A scene from Martin Scorsese's film Silence   

Google’s Ngram raises fascinating questions. Since Google has digitized nearly all books in world libraries, at least in English, it can check the frequency of a word or phrase in a mere second or two. Take the word “conscience”. The Ngram shows that it was mentioned about six times more often in books published in 1820 than in 2000 (statistically adjusted, of course, for the number of books).

Does this mean that we are six times less interested in conscience? Almost certainly not, but the statistic is a clue to a deep cultural change – particularly when you consider that the decline in the word “sin” has been far steeper. Something is going on.

How is this reflected in our discourse about conscience, our faculty for deciding whether to do good or avoid evil?

Nowadays there is a feeling amongst ethicists that conscience should be sidelined where it may be needed most – in the workplace. This move is most evident in the healthcare system. “A doctors' conscience has little place in the delivery of modern medical care,” wrote one prominent philosopher not long ago – and he has widespread support amongst his colleagues.

Given this contempt for conscience, it’s not surprising that we’ve lost precision and nuance in expressing the range of ways in which we respond to moral dilemmas – or even our interest in analysing them. We are encouraged to sub-contract out the hard work of discerning what is good and what is evil to an anonymous system – the law, our employer, or even social media.

In the dim, dark ages, ie, about 60 or 70 years ago, ethics and moral theology textbooks were relaying to their readers a very rich and sophisticated tradition about how to assess whether judgements of conscience were correct or not. They distinguished between correct and erroneous consciences, certain and doubtful consciences, and scrupulous and lax consciences.

Without plunging into deep waters of hair-splitting controversy, let’s look at how literature reflects this. Many films and novels centre on dilemmas of conscience.

Some of the most acclaimed films from Hollywood and elsewhere feature heroes who follow their correct and certain conscience in spite of fierce opposition. Take the Julia Roberts film Erin Brockovich. She plays a single mother who unearths skulduggery by a big corporation to conceal lethal carcinogens in the local water supply. The right thing for Erin to do is to report the villains; she has no doubts about whether this is the right thing to do; and she becomes a hero (and rich) by doing it. Many “inspirational” films follow the same pattern. The classic of the genre is A Man for All Seasons, a film (and play) about Thomas More’s refusal to endorse Henry VIII’s marriage.

Morally, things become more complex when the hero is certain, but her assessment is erroneous. Take Vera Drake, a powerful British drama directed by Mike Leigh. The central character is a charlady with a heart of gold who “helps young girls out”. Her conscience is certain but since she has no qualms whatsoever about her work as an abortionist, it is erroneous. We’ll leave it to someone else to decide whether she is “invincibly ignorant”.

In the same line, there’s Gran Torino, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, a film about an elderly curmudgeon in a decaying neighbourhood of Detroit. His conscience is certain about his racist bias against Asian immigrants, but it too is erroneous. The interest of the film lies in his discovery that he was wrong, his initial certainty notwithstanding. Once erroneous, his conscience is now correct.

The self-interrogation involved in correcting an erroneous conscience can create great art. One reason why Vera Drake is inferior to Gran Torino is that Vera never questions her conscience. As a result, the film collapses into self-righteous sentimentality.

The most powerful drama is built around the existence of a doubtful conscience. A character has the right criteria, but faces conflicting or ambiguous choices. In movie reviews these are normally described as “agonising moral dilemmas” or “gut-wrenching choices”. War movies often centre on this aspect of conscience. In Eye in the Sky, a recent film about drone warfare, Helen Mirren plays a British Army colonel who has to decide whether to launch a missile to kill three dangerous terrorists even though it might also kill a little girl who has suddenly entered the kill zone.

Doubt is also at the heart of an outstanding French film, Of Gods and Men. Nine Trappist monks living in a small monastery in the mountainous interior of Algeria are warned that they will be slaughtered unless they leave. Should they save their skins or stay until the end? Their wrestle with the implications of their decision illustrates what the moralists call a “perplexed conscience”, in which neither option seems altogether correct. (It’s a true story and eight of them die.)

What is rarely depicted in films or novels is a “culpably erroneous” conscience, ie, turning a blind eye to what someone knows to be the truth. As the Second Vatican Council puts it, this happens when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.”

While this sounds implausibly pessimistic, it happens. (As an historical footnote, the origin of the phrase “turning a blind eye” is an incident in the life of the great British admiral Horatio Nelson. He was on the verge of winning the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 when he was ordered to disengage. Putting his telescope to his blind right eye, he told his aide: “You know, Foley, I have only one eye and I have a right to be blind sometimes… I really do not see the signal.”)

A culpably erroneous conscience can be a dark topic, so dark perhaps that it has not often been portrayed in films or novels. It’s the frame of mind of the soldiers who ran Auschwitz, who were “just following orders”. They suppressed their natural understanding of the good and replaced it with vile Nazi doctrines.   

One author who has delved deeply into this dark side of human experience is Shusaku Endo, the Japanese novelist who wrote Silence, which was made into a film in 2016 by Martin Scorsese. Endo (1923-1996) was, like the novelist he admired so much, Graham Greene, a perpetual also-ran for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Unusually for a Japanese, he was a Catholic and Catholic themes are central to his novels.

The novel which made his reputation in Japan is The Sea and Poison, published in 1957. It is based on records of war crimes committed by doctors in Fukuoka, far from the front lines, in the dying months of World War II. American airmen who survived a plane crash were used for fatal but useless medical experiments. How could civilised men and women do this, is the question that Endo asks. His answer seems to be that their consciences had already been paralyzed by yielding to lesser failings until they no longer cared about the difference between right and wrong. 

Two characters who assist at the vivisection illustrate this. To cope with the pain of a still-born child Nurse Oba breaks up with her swinish husband, has an affair with one of the doctors, acts spitefully towards a warm-hearted foreign wife of the chief doctor, and complies with a request to euthanise an inconvenient patient. True, she herself is a victim, but she has also allowed her conscience to be anaesthetised.

Then Endo traces the steps which allow a young doctor, Toda, to grow into a psychopath. At school he is a deceitful teacher’s pet, he commits adultery with his cousin, and he performs an abortion on his pregnant mistress. When he has to decide whether or not to participate in the vivisection, he has no strength to refuse.

It is this slow descent into moral degradation which is the narrative thread in Silence. For those who haven’t read the novel, published in 1966, it is a psychological analysis of real events in 17th Century Japan. Christian communities there were enduring a bloody persecution by the local shogun. Some apostatised; many did not and were killed with atrocious cruelty. Even the Jesuit leader of the Catholic mission abjured his faith after being tortured.

The central figure of the novel is a young Portuguese Jesuit, Fr Rodrigues, who sneaks into the country to revive the faith of peasant converts and to win the older Jesuit back to the Christian faith. It’s not long before he is captured and broken by a wily magistrate, even without torture. How could this happen?

Much of the comment about the film (and the book) focuses on the moment of apostasy. As Fr Rodrigues tramples on an image of Christ, he hears Christ urge him on: “Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world.” One answer is that he is sacrificing his self-respect to save the other Christians, who will be released from their torments if the priest apostatizes. Another is that God ignores human suffering. 

It’s not altogether clear. Silence is a far more subtle and enigmatic book than The Sea and Poison. Perhaps Endo is endorsing a theology which places charity to neighbour above charity to God. But in the light of the earlier novel, it seems more likely that the moment of decision is a moment of deep self-deception, prepared long before by Rodrigues’s concessions to vanity, snobbery and lack of forgiveness. As the novel points out over and over, it is the path of Judas, whose loyalty also eroded bit by bit as he gave into his greed.

“I thought that if I apostatized those miserable peasants would be saved,” Rodrigues tells himself in the novel. “Yes, that was it. And yet, in the last analysis, I wonder if all this talk about love is not, after all, just an excuse to justify my own weakness.”

Whatever motivated Rodrigues to betray his faith, Endo’s story is inexplicable without understanding what conscience is and how central it is to the life of a well-balanced human being. And if we ignore or abandon the role of conscience in the public square, as politicians and ethicists are urging us to do, most of our great literature will be inexplicable as well.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet