The U.S. Department of the Treasury maintains three gift funds, one of which is known as the “Conscience Fund,” established in 1811. The name stuck after the Civil War when a former Army quartermaster who had misappropriated funds sent a check along with a note that read: “Suppose we call this a contribution to the conscience fund and get it announced in the newspapers, and perhaps we will get some more.”
Most contributions to the fund have come through people who cheated on their taxes. The interesting thing is that gifts to the fund have been declining rapidly. In 2014, people gave over a million dollars to the fund. In 2015, that amount was cut by more than half. In 2016, just $23,000 was given. According to Business Insider, halfway through 2017, only one gift of $1,600 had been given.
What is behind this sharp decline? Some have speculated that people believe it is no longer possible to hide their identities from Big Brother. A darker explanation is that the decline in giving to the Conscience Fund follows a decline in efficiently operating consciences.
The poet Ogden Nash wrote: “There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.” One can only hope the reduction in giving to the Conscience Fund is due to the former possibility, and not the latter.
Conscience is not a static system. It can evolve or devolve in the lives of individuals and societies, become more sensitive or less sensitive. It can respond vigorously to certain stimuli in one period, and not at all in another because conscience must be informed, if it is to work. There needs to be, as it were, software as well as hardware.
The software running the conscience regularly receives updates. This happens, when we are children, through interaction with parents, teachers, pastors, friends, and a host of other sources. As adults, the sources may change, but the conscience continues to update. It runs on the psychological equivalent of continuously modified open source software.
One suspects that the conscience code is now being generated by different sources than it was thirty or forty years ago. Parents and teachers have been largely replaced by media. Pastors have been discarded and not replaced. Books are less influential than movies and television. And it must be remembered that parents and teachers and pastors are also continuously receiving conscience code updates from all these sources as well.
An influential source in history has been the Bible. Its message has informed and updated the consciences of individuals and societies for millennia. Its writers also understood the nature of the conscience and how it functions. For example, the New Testament authors understood that the conscience can exist in a variety of states: it can be a good or bad conscience, one that functions effectively or one that doesn’t; a clear or guilty conscience; a weak conscience or a strong one. Some of these states can overlap.
St. Paul writes that he has a clear conscience but admits that does not make him innocent, since a conscience can be clear for one more than one reason. It may be clear because it is innocent, or because it lacks sensitivity and no longer functions efficiently.
A weak conscience, like a weak circuit breaker, may activate unnecessarily. A person with a weak conscience feels guilty for no good reason. Every little thing sets him off. According to the Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier. that sort of “diffuse and vague guilt feeling kills the personality.” So one can feel guilt when innocent, or feel innocent when guilty.
St. Paul further suggests that the conscience can stop working entirely, can be, as he strikingly pictured it, “seared as with a hot iron.” This happens when a person repeatedly ignores the alarm of conscience until he or she effectively has, as Ogden Nash might say, “no conscience at all.”
We need trusted sources for updating the conscience. Such sources can be found in our traditions, rituals, and shared history. These include what might be the most influential shaper of conscience in the history of the world: the richly layered, compelling message of the Bible.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/3/2018