Matters of Conscience

Neurotics have a big sense of right and wrong, set high standards for themselves, and carry the proverbial world on their shoulders. In contrast, disordered characters have a remarkably impaired, immature, or underdeveloped conscience. In some cases, conscience can be absent altogether.

As you may know, I’ve been posting a series of articles on some of the key differences between neurotic individuals and persons with significant disturbances of character. Some of these differences include differing needs in therapy, different levels of awareness, different reactions to adverse consequence, etc. These two groups also differ remarkably with respect to matters of conscience.

The neurotic individual is basically a person with an excessively active and well-developed conscience, or superego. Neurotics have a huge sense of right and wrong. They are forever striving hard (perhaps too hard at times) to do what they think is right. They will often set standards for themselves that are difficult, if not impossible, to meet. The demands they impose on themselves frequently engender a significant amount of stress. They are prone to taking on inordinate burdens, proverbially carrying the “weight of the world” on their shoulders. When something goes wrong, they quickly ask themselves what more they can do to help make the situation better. They also judge themselves harshly when they don’t feel that they have done enough. Neurotics hear quite clearly that little voice that speaks to most of us about how we should conduct ourselves, and they become easily unnerved when they don’t do as they believe they should.

The conscience of the disordered character, on the other hand, is remarkably underdeveloped and impaired. Most disturbed characters don’t hear that little voice in their heads that urge most of us to do right or admonish most of us when we’re contemplating doing wrong. They don’t “push” themselves to take on responsibilities and don’t “arrest” themselves when they want to do something they shouldn’t do. If they do hear that little voice, they can silence it with great ease. But most of the time for the disturbed character that voice is quite weak in the first place. In the most severe disturbances of character, conscience is not simply weak, underdeveloped, or flawed, but absent altogether. Robert Hare aptly named his book about the most severely disordered character, the psychopath, Without Conscience. As hard as it is to imagine, there are individuals with no conscience at all. It’s so hard to imagine that it’s one of the main reasons such people are able to prey upon others. No one can believe that the person they’ve been dealing with is as heartless or remorseless as they suspect.

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In an earlier post, I wrote about the disordered character’s impaired capacity to experience shame and guilt (“Shame, Guilt and Character Development”). This deficiency plays a large role in the malformation of their conscience and subsequent character development. But disturbed characters generally possess two other qualities that affect their impaired conscience formation: inhibition deficits, and pro-social motivational deficits. In other words, they have problems delaying or denying urges to gratify impulses or desires. They also are not inclined to “push” themselves to “go after” or pursue goals that serve the interests of others (as well as themselves) but do not have any immediate lure or appeal or don’t appear to carry an immediate payoff.

Lacking in mature conscience, possessing a diminished capacity to experience shame and guilt, and lacking in the capacity to genuinely empathize with others, many of the more severely disturbed characters are also unable to have genuine remorse for their hurtful acts, whether they be acts of commission or omission. I’ll be posting on this characteristic next time, using some case studies for illustration.

In many of my workshops, I’ve responded to questions about what I think lies at the heart of healthy conscience formation. I respond with a phrase that rhymes and summarizes one of the key factors: “Internalization of a societal prohibition, is ultimately an act of submission.” That is, whenever a person makes it a part of his or her belief system to refrain from doing what they are otherwise tempted to do, it is because they have willingly submitted themselves to higher power or authority, enabling them to adopt a standard of conduct that serves the greater good. I’m going to be elaborating on this quite a bit when posting some articles on the most character-disordered personalities (the narcissist and the various aggressive personalities). For now I will simply point out that the narcissist has a hard time even conceiving of a power or authority greater than himself, and the aggressive personality detests submitting himself to anyone or anything. That is why so many severely disturbed characters so readily place themselves above the law or refuse to subordinate themselves to it.

The next post will be the last in this series of contrasting neurotic personalities with personalities best described as character disturbed. It will focus on perhaps the most telltale dimension on which the two groups differ: the presence and role of anxiety.

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