The formation of ethical conscience

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The literature on ‘ethical conscience’ or morality seems to have remained the subject of scholars and ethicists; little has reached out to the people and even less to the family. We limit ourselves to criticizing what is wrong rather than indicating what is right. Traditionally, an old ethical principle was known: “good is what is commanded; bad is what is forbidden”. The driving force of traditional morality was the law (church or civil law).

The theme of ‘ethical conscience’ is ancient; Aristotle already mentioned it. Many illustrious men refer to it in their writings; even among non-Christians, there are testimonies to ethical conscience. For example, Gandhi went so far as to state that he “disobeyed the (civil) law not out of disobedience to authority, but out of obedience to the most important law of our life: the voice of conscience”.

Traditionally, it is assumed that the child can resonate at seven years. Human reason is closely related to conscience. During his evolutionary development, the child progressively discovers what is good and what is evil. In the first four years of life, he understands good as something that causes him pleasure; on the other hand, he conceives evil as something that causes him pain.

In the stage of autonomy, between four and eight years of age, the perspective changes: good is what deserves a reward, bad is what deserves punishment; this is the stage in which the child discovers the meaning of authority and the reason for the rule: father and mother, the teacher are in charge; the child must learn to obey out of love, not out of fear.

In the next stage, the stage of socionomy, the child discovers the interest for the friend, for the classmate, the playmate, the neighbourhood. It is a stage in which the peer (friend or classmate) influences the child’s behaviour. At this moment, he/she discovers the appreciation for something good he/she has done, the criticism for something bad. It will be crucial for the child to have good friends, good companions.

After the age of 14-16, the adolescent feels autonomous, independent. This is the moment when he/she must know how to regulate him/herself, that is to say, be responsible for his/her behaviour before God, before him/herself, before his/her parents and before society. It is no longer pleasure or pain, not reward or punishment, praise or criticism, that should motivate the maturing personality to do good, to avoid evil. There is a coherence within his/her conscience now: a well-formed conscience tells, that something is good, thus one should do it. It is the conscience that suggests what is bad and should be avoided.

Scholars agree in defining ethical conscience as the practical judgement, or the judgement of reason, by which a person judges what here and now to do because it is good or what to avoid because it is bad. The law, the norm, proposes to us the good that one must do and the evil that must be avoided. This law or norm reaches my conscience and it applies it to my concrete situation: here and now I must comply with the law or can I excuse myself from not complying with it?

Parents are the first educators or formers of their children’s ethical conscience. How can they do this? The coherence of the parents’ life, the good example, the encouragement to do good, the wise and prudent correction in case of misconduct of the children. Not only correcting, punishing; above all, guiding well, stimulating, accompanying, motivating…

Some psycho-pedagogues have formulated some principles in view of the formation of the ethical conscience of children:

  • Do not forbid them to do something one day and allow them to do it another day, because we are in a better mood. This disconcerts the child.
  • Do not forbid one child what you allow another. In this you have to give explanations to the child and you must always be fair.
  • Do not give so many orders and warnings that the child feels so lost that he/she decides to ignore them all. Nervous parents fall into this vice.
  • Do not order them to do things and want them to obey as quickly as our nerves demand. It is necessary to have patience so that they understand and are prepared to obey.
  • When ordering something or forbidding something, it is important to explain why one thing or another. This is to educate them to know the reasons or motivations for an order to comply with, or for a prohibition.

P. José Silvio Botero G., C.Ss.R.

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