-politics to abortion—even on whether or not they agree with someone else’s tweet—in real-time, and practically at gunpoint. The threat of ostracization, job loss, or public ridicule lurks behind the slightest deviation from the mimetic moral norm of the day.
Even among people who recognize that this is obviously a serious problem, I believe the problem goes deeper than they may imagine. The issue is not merely about ‘free speech’, as Jonathan Turley thinks.
At a far more fundamental level, it is a fight about the very nature of the human person—a battle between those who acknowledge and respect the existence of the conscience as the sacred center of a person (even if it may at times be wrong), and those who do not.
The conscience is the place where a person is alone with God, where he must confront life’s most essential truths, and where he must either assent to or reject those truths. The act of trying to gain forcible entry into another’s conscience is not unlike a kind of spiritual assault, even a kind of rape. And it can deeply wound and scar—especially when the conscience is in a formative stage of development.
I learned about the importance of erecting boundaries around my conscience at my first job after college when I dipped my toe into the investment banking waters (for what turned out to be less than a year, before moving to California and launching a company.) In our little investment banking ‘group’, the politics were particularly nasty. The junior people realized very quickly that senior bankers were trying to sniff out our degree of orthodoxy about everything from the president to clean energy (and this was 2004-5), and that there were professional consequences for saying the wrong thing.
As young and overly ambitious junior people, none of us wanted to be penalized for coming down on the wrong side of an issue just as we were starting our careers; we simply wanted to be evaluated based on our glorified-secretarial-duty merits.
It was around this time that I stumbled upon, in an obscure book on church history—which I was known to read from time to time, partly as a way to self-medicate and escape the spreadsheet-laden life I was immersed in, but also because I was seeking an explanation for the cultural influence of religion at a time when I was struggling to know how I felt about it—a particularly strange papal decree. In 1890, Pope Leo XIII abolished the common practice of the compulsory manifestation of conscience of men in religious orders to their superiors. In other words, no superior of an order could force anyone else to fully reveal their conscience; it had to be done freely. This decree expressly forbid those in authority from inducing others to such manifestation. This teaching was built about the dignity of the human person, and the need to respect the proper unfolding of one’s relationship with their Creator and how that relationship is expressed at a particular time and in particular ways.
This decree (“Quemadmodum”) has been reinforced and expanded since that time, and it is testament to the Church’s continual development in its understanding of the conscience and proper practices around its expression. In my view, the spirit of this decree by Pope Leo XIII is one that our entire society could learn from—and never more than now.
I began to develop the skill of prudent self-disclosure from that day forward. It’s one that I am by no means perfect at, but I am much improved now that I at least know what’s at stake. Learning to say ‘no’ can be difficult; learning to not reveal one’s conscience on every single issue that hits the news can be even harder, especially in a society where it is seen as good and noble to have a ‘take’ or a strong moral stance on practically everything. (“What, you don’t keep up the news, man? Haven’t you heard?”)
I developed responses ranging from “I don’t have anything to say about that” to “no comment” to much more ‘strongly’ worded statements that would help make boundaries clear. Why? Because in these situations, there was nothing to be gained by sharing my moral convictions about things that had absolutely nothing to do with my job. There was an asymmetry of outcome that would have made it idiotic to do so, and I realized right then that learning the skill of maintaining my silence at the appropriate times was a mark of maturity, not timidity or moral agnosticism. It simply means: “I choose not to share my conscience with you”—period. Usually, that’s because I don’t trust the person to honor it and engage with me respectfully.
I think back to those days because today I see a similar situation playing out in our culture. People are baited and coaxed into revealing things to people who have no goodwill toward them at all, and who may even seek to harm them. Yet most people will have never heard anything resembling the norms developed around ‘manifesting one’s conscience’ that I found buried in those monastic rules, and I think that is a tragedy.
With the loss of human dignity come new assaults on the conscience, and I wish we all talked less about ‘free speech’ (which has become something of a conservative thirst trap) and more about what the conscience is, and why it must be protected.
The conscience is the ‘organ’ of freedom, in the words of German Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann—the organ that a person must exercise in order to come to a full knowledge and embrace of the truth, but on their own time and in their own way. This is a vision of the human person that has all but been lost in secular society.
If the conscience is being trampled on today, perhaps it’s because the broader public does not recognize, or refuses to acknowledge, the sacred ground on which they are walking.
If this trampling continues, our society will ultimately suffer even more severe consequences: the further erosion of trust, the inability to distinguish real speech from compelled speech, and individuals who can’t tell whether they themselves are telling the truth or not, or what their convictions truly are.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has brought our predicament further into the light. Before the first shots were even done ringing out, people were expected to have perfectly formed moral clarity about what was going on. It quickly became apparent that not only are there negative consequences for saying the wrong thing; there are also consequences for not saying anything at all.
Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Opera in New York parted ways with star Russian soprano Anna Netrebka for not directly denouncing Vladimir Putin. She had already made a statement condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it wasn’t enough.
Who knows why she choose not to denounce Mr. Putin? It could have been because she feared repercussions from him, or general backlash at home, or that she was dealing with sensitive family issues; or it could be because she does, in fact, support Mr. Putin’s invasion. We don’t know. Only Ms. Netrebka knows—but that is precisely the point.
The conclusion that she has arrived at in her conscience (if she has arrived at one at all) about the morality of Russia’s invasion has no bearing on whether she is able to hit her high note in front of a crowd at the Metropolitan Opera.
Can the conscience be wrong? Of course it can. That is why, at least in the Catholic tradition, every person is thought to have a solemn duty to form their conscience. The community or country of which they are a part has a large role to play in that process.
We should not let our monoculture to become a monoconscience; we should fight to erect healthy boundaries around our conscience while also respecting the boundaries of others. And we must understand that nobody should be forced, or ever expected, to manifest their innermost thoughts. These moral convictions are often the fruit of hours, if not years, of careful consideration and grappling—so why throw them to the proverbial dogs who will make our innermost beliefs into memes and soundbites that scarcely represent them at all, and may even deliberately misrepresent them?
Christianity is guilty of its own sins when it comes to compulsion. There is a painfully long period in the history of the church during which coercive tactics and forced conversions (which were not truly conversions at all) were imposed on others who had not come to embrace the truths that Christianity proposes in the silence and freedom of their own conscience.
Those painful lessons—and the purgation that Christianity has had to undergo to learn them—has allowed the church to develop a mature understanding of conscience. It produced saintly figures like Sir Thomas More and John Henry Newman who helped witness to and develop a rich theological respect for this uniquely human organ. I believe it deserves to be more widely shared.
When the conscience compels, we must follow. But when the conscience is under attack, we must fortify and protect it. It should never be fed to the dogs.