Law, Etiquette, and Conscience

2007-02-04

Speaking of conscience, we naturally think of moral values or principles. There can be quite a few definitions of conscience, variously and independently given by, for example, Webster dictionaries, Catholic/Protestant Churches, or Sigmund Freud. Let us not get into such dry stuff. It suffices to say that our conscience is the sense of what is right or wrong.

Let us then take a trip to a supermarket. It is easier for us to understand some concepts when we use daily-life examples.

My behaviors inside the store are basically guided by three distinctive attributes: laws, etiquette, and my own conscience.

When I see a small bottle of aspirin pills, I will not take it and sneakily stuff it into my pocket, because shoplifting is against the law, and I fear to be locked up behind bars.

When I stand in the cashier line to check out, a pregnant lady behind me carries only a bag of apples and a loaf of bread. So I let her go first in front of me. The law does not require me to do so, but the etiquette guides my actions.

There are dozens of brands of cereals on the shelves that often bewilder me, and waver my purchase decisions. Sometimes I pick up a box, read the labels, decide not to buy it, and hence place it back to the shelf. The shelf is very high. I could have placed it back to a lower shelf. It is more convenient for me to do so. What do I care? But my conscience tells me that it is a right thing to return the box back to the original spot.

When I pass by the aisle filled with ice creams, I do not take a second look at them. Several years ago, I read a United Nation report, which presented some statistical numbers, something like: Americans and Europeans yearly consume ice creams at certain billions of dollars. If instead we use that amount of money to provide children in under-developed countries with basic education, certain millions of them can become literate. Since then, I have not purchased ice creams. My conscience tells me that it is a right thing to do so.

Based on these examples, my dear readers can generally get an idea of what similarities and differences are among these three attributes.

Law and etiquette are enacted by the society or by agencies external to us. They are more or less rigid, stable, unified, and static (not changing with time too quickly), whereas our conscience is established inside our own minds/hearts. It is flexible, unstable, different in persons, and is dynamic.

Sometimes our conscience is consistent with laws, regulations, and etiquette. When most people harbor the same conscientious concepts, these concepts may eventually become laws. For example, a few centuries ago, slavery was legal in southern states in the U. S. Why was it so? because the majority of white people conscientiously believed that black people were sub human beings. It was acceptable to treat sub human beings as we treat animals or cargoes.

Sometimes our conscience is inconsistent with laws. For example, Mafia gangsters have their own sets of conscience. It is acceptable for them, according to their conscience, to extort and murder innocent people. Dr. Martin Luther King also had his own conscience, which was different from the laws discriminating black people. Both cases require audacity or courage, but the former is without wisdom (audacity), and the latter is with wisdom (courage).

In fact, it is possible that, because different people harbor different conscience levels and different conscientious concepts, that is why we need laws and have established them.

Three years ago, I borrowed $10,000 from you, and signed a promissory note. Today, I plan not to return the money to you. My conscience tells me that, oh, you are wealthy now, so you do not need that money. And during the past 3 years, I have done so much for you. My service is worth at least $10,000.

But fortunately, my conscience, and thus my justification, does not count. There is a law dictating that I must return the money to you, or else I commit a crime. The law exists to protect you.

In this tea essay, I have not made a point yet. Only some concepts and examples are presented, so that we have a vague idea about these 3 attributes.

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