Understanding Conscience and Safety

Originally posted on June 20, 2014 @ 10:57 AM

Understanding Conscience and Safety

ConscienceConscience refers to an unconscious sense of ethics, most often associated with intuition and implicit knowledge. One’s conscience refers to a way of ethical decision making associated with heuristics and emotional sensemaking. Conscience informs judgment and decision making but is not rationally driven, it is not something one controls rather, the conscience controls you. This is why the ancients personify the conscience and when speaking about moral activity state: ‘my conscience prevented me’ or ‘my conscience wouldn’t let me’.

In history the ‘conscience’ is used as an anthropological term in concert with ‘soul’, ‘mind’, ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh’. More recently, conscience is understood more as ‘instinct’ or moral reasoning.

During the Vietnam War we all had to face the issue of conscription. The Government of the time ran a lottery, and if your birth date came up in the lottery you had to serve in the army. I was lucky (thank god for randomness), but had my number been selected I would have been greatly challenged by my conscience not to go. Most probably, my conscience wouldn’t have let me go, I would have become a conscientious objector.

Conscience is not something one should associate with safety, nor should safety be associated with a sense of moral control. Doing so puts one in a precarious judgmental position. It is not an ‘ability’ to be safe neither does conscience vary under stress or pace of work. When one is bamboozled or ‘flooded’ with too many things, it’s the unconscious conscience that often guides thinking and behavior not the other way around. Conscience guides one through bounded rationality, not the other way around.

It is a strange thing to associate conscience (or a lack of conscience) with safety. To blame a lack of safety on morally ‘not caring’ is an attribution that misunderstands the nature of human judgment and decision making. When we get into the space of attributing moral judgment on others for unsafe behavior we are on dangerous ground. People don’t get hurt because they don’t care, this is far too simplistic and distorts the many social psychological dynamics that affect decision making. Thinking this way might make one feel good, but unless you are a mind reader, it is an attribution.

So, being unsafe is not a disease, it is not helpful to think in this way, in terms of safe people and unsafe people. There is no Conscience Safety Dementia (CSD). Safety is not a moral decision driven by the conscience, and attributing a lack of moral judgment to others in safety is unhelpful. One doesn’t change human conscience by ‘telling’ someone else what to do or giving them a checklist. A presence of safety or lack of safety is not some sinister disease that gets hold of someone and needs to be rectified by Hazardman. When one understands that safety and risk are ‘wicked problems’, then one moves away from judgmentalism and blame on the others.

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