I just finished Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition (WW Norton & Co., 2019) by Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at UCSD with a long career studying neuroscience and the philosophy of mind. This very good book summarizes recent advances in the field and does a great job of demystifying concepts you have probably encountered before. If you are LDS, the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word “conscience” is probably “the Light of Christ.” I’m going to spend a couple of paragraphs on the problematic LDS doctrine of the Light of Christ, then a few more paragraphs on the book.
Moroni 7:16-19. Here is the scriptural basis for the whole LDS approach to explaining conscience or moral intuition, edited down to the essential phrases and with a few key terms highlighted:
The Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; … for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.
But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; ….
Seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; ….
Search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil.
So an equivalent term is the Spirit of Christ, and the text is quite clear this comes from Christ, not the Holy Ghost. Furthermore, it’s quite clear there is an opposing Spirit of Satan that runs counterprogramming, apparently whispering in our other ear to ignore the homeless guy on the corner or eat that third donut. Finally, this is a universal thing, “given to every man” and woman.
But There’s a Problem or Two. This Light of Christ is described as an objective force or thing. An obvious problem is that “objective” morality varies between cultures and within cultures. It varies within churches and even within families. It’s hard to see much evidence of an objective standard that guides each and every human. Given the malleability of the human mind, with the proper (or improper) upbringing, a child can develop almost any set of beliefs or norms regarding what is right or wrong.
There is also the problem that moral guidance within the LDS system is overdetermined. There is this universal Light of Christ, but also specific guidance from the Holy Ghost, a variety of moral pronouncements in the scriptures, moral pronouncements from General Authorities of the Church, and whatever moral pronouncements your local leaders feel inclined to issue. And then there is your conscience, which may or may not line up with any of these institutional and supernatural sources of moral guidance. This gives rise to a lot of conflict, undermining the simple picture of “you’ll always know what’s right” as depicted in Moroni 7:16-19. Consider the plight of young Nephi, whose conscience (the Light of Christ?) seems to be telling him to refrain from killing the unconscious man at his feet and taking his property, while “the Spirit” is telling him to slay the man. You would think the Light of Christ and the Spirit would be on the same page. I’m sure the attentive reader can come up with half a dozen contemporary conflicts between these LDS sources.
Finally there is a strictly theological difficulty within the LDS system, namely that the Holy Ghost is described as a non-physical person who must necessarily be non-physical in order for the Holy Ghost’s influence or guidance to permeate the world and reach every eligible person. Christ, on the other hand, is held to be a definitively physical person, albeit glorified. Yet this Light of Christ that proceeds forth from Christ manages to permeate the world and touch “every man.” That more or less undercuts the whole rationale for a non-physical Holy Ghost. The more you talk about the Light of Christ, the more puzzling becomes the standard explanations of the LDS Holy Ghost. We might just as well eliminate the Holy Ghost and just call it the Spirit of Elohim, proceeding forth from the Father and working the same way as the Light of Christ does. Or, since the two forces or emanations or spirits (the Light of Christ and this Spirit of Elohim) seem to be doing much the same thing, just apply Occam’s Razor and combine them into one Universal Spirit that proceeds forth from one or both of the Father and/or the Son.
To show how jumbled this all becomes in LDS explanations which attempt to provide more detail, here is Elder McConkie from A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (1985), as quoted in LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (Deseret Book, 2011), s.v. “The Light of Christ” (ellipsis in original):
The light of Christ (also called the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of the Lord) is a light, a power, and an influence that proceeds forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space. … It is the agency of God’s power and the law by which all things are governed. It is also the agency used by the Holy Ghost to manifest truth and dispense spiritual gifts to many people at one and the same time. For instance, it is as though the Holy Ghost, who is a personage of spirit, was broadcasting all truth throughout the whole universe all the time, using the light of Christ as the agency by which the message is delivered. But only those who attune their souls to the Holy Spirit receive the available revelation. It is in this way that the person of the Holy Ghost makes his influence felt in the heart of every righteous person at one and the same time.
Churchland’s Model of Conscience. Let’s see what science has to say. Churchland ties our sense of morality to us being social animals. The extended childhood of human children ties them closely to the mother. Whether we live in a band of hunter-gatherers, a settled village, a bustling town, or a modern megacity, we are all tied to a social world full of other humans we need to interact with as friend or foe, neighbor or stranger. “Conscience” comes from Latin terms meaning, essentially, “knowledge of the community standards.” Yet “conscience cannot always conform to community standards, for our moral sense sometimes requires us to challenge those very standards” (p. 3). So we are morally rooted in our community, but sometimes we challenge aspects of that community. Or communities. If you are an LDS American doctor, you pull moral maxims or guidance from being LDS, from being American, and from being a doctor.
We often speak of the still, small voice or the (metaphorical) voice of conscience. Churchland notes that “inner voice can examine both sides of a moral issue,” but also observes that “sometimes my conscience is not a voice at all, but an uneasiness, a nagging sense of something needing to be done, or maybe something needing to be avoided” (p. 4). She emphasizes the variety or diversity issue I discussed above:
It is tempting to believe that our conscience can be tapped to deliver universal moral truths, and that as long as we heed our conscience, our choice will indeed be the morally right choice. The uncomfortable fact that has to be reckoned with, however, is this: conscientious people frequently differ on what their conscience bids them do, and hence differ in their choices. All too often there is a clash between what your conscience tells you and what mine tells me, even if we are siblings or neighbors or mates. (p. 7)
Churchland advises a certain degree of humility regarding the validity of our own moral judgments and cautions against those who are too confident in their own pronouncements:
In general, those who advertise themselves as having superior moral judgment or unique access to moral truth need to be looked at askance. Not infrequently there is great advantage — in money, sex, power, and self-esteem — in setting oneself up as a moral authority. The rest of us can easily be exploited when we acquiesce in these authoritative moral claims. Scam artists aplenty proclaim themselves as moral gurus, willing to tell the rest of us how our conscience should behave. They can seem authoritative because they are especially charismatic or especially spiritual or especially firm in their convictions. (p. 13)
Just a couple more items. In Chapter 2, “Getting Attached,” Churchland talks about the human trait of caring (with data and references to oxytocin and voles), with this nice summary paragraph:
Acquired patterns of caring behavior — habits and norms — take shape during development as we learn how to behave with others. The reward system internalizes social norms by using imitation along with the pleasure of social approval and the pain of social disapproval. We come to feel unpleasantly anxious when we are tempted to steal or lie; we feel anticipatory pleasure when we plan to soothe a hurt friend or help with a new baby. More sophisticated social behavior develops over time. The cortex supports flexibility and intelligence in the means by which we express how we care. (p. 68)
In Chapter 6, “Conscience and Its Anomalies,” Churchland looks at two extremes on the spectrum of conscience, psychopathy (lack of much of any conscience) and scrupulosity (an overactive conscience). These are such interesting cases. Perhaps you have read The Sociopath Next Door (2006) by Martha Stout, PhD, which popularized the psychopathy phenomenon. Most of us happily live near the center of that spectrum, with a more or less properly modulated conscience. I think it is helpful to think of one’s conscience not just in terms of what station you are tuned to (of the many variations of conscience available) but also in terms of how loud the volume is. Let me just speculate here that many Mormons have the volume up too loud. Here is a summary paragraph from the end of that chapter.
Conscience is a brain construct rooted in our neural circuitry, not a theological entity thoughtfully parked in us by a divine being. It is not infallible, even when honestly consulted. It develops over time and is sensitive to approval and disapproval; it joins forces with reflection and imagination and can be twisted by bad habits, bad company, and a zeitgeist of narcissism. Not everyone develops a conscience (witness the psychopaths), and sometimes conscience becomes the plaything of morbid anxiety (as in scrupulants). The best we can do, given all this, is to aim for understanding how an impartial spectator might judge us. (p. 147)
Conclusion. I don’t really have a good punch line to end this long post. Under the banner of “know thyself,” I recommend the book as a good treatment of conscience. That’s a good topic to know something about, given how prevalent guilt and shame are within Mormon practice and culture. Knowledge is power. Your conscience is a tool for moral guidance, it develops over time, it is not infallible, and it is not your only moral tool (consider rational reflection and/or talking to an honest and trusted friend as additional tools). Go live a good life. Practice random acts of kindness. Wag more, bark less.