Back when I was solely under the sway of psychoanalytic theory, I would have insisted that it is simply the internalized authority of the father and of the wider culture, AKA the superego. There could be no intrinsic right or wrong, rather, convention only makes it so. You burn widows, we give them Social Security. Who can say which of us is right?
There is no question that the existence of the conscience signifies a split in the psyche, or the unavoidable presence of this nosey "other" who offers a running commentary on our thoughts and behavior. How did this happen? How did this scold gain entry into our heads? It is again reminiscent of how complex cells -- eukaryotes -- resulted from one cell getting inside another.
Bailie suggests that the conscience operates via a kind of vertical recollection. He quotes Ratzinger, who writes that it "consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and true (they are identical) has been implanted in us, that there is an inner ontological tendency within man, who is created in the image and likeness of God, toward the divine."
Thus, "From its origin, man's being resonates with some things and clashes with others." Our vertical recollection involves "an inner sense, a capacity to recall" a better or more "innocent" state.
And as mentioned a few posts back, Ratzinger suggests that innocence can only be known retrospectively, from the perspective of our fallenness, "from the realization that one is no longer innocent." Innocence endures "as an intimation of something for which one has no specific memory but for which one is nevertheless vaguely nostalgic..."
It seems that in a state of innocence, the conscience is either unnecessary or unnoticed.
Speaking of the superego, Ratzinger makes the psychologically astute point that the conscience can indeed devolve to a mere enforcer of societal mores: "Then the absolute call to a personal responsibility is covered over with a system of conventions that is falsely made out to be the voice of God, whereas in truth it is only the voice of the past, which fears the present and bars its way" (in Bailie).
Back when I was under the influence of psychology, I would have said that the conscience is just an abstraction from the superego. But now I would say that the superego is more or less a corruption of the conscience. I've used this example in the past... let me track it down...
Here it is, a stale bobservation from over eleven years ago. I'll quote as much as seems relevant to our present concerns:
One area where Bion differed with Freud was over the nature and function of the superego, the part of ourselves that Freud believed was responsible for our morality. The problem with Freud's conception is that the superego will reflect the particular family in which one grew up and the particular society in which one lives.
As such, the superego is not necessarily moral at all. It is essentially amoral, in that it may well punish the individual for morally good behavior and reward him for morally bad behavior, depending upon the culture.
Here we can understand why the emphasis on truth is so vital. In the Arab Muslim world, for example, they are so inundated with vicious lies about America and Israel that it would be immoral for them not to hate us. In a racist or anti-Semitic society, the superego will demand that its members be racist and anti-Semitic.
For example, the Nazi movement in Germany was animated by abstract ideals, without which they couldn't have engaged in their project to exterminate the Jews. Once the lie is established as truth, then the superego takes over, impelling the individual to act in a "moral" way, consistent with the implications of the lie.
Clearly, a casual survey of history will establish the fact that most of what people have believed down through the centuries has been untrue. We see case after case of corrupt superegos that sanction and condone slavery, witch hunts, racism, anti-Semitism, jihads, all based on one vital lie or another.
All the superego does is enforce consistency between beliefs and actions. If the beliefs are false, then the actions will likely be immoral. People rarely believe they are evil, no matter how evil they are. You can be assured that bin Laden feels morally superior to you or me, which is what permits him to murder in the name of Islamist "truth."
I believe the conscience is not identical to the supergo. Rather, the conscience is nonlocal and universal, while the superego is local and particular. The superego is simply a mechanism we evolved in order to get along in small groups. In reality, morality is universal and transcendent, applicable at all times and in all places, such as "thou shalt not murder."
In his book Freud, Women and Morality: The Psychology of Good and Evil, Eli Sagan uses a wonderfully illuminating example from Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck is in the midst of a moral dilemma between what his superego wants him to do -- return the runaway slave Jim to his master -- and what his conscience is telling him -- that Jim is a human being just like him, and that it would be evil for him to assist in re-enslaving him. First we hear Huck dealing with an attack from his superego as he considers returning Jim:
"The more I studied about this the more my conscience [actually, the superego] went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared."
Clearly, Huck is under assault from a bullying superego for violating the racist ethic of his culture. The omniscient superego ("watching all the time") slaps him in the face, accuses him of wickedness, and causes him to become immobilized with fear. He proceeds to write a letter telling Miss Watson where Jim can be found. But as he does so, his conscience -- not superego -- begins to nag him. He lays the letter down and "set there thinking":
"And went on thinking.... and I see Jim before me all the time... we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him.... I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me... and see how glad he was when I came back out of the fog.... and would always call me honey and pet me, and how good he always was... and he said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world... and then I happened to look around and see that paper."
Caught between guilt from doing something at variance with what the superego is demanding, and an awakened conscience telling him to do the right thing, what will Huck do?
"I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied it a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell' -- and tore it up."
Huck revokes the lie, stands up to the superego, and makes the decision to do wrong, to "take up wickedness again" by helping to free Jim.
One can only wonder. How many in the Arab Muslim world are ready to give themselves over to sin by making peace with Israel? How many are prepared to bear the guilty attacks from the superego for treating women equally? How many will stop confusing the lies of the imam with the truth of God? How many will "go the whole hog" and adopt a critical attitude toward what the Koran says about Jews and Christians?
Me? I done tore up my New York Times four years ago and been takin' to wickedness ever since. And it ain't been no easy road. Fact, if'n it waren't for old shrinkwrapped, I'd a-never knowed any lowdown evil headshrinkers, 'cept'n my own poor self.
For those who don't get the reference, ShrinkWrapped was a conservative psychiatrist blogger back in the day.
Back to Bailie. I'm running out of time here, but how could human sacrifice have been so widespread and persistent except through a corruption of the conscience that transformed wrong into right? For it represented "a system of conventions... falsely made out to be the voice of God." It also served as a kind of "purification" and "offloading" of guilt, and this mechanism surely persists to this day.
For example, to paraphrase the Aphorist, socialism is the philosophy of the guilt of others. Believe in it and you are purified of guilt -- of "white privilege," "structural racism," "patriarchy," whatever. But in so doing there must always be victims toward whom violence and repression are legitimized by the corrupt superego.