Do we innately know right from wrong? Is that what a conscience is? Is our conscience shaped by our environment? If so, would it not be compromised by the biases held by our environment?
I wonder about these things because it was Henry David Thoreau’s belief that we should act upon what we believe to be right, regardless of what the law says. Thoreau wasn’t just all talk either, for he served time in prison for his refusal to pay his taxes because those taxes would then fund the American-Mexican war which he opposed. So, the man stood by his principles and acted upon them. That’s very commendable. But there aren’t many individuals like Thoreau. I would classify Thoreau as a true individual because he was able to unpack what he desired, what he needed, what he wanted, what principles structured his life and what his limitations were.
All of this came from his deep self reflective nature, much of this is documented in his essay Walden where he spent two years living in a cabin. Thoreau was able to dissect himself and in doing so, came to the understanding that we should be governed first and foremost by our conscience.
But most people are not like Thoreau. Many of us rely on others to tell us what we should believe in and what we should oppose, the hive mind is real. The principles that structure our lives are set by other people, from the laws we follow, the way we behave, what we believe to be right and wrong, all of this is downloaded into us from a young age. Unlike Thoreau, who uploaded his own beliefs, we spend most of our time following trends set by others and in doing so, we get further and further away from our conscience.
Thoreau believed that corporations, like the government, don’t have a conscience but if we have individuals with a conscience in a corporation, then, that corporation could become conscientious. Such ideals are great but the issue isn’t the corporation, it is the individual. How can the corporation be expected to be conscientious when most people rarely find their conscience?
Thoreau was just one of the few who troubled himself in the search for his conscience but who knows if it’s worth the trouble. Life is definitely easier if you just go along with the trend. But is that really living or is that just existing?
Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. it is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily agents of injustice. (Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience).
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