Henry David Thoreau published “Conscience” in the year 1849. This is a poem which shows his perspective of life where he describes conscience as an instinct which is bred in house. This is actually the product of thinking and feeling which takes place naturally inside one’s mind. He openly describes that according to him the idea of ideal life is simplicity. The conscience is only worth keeping when there are happiness and life go at a steady pace. Also, the conscience should be maintained at a level where it does not change with the changing events in life. The people who show courage are the ones actually living their life in worthy life. In this essay, this precise idea of conscience will be discussed in accordance with the government.
Thoreau was of the idea that the real conscience is the one which describes the idea of good or bad regardless of what majority says. Government is the great example of majority rule which is normally followed in society. Thoreau says “Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? – In which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?” (Page 2).
In this phrase, the author asked many questions for provoking thoughts of readers. Here the author illustrates that why is it necessary for every individual to release the authority of his conscience to the legislators and even if they do so, why they have a conscience in the first place. However, the ideal situation is when every individual does what he considers to be right according to the moral values. The feelings of control, advancement, and power should be left behind and only the moral behavior should be carried forward. Even if the person encounters any unjust act in the account of the government or any other legislative party, he must protest against it and act according to the conscience requirements.
In societies, democracy is believed to be the right force for deciding good or bad for the overall society. However, according to Thoreau, it is also not right for a government to decide on the basis of majority decisions rather than conscience. This raises a conflict because this argues against the democracy. Actually, the author uses this argument constructively by developing a better system of government where only democracy would not be used for justice, but conscience will also be considered as a moral obligation. The viewpoint is that the system of voting is developed for providing justice but actually this does not result in fairness. As a result, this will cause moral damage to occur because these duties are accessible only by the individual.
The overall idea derived from all these facts is that Thoreau is against the notion of democracy, however, this may not be the case. He only deviates from the idea in some severe circumstances. The government in which there is majority cannot serve justice for all however, the basic rules are addressed for all but when the rules of expediency are concerned, the majority does not play its role as required.
A thing cannot be considered right if the majority claims that this is the right thing to do. The claim is made by the author that mostly the majority decisions are wrong because satisfying all is not possible. It would be more just to decide laws on the basis of conscience rather than taking judgment from the majority. It is the idea implanted in the minds of every individual in a society that he must support laws. In this respect for law, people normally end up supporting legislation which is unjust and injustice prevails in society. This problem can only be removed when people place their desire of respecting their conscience rather than the law on top of all.
There are multiple arguments against the objectivity of conscience as well. Arendt says about conscience “it cannot be generalized; in order to keep its validity, it must remain subjective, what I cannot live with may not bother another man’s conscience. The result is that conscience will stand against conscience” (Page 64). So, morality should be the standard and this is the factor that can coincide with different individuals of a society. When the moral standards are shared among society, it can be expected that the majority will unify for collective good.
The view of Thoreau is that the majority is not naturally unjust, but using a majority in every decision should be opposed. Even he also advises citizens to accept injustice at a small level. This should be done when the injustice is necessarily the part of running the government. This is done to run smoothly otherwise the government will wear out after some time. The person should act when he sees a citizen personally involving in the act of injustice for others. Bureaucracy should be present to some extent because this is part of government n an inevitable manner. This will bring ease to life by making it less political.
The author is of the view that going against human rights and justice is obligatory and it should be taken at any cost. The civil disobedience is only advocated when the human decency line is crossed. Although democracy is inadequate for a society to have justice but removing it altogether is not possible. Rather than supporting “no government” the society should go for “better government”.
It is not entirely possible for a government to act with conscience. However, to increase the level of effectiveness, the majority rule should be followed in some cases. This is important to have a proper check and balance otherwise the state will be paralyzed from a political point of view it will become impossible to govern. Bahmueller says “For centuries, writers on democracy have recognized the potentially overwhelming power of majorities and, fearing a “tyranny the majority”, have sought ways to lessen its influence” (page 23). This shows that democracy and government face hindrances while enforcing justice, but it is not an unjust mechanism inherently. It has its own benefits and can prove beneficial if worked on properly.
The democracy should be reversed only when there is no other way left. The most likely condition is when human rights are revoked because this is not a tolerable act in terms of justice. The law should not be obeyed for the sake of it, but it is only the moral obligation of an individual which allows him to follows the rules enforced by law. It should be according to the will of a person that what type of law he needs to obey but sadly this is done by force.
Consciences play a vital role in shaping behavior. The majority rule in a society should be followed if it is morally correct. Rationally, it is not possible for a government to act according to conscience but for making the system better, some decisions can be taken. Democracy is a not entirely a failure but by pointing out the problems in this system, people will focus on reaching the ideal level of conscientious.
Arendt, Hannah. Crises of the Republic. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovenovich, 1972.
Bahmueller, Charles F, Michael Johnston, and Charles N. Quigley. Elements of Democracy: The Fundamental Principles, Concepts, Social Foundations, and Processes of Democracy. Calabasas, Calif: Center for Civic Education, 2007.
Thoreau, Henry D. Civil Disobedience, and Other Essays. New York: Dover Publications, 1993.