Questions of Conscience

Mr. Havel is the recipient of the Ambassador of Conscience Award,  and in the clip above he speaks about his personal experience with the influence of conscience on his actions.  These actions got him arrested and kept in jail, but they also led him to the support of his people and the leadership of his country.

There are theories that  that vehemently argue that moral behaviour stems from self-interest, not from any innate altruism. These theories have been allowed to influence  politics, the science of ethics, and everyday people's attitudes towards their fellow men.  Havel's admits that he fears his conscience, that he experiences "cowardice" towards the unpleasant sensation he suffers when he doesn't take action and also that he is rewarded with a sense of euphoria when doing something right.   Both of these feelings seems to support that former theory that we're fulfilling a drive to make ourselves feel good rather than working towards the betterment of future generations, our community or the world at large.  If we are doing nothing more than indulging or assuaging our ego, it would follow then that we evolved to cooperate and demand justice at times only because we want vindication, or when seeking the same protections for ourselves.  From another angle, seemingly moral behaviour is just a by-product of a particularly successful learned behaviour that benefitted our ancestors over generations as humans adopted a settled form of organisation and were forced to negotiate coexisting in large social groups.

Yet risking one's life for the sake of the truth (see Socrates and a bottle of hemlock) or principle (protestors willing to take on rubber bullets, pepper spray and worse) don't often reap great pay offs, only high risk, often including the destruction of reputation and social ostracism.  It would be a bleak thought to imagine that acting with honor and conscience is met with accolades precisely because we harbour a general attitude that such behaviour is running against the grain of our nature.  Certainly it would be preferable for Mr. Havel to be the rule rather than the exception. There must be a way to understand people as simultaneously fallible creatures, but also carrying the expectation that we will act to protect those less fortunate than ourselves, that our intentions are more than our selfish desires - be they subconsious or overt.   The expectation of poor conscience seems rooted in our moral culture,  from the Judeo-Christian faith where it began in the garden with a snake and an apple, to the likes of Leviathan and Richard Dawkins.  Today it can be casually found as a generally held rule about 'looking out for number one' mixed with faith in meritocracy.

While we wait for evolutionary ethicists, psychologists and biologist to providing irrefutable evidence that our selfish genes are secretly driving behaviour, we might hope that a shift in our prevailing culture (materialism, vanity, excess) toward opposite values may breed memes - and eventually hardwired biology - into natural tendencies inclined towards cooperation and community.  Or perhaps it is the overriding culture that saturates us that is masking the fact that our natural tendency is in the first place towards altruism and common humanity?   There is no conclusive answer yet, but when we so often talk the talk, and teach our children the golden rule, it may be wise to practice those best intentions more often when interacting with the general population in our everyday lives.

**NOTES:  The film clip of Vaclav Havel was chopped from I Am Fisheada dubious documentary about the link between psychopathy and the investment bankers who drove us into the 2008 economic crisis.
Tubechop is also a fun and handy resource I think you may see more of from me in the future.

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