Values: How useful is your conscience?

Face of ashamed woman looking down

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

We’ve all been taught to take note of what our conscience tells us. But there’s a catch. Although you may have a strong belief you think is “right,” your conscience can sometimes lead you astray. So how useful is your conscience really? 

Is your conscience always right? 

You may feel strongly that what your conscience says is right. But just because you believe something is right or true, doesn’t always make it right. You may have some misguided values or mistaken beliefs that are actually harmful to yourself or others, or to the environment.

So what your conscience says has to be considered ethically, or sized up against accepted scientific evidence. So ask yourself: would the vast majority of people believe that your beliefs are a good basis for ethical behaviour? Or is there scientific backing for the ideas you’re spreading? Unfortunately, sometimes this isn’t the case.

For example, you may believe strongly in punishing children. So you lock them in their room for days, until they beg for forgiveness. You believe your children will be spoiled if you don’t follow your conscience.

However, your behaviour would be considered cruel in our society. And there are studies in child development that point to the harmful outcomes of this type of treatment.

So how useful is your conscience in this example? It’s convinced you to behave wrongly, even though you firmly believed in what it was telling you.

Be careful

That’s why you need to be careful when listening to your conscience. Having a strong belief about what is right isn’t enough. Your belief must also agree with society’s beliefs about how to treat others ethically, or be backed by credible evidence.

So how can you tell if following your conscience is useful or not? Firstly, it’s important to know your values, and the values of people you associate with closely.

Positive and negative values

We often make the assumption that values are always positive. However this isn’t true.

Some people may value greed, or control and domination over others. Or they may value ignorance, or frugality to the point of poverty.

We tend to be influenced by those around us. 

So examine the values of your role models, or others you have lots of contact with. Do they hold positive and not negative values?

Make sure you’re being influenced by helpful rather than harmful ideas.

1 “Right values”

We hear a lot about “right values” these days as well.

What do people mean when they talk about “right values”? Often they’re trying to persuade us to follow what they believe.

They often talk about following their conscience, and may try to give the impression that they know what’s best for us all.

But what are these “right values”? Are the beliefs and values of these people ethical? Based on scientific facts?

How useful is their conscience in reality?

2 Ethical values

It’s worth examining the statements of these people more deeply, as well as looking at the results of what they do. 

Do their beliefs and values lead to better outcomes for most people? Or does one small group benefit, while the majority are disadvantaged?

Often you’ll find out that the people talking about “right values” are the very ones who belong to a privileged group. If so, how dedicated are they to helping others? Or are they driven more by self-interest?

Sometimes, talking about “right values” hides the speaker’s interests. Then it has very little to do with their conscience, and may smack of hypocrisy.

3 Question others’ beliefs

So question what values are held by those in positions of influence. Look at their track record. 

It’s easy to spout values and beliefs. It’s another thing to follow through on living up to them, or backing up ideas they’re pushing with good evidence.

Be willing to do your own research about topics that are in the news. Find out the facts from reputable sources, that are well-established as being trustworthy. Don’t just accept at face value what others say, particularly if they have their own agenda. 

Look for integrity

Instead, try to take more notice of those who act with integrity. These people treat others with respect and honesty, without discrimination. Their stated values lead to positive behaviours that harmonise with those values. 

Someone lacking in integrity may not worry if they’re presenting facts in a biased manner. They may not care if they’re spreading false ideas, that are potentially dangerous to others’ well-being in some way. 

Be aware of conflicting values

And be aware of how conflicting values can lead to unethical behaviour.

Most of us aim to have a system of values that harmonise with each other. However, sometimes our own values may conflict with one another. Then it’s not so easy to act in line with your values.

Let’s imagine you grew up in a poor neighbourhood. When younger, you often went hungry.

1 Belief in fairness

Now as an adult, your conscience tells you to treat everyone fairly. Many people would agree fairness is a worthwhile value to hold.

So you work towards the fair sharing of resources in society. And your organisation sets a number of goals to reach this end.

2 Belief in expediency

Let’s say, however, that you also hold the value of expediency. In other words, doing whatever works to achieve your goals, even if it’s not always strictly ethical.

Sometimes, this can slip into cutting corners. You may do things that don’t fit being a person with integrity. Perhaps there’s some minor illegality which probably won’t be found out. But you justify it to yourself because it’s for the greater good.

Your belief in expediency overrides your belief in fairness and integrity.

Self-justification can be dangerous

This type of self-justification can be dangerous. You find yourself making excuses for your questionable behaviour. Your conscience says that more people are benefiting than are harmed.

But it this a good enough reason to compromise your integrity? What it’s not just a minor illegality the next time? What if violence, extortion and major fraud are involved?

Would you then continue down this path? Will your value of expediency still override your belief in fairness and integrity?

If so, you’ll be out of step with society. 

Take a step back

If your values are so much in conflict with each other, it’s time to step back.

Obviously at heart you fully believe in your original goals of fairness. Your conscience is telling you that what you believe in, is actually right. But your desire to reach your goals is so strong, that it sets up a conflict.

It’s easy to see from this example how you could slip into acting without integrity. That’s when your conscience may not be so useful – unless it alerts you to the potential conflict. If you don’t take note of your internal discomfort with what you’re doing, you won’t be aware of problems.

And this is true even in small, every day decisions. Don’t assume your conscience is always right. Sometimes it may ignore minor wrongdoings, because they seem to support your valued goals.  

If that’s the case, you have some tough decisions to make.

Make a choice

You only have two choices once you’ve started acting without integrity.

Firstly, you can pull back and start to act with integrity again, in order to achieve your goals.

Secondly, you can give in to using questionable methods, with all the risks involved.

If you follow this path, you’ll eventually stop acting with integrity. The conflict between what you believe in, and what you’re doing, will be huge. Eventually, you won’t be able to stand the emotional distress.

In the end, you’ll abandon integrity. Then at least you’ll have less inner conflict. Your actions won’t conflict with your value of expediency.

But is this really how you want to live? How can you prevent this sort of situation?

1 Define your values

The first step is defining your values. Write them down. See if there are any that tend to be on the negative side. Or see if there are obvious conflicts between any of them.

Imagine how each of your values would require you to act. Do all these behaviours harmonise with each other? Or are they at odds with each other?

2 Identify value conflicts

If there are obvious conflicts between any of your values, you need to identify them to prevent further problems. 

For example, imagine you value self-sufficiency. But you also want your children to get a university education. How will that work if you’re on a low income out in the country?

Or in another example, how can you balance assertiveness and self-expression with empathy? Some people believe they have the right to say whatever they want. They say their conscience tells them to tell the truth without fear or favour.

But they don’t take into account the impact on their listeners. Their lack of empathy stops them seeing how hurtful their remarks can be. They’ve lost sight of delivering the message in a tactful and empathic manner.

Their belief that their conscience is always right has let them down again.

3 Realise that values affect behaviour

So every value you believe in has a consequence. Each value implies a matching set of behaviours.

Make sure your behaviours match your values. And make sure your conscience tells you to act not only correctly, but ethically.

What you believe is right, has to actually be right.

Otherwise you can’t say your conscience is useful at all.

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