We are all influenced by external authorities, eg parents, teachers, society. Rules are
internalise this and this can be thought of as our ‘conscience’. However, this is just a
fear of displeasing authority.
"The authoritarian conscience is the voice of an internalized authority such
as the parental authority, or state authority. The authoritarian 'conscience'
is a fear for the authority rather than a representation of the individual's
real conscience, the source of natural value judgments” (Erich Fromm. Man
For Himself, 1947).
‘In most social systems, obedience is the supreme virtue, disobedience the
supreme sin. When most people feel "guilty", they are actually feeling
afraid because they have been disobedient. They are not really troubled by
a moral issue, as they think they are, but by the fact of having disobeyed a
command.’ (Erich Fromm, ‘On Disobedience and Other Essays’, 1981)
Such disobedience would then produce guilt and make us more submissive to authority;
this is why Fromm famously wrote “The paradoxical and tragic situation of man is
that his conscience is weakest when he needs it most”.
Construction of the authoritarian conscience involves the interaction of two processes: first
the perfection of character is projected onto an external authority - parental,
religious or state authority; and secondly, the projected image of perfection or 'ideal'
is internalised in the individual's consciousness. Internalisation of the projected
image leads to the individual's unshakable conviction in the external authority as the
personification of the perfect character. The conviction is so strong that the individual loses
the capacity for rationality and reason and this leads to rigid thinking. The power of fear
for the authority replaces the power of ethical reasoning and as a result the
conscience which is constructed becomes increasingly authoritarian and irrational.
"interaction of internalisation (of external authority) and projection results
in an unshakable conviction in the ideal character of the authority, a
conviction which is immune to all contradictory empirical evidence." (Erich
Fromm. Man For Himself, 1947).
This sort of ‘learnt conscience’ should not have authority over us, because it is as likely to
lead us to do wrong as it is to do right. This is how Fromm thought that Nazi authorities
manipulated the ‘conscience’ of the German people: the German people ‘learnt’ that Jews
were not to be trusted, etc. Fromm himself escaped Nazi Germany in 1934.
Over time, Fromm identified a second view of the conscience. The humanistic conscience
‘an intuitive knowledge of what is human and inhuman, what is conducive
to life and what is destructive of life’ (Fromm, 1981).
Humanistic conscience assesses and evaluates our behaviour; we use if to judge how
successful we are as people. It is our real self and we use it to realise our potential as
people. We use our own discoveries in life and the teachings and example of others to
give us personal integrity and moral honesty. This is the opposite to the slavish obedience
and conformity of the authoritarian conscience. Being obedient to the authoritarian
conscience can lead us to murdering innocents (as the Nazis did) in a way that taking
responsibility to follow our humanistic conscience cannot.
Human adaptability depends on construction of rational conscience; The
integrity during the process of adaptation to changing social conditions. Such self-
knowledge is necessary for rational evaluation of the ever-changing social environment.
Development of rational conscience depends on actualisation of human potential;
development of conscience. Such moral development involved in the construction of
rational conscience depends on realisation of human potentialities for growth, for
happiness, for love and for reason. But the innate potentialities are like seeds. They
become manifest in later life only if provided with the right environment for spiritual
growth and development i.e. self-realisation or 'self-actualisation', which is a function of
growth in the context of freedom from external authoritarianism which breeds fear.