Conscience, Man’s Recall to Himself - Problems of Humanistic Ethics

Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics - Erich Fromm 2013

Conscience, Man’s Recall to Himself
Problems of Humanistic Ethics

Whoever talks about and reflects upon an evil thing he has done, is thinking the vileness he has perpetrated, and what one thinks, therein is one caught—with one’s whole soul one is caught utterly in what one thinks, and so he is still caught in vileness. And he will surely not be able to turn, for his spirit will coarsen and his heart rot, and besides this, a sad mood may come upon him. What would you? Stir filth this way or that, and it is still filth. To have sinned or not to have sinned—what does it profit us in heaven? In the time I am brooding on this, I could be stringing pearls for the joy of heaven. That is why it is written: “Depart from evil, and do good”—turn wholly from evil, do not brood in its way, and do good. You have done wrong? Then balance it by doing right.—Isaac Meier of Ger86

There is no prouder statement man can make than to say: “I shall act according to my conscience.” Throughout history men have upheld the principles of justice, love, and truth against every kind of pressure brought to bear upon them in order to make them relinquish what they knew and believed. The prophets acted according to their conscience when they denounced their country and predicted its downfall because of its corruption and injustice. Socrates preferred death to a course in which he would have betrayed his conscience by compromising with the truth. Without the existence of conscience, the human race would have bogged down long ago in its hazardous course.

Different from these men are others who also have claimed to be motivated by their conscience: the men of the Inquisition who burned men of conscience at the stake, claiming to do so in the name of their conscience; the predatory war makers claiming to act on behalf of their conscience when they put their lust for power above all other considerations. In fact, there is hardly any act of cruelty or indifference against others or oneself which has not been rationalized as the dictate of conscience, thus showing the power of conscience in its need to be placated.

Conscience in its various empirical manifestations is indeed confusing. Are these various kinds of conscience the same, with only their contents differing? Are they different phenomena with only the name “conscience” in common? Or does the assumption of the existence of conscience turn out to be untenable when we investigate the phenomenon empirically as a problem of human motivation?

To these questions, the philosophical literature on conscience brings a wealth of clues. Cicero and Seneca speak of conscience as the inner voice which accuses and defends our conduct with respect to its ethical qualities. Stoic philosophy relates it to self-preservation (taking care of oneself), and it is described by Chrysippus as the consciousness of harmony within oneself. In scholastic philosophy, conscience is considered to be the law of reason (lex rationis) implanted in man by God. It is differentiated from “synderesis”; while the latter is the habit (or faculty) of judging, and of willing the right, the former applies the general principle to particular actions. Although the term “synderesis” has been dropped by modern writers, the term “conscience” is used frequently for what scholastic philosophy had meant by synderesis, the inner awareness of moral principles. The emotional element in this awareness was stressed by English writers. Shaftesbury, for instance, assumed the existence of a “moral sense” in man, a sense of right and wrong, an emotional reaction, based on the fact that the mind of man is itself in harmony with the cosmic order. Butler proposed that moral principles are an intrinsic part of the constitution of man and identified conscience particularly with the innate desire for benevolent action. Our feelings for others and our reaction to their approval or disapproval are the core of conscience according to Adam Smith. Kant abstracted conscience from all specific contents and identified it with the sense of duty as such. Nietzsche, a bitter critic of the religious “bad conscience,” saw genuine conscience rooted in self—affirmation, in the ability to “say yes to one’s self.” Max Scheler believed conscience to be the expression of rational judgment, but a judgment by feeling and not by thought.

But important problems are still left unanswered and untouched, problems of motivation on which the data of psychoanalytic research may shed some more light. In the following discussion we shall distinguish between “authoritarian” and “humanistic” conscience, a differentiation which follows the general line of distinction between authoritarian and humanistic ethics.

a. Authoritarian Conscience

The authoritarian conscience is the voice of an internalized external authority, the parents, the state, or whoever the authorities in a culture happen to be. As long as people’s relationships to the authorities remain external, without ethical sanction, we can hardly speak of conscience; such conduct is merely expediential, regulated by fear of punishment and hope for reward, always dependent on the presence of these authorities, on their knowledge of what one is doing, and their alleged or real ability to punish and to reward. Often an experience which people take to be a feeling of guilt springing from their conscience is really nothing but their fear of such authorities. Properly speaking, these people do not feel guilty but afraid. In the formation of conscience, however, such authorities as the parents, the church, the state, public opinion are either consciously or unconsciously accepted as ethical and moral legislators whose laws and sanctions one adopts, thus internalizing them. The laws and sanctions of external authority become part of oneself, as it were, and instead of feeling responsible to something outside oneself, one feels responsible to something inside, to one’s conscience. Conscience is a more effective regulator of conduct than fear of external authorities; for, while one can run away from the latter, one cannot escape from oneself nor, therefore, from the internalized authority which has become part of oneself. The authoritarian conscience is what Freud has described as the Super-Ego; but as I shall show later, this is only one form of conscience or, possibly, a preliminary stage in the development of conscience.

While authoritarian conscience is different from fear of punishment and hope for reward, the relationship to the authority having become internalized, it is not very different in other essential respects. The most important point of similarity is the fact that the prescriptions of authoritarian conscience are not determined by one’s own value judgment but exclusively by the fact that its commands and taboos are pronounced by authorities. If these norms happen to be good, conscience will guide man’s action in the direction of the good. However, they have not become the norms of conscience because they are good, but because they are the norms given by authority, if they are bad, they are just as much part of conscience. A believer in Hitler, for instance, felt he was acting according to his conscience when he committed acts that were humanly revolting.

But even though the relationship to authority becomes internalized, this internalization must not be imagined to be so complete as to divorce conscience from the external authorities. Such complete divorcement, which we can study in cases of obsessional neurosis, is the exception rather than the rule; normally, the person whose conscience is authoritarian is bound to the external authorities and to their internalized echo. In fact, there is a constant interaction between the two. The presence of external authorities by whom a person is awed is the source which continuously nourishes the internalized authority, the conscience. If the authorities did not exist in reality, that is, if the person had no reason to be afraid of them, then the authoritarian conscience would weaken and lose power. Simultaneously, the conscience influences the image which a person has of the external authorities. For such conscience is always colored by man’s need to admire, to have some ideal,87 to strive for some kind of perfection, and the image of perfection is projected upon the external authorities. The result is that the picture of these authorities is, in turn, colored by the “ideal” aspect of conscience. This is very important because the concept a person has of the qualities of the authorities differs from their real qualities; it becomes more and more idealized and, therefore, more apt to be re-internalized.88 Very often this interaction of internalization and projection results in an unshakable conviction in the ideal character of the authority, a conviction which is immune to all contradictory empirical evidence.

The contents of the authoritarian conscience are derived from the commands and taboos of the authority; its strength is rooted in the emotions of fear of, and admiration for, the authority. Good conscience is consciousness of pleasing the (external and internalized) authority; guilty conscience is the consciousness of displeasing it. The good (authoritarian) conscience produces a feeling of well-being and security, for it implies approval by, and greater closeness to, the authority; the guilty conscience produces fear and insecurity, because acting against the will of the authority implies the danger of being punished and—what is worse—of being deserted by the authority.

In order to understand the full impact of the last statement we must remember the character structure of the authoritarian person. He has found inner security by becoming, symbiotically, part of an authority felt to be greater and more powerful than himself. As long as he is part of that authority—at the expense of his own integrity—he feels that he is participating in the authority’s strength. His feeling of certainty and identity depends on this symbiosis; to be rejected by the authority means to be thrown into a void, to face the horror of nothingness. Anything, to the authoritarian character, is better than this. To be sure, the love and approval of the authority give him the greatest satisfaction; but even punishment is better than rejection. The punishing authority is still with him, and if he has “sinned,” the punishment is at least proof that the authority still cares. By his acceptance of the punishment his sin is wiped out and the security of belonging is restored.

The Biblical report of Cain’s crime and punishment offers a classic illustration of the fact that what man is most afraid of is not punishment but rejection. God accepted Abel’s offerings but did not accept Cain’s. Without giving any reason, God did to Cain the worst thing that can be done to a man who can not live without being acceptable to an authority. He refused his offering and thus rejected him. The rejection was unbearable for Cain, so Cain killed the rival who had deprived him of the indispensable. What was Cain’s punishment? He was not killed or even harmed; as a matter of fact, God forbade anyone to kill him (the mark of Cain was meant to protect him from being killed). His punishment was to be made an outcast; after God had rejected him, he was then separated from his fellow men. This punishment was indeed one of which Cain had to say: “My punishment is greater than I can bear.”

So far I have dealt with the formal structure of the authoritarian conscience by showing that the good conscience is the consciousness of pleasing the (external and internalized) authorities; the guilty conscience, the consciousness of displeasing them. We turn now to the question of what the contents of good and of guilty authoritarian conscience are. While it is obvious that any transgression of positive norms postulated by the authority constitutes disobedience and, therefore, guilt (regardless of whether or not these norms in themselves are good or bad), there are offenses which are intrinsic to any authoritarian situation.

The prime offense in the authoritarian situation is rebellion against the authority’s rule. Thus disobedience becomes the “cardinal sin”; obedience, the cardinal virtue. Obedience implies the recognition of the authority’s superior power and wisdom; his right to command, to reward, and to punish according to his own fiats. The authority demands submission not only because of the fear of its power but out of the conviction of its moral superiority and right. The respect due the authority carries with it the taboo on questioning it. The authority may deign to give explanations for his commands and prohibitions, his rewards and punishments, or he may refrain from doing so; but never has the individual the right to question or to criticize. If there seem to be any reasons for criticizing the authority, it is the individual subject to the authority who must be at fault; and the mere fact that such an individual dares to criticize is ipso facto proof that he is guilty.

The duty of recognizing the authority’s superiority results in several prohibitions. The most comprehensive of these is the taboo against feeling oneself to be, or ever able to become, like the authority, for this would contradict the latter’s unqualified superiority and uniqueness. The real sin of Adam and Eve is, as has been pointed out before, the attempt to become like God; and it is as punishment for this challenge and simultaneously as deterrence of a repetition of it that they are expelled from the Garden of Eden.89 In authoritarian systems the authority is made out to be fundamentally different from his subjects. He has powers not attainable by anyone else: magic, wisdom, strength which can never be matched by his subjects. Whatever the authority’s prerogatives are, whether he is the master of the universe or a unique leader sent by fate, the fundamental inequality between him and man is the basic tenet of authoritarian conscience. One particularly important aspect of the uniqueness of the authority is the privilege of being the only one who does not follow another’s will, but who himself wills; who is not a means but an end in himself; who creates and is not created. In the authoritarian orientation, the power of will and creation are the privilege of the authority. Those subject to him are means to his end and, consequently, his property and used by him for his own purposes. The supremacy of the authority is questioned by the attempt of the creature to cease being a thing and to become a creator.

But man has never yet ceased striving to produce and to create because productiveness is the source of strength, freedom, and happiness. However, to the extent to which he feels dependent on powers transcending him, his very productiveness, the assertion of his will, makes him feel guilty. The men of Babel were punished for trying by the efforts of a unified human race to build a city reaching to heaven. Prometheus was chained to the rock for having given man the secret of fire, symbolizing productiveness. Pride in the power and strength of man was denounced by Luther and Calvin as sinful pride; by political dictators, as criminal individualism. Man tried to appease the gods for the crime of productiveness by sacrifices, by giving them the best of the crop or of the herd. Circumcision is another attempt at such appeasement; part of the phallus, the symbol of male creativeness, is sacrificed to God so that man may retain the right to its use. In addition to sacrifices in which man pays tribute to the gods by acknowledging—if only symbolically—their monopoly on productiveness, man curbs his own powers by feelings of guilt, rooted in the authoritarian conviction that the exercise of his own will and creative power is a rebellion against the authority’s prerogatives to be the sole creator and that the subjects’ duty is to be his “things.” This feeling of guilt, in turn, weakens man, reduces his power, and increases his submission in order to atone for his attempt to be his “own creator and builder.”

Paradoxically, the authoritarian guilty conscience is a result of the feeling of strength, independence, productiveness, and pride, while the authoritarian good conscience springs from the feeling of obedience, dependence, powerlessness, and sinfulness. St. Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin have described this good conscience in unmistakable terms. To be aware of one’s powerlessness, to despise oneself, to be burdened by the feeling of one’s own sinfulness and wickedness are the signs of goodness. The very fact of having a guilty conscience is in itself a sign of one’s virtue because the guilty conscience is the symptom of one’s “fear and trembling” before the authority. The paradoxical result is that the (authoritarian) guilty conscience becomes the basis for a “good” conscience, while the good conscience, if one should have it, ought to create a feeling of guilt.

The internalization of authority has two implications: one, which we have just discussed, where man submits to the authority; the other, where he takes over the role of the authority by treating himself with the same strictness and cruelty. Man thus becomes not only the obedient slave but also the strict taskmaster who treats himself as his own slave. This second implication is very important for the understanding of the psychological mechanism of authoritarian conscience. The authoritarian character, being more or less crippled in his productiveness, develops a certain amount of sadism and destructiveness.90 These destructive energies are discharged by taking over the role of the authority and dominating oneself as the servant. In the analysis of the Super-Ego, Freud has given a description of its destructive components which has been amply confirmed by clinical data collected by other observers. It does not matter whether one assumes, as Freud did in his earlier writings, that the root of aggression is to be found mainly in instinctual frustration or, as he assumed later, in the “death-instinct.” What matters is the fact that the authoritarian conscience is fed by destructiveness against the person’s own self so that destructive strivings are thus permitted to operate under the disguise of virtue. Psychoanalytic exploration, especially of the obsessional character, reveals the degree of cruelty and destructiveness conscience sometimes has, and how it enables one to act out the lingering hate by turning it against oneself. Freud has convincingly demonstrated the correctness of Nietzsche’s thesis that the blockage of freedom turns man’s instincts “backward against man himself. Enmity, cruelty, the delight in persecution, in surprises, change, destruction—the turning of all these instincts against their own possessors: this is the origin of the ’bad conscience.’”91

Most religious and political systems in the history of mankind could serve as illustrations of the authoritarian conscience. Since I have analyzed Protestantism and Fascism from this point of view in Escape from Freedom I shall not give historical illustrations here, but shall limit myself to the discussion of some aspects of the authoritarian conscience as they can be observed in the parent-child relationships in our culture.

The use of the term “authoritarian conscience” in reference to our culture may surprise the reader, since we are accustomed to think of authoritarian attitudes as being characteristic only of authoritarian, non-democratic cultures; but such a view underestimates the strength of authoritarian elements, especially the role of anonymous authority operating in the contemporary family and society.92

The psychoanalytic interview is one of the vantage points for studying the authoritarian conscience in the urban middle class. Here parental authority and the way children cope with it are revealed as being the crucial problem of neurosis. The analyst finds many patients incapable of criticizing their parents at all; others, who, while criticizing their parents in some respects, stop short of criticizing them with regard to those qualities they themselves have suffered from; still others feel guilty and anxious when they express pertinent criticism or rage against one of their parents. It often takes considerable analytic work to enable a person even to remember incidents which provoked his anger and criticism.93

More subtle and still more hidden are those guilt feelings which result from the experience of not pleasing one’s parents. Sometimes the child’s feeling of guilt is attached to the fact of his not loving the parents sufficiently, particularly when the parents expect to be the focus of the child’s feelings. Sometimes it arises from the fear of having disappointed parental expectations. The latter point is particularly important because it refers to one of the crucial elements in the attitude of the parent in the authoritarian family. In spite of the great difference between the Roman paterfamilias, whose family was his property, and the modern father, the feeling that children are brought into the world to satisfy the parents and compensate them for the disappointments of their own lives is still widespread. This attitude has found its classic expression in Creon’s famous speech on parental authority in Sophocles’ “Antigone”:

“So it is right, my son, to be disposed—

In everything to back your father’s quarrel.

It is for this men pray to breed and rear

in their homes dutiful offspring—to requite

The foe with evil, and their father’s friend

Honour, as did their father. Whoso gets

Children unserviceable—what else could he

Be said to breed, but troubles for himself,

And store of laughter for his enemies.”94

Even in our non-authoritarian culture, it happens that parents want their children to be “serviceable”; in order to make up for what the parents missed in life. If the parents are not successful, the children should attain success so as to give them a vicarious satisfaction. If they do not feel loved (particularly if the parents do not love each other), the children are to make up for it; if they feel powerless in their social life, they want to have the satisfaction of controlling and dominating their children. Even if the children fall in with these expectations, they still feel guilty for not doing enough and thus disappointing their parents.

One particularly subtle form which the feeling of disappointing the parents frequently takes is caused by the feeling of being different. Dominating parents want their children to be like them in temperament and character. The choleric father, for instance, is out of sympathy with a phlegmatic son; the father interested in practical achievements is disappointed by a son interested in ideas and theoretical inquiry, and vice versa. If the father’s attitude is proprietary, he interprets the son’s difference from him as inferiority; the son feels guilty and inferior because of his being different and he tries to make himself into the kind of person his father wants him to be; but he succeeds only in crippling his own growth and in becoming a very imperfect replica of his father. Since he believes he ought to be like his father, this failure gives him a guilty conscience. The son, in attempting to free himself from these notions of obligation and to become “himself,” is frequently so heavily weighed down by a burden of guilt over this “crime” that he falls by the wayside before ever reaching his goal of freedom. The burden is so heavy because he has to cope not only with his parents, with their disappointment, accusations, and appeals, but also with the whole culture which expects children to “love” their parents. The foregoing description, though fitting the authoritarian family, does not seem to be correct as far as the contemporary American, especially the urban, family is concerned in which we find little overt authority. But the picture I have given holds true, nevertheless, in its essential points. Instead of overt we find anonymous authority expressed in terms of emotionally highly charged expectations instead of explicit commands. Moreover, the parents do not feel themselves to be authorities, but nevertheless they are the representatives of the anonymous authority of the market, and they expect the children to live up to standards to which both—the parents and the children—submit.

Not only do guilt feelings result from one’s dependence on an irrational authority and from the feeling that it is one’s duty to please that authority but the guilt feeling in its turn reinforces dependence. Guilt feelings have proved to be the most effective means of forming and increasing dependency, and herein lies one of the social functions of authoritarian ethics throughout history. The authority as lawgiver makes its subjects feel guilty for their many and unavoidable transgressions. The guilt of unavoidable transgressions before authority and the need for its forgiveness thus creates an endless chain of offense, guilt feeling, and the need for absolution which keeps the subject in bondage and grateful for forgiveness rather than critical of the authority’s demands. It is this interaction between guilt feeling and dependency which makes for the solidity and strength of the authoritarian relationships. The dependence on irrational authority results in a weakening of will in the dependent person and, at the same time, whatever tends to paralyze the will makes for an increase in dependence. Thus a vicious circle is formed.

The most effective method for weakening the child’s will is to arouse his sense of guilt. This is done early by making the child feel that his sexual strivings and their early manifestations are “bad.” Since the child cannot help having sexual strivings, this method of arousing guilt can hardly fail. Once parents (and society represented by them) have succeeded in making the association of sex and guilt permanent, guilt feelings are produced to the same degree, and with the same constancy as sexual impulses occur. In addition, other physical functions are blighted by “moral” considerations. If the child does not go to the toilet in the prescribed fashion, if he is not as clean as expected, if he does not eat what he is supposed to—he is bad. At the age of five or six the child has acquired an all-pervasive sense of guilt because the conflict between his natural impulses and their moral evaluation by his parents constitutes a constantly generating source of guilt feelings.

Liberal and “progressive” systems of education have not changed this situation as much as one would like to think. Overt authority has been replaced by anonymous authority, overt commands by “scientifically” established formulas; “don’t do this” by “you will not like to do this.” In fact, in many ways this anonymous authority may be even more oppressive than the overt one. The child is no longer aware of being bossed (nor are the parents of giving orders), and he cannot fight back and thus develop a sense of independence. He is coaxed and persuaded in the name of science, common sense, and cooperation—and who can fight against such objective principles?

Once the will of the child has been broken, his sense of guilt is reinforced in still another way. He is dimly aware of his submission and defeat, and he must make sense of it. He cannot accept a puzzling and painful experience without trying to explain it. The rationalization in this case is, in principle, the same as that of the Indian untouchable or the suffering Christian—his defeat and weakness are “explained” as being just punishment for his sins. The fact of his loss of freedom is rationalized as proof of guilt, and this conviction increases the guilt feeling induced by the cultural and parental systems of value.

The child’s natural reaction to the pressure of parental authority is rebellion, which is the essence of Freud’s “Oedipus complex.” Freud thought that, say, the little boy, because of his sexual desire for his mother, becomes the rival of his father, and that the neurotic development consists in the failure to cope in a satisfactory way with the anxiety rooted in this rivalry. In pointing to the conflict between the child and parental authority and the child’s failure to solve this conflict satisfactorily, Freud did touch upon the roots of neurosis; in my opinion, however, this conflict is not brought about primarily by the sexual rivalry but results from the child’s reaction to the pressure of parental authority, which in itself is an intrinsic part of patriarchal society.

Inasmuch as social and parental authority tend to break his will, spontaneity, and independence, the child, not being born to be broken, fights against the authority represented by his parents; he fights for his freedom not only from pressure, but also for his freedom to be himself, a full-fledged human being, not an automaton. For some children the battle for freedom will be more successful than for others, although only a few succeed entirely. The scars left from the child’s defeat in the fight against irrational authority are to be found at the bottom of every neurosis. They form a syndrome the most important features of which are the weakening or paralysis of the person’s originality and spontaneity; the weakening of the self and the substitution of a pseudo self in which the feeling of “I am” is dulled and replaced by the experience of self as the sum total of others’ expectations; the substitution of autonomy by heteronomy; the fogginess or, to use H. S. Sullivan’s term, the parataxic quality of all interpersonal experiences. The most important symptom of the defeat in the fight for oneself is the guilty conscience. If one has not succeeded in breaking out of the authoritarian net, the unsuccessful attempt to escape is proof of guilt, and only by renewed submission can the good conscience be regained.

b. Humanistic Conscience

Humanistic conscience is not the internalized voice of an authority whom we are eager to please and afraid of displeasing; it is our own voice, present in every human being and independent of external sanctions and rewards. What is the nature of this voice? Why do we hear it and why can we become deaf to it?

Humanistic conscience is the reaction of our total personality to its proper functioning or dysfunctioning; not a reaction to the functioning of this or that capacity but to the totality of capacities which constitute our human and our individual existence. Conscience judges our functioning as human beings; it is (as the root of the word con-scientia indicates) knowledge within oneself, knowledge of out respective success or failure in the art of living. But although conscience is knowledge, it is more than mere knowledge in the realm of abstract thought. It has an affective quality, for it is the reaction of our total personality and not only the reaction of our mind. In fact, we need not be aware of what our conscience says in order to be influenced by it. Actions, thoughts, and feelings which are conducive to the proper functioning and unfolding of our total personality produce a feeling of inner approval, of “rightness,” characteristic of the humanistic “good conscience.” On the other hand, acts, thoughts, and feelings injurious to our total personality produce a feeling of uneasiness and discomfort, characteristic of the “guilty conscience.” Conscience is thus a re-action of ourselves to ourselves. It is the voice of our true selves which summons us back to ourselves, to live productively, to develop fully and harmoniously—that is, to become what we potentially are. It is the guardian of our integrity; it is the “ability to guarantee one’s self with all due pride, and also at the same time to say yes to one’s self.”95 If love can be defined as the affirmation of the potentialities and the care for, and the respect of, the uniqueness of the loved person, humanistic conscience can be justly called the voice of our loving care for ourselves.

Humanistic conscience represents not only the expression of our true selves; it contains also the essence of our moral experiences in life. In it we preserve the knowledge of our aim in life and of the principles through which to attain it; those principles which we have discovered ourselves as well as those we have learned from others and which we have found to be true.

Humanistic conscience is the expression of man’s self-interest and integrity, while authoritarian conscience is concerned with man’s obedience, self-sacrifice, duty, or his “social adjustment.” The goal of humanistic conscience is productiveness and, therefore, happiness, since happiness is the necessary concomitant of productive living. To cripple oneself by becoming a tool of others, no matter how dignified they are made to appear, to be “selfless,” unhappy, resigned, discouraged, is in opposition to the demands of one’s conscience; any violation of the integrity and proper functioning of our personality, with regard to thinking as well as acting, and even with regard to such matters as taste for food or sexual behavior is acting against one’s conscience.

But is our analysis of conscience not contradicted by the fact that in many people its voice is so feeble as not to be heard and acted upon? Indeed, this fact is the reason for the moral precariousness of the human situation. If conscience always spoke loudly and distinctly enough, only a few would be misled from their moral objective. One answer follows from the very nature of conscience itself: since its function is to be the guardian of man’s true self-interest, it is alive to the extent to which a person has not lost himself entirely and become the prey of his own indifference and destructiveness. Its relation to one’s own productiveness is one of interaction. The more productively one lives, the stronger is one’s conscience, and, in turn, the more it furthers one’s productiveness. The less productively one lives, the weaker becomes one’s conscience; the paradoxical—and tragic—situation of man is that his conscience is weakest when he needs it most.

Another answer to the question of the relative ineffectiveness of conscience is our refusal to listen and—what is even more important—our ignorance of knowing how to listen. People often are under the illusion that their conscience will speak with a loud voice and its message will be dear and distinct; waiting for such a voice, they do not hear anything. But when the voice of conscience is feeble, it is indistinct; and one has to learn how to listen and to understand its communications in order to act accordingly.

However, learning to understand the communications of one’s conscience is exceedingly difficult, mainly for two reasons. In order to listen to the voice of our conscience, we must be able to listen to ourselves, and this is exactly what most people in our culture have difficulties in doing. We listen to every voice and to everybody but not to ourselves. We are constantly exposed to the noise of opinions and ideas hammering at us from everywhere: motion pictures, newspapers, radio, idle chatter. If we had planned intentionally to prevent ourselves from ever listening to ourselves, we could have done no better.

Listening to oneself is so difficult because this art requires another ability, rare in modern man: that of being alone with oneself. In fact, we have developed a phobia of being alone; we prefer the most trivial and even obnoxious company, the most meaningless activities, to being alone with ourselves; we seem to be frightened at the prospect of facing ourselves. Is it because we feel we would be such bad company? I think the fear of being alone with ourselves is rather a feeling of embarrassment, bordering sometimes on terror at seeing a person at once so well known and so strange; we are afraid and run away. We thus miss the chance of listening to ourselves, and we continue to ignore our conscience.

Listening to the feeble and indistinct voice of our conscience is difficult also because it does not speak to us directly but indirectly and because we are often not aware that it is our conscience which disturbs us. We may feel only anxious (or even sick) for a number of reasons which have no apparent connection with our conscience. Perhaps the most frequent indirect reaction of our conscience to being neglected is a vague and unspecific feeling of guilt and uneasiness, or simply a feeling of tiredness or listlessness. Sometimes such feelings are rationalized as guilt feelings for not having done this or that, when actually the omissions one feels guilty about do not constitute genuine moral problems. But if the genuine though unconscious feeling of guilt has become too strong to be silenced by superficial rationalizations, it finds expression in deeper and more intense anxieties and even in physical or mental sickness.

One form of this anxiety is the fear of death; not the normal fear of having to die which every human being experiences in the contemplation of death, but a horror of dying by which people can be possessed constantly. This irrational fear of death results from the failure of having lived; it is the expression of our guilty conscience for having wasted our life and missed the chance of productive use of our capacities. To die is poignantly bitter, but the idea of having to die without having lived is unbearable. Related to the irrational fear of death is the fear of growing old by which even more people in our culture are haunted. Here, too, we find a reasonable and normal apprehension of old age which, however, is very different in quality and intensity from the nightmarish dread of “being too old.” Frequently we can observe people, especially in the analytic situation, who are obsessed by the fear of old age when they are quite young; they are convinced that the waning of physical strength is linked with the weakening of their total personality, their emotional and intellectual powers. This idea is hardly more than a superstition, which persists in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is fostered, in our culture, by the emphasis on so-called youthful qualities, like quickness, adaptability, and physical vigor, which are the qualities needed in a world primarily orientated to success in competition rather than to the development of one’s character. But many examples show that the person who lives productively before he is old by no means deteriorates; on the contrary, the mental and emotional qualities he developed in the process of productive living continue to grow although physical vigor wanes. The unproductive person, however, indeed deteriorates in his whole personality when his physical vigor, which had been the main spring of his activities, dries up. The decay of the personality in old age is a symptom: it is the proof of the failure of having lived productively. The fear of getting old is an expression of the feeling—often unconscious—of living unproductively; it is a reaction of our conscience to the mutilation of our selves. There are cultures in which there is a greater need and, therefore, a higher esteem for the specific qualities of old age, like wisdom and experience. In such cultures can we find an attitude which is so beautifully expressed in the following utterance of the Japanese painter Hokusai:

From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the form of things. By the time I was fifty I had published infinity of designs; but all I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence when I am eighty, I shall have made more progress; at ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at a hundred I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage; and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do, be it but a dot or a line, will be alive.

Written at the age of seventy-five by me, once Hokusai, today Gwakio Rojin, the old man mad about drawing.96

The fear of disapproval, though less dramatic than the irrational fear of death and of old age, is a hardly less significant expression of unconscious guilt feeling. Here also we find the irrational distortion of a normal attitude: man naturally wants to be accepted by his fellows; but modern man wants to be accepted by everybody and therefore is afraid to deviate, in thinking, feeling, and acting, from the cultural pattern. One reason among others for this irrational fear of disapproval is an unconscious guilt feeling. If man cannot approve of himself because he fails in the task of living productively, he has to substitute approval by others for approval by himself. This craving for approval can be fully understood only if we recognize it as a moral problem, as the expression of the all-pervasive though unconscious guilt feeling.

It would seem that man can successfully shut himself off against hearing the voice of his conscience. But there is one state of existence in which this attempt fails, and that is sleep. Here he is shut off from the noise hammering at him in the daytime and receptive only to his inner experience, which is made up of many irrational strivings as well as value judgments and insights. Sleep is often the only occasion in which man cannot silence his conscience; but the tragedy of it is that when we do hear our conscience speak in sleep we cannot act, and that, when able to act, we forget what we knew in our dream.

The following dream may serve as an illustration. A well-known writer was offered a position where he would have had to sell his integrity as a writer in exchange for a great deal of money and fame; while considering whether or not to accept the offer, he had this dream: At the foot of a mountain, he sees two very successful men whom he despises for their opportunism; they tell him to drive up the narrow road to the peak. He follows their advice and, when almost on the top of the mountain, his car falls off the road, and he is killed. The message of his dream needs little interpretation: while he slept, he knew that the acceptance of the offered position would be equivalent to destruction; not, of course, to his physical death, as the symbolic language of the dream expresses it, but to his destruction as an integrated, productive human being.

In our discussion of conscience I have examined the authoritarian and humanistic conscience separately in order to show their characteristic qualities; but they are, of course, not separated in reality and not mutually exclusive in any one person. On the contrary, actually everybody has both “consciences.” The problem is to distinguish their respective strength and their interrelation.

Often guilt feelings are consciously experienced in terms of the authoritarian conscience while, dynamically, they are rooted in the humanistic conscience; in this case the authoritarian conscience is a rationalization, as it were, of the humanistic conscience. A person may feel consciously guilty for not pleasing authorities, while unconsciously he feels guilty for not living up to his own expectations of himself. A man, for instance, who had wanted to become a musician had instead become a businessman to satisfy his father’s wishes. He is rather unsuccessful in business, and his father gives vent to his disappointment at the son’s failure. The son, feeling depressed and incapable of doing adequate work, eventually decides to seek the help of a psychoanalyst. In the analytic interview he speaks first at great length about his feelings of inadequacy and depression. Soon he recognizes that his depression is caused by his guilt feelings for having disappointed his father. When the analyst questions the genuineness of this guilt feeling, the patient is annoyed. But soon afterward he sees himself in a dream as a very successful businessman, praised by his father, something which had never occurred in real life; at this point in the dream he, the dreamer, is suddenly seized by panic and by the impulse to kill himself, and he wakes up. He is startled by his dream and considers whether he is not mistaken after all about the real source of his guilt feeling. He then discovers that the core of his guilt feeling is not the failure to satisfy his father, but, on the contrary, his obedience to him and his failure to satisfy himself. His conscious guilt feeling is genuine enough, as far as it goes, as an expression of his authoritarian conscience; but it covers up the bulk of his feeling of guilt toward himself of which he was completely unaware. The reasons for this repression are not difficult to discern: the patterns of our culture support this repression; according to them it makes sense to feel guilty for disappointing one’s father, but it makes little sense to feel guilty for neglecting one’s self. Another reason is the fear that by becoming aware of his real guilt, he would be forced to emancipate himself and to take his life seriously instead of oscillating between the fear of his angry father and the attempts to satisfy him.

Another form of the relation between an authoritarian and humanistic conscience is that in which, although the contents of norms are identical, the motivation for their acceptance differs. The commands, for instance, not to kill, not to hate, not to be envious, and to love one’s neighbor are norms of authoritarian as well as of humanistic ethics. It may be said that in the first stage of the evolution of conscience the authority gives commands which later on are followed not because of submission to the authority but because of one’s responsibility to oneself. Julian Huxley has pointed out that acquisition of an authoritarian conscience was a stage in the process of human evolution necessary before rationality and freedom had developed to an extent which made humanistic conscience possible; others have stated this same idea with regard to the development of the child. While Huxley is right in his historical analysis, I do not believe that with regard to the child, in a non-authoritarian society, the authoritarian conscience has to exist as a precondition for the formation of humanistic conscience; but only the future development of mankind can prove or disprove the validity of this assumption.

If the conscience is based upon rigid and unassailable irrational authority, the development of humanistic conscience can be almost entirely suppressed. Man, then, becomes completely dependent on powers outside himself and ceases to care or to feel responsible for his own existence. All that matters to him is the approval or disapproval by these powers, which can be the state, a leader, or a no less powerful public opinion. Even the most unethical behavior—in the humanistic sense—can be experienced as “duty” in the authoritarian sense. The feeling of “oughtness,” common to both, is so deceptive a factor because it can refer to the worst as well as to the best in man.

A beautiful illustration of the complex interrelation of authoritarian and humanistic conscience is Kafka’s The Trial. The hero of the book, K, finds himself “arrested one fine morning” for a crime of which he is ignorant and is kept so for the remaining year he is to live. The entire novel deals with K’s attempt to plead his case before a mysterious court whose laws and procedure he does not know. He tries frantically to engage the help of shyster lawyers, of women connected with the court, of anyone he can find—all to no avail. Eventually he is sentenced to death and executed.

The novel is written in dreamlike, symbolic language; all the events are concrete and seemingly realistic, although they actually refer to inner experiences symbolized by external events. The story expresses the sense of guilt of a man who feels accused by unknown authorities and feels guilty for not pleasing them; yet these authorities are so beyond his reach that he cannot even learn of what they accuse him, or how he can defend himself. Looked at from this angle, the novel would represent the theological viewpoint most akin to Calvin’s theology. Man is condemned or saved without understanding the reasons. All he can do is to tremble and to throw himself upon God’s mercy. The theological viewpoint implied in this interpretation is Calvin’s concept of guilt, which is representative of the extreme type of authoritarian conscience. However, in one point the authorities in The Trial differ fundamentally from Calvin’s God. Instead of being glorious and majestic, they are corrupt and dirty. This aspect symbolizes K’s rebelliousness toward these authorities. He feels crushed by them and he feels guilty, and yet he hates them and feels their lack of any moral principle. This mixture of submission and rebellion is characteristic of many people who alternately submit and rebel against authorities and particularly against the internalized authority, their conscience.

But K’s guilt feeling is simultaneously a reaction of his humanistic conscience. He discovers that he has been “arrested,” which means, that he has been stopped in his own growth and development. He feels his emptiness and sterility. Kafka in a few sentences masterfully describes the unproductiveness of K’s life. This is how he lives:

That spring K had been accustomed to pass his evenings in this way: after work, whenever possible—he was usually in his office until nine—he would take a short walk, alone or with some of his colleagues, and then go to a beet hall, where until eleven he sat at a table patronized mostly by elderly men. But there were exceptions to this routine, when, for instance, the Manager of the Bank, who highly valued his diligence and reliability, invited him for a drive or for dinner at his villa. And once a week K visited a girl called Elsa, who was on duty all night till early morning as a waitress in a cabaret and during the day received her visitors in bed!97

K feels guilty without knowing why. He runs away from himself, concerned with finding assistance from others, when only the understanding of the real cause of his guilt feelings and the development of his own productiveness could save him. He asks the inspector who arrests him all kinds of questions about the court and his chances at the trial. He is given the only advice which can be given in this situation. The inspector answers: “However, if I cannot answer your question, I can at least give you a piece of advice. Think less about us and of what is to happen to you; think more about yourself instead.”

On another occasion his conscience is represented by the prison chaplain, who shows him that he himself must give account to himself, and that no bribe and no appeal to pity can solve his moral problem. But K can only see the priest as another authority who could intercede for him, and all he is concerned with is whether the priest is angry with him or not. When he tries to appease the priest, the priest shrieks from the pulpit, “Can’t you see anything at all? It was an angry cry but at the same time sounded like the involuntary shriek of one who sees another fall and is startled out of himself.” But even this shriek does not arouse K. He simply feels more guilty for what he thinks is the priest’s anger with him. The priest ends the conversation by saying: “So why should I make any claims upon you? The Court makes no claims upon you. It receives you when you come, and it relinquishes you when you go.” This sentence expresses the essence of humanistic conscience. No power transcending man can make a moral claim upon him. Man is responsible to himself for gaining or losing his life. Only if he understands the voice of his conscience, can he return to himself. If he cannot, he will perish; no one can help him but he himself. K fails to understand the voice of his conscience, and so he has to die. At the very moment of the execution, he has for the first time a glimpse of his real problem. He senses his own unproductiveness, his lack of love, and his lack of faith:

His glance fell on the top storey of the house adjoining the quarry. With a flicker as of a light going up, the casements of a window there suddenly flew open; a human figure, faint and insubstantial at that distance and that height, leaned abruptly far forward and stretched both arms still farther. Who was it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathized? Someone who wanted to help? Was it one person only? Or were they all there? Was help at hand? Were there some arguments in his favour that had been overlooked? Of course, there must be. Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living. Where was the judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.98

For the first time K visualizes the solidarity of mankind, the possibility of friendship and man’s obligation toward himself. He raises the question of what the High Court was, but the High Court about whom he is inquiring now is not the irrational authority he had believed in, but the High Court of his conscience, which is the real accuser and which he had failed to recognize. K was only aware of his authoritarian conscience and tried to manipulate the authorities which it represents. He was so busy with this activity of self-defense against someone transcending him that he had completely lost sight of his real moral problem. He consciously feels guilty because he is accused by the authorities, but he is guilty because he has wasted his life and could not change because he was incapable of understanding his guilt. The tragedy is that only when it is too late does he have a vision of what might have been.

It needs to be emphasized that the difference between humanistic and authoritarian conscience is not that the latter is molded by the cultural tradition, while the former develops independently. On the contrary, it is similar in this respect to our capacities of speech and thought, which, though intrinsic human potentialities, develop only in a social and cultural context. The human race, in the last five or six thousand years of its cultural development, has formulated ethical norms in its religious and philosophical systems toward which the conscience of every individual must be orientated, if he is not to start from the beginning. But because of the interests vested in each system their representatives have tended to emphasize the differences more than the common core. Yet, from the standpoint of man, the common elements in these teachings are more important than their differences. If the limitations and distortions of these teachings are understood as being the outcome of the particular historical, socioeconomic, and cultural situation in which they grew, we find an amazing agreement among all thinkers whose aim was the growth and happiness of man.