Conscience, morals and civilization


The hero of a Tom Clancy novel remarked, ‘Conscience is the cost of morality, and morality is the cost of civilization.’ That profound and wise insight deserves contemplation. Cost is prominent in both phrases of the remark, so it is wise to consider the costs involved.

The basis for conscience is some personal standard of right and wrong — good and evil. Your standards might be higher or lower, based either in the common good or in individual ego, greed, and rage. Unfortunately, a person often yearns for what is good for me, no matter what its ultimate damage or how it harms others.

Morality involves setting aside ego and following norms, either internal or external, that cause an individual or a group to avoid bad behavior and improve future behavior. The cost is what we call a guilty conscience and, perhaps, the burden of guilt. Each of us must confess some immoral behavior, if only to ourselves. Some people believe that guilt and/or punishment is the best motivator for repentance and improvement of behavior. Perhaps it is when a more positive motivator proves ineffective. However, a guilty conscience is not the opposite of innocence, nor is immoral behavior the opposite of moral.

Amoral is the opposite of moral! To be amoral is to have no moral standards, just urges for personal pleasure and benefit. We who believe all humans have some basic goodness conclude that few individuals are truly amoral. Moreover, to be amoral is a negative psychological state that is a denial of one’s basic humanity as one endowed with reason to think and volition to act — two characteristics of a responsible person.

Morality is the cost of civilization. Alfred Lord Tennyson pictured ‘nature red tooth and claw’ in his long poem In Memoriam in 1849. That was before Charles Darwin’s work and before ‘nature red tooth and claw’ became a common description of Darwin’s theories about evolution and the survival of the fittest. Morality is our shield against the survival of the fittest and safeguard against living in a society red tooth and claw.

Hence, morality could be considered the cost of civilization. Indeed, some measure of morality sustained in civil law justly legislated and administered is the last external defensive bunker when chaos lurks and mediating structures of civilization and morality break down.

Internal personal morality is the stronger power that protects civilization. Laws are too weak, too easily circumvented, and too often ignored, whereas morality is internal. In fact, a free democratic society requires a moral foundation because laws and legal enforcement alone are not strong enough to sustain our free democratic society or civilization.

Tennyson’s religious sensibilities shines through at the end of In Memoriam, referring to his friend ‘who trusted God as Love and Love as nature’s law.’ Some of us place trust in God as love and believe love is the strongest foundation for morality and civilization. I do not accept the use of ‘cost’ or ‘law’ in relation love as a foundation. Love extends through and beyond law and, at its best, shines in the hearts, enlivening individuals and casting light throughout our neighborhoods, in Montgomery County and beyond.

Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.