Here's an interesting idea: are we experiencing an "evolution of conscience" in the modern West? Howard P. Kainz makes the case in an article today at First Things, citing everything from our pandemic aversion to "genocide" and "slavery" to the sacrosanct status of individual human rights. It makes you wonder.

Yet while the claim is intriguing—that people today, in their state of hyper-awareness, possess an historically unknown 'quantity' of conscience—it's not clear that or even how such a rapid "evolution" could really be the case. Although Kainz rightly points out that "ameliorations in conscience are a sine qua non for moral betterment," one thing he strangely excludes is a definition—or even a strong indication—of what he means by "conscience." (I realize, of course, that Dr. Kainz has much more to say than what's in this short piece: here and here are two other pieces in which he refers to conscience, and it's certain that his thoughts don't stop there. I point out this omission only because it seems central to any conclusions one might infer from the examples offered in this particular article.)

In the absence of a clearer option, it's tempting to reduce conscience simply to a type of sensitivity, albeit one directed toward good and evil. This seems to be mostly what Kainz has in mind concerning our rejection of certain acts. For example, he says, our "current, almost universal, abhorrence of genocide stems from examples in the modern world." There's certainly something to be said for the importance of life experience in showing us examples good and evil. Similarly, concerning the individual rights of women, minorities, etc., Kainz notes a "massive remarkable change of consciousness in the last few centuries." Experience of undesirable phenomena has not only brought good and bad into contrast, but has nudged (perhaps better, has shoved) us off center into a frenzy of sensitivity in favor of each individual's ability to pursue what he or she will.

But conscience isn't only awareness. In fact, it's primarily not awareness at all; rather, it is a judgement by reason that identifies the moral quality of a particular action. (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1778.) So far as knowledge of alternatives is required for judgment, conscience needs sensitivity to operate. But conscience is, at bottom, active rather than passive.

broken-mirrorAs far as genetics go, active traits dominate, and it might appear obvious that as long as we develop a more active approach to the world around us, the "evolution of conscience" is unavoidable. But a second feature of conscience can't be overlooked: namely, that it concerns the moral quality of a particular action. If universal sensitivity is a clear feature of modern life, then the self-awareness required for a concept of morality is a direct casualty of it. Put differently, the more things we're aware of at once, the less we can be aware of any one thing in particular—ourselves and the significance of good and evil actions included. An evolution of sensitivity—in many forms and through various media—is hard to dispute. But an evolution of conscience is at the very least not the same thing, and perhaps even diametrically opposed.

Contrary to what Kainz suggests, I'd propose that this "enhancement" is more like a sixth finger or a third arm, i.e., something that may be incidentally useful at times, but which makes life as a human being ultimately more difficult. In a word, a deformation—a reaction that feels a lot like a judgment, but which lacks the requisite infrastructure purposefully to reach the same end.

To be sure, while I share Kainz's hope that a gradual awakening to moral truths can occur even in the darkest hours of human history (which, as we know, are always upon us), I don't believe that the "evolution of conscience" will serve to bring it about.

Andrew M. Haines is the editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.