Friday, April 24, 2009

Conscience and Community

Humans are social animals. We form couples and, frequently, families. We gather in groups. Groups become tribes. Tribes establish communities and permanent settlements. Settlements grow into villages, towns and cities.

We connect these settlements with networks of roads, with means of communication. We speak to each other directly whenever possible, we carry messages between friends, we write, we phone. Increasingly we rely on new media, electronic media, and find new ways to build community.

And we worry about those left out. We visit the elderly. We create shelters and services for the homeless. We maintain libraries and free museums to create access to common knowledge and contact with others. We establish standards to make newer technologies more accessible. Some of this we do very imperfectly. But we do it.

In the process, we develop techniques for managing our disagreements. We delegate the responsibility for others to represent us when issues require discussion and when decisions need to be made. Wishing to remain connected to our community, to build a stronger community, we listen to each other’s arguments, sometimes carefully, and we respond, sometimes constructively; we modify our disagreements and search for common ground. We return to the same questions again and again, reopening old discussions, searching for better resolutions.

Much of this does not happen smoothly. We are different from each other in important ways. We vary in compassion and empathy. We vary in ambition and need. We vary in our native gifts and in our personal limitations. Sometimes our experiences and desires unite us to others, but separate lives and unique longings also divide us as individuals and as groups.

Very nearly all of us find ways to be part of a larger community; even loners do so. Most, if not all of us, will adjust our personal requirements, our demands, our disagreements, so that we might remain connected.

But there is the question of conscience. What role does conscience play in community? How do we develop one? How do we learn to make moral judgments, and to take action based on those judgments? How much will each of us tolerate before deciding to speak out? How much will each of us tolerate before taking action? Is the consensus surrounding us ethical? How would we know?

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