The Conscience and How It’s Affected by Society and Biopsychology


Abstract

This paper looks to find the direct correlation between the human conscience society, and mental health.  This is found through relating the effects of conformity and obedience (external influences) with the effects of psychopathy and mental health (internal influences).  Tyrannical governments have used conformity and obedience do gain mass followings and follow ideologies that would be considered immoral by the rest of the world, therefore, changing their followers’ responses to emotional stimuli.  Other forms of society have been found to rely on conformity and obedience in the form of laws to ensure fairness and morality among their people, but of course with laws comes those who obey them and those who do not.  Although smaller crimes can come down to being caused by situational instances, this paper investigates the reason behind laws being broken involved with deeper moral and emotional feeling, such as taking a person’s life.  Mental illnesses and brain dysfunctionality in places such as the hypothalamus and amygdala seem to be large causes of these actions (Culhane, S. et al., 2011).  Whether an external or internal influence, both forces have found to be important in determining the effects on human emotions and morality.

Keywords: conscience, society, mental health, conformity, obedience, psychopathy, emotional stimuli, emotional feelings, morals, morality, hypothalamus, amygdala

Since the birth of humanity, humans have adapted, invented, and formed together in communities by creating societies with rulesets or laws in order to accomplish a common goal.  Laws are created as a set of rules for what is considered by the general population as what’s morally right and wrong.  However, there are still people in societies that decide to break these laws and perform actions that are considered immoral by the masses such as murder or thievery.  This phenomenon of people following the laws put in place can be a mixture of things but mostly does wind down to conformity and obedience.  However, conformity and obedience alone doesn’t explain the internals of what’s happening when somebody acts on the decision to make or break the law.  This is when what people call the conscience kicks in; something in peoples’ brains that make them feel bad for others or their own actions.  The ‘conscience’ is more so a short way of explaining the functions of the limbic system in the brain, which helps to control the emotions of humans and give us that feeling of what’s right or wrong (Spielman et al., 2014).

Starting off with conformity, it is defined as a subject’s behavior or attitudes following those of the object (Guandong et al., 2012).  In the instance of law-abiding citizens, conformity would describe the peer pressure or herd mentality of others within a society.  If everyone believes that rape and murder is morally wrong and agrees upon these terms, then others will follow in those beliefs.  One can especially see this in the case of past empires and countries, for example, the Mongol Empire.  The Mongol Empire, while under the rule of Genghis Kahn, was known for being vastly furious, conquering a majority of Eurasia meanwhile doing actions that many other empires at the time would consider morally wrong and unjustifiable, which in turn struck fear.  With all these terrible actions, the Mongols still were able to keep a large following and an army that were capable of doing these horrendous acts, despite what anyone’s conscience may have been telling them.  This could also be an example of how nurture can affect nature, as being raised in an environment/society where acts of violence are considered normal would ultimately affect how someone acts towards certain emotional stimuli and rewire the biology of their brain.

Obedience is another influence on behavior that also comes in to play since conformity and peer pressure aren’t the only factors at work.  Obedience is known to be behavior that is directly influenced by authoritative commands, also known as laws when relating to society (Guandong et al., 2012).  Due to the basis of what obedience is, it can work in favor of morality and also against it as tyrannical governments use it to keep control of the masses they rule over as they work towards their agenda, and typical governments use it to enforce laws to protect morality.  As Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience in 1961 showed how demands and authority through leadership could change the way someone would typically act, there is also another circumstance that falls into why laws or demands are followed, fear of punishment.  Fear of punishment arises from society’s determent of crime because if breaking the law wasn’t punishable then there would many more criminals (Stefanovska, V, 2018).  This fear would also be part of the reason why someone would act a certain way based on their supervisors’ demands even against their better judgement.  This comes to show how authority figures are able to get people to do things that would typically go against their moral code or conscience.

The limbic system within the brain is responsible for memory and emotional responses which would be the closest brain function to what most people would refer to as a conscience.  Of course, any damage or undeveloped parts of the limbic system would prove to show noticeable changes in one’s long-term memory or emotions, this change would appear to be detrimental with damage caused specifically to the hypothalamus, as it provides activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and the amygdala, which attaches emotional value to memory and experiences (Spielman et al., 2014).  As development of the emotional mind is ever so changing throughout life, even more so at younger ages, one could argue that past experiences and history are the driving forces to someone’s conscience.  Going back to the example of the Mongol Empire from before, it would be unreasonable to say that every soldier in the army had natural brain damage to their hypothalamus.  Why they murdered and pillaged comes to be more of either a case of nurture, conformity, or obedience rather than of natural causes.  The same however can’t entirely be said for those within a society following moral standards who still decide to continuously break certain laws such as murder.  For example, serial killers and mass shooters may have different biological or sociological reasons for why they do the things they do compared to entire societies that do similar actions.

Why people commit immoral crimes can wind down to a multitude of subjects, but the subject of serial killings and mass murders specifically seem to relate to psychopathy and mental illness.  Although birth defects and natural formed mental illnesses resulting in issues with emotional stimuli can be root causes of violent crimes in extreme cases, majority of the time, these crimes are influenced based on trauma such as physical or sexual abuse and witnessing violence at a young age.  T (Culhane, S. et al., 2011).  Violent crimes don’t necessarily always happen due to lack of emotions, as they have also found to be linked to feelings that alter our perceptions of reality, involving the feelings of love or hate.  This also includes situational conditions, as desperation can lead to an altered mindset (Blackmon, D. A. 2020).  The change of conscience and choice of actions can be affected by someone’s upbringing and past experience, as trauma and troubled times can change how someone sees the world around them and how they react emotionally.  This would show how someone may act against herd mentality, they may know something is wrong, but do it anyways because of feelings of hate or desperation.  For those who appear to not have a moral code or conscience, it could be because of damage in brain development due to trauma, mental/physical disorders from birth, or a mixture of the two.

There seems to be a clear difference between those who make immoral decisions based on conformity and obedience, and those who make them based on psychological reasons.  When conformity is involved, someone’s conscience is either strewn, overpowered by peer pressure, or it is formed at an early age based on the moral code of the society in which they were raised.  When psychological or sociopathic reasons are involved, the person tends to lean away from herd mentality and follow a personal vendetta by either ignoring sentient feelings or just not being able to recognize them.  In conclusion, what affects the human conscience mostly comes down to nurture, past experiences, trauma, and environment.  Society of course, plays a large role in this as they provide a moral backbone to everyone raised in a specific community, whether it be a large amount of empathy and care for others or a barbaric mindset where killing and pillaging is considered typical behavior.

 

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