Conscience: What is it? How Does It Work?

Given that conscience continues to reflect a profound human wisdom, it is time we had the courage to come out of the intellectual dark ages to challenge this subject.

Like others, I’ve had my bouts with conscience over the years, particularly my crisis of conscience on New Year’s Eve in 1962. As a teacher/coach/administrator, it made me realize I was part of a system that was failing to effectively prepare kids for life.

This ultimately led me to found the Hyde School in Bath, ME in 1966. I wanted to test a radical educational premise: Every individual is gifted with a unique potential. I sought to support this premise with a new college prep curriculum emphasizing character, specifically; courage, integrity, leadership, curiosity, and concern.

It worked. Hyde prospered and ultimately spread to both charter and public schools. This new educational focus proved to revolutionize the educational process, centering it deeply on each student’s development. Also, parents and teachers need to teach it by example.

We came to see an individual’s development in three stages:

  1. Rigor: We first need to learn how to get the best out of ourselves.
  2. Synergy: (1+1=3) Others see a higher best in us and our unique potential in ways we do not. Also, learning to rely on others teaches us humility.
  3. Conscience: The humility we learn in Synergy enables us to transcend our egos, thus enabling us to connect to our Conscience, “the compass of our destiny.”

At Hyde-Bath, which has served as our “laboratory” these last 52 years, seniors spend 60 hours in the spring term in “Conscience-centered-learning.” To the extent they have successfully mastered the Rigor and Synergy stages of growth, their sharing with classmates and faculty in those 60 hours of sessions enables them to understand their deepest selves—and the leadership of conscience.

As Sigmund Freud wisely noted, we humans usually make our most important decisions—like choosing a mate or a career—at this deeper level.

Our egos are like the sergeant in the trenches—helping our day to day decisions. But conscience is like the general knowing the entire war plan—guiding our life decisions and destiny.

We all seek to control our lives, which leads us to a strong intellectual/rational emphasis in our decisions. This in turn places our egos in control, diminishing the power of our subconscious—conscience, insight, intuition, and whatever else might constitute our deeper soul.

But while our mind seems all encompassing, the power of our subconscious is in overdrive. One study gave two groups a complex problem to address. They then interrupted one group with a different problem to work on. The solutions of that group ultimately proved superior to the other, indicating the break gave their subconscious time to address the problem.

Other studies suggest the subconscious’ greater power. But we live in a world that worships the intellect’s wisdom, neatly declaring truth as something that is logically proven, dismissing all else as unproven mystery or myth.

I wouldn’t want to get into that argument. But I will share the words we have chosen to describe the development of the conscience process we have observed:

Conscience is the deepest sense of self-consciousness, the awareness that our decisions make us authentic. It is our capacity to know right from wrong. Conscience goads us to align our actions with our beliefs about what is truly worthwhile, giving us a sense of integrity or wholeness.

We need to distinguish within ourselves an ego-self and a higher-self, or two types of emotions and feelings that motivate our actions:

  1. Self-regarding emotions: motivations that prompt us to act on our likes and dislikes, our desires and fears.
  2. Self-transcending emotions: motivations that prompt us to go beyond ourselves and seek what is truly worthwhile: truth, beauty, excellence, noble deeds, respect for individuals, love, destiny.

The development of our character helps us bring our self-regarding emotions into alignment with our self-transcending emotions.

Our character is developed by the action-reflection learning cycle: We grow by thoughtfully reflecting on our actions and motives: AICR—Be Attentive, Insightful, Critical and Responsible. Then we continually repeat the cycle.

As we go into life, we find this foundation makes us sensitive to conscience, and conscience becomes the guiding force to help us realize our unique potential—our source for a meaningful and fulfilling life.

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