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Is Conscience dead?

Cowardice asks: Is it safe?
Expediency asks: Is it politic?
But Conscience asks: Is it right?
William Punshon

Once upon a time the law was simple. Thou shalt not steal. It is a simple directive. Don’t take stuff that does not belong to you. For a few hundred years, society relied on that inner voice usually called a conscience to interpret that simple instruction.
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As society has become more complex, so has the law. It is no longer sufficient to simply say, “no stealing”. Now we must elaborate and clarify. No stealing money, no stealing money from banks, no stealing money from individuals, no stealing items of value and exchanging them for money, no stealing from pension funds and the list goes on forever.

There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every man.
Polybius (205 BC – 118 BC),

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More importantly, we have embraced the notion of “compliance” as a defense against accusations of improper behavior. As the law has become more complex, we parse the language of the law looking for loopholes. We evade the spirit and intent of the law by claiming that our specific behavior is not included on the itemized list even as a child would recognize the essence of our behavior for exactly what it is: stealing.

I chose stealing as the subject of my initial rant for its simplicity. The same analysis could certainly be applied to many other socially disapproved behaviors, my favorite being lying. This affliction is particularly virulent in the world of business and politics. Be it a misstatement of fact, or perhaps more egregiously a misstatement of intention, we are encouraged to overlook the implied character flaw revealed by this behavior with the familiar homily, “ It’s just politics”, or “It’s just business.”

Personally, I can’t get past, “It’s just lying”.

“Most people sell their souls, and live with a good conscience on the proceeds.”
Logan Pearsall Smith (1865 – 1946)

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I picked this particular topic because I tuned into the end of a piece on this issue on the radio and was intrigued. Unfortunately, I was not able to locate a link to the source so I am left to reconstruct the essence of the article as I remember it.

Is the commenter correct?

Has the quaint notion of conscience been superceded by mere compliance?

Is any and every behavior legitimized if no laws were broken?

Is conscience dead?

Did it ever exist in the first place?

As a final and related test, can you name any prominent person in government of whom you could say to your son or daughter, “There is a person of good character, I hope you grow up to be like him (or her).”

“Before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself.

The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Harper Lee (1926 – ),
To Kill a Mockingbird

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