Among common mistakes of English usage is the confusion between the words conscience and conscious. Although both are nouns and sound similar, their meanings are totally different. Different they are. But in my opinion, the confusion doesn’t stop at just their usage. In fact, people often believe that allowing their conscience to dictate their conduct is a virtue, when all they need is their consciousness.
Let me elaborate.
Conscience is most often associated with morality—knowing “right” from “wrong,” and behaving accordingly. The dictionary defines conscience as: the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual. Note the use of the words ethical, moral, and principles, which indicate that conscience is a social phenomenon. In other words, conscience is not natural—it’s acquired. It’s the result of long and deep social conditioning of our minds.
But that is where the trouble begins. Because conscience is a social phenomenon, there can never be any consensus on it. You see, what’s moral or ethical for one group of people need not be for another. Think about it and you will realise that our conscience depends on many external factors—our parents, our family, our religion, our culture, our educational institutes, our city, our country and so on. At the most basic level, conscience is the result of a list of dos and don’ts handed down to us by the society and culture we belong to.
Consciousness, on the other hand, is strictly personal. It’s an awareness that comes from being alive. It’s our natural instinct that tells us what is right and what is not. With consciousness, there is no need for any consensus because you simply know. Indeed, conscience often blocks out our consciousness. That’s because, conscience is due to the presence of negative feelings such as fear and guilt, whereas consciousness is due to the presence of love.
Let me explain with an example. When you see a hungry being on the street and you share your food with him because the religious scriptures say so, or because your parents instilled moral values in you, then it’s your conscience at work. But if you share the food because you know how it feels to be hungry, then you’re acting out of consciousness.
So, conscience pricks you [makes you feel guilty] when you don’t do something you must or do something you ought not to; with consciousness, the thought of moral/immoral simply doesn’t arise because you act out of a knowing. If you let go of your conscience and allow your consciousness to dictate your conduct, you will be tune with your intrinsic nature, and happier for it.
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