King Henry VIII was desperate. He was swept with lust for Anne Boleyn, but she was holding out for a wedding ring. The problem, of course, was Queen Katherine, who had been his loyal, forgiving wife for 20 years.
Henry needed an annulment, but the pope kept stalling. So Henry moved Katharine from one damp, drafty lodging to another, reducing her provisions, in hopes that illness would carry her off. To break her spirit, he replaced her staff with hostile spies, and refused to let her see their daughter.
Then Henry came to a brilliant solution: he would put himself in place of the pope. His own conscience was "the highest and most supreme court for judgement and justice," he declared. As spiritual head of the nation, he pronounced his first marriage invalid, and Anne was finally his bride. Citizens were forbidden to write or say anything critical of the new marriage, and those who wouldn't take an oath supporting the law were tortured to death.
But in a few months Henry's ardor for Anne cooled, and soon Jane Seymour was the object of his desire. So Henry had Anne framed for a capital crime, and two weeks later she was beheaded. Jane became the third of Henry's wives, though three more were still to come. As historian Alison Weir writes, "with each passing year [Henry would] become more egotistical, more sanctimonious, and more sure of his own divinity."
An advisor once attempted to remonstrate with Henry about his actions. "God and my conscience are on very good terms," Henry replied.
When Jiminy Cricket chirped, "And always let your conscience be your guide," he probably didn't have Henry VIII in mind. Conscience can be a good guide, but it can also mislead. We are each born with a rudimentary, unformed conscience, and in its uneducated state it's kind of like an untrained singing voice. Most of us can squawk along with a tune to one extent or another, but few have perfect pitch.
There are two ways in which conscience can mislead. The first is the Henry Delusion, above, summarized so deftly by Debbie Boone in the line, "It can't be wrong if it feels so right." What we want deep down inside feels like it has to be right. Our desires burn so strong and bright that their urgency feels like a command. Fulfilling them seems a duty, and restraints placed by family or society seem merely a test of courage.
But what "feels so right" can be mere selfishness, greed, or lust; what actually is right can feel dry, difficult, and unrewarding. When dazzled by the Henry Delusion, a conscience can make the wrong choice.
The other way a conscience can falter could be called the Huck Confusion. Picture Huck Finn, drifting on that raft, looking at Miss Watson's slave Jim. Huck knows that Jim was bought fair and square, and that the right thing to do is to return him to Miss Watson. But he wishes instead he could help his friend escape to freedom.
It's a terrible struggle for Huck, because his conscience won't leave him alone. His conscience-like all of ours-was formed by a specific culture. In his community, property rights of slave owners were more important than liberty rights of slaves. Huck has been taught to believe that helping Jim would be a dastardly thing to do. But in the end, he can't resist temptation, and he defies his conscience: "Then I'll go to hell!" he declares.
An unformed conscience takes the shape of its container-generally, the mores of its surrounding culture. Most of those moral guidelines are likely to be good, but it's possible for some to be horribly wrong, and be obliviously condoning or even encouraging evil in the name of good. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible for a resident of any given age to discern which values are good and which are bad, because we dwell inside our culture like a fish in a fish bowl.
We can't determine how much the curve of glass and water distort our view; at best we can acknowledge that they must be somewhat distorted. So how are we to tell which values to shape our consciences by, and which to reject? It seems only the perspective of history will be able to determine that. No wonder Huck was confused.
If we can't trust our inner feelings to direct us, and we can't trust our current culture, how can we develop an honest, reliable conscience?
"The perspective of history" turns out to be part of the answer. You don't have to go into the future to get it; you can get it by gazing down the years into the past. Some moral laws keep emerging over and over again, across the span of centuries and all around the world: don't lie, don't steal, don't kill, for instance. Granted, examples can be found of communities where lying, stealing, and killing are excused-but these are not healthy communities. When you find people in all lands, in all ages, agreeing on rules of right and wrong, you have a pretty safe bet.
Beyond that, there are explicit moral codes like the Ten Commandments, which have been attested by a stunningly wide range of cultures. That consensus is likewise a clue to something (a clue, those cultures would say, to the presence of divine revelation).
The Henry Delusion--self-serving self-delusion--is a familiar human condition, but we recognize it much more easily in others than ourselves. Likewise, the Huck Confusion--moral confusion sewn by transitory cultural norms--is obvious in oppressive societies elsewhere, but harder to perceive in our own local customs.
When you need your conscience to be your guide, first consider what kind of an education it's had. It's best not to ask "What would make me feel best?" or "What would fit current values?" Instead, take the long view, and let your vision be corrected by the larger, ancient community that spans many cultures. Where agreement emerges amidst all that diversity, there is wisdom worth listening to.
As G. K. Chesterton said, "Give a vote to that most obscure of classes, our ancestors."