Fifth International Conference on War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax Campaigns - Hondarribia, Spain 1994

Workshop 2: Conscience, What is It?

The preparatory document

Questions to help our discussion:

Gerald Drewett

The report

This report is not attempting to give a definitive answer to the question, but rather to give food for thought.

A member of the group had asked a range of Swedish friends what they thought conscience was and, taken as a whole, their comments reflected a remarkably clear understanding: Inner guidance; intuition; pangs of conscience; personal moral conscience; personal responsibility; an inner compass that is felt; the feeling that steers my life; social conscience; sensitivity that can be developed; the voice inside; the feeling inside.

We can all have a conscience about different things; it means that in that area of our experience our sensitivity has been deepened. Some of us would understand this deepened sensitivity as coming from God. This new sensitivity, or conscience. is not something we choose to take up - rather it takes us over. For instance, war tax refusers do not refuse as a matter of political calculation, but because they are impelled by a strong sense of right and wrong they will not let them act in any other way.

It has always been the experience of conscientious objectors (COs) to military conscription in wartime to suffer greatly, even to die. Those who do not experience conscience would expect COs to take the easy way out and simply avoid personal suffering. But if this were done, the mental anguish of rejecting one's own conscientious leadings would be an intolerable suffering. If conscience is rejected, then one is rejecting, even destroying, one's own personality.

The individual acting under conscience may or may not be aware that he or she is setting a new standard of behaviour which society as whole will one day accept. Today's conscientious objector precedes tomorrow's more enlightened society. And tomorrow's more enlightened society will still have individuals acting under conscience; experiencing what some would call a divine imperative from within, and what others would feel as working for higher standards working for change. But whatever source one gives to the call or to the feeling, the common feature is that it cannot be ignored or rejected.

Conscience is a sign of maturity and of mature citizenship; it has nothing to do with age, but has a lot to do with experience. The example was given of a young Canadian Member of Parliament who took up sensitive issues and finally found himself engaged in civil disobedience and being prepared to take the consequences of his actions. Fines and imprisonment have no power when set against the power of conscience.

There is a sense in which conscience is latent in everybody until some experience, or mental struggle, prompts it into action. The writer of Amazing Grace! (how sweet the sound!), that saved a wretch like me! was a slave trader, wealthy but unhappy, who finished life working for the rights of slaves.

Conscience is the imprint of God on the Universe: the struggle for human rights; the right to die for one's country but no to kill for it.

An English dictionary gives three understandings of conscience:

  1. The sense of right and wrong that governs a person's thoughts and actions.
  2. The regulation of one's actions in conformity to this sense.
  3. A supposed universal faculty of moral insight.

Gerald Drewett and Joy Newall

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