Night Light: “Without Conscience”

This week’s New England Journal of Medicine opens with an essay by Elie Wiesel entitled “Without Conscience.” The essay asks how Nazi doctors, who played a horrifically crucial role in the organized cruelty of the Holocaust, came to betray the Hippocratic oath, their consciences, humanity. The essay is adapted from an earlier version in a 2001 collection, reprinted here to commemorate Wiesel’s liberation from the Buchenwald concentration camp sixty years ago, on April 11, 1945. When we read that German doctors tortured and executed the insane, the terminally ill, children and the elderly as well as Jews, though, it’s difficult not to hear sobering echoes of recent headlines and heartaches.

Wiesel writes,

“Nazi doctors did their work without any crisis of conscience. They were convinced that by helping Hitler to realize his racial ambitions, they were contributing to the salvation of humanity. The eminent Nazi doctor responsible for ‘ethical’ questions, Rudolf Ramm, did not hesitate to declare that ‘only an honest and moral person may become a good doctor.’ …

“None among them acted under duress–neither those who presided over the nocturnal divison of new arrivals, nor those who killed the prisoners in their laboraties. They could have slipped away; they could have said no. Until the end, they considered themselves public servants loyal to German politics and science. In other words, patriots, devoted researchers. Without too great a stretch, maybe even societal benefactors. Martyrs. …

“It is impossible to study the history of German medicine during the Nazi period in isolation from German education in general. Who or what is to blame for the creation of the assassins in white coats? Was the culprit the anti-Semitic heritage that German theologians and philosophers were dredging up? The harmful effects of propaganda? Perhaps higher education placed too much emphasis on abstract ideas and too little on humanity. I no longer remember which psychiatrist wrote a dissertation demonstrating that the assassins hadn’t lost their moral bearings: they knew how to discern Good from Evil; it was the sense of reality that was missing. In their eyes, the victims did not belong to humankind; they were abstractions.”

I doubt that my rhetorical, historical, ethical or emotional resources are sufficient to provide Wiesel’s topic the treatment it’s owed, and thus I hesitate to advance any answer to his questions. I do have an enduring interest in questions of conscience, though, and I find Wiesel’s suggestions, on one level, astonishing. Conscience has traditionally been understood as a self-legitimizing agency of the soul that defines itself in opposition to external claims of authority and mobilizes dissent against those claims: martyrdom is the final and supreme performance of conscience. Here, though, Wiesel suggests not that conscience was trumped by those external claims, but that conscience came to identify itself with those claims through the ideological apparatuses of theology, philosophy, education: conscience was not obliterated, but invaded. Conscience continued to navigate between Good and Evil, to point toward the “honest” and “moral,” as it always had–but now it oriented its compass between the poles of Nazi power.

To what extent will Mormon theology allow us to entertain Wiesel’s suggestion? Because we replace traditional (internalized) conscience with the (externalized) Light of Christ, it’s difficult to see how evil could exercise such an utterly invasive effect. But how do our categories then explain the actions of those Nazi doctors? When plunged into Night, does Light persist?

39 comments for “Night Light: “Without Conscience”

  1. April 15, 2005 at 3:50 pm

    I haven’t read it, but Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners : Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust seems to argue for Wiesel’s point. Perhaps someone who has read it can comment.

  2. April 15, 2005 at 4:25 pm

    Rosalynde: I’m confused by your question. Surely the Light of Christ, just like the Holy Ghost, has limited influence the further one removes oneself from the light & crosses over into the realm & power of the adversary? Further, while LDS theology may place the conscience as an external source…(I’m not sure I buy that though); that doesn’t leave the individual Nazi doctor w/o an internal guide. There is always the individual’s spirit; which I think is more central to the decision making & evaluation process.

  3. April 15, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    I don’t think there’s any contradiction between Wiesel and Mormon theology. The conscience can be corrupted – but only if we allow it to be. At one point, early, the doctors knew what they were doing was wrong, but went ahead and did it anyway. The mind then creates reasons for why the behavior is not only acceptable, but correct, and that becomes the new conscience.

    We do the same all the time. Someone does something to offend us. Our conscience tells us, deep down, that we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. But we are angry anyways. We then convince ourselves that that our anger is justified and that we ought to retaliate by belittling the other person in some way. After all, the other person needs to learn not to offend people the way they did, we are doing them a favor. We are doing the right thing. Suddenly our conscience is telling us that wrong is right.

    I think a major part of life here in mortality is correcting our conscience so that it is aligned with the light Christ gives us.

  4. A. Greenwood
    April 15, 2005 at 4:33 pm

    I think most of us in the church have had the experience of having the Spirit testify of something (call it Y) and in our minds thinking that the Spirit was of course testifying of X because the two were so related. Only later, when our faith in X was undermined, do we examine our experience closely and realize that the Spirit was really testifying to Y, and that we had been responsible for the additional link.

    I wonder if the process of corrupting the conscience might be analagous. Perhaps corrupting the conscience means using the “ideological apparatuses of theology, philosophy, education” to associate evil with good. So, when the light of Christ makes the good appear good, it would have the unwitting effect of making the evil appear good by association. I can see how this process could corrupt a conscience.

  5. Elisabeth
    April 15, 2005 at 4:52 pm

    Beautiful post, Rosalynde.

    I agree with Wiesel’s point that, “Perhaps higher education placed too much emphasis on abstract ideas and too little on humanity.”

    In law school, and then while representing immigrants seeking political asylum, I felt very uncomfortable reducing the horrific experiences of the victims of rape and torture to neatly- packaged legal arguments for the “plaintiff” or the “petitioner”.

    Even though I knew I was on the “right” side, taking pictures of the scars left by torture, making sure we had every dehumanizing instance of violence clearly documented for the file, made me feel somehow complicit in validating the actions of the torturers.

    Following up with Bryce’s comment, the relatively new (and Oscar-nominated) movie “Downfall/Der Untergang”, shows Hitler and his personal staff members during the last days of WWII as the Russians closed in on Berlin. This film has generated serious concern because it depicts Hitler as a sympathetic (although incredibly deranged) person, as he compliments his chef, bestows hugs and kisses on his beloved German shepherd, and graciously waits for his secretary to catch up with his dictation.

    The end of the movie showed a brief interview with Hitler’s personal secretary right before she died (I think she died in 2002). She stayed with Hitler until he committed suicide because she cared about him, and believed he was a good man.

    I would say that even in the midst of the horrors of the Holocaust, Light did persist. Unfortunately, not many people recognized and responded to this Light, nor did enough respond to avert the atrocities committed in Rwanda, and now in the Darfur region of Sudan.

  6. CJS
    April 15, 2005 at 5:02 pm

    Eric: How do we really know when what we’re doing is aligned with the light of Christ then? What if your sense of right and wrong is so distorted and blurred by the context of the society and cultural in which you live that what you think is right is considered a sin or an atrocity by someone else? While I don’t mean to justify in any way what the doctors did, how accountable are they for their actions? You posit they made a choice at some point to go into the darkness but it’s difficult to see it as something that cut and dried.

  7. Greg Call
    April 15, 2005 at 5:17 pm

    Of course, we don’t have to go all the way to Nazi Germany in the 1930s to explore these questions. What of our fellow citizens of our generation who followed orders (or not) in Abu Ghraib? Or Guantanamo Bay? What were the “ideological apparatuses of theology, philosophy, education” that contributed to those events? What may have snuffed out the Light of Christ for those soldiers? I would guess that many of the answers to these questions would apply equally to the Nazi doctors, no matter the clear qualitative difference in the scale of the atrocities.

  8. April 15, 2005 at 5:25 pm

    Apologies for the somewhat off-topic comment, but I just have to mention, in response to Elisabeth’s comment about Downfall, that I thought Downfall’s biggest problem was that Hitler was not portrayed nearly sympathetic enough.

    A better description of Hitler is in the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (where that final interview came from) where Traudl tells us the full story of her experience with Hitler. Apparently, when he wasn’t giving orders, he was a very kind, gentle man. Downfall, with just a handful of exceptions, depicts a man who is almost always fuming out of his ears and going ballistic like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane.

    In terms of the discussion, I think Hitler was simply an extreme case of self-deception and perhaps the greatest example of a poisoned conscience.

    CJS: They are 100% accountable for their actions, because they are 100% accountable for their own self-deception. I’m also willing to bet their descent into darkness was somewhat gradual, that it probably took some time and some hard-core self-deceiving before they believed what they were doing was right.

    “How do we really know when what we’re doing is aligned with the light of Christ then?”

    That’s the question. Frequently we don’t. I think it requires a pure, sincere desire to know what is right. It requires some honest introspection and, most of all, it’s not something that we can know all at once. Undeceiving ourselves is a process that occurs over time as we continually seek, humbly and lovingly to do what is right. If you always have a broken heart and contrite spirit, you’re going to be moving in the right direction.

  9. CJS
    April 15, 2005 at 5:32 pm

    It’s a discussion that relates to accountability in general.

  10. Bill
    April 15, 2005 at 5:36 pm

    “Because we replace traditional (internalized) conscience with the (externalized) Light of Christ”

    I didn’t really buy this in November — still don’t

  11. Mike Parker
    April 15, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    The “corruption of conscience” mentioned in #3 and #4 is a scriptural principle:

    “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron….” (1 Timothy 4:1-2).

    In this case, Paul was speaking of apostates, but I think the principle has wider applications. It’s possible to become desensitized to sin and evil by repeated exposure. It’s human nature to find ways of justifying what we’re doing.

  12. April 15, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    Interesting topic Rosalynde.

    Shouldn’t we also redirect the question back at ourselves and our own society? Isn’t it possible that our society has employed “the ideological apparatuses of theology, philosophy, education” to reorient individual consciences so that actions which the Light of Christ indicates are wicked are routinely practiced and defended in good conscience by individuals who consider themselves public servants loyal to humanism, freedom, or democracy?

    Their conscience continues to navigate between Good and Evil, to point toward the “honest” and “moral,” as it always has–but now it is has oriented its compass between the poles of Gay Rights, Abortion Rights, Marxism, Capitalism, or whatever else the ideological apparatuses are employed to justify contrary to the Light of Christ.

  13. Bro. Brandon B.
    April 15, 2005 at 7:26 pm

    Thankyou for the post! I thought that it was interesting that you brought up the hippocratic oath, just the other day I stumbled upon the origional version of it online at
    I was suprised to see the paragrah:
    “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.”
    It is my understanding that many medical schools now make the oath (even the updated one without this paragraph) optional to recite. I am curious as to when this started and when the first doctors began to disregard this paragraph when preforming abortions. Has the liberal dominated higher education system polluted the standards of morality? I think the future will tell…

  14. Carl Youngblood
    April 15, 2005 at 7:27 pm

    I don’t think that “The Light of Christ” (a term we use in much the same way that others use “conscience”) is external. We _are_ this stuff. It is the essence of our being. “Ye were also in the beginning with the Father, that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth.” (D&C 93:23). “For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (D&C 84:45). Our current understanding of our connection with God is very rudimentary and kindergarten-like, but I believe that when we ultimately “know as also [we are] known,” we will recognize the literal truth of Christ’s assertion, “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21).

  15. Bro. Brandon B.
    April 15, 2005 at 8:04 pm

    I have to agree with you, and I love the beautiful verses that you cited in your post they are some of my favorites.

  16. Rosalynde Welch
    April 15, 2005 at 8:48 pm

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone. Some responses:

    Eric (#3): You make a distinction between “conscience” and “Light of Christ”: the conscience is the internal “tuner” that picks up the signal from the external Light of Christ, but the tuner can get reset so that it just gets static or gets another signal altogether. But I’m not sure this distinction holds up: though both doctrines are somewhat diffuse, Mormon theology generally equates the conscience with the Light of Christ. Of course, we still must posit some sort of internal sense that perceives the influence of the Light, but this receptive faculty is significantly different from the traditional conscience: whereas the conscience determines what’s right and wrong, a “Light receiver” merely transmits knowledge of right and wrong.

    Adam (#4): I’ve actually never had the experience you describe–at least not that I recall–but it’s an interesting problem. Wiesel is actually somewhat contradictory on the effect of ideological systems: on the one hand, as I indicate, he suggests that ideological indoctrination corrupts the conscience; on the other hand, though, he’s particularly shocked that highly educated doctors would act as they did, knowing what they did, as if education (itself an ideological apparatus) should fortify the conscience. Does education sensitize or dull one’s capacity to sense the Light of Christ?

    Elisabeth (#5): Thanks for sharing your experience. It makes me think that perhaps doctors were particularly susceptible to dehumanizing their “patients” because medical training and practice necessarily treats the body as object of study and manipulation. (Interestingly, Wiesel holds out praise only for the literary world, whose great writers, for the most part, exiled themselves from Nazi Germany–while doctors and other professionals mostly stayed.)

  17. April 15, 2005 at 9:33 pm

    Rosalynde, I might be better positioned to comment if I had the benefit of reading your paper. I think I asked for it twice, and my conscience told me to stop bothering you about it! ;)

    Nevertheless, I will venture a comment: My inclination would have been something like Wiesel’s view as the usual operation of conscience. I was surprised when I read your statement that the self-legitimating, individual-against-authority is the “traditional” view of conscience. But that just reflects my ignorance!

    I’m going way out on a limb in this ignorance of mine, but I suspect this “traditional” view is, if not quite a bastardization, at least a relatively recent shift in emphasis. My basis is etymology: conscience meaning something like “to know with”, to sympathize (“feel together”) with.

    Hence I think all conscience is inspired by our sense of relations to others, which ultimately we value for our own self-preservation. Your “traditional” description (which I would say is more rare) and Wiesel’s description (the more common “going along with expectations”) are simply “leader”—as indicated by your phrase “mobilizes dissent”—and “follower” modes of the same underlying mechanism: a need to solidify relations with those with whom one wishes to identify. The “fellow feeling” of the follower’s conscience is obvious, concrete, and familiar in this perspective. The “fellow feeling” of the leader’s conscience is often a bit more abstract but still there: she identifies with humanity at large and perhaps with God, often with grand plans for humanity’s “own good” beyond the status quo, in ways that may be either sick and twisted, or good and true (Hitler cleansing humanity, Osama establishing the Caliphate, Joseph establishing Zion, the religious right outlawing wickedness, environmentalists saving the planet and all its inhabitants). (The leader’s self interest? Concrete benefits in status—wealth, wives and concubines, etc.—or eternal expectations of such.)

    We speak of “conflicts of conscience.” These are dilemmas in which we have degrees of allegiance to parties with competing interests. We resolve them by judging which side we identify more closely with, typically the one we perceive as mattering most to our self-preservation. This can lead to dramatic outcomes in both “leader” and “follower” modes of conscience, as widely varying as our perceptions: the Nazi doctor casting his lot with his successful society and culture instead of this powerless stranger whose ways I don’t understand, the martyred prophet David Koresh trusting his eternal destiny and that of his followers to God rather than give in to the false comforts wicked humanity can offer.

    Can the Light of Christ be accomodated within this framework? One can try, I suppose, by making the operative relation be to God. I would remark, however, that it seems difficult to be definitive about the true nature of this “relationship.” Because it is claimed that God works through prophets, following the Light of Christ means following the prophets. True we have strong feelings, but the attribution of the origin of such feelings is defined by the teaching of the prophets: if it contradicts them, it’s not of God. So ultimately the spiritual experience is reduced in the end to a relation with one’s fellow man, with the interpretation marking which party one is casting one’s lot with.

  18. Rosalynde Welch
    April 15, 2005 at 9:39 pm

    CJS: In the interest of brevity I didn’t address the related issues of agency and accountability in the post, but, as you point out, they’re integral to the problem. It was absolutely necessary for political and social healing that the doctors be brought to account (although this did not happen for years after the fact), of course, and for the acts to go unpunished would be moral disaster. But if these men thought they were obeying the dictates of conscience–that is, if they were just getting bad information, whatever the source–then their moral accountability is somewhat questionable, isn’t it? The Book of Mormon is very clear that real knowledge is a necessary precursor to real choice; if it is the case that the most heinous crimes occurred long after the capitulation or collaboration of the conscience, then hos does accountability accrue?

    Greg (#7):Perfectly on point, thank you, and Wiesel concludes the the essay with a brief discussion of the Abu Ghreb events as analogue to the Holocaust. How could the doctors, especially–under no orders, no external pressure, having pledged to heal and help and not harm–have allowed this? Like you, I think we must look (at least in part) to ideological apparatuses.

    Bill (#10): Wow, I’m so flattered that you remember my post from November that I’m not too dismayed that you disagree with my conclusion! Which part do you not buy–my characterization of traditional conscience or of Mormon conscience?

    Mike (#11): I was taught the principle that you describe: sin can dull our ability to sense the Light of Christ. I don’t disagree with this–but I think it’s something quite different than what Wiesel describes.

    Carl (#14): Respectfully, I think restoration scripture is quite clear that the Light of Christ originates and emanates from Christ himself–that is, it’s a gift bestowed from beyond, not an inherent quality. See, for example, D&C 88:7, or Moroni 7:16.

  19. April 15, 2005 at 9:54 pm


    I agree. I realize now I poorly expressed it the first time. I too see the conscience and the light of Christ as synonymous. I suppose the difference I’m making is in how we perceive it and how it really is. Our conscience is the light of Christ, but we darken the light though self-deception.

    I don’t think education dulls or heightens our capacity to sense the light of Christ.
    Although, it has the capacity, I believe, to fortify either. The dulling occurs through sin and its justification. Because so many educated people currently live with a twisted conscience, education frequently just cements the twisted conscience into place.

    “I think it’s something quite different than what Wiesel describes”

    How so? It seems to me that Wiesel is just describing an extreme case of this dullness by sin.

  20. April 15, 2005 at 9:56 pm

    A further clarification on the “leader” vs. “follower” modes: Many (perhaps most) actions of conscience are both, because in our relations we have those “above” and “below” us. For instance, missionaries are following the prophets, but also leading prospective converts.

    Also, many relationships are such that there’s no clear leader or follower, at least all the time. Thus there is also a “mutual” mode, perhaps the most immediate and intimate, partaking of a more “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” character.

  21. Ashley Crandell
    April 15, 2005 at 10:35 pm

    Rosalynde (#18):
    I am reminded of an article by a psychology prof at BYU, called “The Human Context of Agency,” in which he posits that “both agency and morality are bound up with context and the concrete particulars of life” and that “to be morally responsible is not to have ultimate knowledge of moral principles in a situation, but to respond ultimately to the ethicality of it.”
    Here’s the citation in case you’re interested:
    Williams, R. N. (1992). The human context of agency. American Psychologist, 47(6), 752-760.

  22. Bill
    April 15, 2005 at 11:50 pm

    I don’t really see the Light of Christ as being external, but understand it to function much the same way you describe traditional conscience. So there wouldn’t really be a significant distinction between them. I guess I agree with Carl. Even those scriptures you cited in rebuttal can be interpreted to fit in with his argument, especially if you follow section 88 through verse 13.

  23. Derek
    April 16, 2005 at 1:58 am

    Nazism had a very charismatic leader, and the movement provided (false) evidence of its and Germany’s superiority with the country’s early military successes during WWII. When your conscience tells you when something is morally wrong but the available evidence contradicts it, and when your life depends on abandoning that still small voice, is it no wonder that many people will discard their better judgement?

  24. gary
    April 16, 2005 at 2:27 pm

    If we identify our conscience with the light of Christ, and if the light of Christ is an external force which emanates from Christ, why would sin ever diminish it? Why would Christ ever cease to allow his influence to remind sinners that they are sinning? After all, it is us sinners who need it the most. If something becomes corrupted by sin, it seems like that something should be our ability to perceive the light of Christ, but wouldn’t that then imply that our conscience and the light of Christ are not the same thing? But that still paints a hopeless picture for the sinner does it not? Once we become corrupted by sin, how do we turn back if we can no longer perceive the light of Christ?

    I am attracted to Wiesel’s suggestion that perhaps we place too much emphasis on abstract ideas and not enough on humanity. I think that may be at the core of Jesus’ criticisms of the pharisees. I think that our consciences can be refined or dulled, but I am not sure that this can be reduced a simple formula such as sin dulls our conscience while righteousness refines it.

  25. Jed
    April 17, 2005 at 9:53 pm

    I think Terry Warner’s work is relevant to this question. Whether conscience is obliterated or invaded, conscience does not function autonomous from personhood. People make decisions about what they allow to obliterate them, what they allow to invade them. Warner’s work starts with the assumption people come into the world capable of discerning the light. In his view, conscience will lead a person right, if the person follows the initial impulse, but if the impulse is resisted, the person invents a lie–fashioned as a truth–they tell themselves in order to live with their own denial. The lie and the justification or rationalization for resistance are the same. We spin these lies in elaborate fashion in an attempt to convince ourselves that we, not God, are in the right. We want to “cover our sins, or to gratify our pride,” as the Doctrine and Covenants says.

    Warner’s views can account for why the Nazis would couch their immoral acts in moral terms. How could a doctor at a concentration camp live with himself without rationalizing the evil he saw around him into a tail of moral good? In Wiesel’s words, “they were convinced that by helping Hitler to realize his racial ambitions, they were contributing to the salvation of humanity.”

    The weakness of Warner’s theory, in my view, though, is that it does not account for the origins of one’s ideas. A sex offender might see the world through a distorted lens if he was abused as a child. Likewise, a Nazi doctor, coming of age in a world dominated by National Socialism, might be handed confused bearings as a child or young adult, obscuring clear moral vision later on. Satan takes away “light and truth, through disobedience,” our scriptures tell us, and Warner would go this far. But Satan also takes away light “because of the tradition of their fathers” (D&C 93:39), as if to say children who are taught incorrect traditions might have trouble seeing through them. If children are weened on the idea that Jews are inferior, we should not be surprised to see so few resisting that notion as adults. We need look no further than American racism or Lamanite history to see this idea at work in our own history.

    I do think Wiesel is right to suggest that German idealism had obscured the fundamentally ethical relationship human beings have with one another, the very relationship Levinas articulated so persuasively after the war. In some ways the ethical call of the Other, a gentle, alluring call coming from the outside, reminds me of the delicate whisper of the Light of Christ, but then again, since it has been years since I read Levinas, I should probably stop there and defer to others who have read Levinas more recently.

  26. Jim F.
    April 17, 2005 at 10:32 pm

    Jed, a question and a note.

    Question: Why do you think that Warner’s work does not include the possibility of one’s ideas coming from “the fathers”?

    Note: In Totality and Infinity Levinas assumes that the approach of the other person is gentle, but Derrida’s criticism, in “Violence and Metaphysics,” make Levinas take stock and reconsider. In Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, written in response to Derrida, Levinas recognizes the violence of the other in my relation to it. He describes my responsibility, for example, as “exposure” and “suffering,” and he says “subjectivity is being hostage” (page 127), though he argues that goodness “redeems the violence of its alterity” (page 15). Levinas’s thinking about ethical relation is a very important position for us to consider. However, it is not, in the end, a position of gentleness. Even if it were, it is not clear to me why the call to responsibility by the other person, a call that interrupts my solitary being and opens me to that other person, is like the Light of Christ, but that is at least partly because I don’t know how to think about the Light of Christ philosophically. However, I also think that Levinas’s steadfast insistence on recognizing no ethical relation except to other human persons and, so, on omitting the possibility of an ethical responsibility for animals, plants, and the world is a serious flaw in his thinking.

  27. April 17, 2005 at 11:45 pm


    Warner specifically addresses this issue in a ’73 speech called “Socialization, Self-Deception and Freedom through Faith.” In it, he explains that children who grow up in a community of insecure people – people who demand certain responses from children in order to fulfill false ideas about themselves – eventually learn to respond in such a way that secures their own identity and then continue to treat others the same way.

    It is not sin per se that distorts the conscience, but a sinful state of being. Actually, the sinful state of being is the distorted conscience. And a sinful state of being can indeed be “learned” in response to growing up in a community of those also in a sinful state of being.

  28. Rosalynde Welch
    April 18, 2005 at 9:51 am

    Christian (#17): Your materialist account of conscience is plausible, even elegant, but, if you will allow me, I will indulge in a bit of pedantry in this single area in which I hold the advantage over you… The derivation of conscience is indeed “knowing with”–but this refers to the operation of casuistically applying the abstract principles of right and wrong (what the scholastics called “synderesis”–an inert, external repository of deontological principles) to the specific conditions of one’s life: that is, what the conscience “knows with” is not fellow beings but a given set of principles.

    Conscience arbitrates between competing loyalties and truth claims, as you say; but, precisely contrary to what you assert, conscience often legitimizes–even demands–dissenting behavior that is socially costly, even dangerous. Martyrdom, of course, is the ultimate performance of conscience. Conscience–at least as it has functioned in the West since the Reformation–is an extremely poor survival mechanism for individuals, though it is crucial in the survival of marginalized groups and insitutions. To reduce the convictions and behavior of religious dissenters across history to mere self-survival or self-service is, I think, inaccurate and unfair.

    You are right, though, in challenging what I call “traditional” conscience: the self-legitimizing private conscience is one strand with a long and robust history that continues to the present day in conscientious objection and other categories–but there are other, less assertive forms of conscience, like the guilt-racked Calvinist torturer, that are equally “traditional.”

  29. Rosalynde Welch
    April 18, 2005 at 10:03 am

    Ashley (#21): Thanks for the citation! That sounds like a very useful refinement–and one that I’m sympathetic to. I’ll definitely check it out!

    Bill (#22): Thanks for engaging! I still confidently claim that Mormon scripture provides very little basis for a self-authenticating, epistemologically privileged private conscience: believe me, I’ve looked for it, a lot, but it’s not there. Despite our generally optimistic view of human nature, our emphasis on agency and choice, and our vibrant doctrines of personal revelation, there just is not a scriptural basis for locating the ultimate authority for determining right and wrong in the human intellect, will, or affect. There is a certain indwelling immanence to the Light of Christ, to be sure, but the important point is its source: the light comes from Christ, it has an emphatically exterior source and an emphatically exterior authority. Equally with the Holy Ghost and personal revelation: we have the capacity to request, perceive and act on authoritative knowledge from the Holy Ghost, but the source of that knowledge is an agency entirely separate from our own.

  30. Rosalynde Welch
    April 18, 2005 at 10:15 am

    Jed, thank you for the instructive discussion of Warner’s work; it is indeed relevant here. Interestingly, Wiesel makes no specific reference to the kind of self-deception Warner is getting at: though it could possibly be read into this essay (and perhaps elsewhere in his work Wiesel allows for self-deception), it’s not one of the possibilities he sets forth here.

    I’m attracted to Warner’s work for many reasons (although I’m no expert, by any means), but it’s difficult for me to reconcile his psychological framework with LDS theologies of conscience. Perhaps the reason is that, just as Jim cannot account for the Light of Christ philosophically, psychology is equally unable to account for the Light of Christ.

  31. April 18, 2005 at 11:40 am

    I have done a single reading of Warner’s book (“Bonds that make us free” or whatever it’s called). It was over a year ago, but my recollection is that I was bothered about what could possibly arbitrates between self-deception and valid conscience (I can’t remember what he called it). Is conversion an act of self-deception, or the flowering of one’s authentic self? From inside a community, the answer is “simple”: conversion to the Church is authentic, conversion from the Church is self-deception. However, it doesn’t take much reflection to see that there are problems with this. I don’t recall reading anything in Warner that addressed this issue.

  32. Jed
    April 18, 2005 at 11:40 am

    Rosalynde: “it’s difficult for me to reconcile his psychological framework with LDS theologies of conscience.”

    In Warner, is not conscience and the Light of Christ one and the same? Can someone who knows Warner help us out here.

  33. GDistad
    April 18, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    Regarding the decision process as to how the atrocities the Germans commited came about, I think we’re looking at it under a microscope and as something distant to us. Most, if not all of the Germans who ultimatley played a part in the Holocaust were immersed in their time; we are not. It’s much easier to look back from our perspective as winners of the great war, and as (most of us anyway) people who’ve never been faced with ethical dilemnas on a national scale the ways the German’s were faced with them. Keep in mind that concientious objectors could very well have been “disappeared” to keep the voices of society reading from the same sheet of music. The Germans weren’t known to be fussy about issues like that. When the Allies started informing the German public about atrocities, many people could not and did not believe. Call it denial, call it magical thinking, call it lying in their teeth; it did not compute. There are people who still firmly believe none of that ever happened.

    So how do we get sucked into something like that? I think we all have a collection identities that place us in relation to our families, friends, fellow Church members, society, nationality, etc. We unconsciously think of ourselves in relation to the various institutions around us. We also unconsciously defer to authority. I also suspect there’s an element of lemming about us as well. The German Euthenasia Program started with the best of intentions, and it started quite small and with those who either didn’t have a voice or seemed to deserve what they got. Like blemished or damaged infants, or the criminally insane, or those who were severely depressed. When the mercy killing machine really got going, bedwetters and disabled WWI veterans were also “freed” from their afflictions, permanently, all in the name of purifying and beautifying the Aryan Nation. I don’t think too many of those who later participated wholeheartedly recognized the slippery slide from the outset. Everyone around them was comfortable so it was probably logical to follow along. No one taught those people to question unwritten assumptions.

    I think we have some of the same processes going on today. As a society, there are large segments who have no problem at all with abortion as a means of birth control. The unborn don’t exactly have a wealthy, vocal lobby or well funded national PR campagn. Jack Kevorkian continues to have a large following, and I’ve read any number of articles supporting the kind of assisted suicide practiced by the Dutch. Like it or not, enough people in the right places decided Terry Shiavo didn’t have a life worth living. Respect for the sanctity of life is eroding quickly all over society. A lot of things that would have horrified our grandparents gets a pass or at most a shrug from most of us.

    With our 2005 vantage point, we can see plainly how the Germans went astray under Hitler, but we’ve largely lost our sense of horror at similar trends going on around us. I really think it’s a whole lot easier than we realize to slide into that kind of degeneracy when no one around us is complaining.

  34. April 18, 2005 at 8:19 pm

    I believe that Warner’s ideas are conducive to LDS theology on the conscience.

    What I would disagree on is what exactly constitutes that theology. I would say that the light of Christ constitutes the conscience in the sense that it fully informs the conscience – a conscience which is an element of our being – and that we have the ability to manipulate the conscience which has been given us (by the light of Christ).

    As I understand it, it seems that Rosalynde is saying that the light of Christ constitutes the conscience in a more literal sense, in that it fully replaces any other notion of internal conscience that we might have.

    This is a fairly fine distinction, and I am unaware of any LDS theology that is specific enough about the issue that we could decisively declare that one interpretation constitutes “LDS theology”. I would be interested in learning the specific sources for Rosalynde’s understanding of the LDS stand on the matter.

    By the way, Packer has a good article on the Light of Christ in the April Ensign.


    I don’t think I totally understand. You said, “From inside a community, the answer is “simple”: conversion to the Church is authentic, conversion from the Church is self-deception.”

    Warner never said that. In fact, I’m unaware of anyone who publishes from the agentive perspective that would have said anything like that. That’s just not a part of agentive theory. Conversion to a specific religious denomination has nothing to do with anything.

    You provided my response when you later say, “I don’t recall reading anything in Warner that addressed this issue.” Well, you’re right. Warner doesn’t address this issue at all.

  35. April 19, 2005 at 7:25 am

    Eric, my raising of the issue of conversion was a hypothetical on my part. I know Warner does not explicitly bring in the Church (or conversion). I’m here raising conversion myself as a test application, trying out the utility of his ideas in an extreme (albeit not uncommon) circumstance, in order to probe for weaknesses in the theory. To do this right I’d have to look at the book again; I just thought I’d throw it out there in case someone more familiar with his work had a ready answer.

  36. Jed
    April 19, 2005 at 9:21 am

    Jim F.: I do not think Warner’s work denies the possibility of ideas coming from “the fathers.” After all, that would be tantamount to denying the verse I quoted from the Doctrine and Covenants and the verses in the Book of Mormon arguing Lamanite degeneration as a legacy from the fathers. He wouldn’t deny those scriptures. Further, what would it mean to say one was the source of one’s own ideas without any legacy from the fathers? I cannot imagine Warner arguing for that either.

    My concern with Warner’s work has more to do with the power of conscience to slice through what he calls self-deception. He seems to be saying if only I drop all my defenses, my rationalizations, my artifaces, then I will arrive at the pure, undefiled truth about myself, a truth that stands independent of any messages about me generated by family, culture, and tradition. That is to say he seems intent on arriving at a truth independent of the cultural matting through which I have come to understand what it means to be “myself” in the first place. The defenses are not the real me, he says, the defenses are artiface. But I for one don’t know anyone who lives without defenses, and many of these defenses seem to be quite advantageous in a dangerous world, coming about at an early age, before the age of accountability, and helping us to cope with the sins and vices flung upon us by others. What would it mean to say a person could see the world without any defenses? It seems like our very humanity is stripped away in those cases.

    Re. Levinas and violence, I appreciate the correction. (I was hoping you would write.) I was unaware of his own revision in answer to Derrida. I think I was confusing the gentle call with my own ontological experience with the gentle “whisperings” of the light. The violence of alterity is more ontical than ontological. As for thinking about the Light of Christ philosophically, I do not see what we call spiritual promptings being so different from the violence of alterity. They both intrude on our subjectivity, rupturing our sense of solitary existence. They both call us to a sense of ourselves in relation to the other. Here again I may be confusing experience with structure.

  37. April 19, 2005 at 9:22 am


    Understood. And I think that’s a good way to test the theory in general. In this case, though, conversion lies beyond the limits of the theory. Joining or not joining any given church is neither “authentic” nor self-deceptive in itself.

    At the same time, self-deception certainly can and is an impediment to people joining the church. There are people who are convinced that their way of life is justified and refuse to accept the church because it would mean that they were wrong. So, in this sense, self-deception is very much tied to conversion. However, I think any agentivist would agree with you that there are problems with the scenario you proposed.

  38. April 19, 2005 at 9:37 am


    Sorry man. Have to take you up on these.
    And sorry again for the threadjack, but I’m really curious as to what you’re thinking about this.

    “many of these defenses seem to be quite advantageous in a dangerous world”

    Could you describe what some of these advantages are?

    “What would it mean to say a person could see the world without any defenses? It seems like our very humanity is stripped away in those cases.”

    That’s funny you mention that, because it is just the opposite. It is the defenses themselves that strip away our humanity. But I’m afraid I don’t really understand what you’re saying. In what way is our humanity stripped away?

  39. April 19, 2005 at 2:53 pm

    Rosalynde, now I’ve had the benefit of reading your paper, and have learned the original intent of the Scholastics’ definition, which you were kind and indulgent enough to give also in your #28 above. For the Scholastics, if I’m understanding correctly, the exercise of conscience was a rational operation, a “knowing with” an objective set of disembodied external principles “out there” somewhere. (In this connection, I agree that one may conceive of the Light of Christ as cognate to synderesis.)

    While the Scholastics have left us a term with a useful etymology, I think that they were conceptually wrong, and that my exegesis of the term in #17 above is more faithful to reality. (Surprise, surprise! ;->) The main failure of the Scholastics’ concept is its emphasis on rationality; in this, I agree with what you describe to be Madison and Witherspoon’s view, that “conscience precedes reason.” Conscience is in the realm of emotion and feeling, as a modest amount of introspection renders plausible. Even in the midst of temptation, the experience is of conflicting feelings rather than reason overcoming feeling. Indeed, the colloquial connotations of the word “rationalization” suggest that most often reason is deployed in an effort to vanquish conscience, rather than being the effective agency of conscience. Perhaps the Scholastics’ view came from the perspective (not sure if I’ve got this right, and not necessarily shared in full by LDS) that humans have souls and agency while animals don’t, and humans have reason while animals don’t, so conscience must be somehow tied up with reason. This is undermined not only by thoughtful introspection, but by research showing that other primates (for example) are capable of emotion, reciprocal behaviors and relationships, etc. that suggest an incipient “conscience” that precedes reason.

    Hence I would argue, for example, that the “Calvinist variant…a backward-looking entity that generated guilt for past sin and urged present compliance with an accepted (and external) canon of behavior” has always been with us operationally, biologically/culturally, regardless of when it was first enunciated philosophically or religiously. It is, recognizably, what I called the “follower mode” of “fellow feeling.”

    And the “leader mode”: I remain confused by the way conscience, at least in its purest form, is identified with expressions like “self-justifying” and “radical individualism of conscience.” As you note, again in connection with Madison and Witherspoon, there is a duty to God involved here: one is still responding to an authority, just a different one, seen as higher and more legitimate. (Even with nonreligious conscientious objectors, their sensibility is not self-justifying; they are beholden by an obligation, if not to God, then to humanity at large.) I haven’t read either Madison or Gedicks’ analysis of him, but it sounds like the emphasis on Madison’s expressions regarding individual conscience must be overblown, because Madison was the principal architect of a new collective, embodied in the Constitution, not anarchy. Individual breaking away is not so individual; there are pledged lives, fortunes, sacred honor, and so forth. To the extent there is individuality, it is only temporary, and for the purpose of creating a new consensus that informs a revised orthodoxy (think Puritans in England followed by Puritans in America). Your example of religious dissenters supports this: the pattern is corporate dissent, with a (minority, but still) communal conscience at work. Even the “ultimate performance of conscience”—martyrdom—is far from an individual act: it is an obedient response to a perception of God’s will, and one widely known and expected (and sometimes feared) for its ignition of communal response. These relational aspects are in fact the salient features of martyrdom, I would argue.

    I’m the first to admit that my confusion is probative of nothing—I may simply need to be further divested of ignorance—but such considerations leave me thinking that leader/follower manifestations of an inherently relational faculty is a more fruitful way to think about conscience than categorizations along an internal/external or individual/collective fault lines.

    Finally, on the concern that an appeal to self-interest is inaccurate or unfair, I hasten to say that I did not mean anything derogatory by this (though I will not deny that an attempt at naturalistic explanations partially motivates such an appeal). I think it must be acknowledged as simple fact that whatever mortal price religious dissidents or martyrs may pay, they would not deny that they are acting in their eternal self interest. Also, the fact that such an eternal perception of self-interest is mortally damaging does not, however, invalidate the possible naturalistic roots of conscience. All that is required for a selective advantage is that faculties for relating to others (by both submission and dominance) and planning ahead be generally useful; that such faculties might occasionally be deployed in “maladaptive” ways (e.g. martyrdom, from a mortal perspective) does not negate their general utility.

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