Acquired Conscience

Also known in the Work as false conscience, traditional conscience, mechanical conscience and artificial conscience

Acquired conscience is a vast collection of beliefs, judgments, biases and associations, which, as is implied in the name, is not inherent in us, but is formed in each of us in early life. Everyone has an acquired conscience, though it is different in each of us, according to our upbringing, the time and place we were born and many other factors.

“Tradition forms an acquired conscience in us and is stronger than individual contact with a person. Tradition makes you not yourself. You have traditional ‘I’s in you that are acquired, which makes it very difficult for you to become a real person, a real individual, free to communicate with everyone, and so it narrows down your relationship to people.

“You may privately think political agreement is a good thing but your traditional ‘I’s will prevent you from accepting it. We see many examples of this today. This means that your acquired conscience, traditional in this sense, prevents you from behaving intelligently as an individual. You are then collective and not individual in your judgment of things. You are really sacrificing your individual judgment to traditional conscience. But this is not Real Conscience: it is acquired conscience. A man stands on his honor, his tradition, his patriotism, and so on, and all this is acquired conscience, something he has been brought up to believe in, and such a man is not capable of direct individual thinking in connection with an actual situation. He will not give up his acquired conscience, which is various in different nations, whereas the Work teaches that Real Conscience is the same in everyone and not various, and through it agreement is possible.”

– Maurice Nicoll, Commentaries, “Commentary on Acquired Conscience,” February 17, 1945, Vol. 2, p. 618

Other distinguishing aspects of acquired conscience which can help us to observe it in action:

  • It is concerned with morality and dualism. It makes us divide things and people into right and wrong, less than and greater than.
  • It often concerns itself with what we want thought about us. It always self-justifies if we are found lacking in our own estimation or we are seen not living up to our façade, so it is related to pride and vanity and false personality.
  • It’s based on fear – fear of consequences, loss of prestige, criticism, not living up to group expectations.
  • The programs for happiness, as described by Fr. Keating – survival/security, affection/esteem and power/control – are a manifestation of acquired conscience.
  • It thinks things and people should be different from what they are.
  • Due to the action of buffers and multiplicity, one part of acquired conscience can be in direct opposition to another. Different ‘I’s can have different, contradictory wills.
  • It is loud, based on crowd-mentality, and mechanical; Real Conscience is quiet, individual, and new and fresh in each moment.
  • “Acquired or false conscience is … a rigid fixed thing, a mechanical thing, whereas Real Conscience is quite different. It sees everything in its true light and so judges it differently in each case. It is relative, not absolute.” (Maurice Nicoll, Commentaries, “Commentary on Acquired Conscience,” Feb. 17, 1945, Vol. 2, pp. 619-626)
  • Finally, being acquired; it does not really belong to us; rather, it imposes itself upon us and evokes a chorus of “shoulds” for ourselves and others.

Other concepts in the Work related to acquired conscience are pictures, false personality, imaginary ‘I’ and buffers.