Conscience defined

The concept of conscience is at the heart of Logotherapy, the mechanism which enables a person to become attuned to that which is the “main concern” of a human being: meaning. It is to be distinguished from the Freudian concept of the superego, a dimension within the structure of the personality that is an amalgam of all the moralizing forces in a persons’ life, be they the person’s religious or ethical upbringing, and/or societal norms and mores. The superego, fully installed within the personality, exerts itself upon the ego to prevent the self from fulfilling drives that originate in the id, thereby bringing the self in line with these rules that have been “stored” there. The conventional wisdom refers to the superego as conscience, and therefore it is difficult to articulate Frankl’s idea of conscience without first teasing the concepts of “superego” and “conscience” apart, and establishing first that these concepts are not synonymous. However, the fact that most people do equate the two–due to the influence of Freudian ideas–is ironic, precisely because Frankl’s idea of conscience is really the older and far more intuitive definition of conscience, namely, the human being’s ability to discern right from wrong based on transcendent values that come from beyond the self. Consider the following dictionary definition of conscience:

1 a : the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good b : a faculty, power, or principle enjoining good acts c : the part of the superego in psychoanalysis that transmits commands and admonitions to the ego (from

Note that the Freudian definition of conscience is only the third definition and not the first, which more closely reflects Frankl’s concept. Frankl elsewhere makes clear that superego and conscience cannot be the same item, since there are occasions where a person, following the dictates of his or her conscience, has to take a stand against the moral messages of his or her superego, and actually betray his or her superego in order to obey his or her conscience. An example of this might be the conscientious objector, who resists military draft because of his opposition to the war–despite the fact that all of his relatives may have served in the armed forces and his society considers military service to be one of the highest and most inviolable values. The pressures of the superego, if it were conscience, may have forced this person to serve by way of shame and guilt. But this type of conscience does not demand any active stand to be taken by the one who possesses it. Rather, the self is reduced to the role of a passive slave of shame and guilt inputs, internalized moral messages recorded as if like a tape by the superego. True conscience as it is understood in Logotherapy precisely calls upon its possessor to perceive its “voice” and act accordingly–but the message comes from beyond the self, and the message is objectively right.

Key to the understanding of Frankl’s definition of conscience is the “transcendent quality of conscience”. Frankl writes, “All freedom has a “from what” and a “to what”. The “from what of man’s freedom is his being driven, and the “to what” is his being responsible, his having conscience. These two facets of the human condition are best expressed by a simple admonition from Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach: ‘Be the master of your will and the servant of your conscience!’…’Be the master of your will…” Well, I am already ‘the master of my will’ insofar as I am human and fully aware of my humanness–that is to say, insofar as I am interpreting this humanness in terms of responsibleness. But if I am also to be ‘the servant of my conscience’, then I may ask whether this conscience has not to be something other than I myself; might it not be something higher than he who merely perceives its voice?” (Frankl, 2000, pp. 59-60)

This is the additional dimension that Frankl reveals regarding conscience, that it is one of the human endowments that receives the message from beyond the self. It is more like an antenna that detects external meaning rather than the “tapes” of the superego. It calls the person out of hiding and reminds him that he is responsible for fulfilling meaning by acting according to the dictates of conscience. With this definition of conscience, a person can no longer absolve him or herself of his responsibility towards conscientiousness, being an agent of change in his or her own life or globally in his or her world. Under the rubric of this type of conscience, there is no Nuremberg defense (e.g., “I was only following orders”), and no one can claim immunity by virtue of his or her upbringing or having been “society’s child”–and certainly not by being “only human”, as if being human means being nothing but a set of drives. Conscience “sounds through;” its voice comes through loud and clear. Not hearing it indicates less an impairment and more a shirking of one’s responsibility to be at once self-transcendent and receptive to that which is transcendent.

In a certain sense, this is very enigmatic when we consider the fact that there is not a common concept of what constitutes right and wrong, and that people of religious and secular orientations have radically different relationships towards conscience, at least at the surface level. How is a person who does not have a clear sense of the Divine, or no apparent faith in the Divine supposed to affirm the notion of an objective rightness that can be conveyed by the conscience? Granted, there are secular people who are not relativistic in their thinking and do speak absolutely in terms of their values. However, in many instances, these people are speaking from their gut and do not have a doctrinal basis to substantiate their values. True secularism, when it is intellectually honest, does not allow for viscerally-felt values to be considered absolute, and forces one to acknowledge everything as being relative. How can Logotherapy address the concerns of these people?

To speak in defense of absolute values felt at the visceral level, Frankl does propose a concept called “unconscious religiousness”. This is a dimension of the unconscious that houses, as it were, a latent relationship to transcendence or to the Divine. It may not manifest itself at the conscious level, but it is there. Frankl writes, “This concept means no more or less than that man has stood in an intentional relation to transcendence, even if only at the unconscious level. If one calls the intentional referent of such an unconscious relation ‘G-d’, then it is apt to speak of an ‘unconscious G-d’. This, however, in no way implies that G-d is unconscious to Himself, but rather that G-d may be unconscious to man and that man’s relation to G-d may be unconscious” (Frankl, 2000, p. 68)

As a Jew, I have to note here that this explanation does not hold up completely vis-a-vis the Torah’s understanding, specifically, the suggestion that “G-d may be unconscious to man,” which is antithetical to the Torah’s concept of Divine Providence; the Torah would not allow us to force G-d to share the responsibility of unconsciousness, as it were. He is the Source of the very meaning that we assume conscience will deliver to us. Nevertheless, the concept of the unconscious, latent relationship to the transcendent–however one refers to it–explains clearly how people who consider themselves secular, or at least non-religious, can profess to have a sense of right and wrong that is objectively or absolutely true, and how it is illegitimate to deny them this.

I believe that this type of “non-religious” person represents the vast majority of the human population that considers itself as such. I think that the true secular relativist is a rare type, to be found, perhaps, in an academic setting, in an “ivory tower”. So on the one hand, I feel that, on a practical level, it is the former type that we are more likely to find in our offices. At the same time, both types can and do experience the existential vacuum, seek meaning, and need our help in evoking their respective wills to meaning; this is basic to being a human being. Such being the case, I don’t believe that a person’s lack of understanding or lack of absolute faith in the Divine represents a terminal obstacle to his or her ability to live a meaningful life or to connect to conscience in the practical sense. (Tanchum)

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