Monday, April 6, 2009

The Uses of Conscience

Over the weekend, I read The Sociopath Next Door (by Laura Stout), a breezy discussion of sociopathy aimed at general readers. Although I picked up the book because of its title (like most lawyers who practice on the civil side, I'm intrigued by crime and criminals), it ultimately interested me more as an extended meditation on "conscience."

The concept of sociopathy sorts everyone into two groups: those with consciences and those without. What we typically think of as our "conscience" is rooted in our emotional attachments to others. Non-sociopaths -- people with consciences -- are uncomfortable, if not in pain, when they ignore the promptings of conscience. Doing what one's conscience asks can thus be a source of pleasure and fulfillment.

We tend not to think of our conscience as a source to consult when pursuing happiness. (At least, I think people who, like me, aren't actively religious, and thus accustomed to thinking in terms of a universal prescriptive order, tend not to think of conscience as a guide to happiness.) But the presence of conscience, encouraging certain behavior with the tools of satisfaction and un-ease, would appear to require, at a minimum, that any action intended to produce happiness be consistent with the signals from one's conscience. This seems in fact to resemble Aristotle's view of human happiness -- that it results from living in accordance with our function.

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