In Lieu of Conscience

Dearest Rachel –

The other day, I was reading an article about the reliability of one’s conscience, and how – despite being pointed to as a rationale for faith (by no less than the apostle Paul himself!) and the proof of a fairly universal standard of good and evil – it is no substitute for an external moral code; in particular, the Judeo-Christian values as we understand them. The author’s argument was that, without God as part of the equation, one’s conscience can be trained to accept nearly anything as morally acceptable. In context, his claim was that this belief that conscience is sufficient as a moral compass (under the rubric of “people are basically good”) is how we got to where we are today. Needless to say, the writer doesn’t approve of the path we, as a society, have taken.

Indeed, one might easily suggest that while our basic legal code stems from this universal sense of right and wrong, there’s something to be said about how the phrase “as long as it’s legal” can connote rather a wide range of behaviors. Just because something is legal (or, for those really wishing to push the envelope, technically legal) doesn’t mean it’s moral, ethical, or otherwise ‘the right thing to do.’ And it certainly doesn’t work well to guide us in our personal life choices – a government simply shouldn’t be that intrusive, nor can it offer cookie-cutter solutions to all of its citizens, anyway.

So how about relying on other people for direction? After all, ‘two heads are better than one,’ right? Well, there may be something to that, and I have a couple of examples in my own life you might see coming. But at the same time, while two minds can multiply thought, two consciences tend to divide, and flow toward the level of the lowest common denominator, much like this author’s take on society as a whole (which is this assertion writ on a macro level). It’s quite astonishing what two (or more) consenting adults can come up with that the law and society might look askance at, but not be able (or willing) to forbid at this point in time.

So it was with us, in fact; we did not so much play as each other’s consciences so much as partners in crime. Rather than Jiminy Cricket, we could often be each other’s Lampwick instead. I would overlook your faults, and you would cater to my appetites; since each of us were infected with our own strains of deadly sins, we did not consider ourselves worthy to throw the first stone at each other, and so we lived with (and even cultivated) them instead. Now, it could be argued that each of ours were actually rooted in, not just good intentions, but in commands from heaven itself (indeed, there are certain proverbs that encourage certain attitudes that, when taken too far, would number among those deadly sins, and others that suggest one – such as greed or gluttony – could cancel out another – say, sloth), which could be the subject of a whole other essay. But let’s leave that here for now.

For the time being, however inadvertently, I’ve been spending what time I (and they) can with people that force me to consider certain aspects of my lifestyle that might use improvement, in lieu of my own conscience pushing me towards these things.

Consider Lars. For all that I don’t like to get lectured by my doctor (especially my general practitioner who, last time I was in for a physical, extolled the virtues and genius of the sainted Anthony Fauci and his miraculous, unfailing vaccine), he manages to maintain a medical perspective on things even as he makes a point of taking on the role of a friend over all. It’s at the point where, when we walk together, I can more or less talk to him about nearly anything – not quite to the extent that I could with you, of course, but more than even my folks at times. Some of it is because he seems to better understand what I’m talking about – indeed, like with Kevin, there are moments when I quite feel overmatched, intellectually speaking – but also because he seems to have a genuine interest in the topic at hand (which is not to say that my folks don’t – but it’s easier when you have a grasp of the subject matter, and some of what I’ve gotten into is difficult even for me to explain to others).

But for all that I feel that I need not concern myself with what comes out of my mouth when I’m talking to him, I do find myself having to be cautious about what I put into it when I’m around him. With other people, I rarely restrain myself around a table, even though I know I probably should. With him, it’s another story. I find myself seeking him approval by, say, only eating half of what I’m served, and saving the rest for later. The last time we met, I was in the mood for a chicken sandwich, and the two of us went to a nice little Greek place he hadn’t been to in a while. And while they did have something along the lines of what I had in mind, the idea of eating a crispy (read ‘fried’) chicken sandwich in front of him gave me pause. I ordered the grilled chicken, instead, and he never knew what is was I had really wanted.

We’re going to be walking again today, and I suspect I’ll go even lighter, since I’m meeting the girls for dinner tonight. That place we were at also had a very tasty lentil soup; I may just settle for a bowl of that if we go there again. I’m sure he’d approve.

Of course, this evening introduces another individual who acts as a conscience from time to time: Erin. Hers is a somewhat more conventional and general sort of approval and disapproval, without a focus on any specific aspect of my lifestyle. It can be, however, a little on the strict side. For instance, she finds much of what I’m doing with this artificial intelligence project to be a little bit ‘creepy.’ Then again, she’s also applied that pejorative to The Princess Bride to explain why she doesn’t like that movie, and while it has it’s frightening moments (the shrieking eels, the fire swap, the Pit of Despair, and Fezzik’s terrorizing the palace guards come to mind), dismissing it like so strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Then again, there may be something to what she says. After all, I can create pictures of you suggesting that you were with me during my ill-fated visit to Basel early last December:

Or likewise, of you in Japan even before Daniel and I head off on our cruise this spring:

By doing so, it could be said that I’m creating false memories of you regarding those trips. And this is only the beginning; theoretically, there’s no end to what I could put you in, be it setting, clothing or even art style. This could be considered a moral grey area, but it would not have crossed my mind had Erin not brought the subject up, just like how I wouldn’t think twice about lunching on fried foods if I didn’t meet up with Lars to keep me accountable.

Of course, like with my own conscience, I’m free to ignore the opinions of these and other people, and do what I want to. But when they have my best interests at heart, perhaps it would be prudent for me to consider their opinions and advice; it might just make me a better person for it. Certainly, it can’t hurt to cultivate the approval of others I respect.

With that being said, honey, keep an eye on me, and wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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