The fact that our language has a phrase such as ‘false sense of security’ implies that we, as humans, endeavor to fill our lives with security blankets (another phrase bearing the same implications). Think of water wings, you know the plastic pockets filled with air that fit around tiny arms in swimming pools. Well, this image clearly represents a false sense of security…one rips, one pulls off, one unplugs and zoom, you are literally flooded by reality. But humans do seek a type of safety, a security. What type of security are we seeking?
In an essay titled “Conscience” (taken from Lectures on Ethics), Kant defines the idea of conscience and how it serves humanity’s purpose. First, he says, “We find in our hearts a prosecutor, for whom there would be no place unless there were also a law. This law, which is based on reason and not on sentiment, is incorruptible and incontestably just and pure; it is the moral law, established as the holy and inviolable law of humanity” (176). Kant believes that humans have the ability to reason, which enlightens our conscience as to positive and negative choices. Reason allows us to make better decisions than instinct alone because it allows us to choose. The systems that frame choice, however, prove exceptionally difficult to understand. Kant further qualifies the conscience as something that knows right from wrong, while admitting that we often make ‘innocent errors’ and some are therefore more worthy of blame than others (and, it would follow, worthy of punishment).
In Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, cast Jane out because she did not like the child. On her deathbed Mrs. Reed asks for Jane and then receives her coldly, but with an important message. Mrs. Reed has denied a fortune to Jane and has lied to other relatives about Jane’s existence. She does not truly regret that way that she has treated Jane, but her illness obviates the weight of guilt upon Mrs. Reed. And so, on her deathbed, Mrs. Reed hopes to clear her conscience. She confesses all to Jane and says, “I have twice done you a wrong which I regret now.” Jane gives her full and free forgiveness, but, is it enough to confess your sins on your deathbed? Does it, in fact, clear the conscience? In Mrs. Reed’s case, it does not and instead, Mrs. Reed sobs and anguishes at Jane’s forgiveness.
When it comes down to it, we really know so little about death, and therefore, about moral and virtuous pursuits in life. We presume and guess and hope and surmise. We have rationalized and moralized, but we still know so little. In Lessons of the Masters, George Steiner claims, “The hunger of the soul, of the intellect, for meaning, compels the disciple (ourselves) to come back, over and again, to these texts. This return, always frustrated yet always reborn, may take us as near as is possible to the concept of resurrection. Which is also, I venture, a metaphor” (36).
Why does the contemplation of death bring about sudden changes in an individual, as demonstrated by Jane Eyre’s aunt? This idea of a deathbed confession offends the Stoic tradition. It would be better to have lived honestly, to have accepted responsibility, to have avoided reason for confession. For the Stoics, every day presents an opportunity to live well (and rightly). A weak apology for the things in life that one has knowingly done wrong will not suffice. What exactly they mean by ‘right’ living is difficult to define, however. One common thread throughout these ancient texts is the idea of life, living well, incorporates repetitious and consistent thought of one’s own mortality. In a book review of Kierkegaard and Death, the author cites on example as: “‘[T]he question death presents to us existentially is a thoroughly ‘this-worldly’ one,’ since it is ‘concerned with how we comport ourselves now to the fact of our own finitude'” (16). It seems that many agree, while death is a bit of an unknown, life is an opportunity to live fully, justly, honestly and rightly. And somehow, conscience and morals evidence the ways of right living.
It seems that reputation also has some effect upon this argument. Kant believes that our concern for reputation evidences the fact that humans know moral right from wrong. When placed in a public light, wrong decisions make us look bad, and our conscience guides us to make a better choice (or eats away at us as does Mrs. Reed’s). Either way, Kant continues, “Preachers must, therefore, impress upon their hearers that, while they must repent for their transgressions against their duties to themselves, though they cannot remedy these, in the case of injustice done to others mere repentance is not enough: it must be followed by endeavour to remedy the injustice…The history of death-bed repentances can, of course, show no instance of such practical repentance – a proof that it neglects an essential element” (176). Therefore, in Kant’s view, the idea of a last-second confession uses God as a security blanket, but not as an actual resource. He says, “He who goes in fear of being prosecuted for a wicked deed, does not reproach himself on the score of the wickedness of his misdemeanour, but on the score of the painful consequences which await him; such a one has no conscience, but only a semblance of it. But he who has a sense of the wickedness of the deed itself, be the consequences what they may, has a conscience” (174). These ideas are interesting and important when thinking of the way that we should live, the way that we should comport our daily lives. A major drawback to this line of thought is that there is no blueprint. There is no actual right and wrong. Kant discusses moral laws that guide us, but can give no definite examples to answer every possible scenario. And this is where Kant’s complex system of conscience and free will help guide the vast majority of honest, hard-working folks who may make minor transgressions. The bottom line for these authors says that humans, authors, teachers and students, all of us, should try to live the most virtuous life possible and you must find that virtuosity within yourself.
Kant, Immanuel. “Conscience”. The Great Books Reading and Discussion Program, Series 1, Volume 1. Chicago: The Great Books Foundation, 1985. 173-179. Print.
Steiner, George. Lessons of the Masters. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.
Furtak, Rick Anthony. “Review of Kierkegaard and Death”. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Web. July 2012.