Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Conscience, Superego and Compassion

I am reading a book called The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, PhD. Sociopaths are people, who apparently make up 4% of the population, who have no conscience. In an early chapter she starts describing the superego and then she goes on to talk about how it is different from conscience.

Stout descibes conscience as being that ability to be attached to another person or living being and to have empathy. It means that we can care that another person (or pet) is suffering. We try and avoid being the cause of the suffering.

Stout says the superego, as Freud described it, is more like the parental voice. It's the voice that says we should and we shouldn't do something because the early authorities in our life said that. It's the voice that tells us we are naughty or bad or ill tempered and should be punished. We could get the same results from a superego as conscience because we don't want to hear our internal voice telling us how bad we are. The superego's voice does not mean that there is an attachment or true emotional empathy that says we will hurt if we know another hurts.

In Stout's book it seems that the ability to form an emotional bond is the indicator of conscience. It is that emotional bond with another that allows us to act to prevent the suffering, which is indeed the ability to act with compassion. I suppose then to act with compassion towards all beings, we must be able to extend the bonds we feel with those close to us to include all humans and finally to all sentient beings.

It seems a big step, but if we take the concept of conscience as something we take for granted (although psychologists believe that sociopaths do not have one), it would seem our very being is gifted with the tool to allow us to act with compassion for all sentient beings. It does beg the question for me of what about those without conscience? What about those who can't feel compassion or empathy? What sort of existance is that? It strikes me that such a condition might be the equivalent of the Christian Hell.

Compassion has always seemed to be something that I could give and recieve but not something that is part of myself that I own, being more a characteristic of the ever changing, multi-hued personality. Conscience seems so much more concrete. It seems more a fundamental part of my being that goes deeper than personality.

I think it's a wonderful way to think of compassion.


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