53. Moral Sense
In every act of moral self-affirmation man contributes to the fulfilment of his destiny, to the actualisation of what he potentially is.
Paul Tillich (20c German-American theologian)
Moral sense refers to our innate propensity to evaluate actions in terms of right and wrong, but should not be confused with moral norms and principles. Although moral sense often coincides with socially accepted morality, these two differ and may even conflict; the former is an inner incentive, the latter comes, as it were, from the outside. As one psychologist puts it, ‘moral sense… is not a law or a definition but… the internal directive that establishes meaning and value’(1). Both bio-neurology and psychology provide support for its existence.(2) Experiments with infants and even some animals indicate that we are born with moral sense. A sense of fairness and justice, as well as regret and guilt, can occur spontaneously in children (unlike shame, which is by and large socially induced). In this area we will focus on why moral sense matters, as well as on how to develop and manage it.
Why listening to moral sense matters
Acting in accord with your own moral sense feels good, and behaving contrary to it does not, although these feelings can be overridden by other states of mind (e.g. prejudices. fears, desires, pleasures). Disregarding moral sense is sometimes attractive because it may allow immediate gratification, but it alienates you from other people and a part of yourself. This causes an inner conflict indicated by disturbed conscience and feelings of regret or guilt (which is why justifications are so common – nobody wants to see himself as bad). Conscience is absent only if the social aspect of a person is cut off. However, ‘we cannot suppress or eliminate essential parts of ourselves without becoming estranged from ourselves.’(3) This means that, unlike pleasure, real happiness (defined as inner harmony, see p.78) is not morally indifferent. Personal integration cannot be attained if your social aspect (which includes your moral sense) is in conflict or disregarded.