In my country, lower caste Hindus feel inferior in relation to Brahmins, so that if a Brahmin were to rape the daughter of a lower caste Hindu, this would be considered a privilege. Doesn’t this cast doubt on the idea that conscience is available to all humans?
It seems that humans can believe anything. Whatever is put into them by external authority, they seem to consider true. What is going on? Is their will truly not free?
One would think that since humans often both commit and comply with wrongdoing, conscience must be very weak. On the contrary, our deepest moral knowledge is incredibly strong, but we can go to great lengths in the attempt to escape it.
To begin with the perpetration of wrong: The most interesting thing is not that we can tell ourselves that wrongdoing is right, but that we have to tell ourselves: Our consciences will not simply overlook what we have done. Moreover, the only way we can make wrong look right to ourselves is to take genuine moral truths and misapply them. I like to say that rationalization is the homage paid by sin to guilty knowledge.
For example, it is impossible not to be ignorant of the wrong of theft, but I might rationalize the deed by telling myself that the person from whom I stole did not deserve what he had. I reason that what might look like an act of stealing was really an act of restorative justice. Similarly, we can’t not know that we must never take innocent human life, but the abortionist tries to convince himself that the unborn child wasn’t innocent, wasn’t human, or wasn’t really alive. Such excuses don’t erase the awareness of wrong; rather they suppress it by misapplication.
Can the awareness of profound wrong be suppressed to the point of extinction? I don’t think so. For example, some abortionists who have written about their grisly trade admit that they have nightmares of their victims accusing them. This wouldn’t happen unless at some level, they knew that their lies were lies. Moreover, even in the case of the most hardened perpetrator of wrong, there can be such a thing as repentance and change of heart. Repentance is difficult, of course, because once we have done wrong, we “dig in” to evade the accusations of conscience – something that would hardly be necessary if conscience did not exist. But if there were no free will, repentance would not be merely difficult. It would be impossible.
So far I have been speaking of those who perpetrate wrong, but conscience can also be distorted in the case of those who unjustly suffer it. Conviction of fault arouses in us an impulse to atone, to pay a price. Unfortunately, this impulse can arise not only when the fault is real, but also when it is imaginary. For example, a child who has been sexually abused may feel ashamed about the experience, telling himself that he was to blame for what happened to him. If he does, then the abuse may seem to him as though it were a deserved punishment. Or if people are constantly treated as inferiors, as in the cases you describe, they may come to think that they really are inferiors, and even that their inferiority is their fault. In this case they may believe that they deserve to be treated badly. Again, what drives submission to injustice is the misapplication of a real moral truth – in this case, the principle of desert.
When people have been abused or mistreated, they often find it difficult to believe that they are made in the image of a loving God. Yet if only they can believe it, they rejoice to learn it. Moreover, although they may need help to understand that the things for which they blamed themselves were not really their fault, they experience this discovery as a liberation. So again, free will is vindicated – but its vindication comes through struggle and God’s grace.
Perhaps these reflections help to explain what is going on when people seem to acquiesce in their oppression.