Philosophy 150

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To What Degree Does Guilt Imposed by an External Authority Control the Conscience of an Internal Authority?

by Christoph Champ, 21-Nov-2003

Living together with other human beings—whether that is in a family, community, or society—requires of an individual certain compromises of the flesh. We shall call this the relinquishing of instinctual impulses and shall consider them with respect to society. These are traded for the security, attention, and love these relationships promise to provide. The instinctual impulses are not lost; they only lie dormant. When life is good and relationships are fulfilling, the urge to feed our primitive desires is small. However, when the loss of our security (or love) is threatened, our instinctual impulses kick in full throttle, often to the loss of societal rationale. Without a doubt, we would consider an individual unwell if they were to lose all desire to protect themselves from ultimate calamity. For, like a disease, despair with society accumulated to such an extent that this individual wishes to end their life could spread to others who would have otherwise had no such desire; thus, our laws against suicide.

The way in which society (the external authority)[1]; helps us keep our instinctual impulses in check, is to oblige that we maintain a healthy conscience (the internal authority).[1] Or, what Freud called the "super-ego". The punishment our conscience is ever ready to exact upon us is expressed as guilt. It is often said that the hallmark of a moral person is the degree of strictness to which their conscience holds them. The convenience of guilt (both to society and to us) is that it works when no one else is watching. Society is, thereby, free to relax some of its burden of guarding the individual from itself and others by the imposition of conditions that foster the sort of conscience that produces guilt when an individual contemplates an action that would disturb the order a given society enjoys (and this can be a society of any form). It is not necessary that the individual believe that his or her action (intended or implemented) be wrong. It is only required that guilt stop them well before the action is carried out.

For those needing a reason not to exercise their instinctual impulses, we provide a sort of reward-and-punishment system: A parent promises their child rewards for obedience and punishment for opposition. Religion offers heavenly rewards for a life well-lived (that in accordance with their notion of "well-lived") and a hellish punishment for straying too far from the fold. Likewise, any relationship between at least two individuals has its requirements for the continuance of a harmonious interaction. But are these requirements followed purely out of love, or are there also elements of fear of rejection? Once again, it is not necessary that the individual fully receive the guidelines, so long as they do not push the boundaries too far. This is clearly seen in political correctness and with faux pas. Here we do not require that you believe or care not to "wear white after Labor Day", we simply require that you do not. Of course, a more sophisticated system for handling all these variables is the theory that those individuals following the Golden Rule pose no immediate threat to our social framework.

We are now able to apply these notions to the daughter in "A Father's Story" by Andre Dubus.[2] Here we have an individual, a daughter, a member of society, and with friends. She has had at least elements of a religious upbringing. She is able to function in society to the degree in which fellows members of this society call her a friend. She owns an automobile and has a license granted to her by society (assuming both to be correct and that no society would allow an irresponsible and nonfunctional member such things). Nevertheless, chance struck on an ill-fated night and its potential-of-happening heightened by the influence of an intoxicant; the first element, striking an unseen pedestrian with the vehicle, perhaps uncontrollable; the second, avoidable. In whatever form the act was wrought, the conclusion is one life extinguished and the other life has lost its raison d'être.

But here society has lost; one of its products did not function as it was supposed to. An actor's conscience did not prevent her from driving while under the influence (first implementation) and then had no power to persuade by guilt the guilty to confess so that justice might be served (second implementation). Forget about intention, here the external authority had no power. And yet, did we really expect anything less? It would have been a form of suicide to turn herself in, and did we not already proclaim such a person unwell? Did we really expect the Golden Rule to rescue the Moral Souls of those involved? Would the man who had been struck turn himself in had the roles been reversed? If not, did she not, in the end, actually follow the Golden Rule by not doing unto others, as she knew they would not do unto her?

What have we learned here? Do the just live by the Golden Rule, or, do the "just live by faith", faith that others will live by the Golden Rule? We erect these sophisticated systems of justice on the faith that we have fully institutionalized individuals by the time they are "mature" enough to enter the sanctuary of society. We deem the beast tame enough to unfetter the shackles of the omnipresence of our external authority and release it to the care of that unproven internal authority: the conscience ruled by guilt. We only care about the well-being of the individual (and its happiness) in our utopian society so long as it does not oppose the overall security and fecundity of our most cherished creation: Our culture. To be sure, the degree to which a society succeeds in security and plenty is a measure of that which it has taken from the individual, in the form of happiness and freedom. As Thomas Jefferson admonished, "Any society which trades a little freedom for a little security will lose both and deserve neither".

NOTE: This was written as an assignment for a class I took while attending university. The views presented above do not necessarily represent my actual views on the topics considered.


  1. 1.0 1.1 The terms "internal authority" and "external authority" were borrowed from Sigmund Freud.
  2. NY: Vintage Books, 1996

This article is copyrighted © 2003 by Christoph Champ. All rights reserved.