Humanistic conscience is not the internalized voice of an authority whom we are eager to please and afraid of displeasing; it is our own voice, present in every human being and independent of external sanctions and rewards. What is the nature of this voice? Why do we hear it and why can we become deaf to it?
Humanistic conscience is the reaction of our total personality to its proper functioning or dysfunctioning; not a reaction to the functioning of this or that capacity but to the totality of capacities which constitute our human and our individual existence. Conscience judges our functioning as human beings; it is (as the root of the word con-scientia indicates) knowledge within oneself, knowledge of our respective success or failure in the art of living. But although conscience is knowledge, it is more than mere knowledge in the realm of abstract thought. It has an affective quality, for it is the reaction of our total personality and not only the reaction of our mind. In fact, we need not be aware of what our conscience says in order to be influenced by it.
Actions, thoughts, and feelings which are conducive to the proper functioning and unfolding of our total personality produce a feeling of inner approval, of “rightness,” characteristic of the humanistic “good conscience.” On the other hand, acts, thoughts, and feelings injurious to our total personality produce a feeling of uneasiness and discomfort, characteristic of the “guilty conscience.” Conscience is thus a re-action of ourselves to ourselves. It is the voice of our true selves which summons us back to ourselves, to live productively, to develop fully and harmoniously – that is, to become what we potentially are. It is the guardian of our integrity; it is the “ability to guarantee one’s self with all due pride, and also at the same time to say yes to one’s self.” If love can be defined as the affirmation of the potentialities and the care for, and the respect of, the uniqueness of the loved person, humanistic conscience can be justly called the voice of our loving care for ourselves.
Humanistic conscience represents not only the expression of our true selves; it contains also the essence of our moral experiences in life. In it we preserve the knowledge of our aim in life and of the principles through which to attain it; those principles which we have discovered ourselves as well as those we have learned from others and which we have found to be true.
Humanistic conscience is the expression of man’s self-interest and integrity, while authoritarian conscience is concerned with man’s obedience, self-sacrifice, duty, or his “social adjustment.” The goal of humanistic conscience is productiveness and, therefore, happiness, since happiness is the necessary concomitant of productive living. To cripple oneself by becoming a tool of others, no matter how dignified they are made to appear, to be “selfless,” unhappy, resigned, discouraged, is in opposition to the demands of one’s conscience; any violation of the integrity and proper functioning of our personality, with regard to thinking as well as acting, and even with regard to such matter as taste for food or sexual behaviour is acting against one’s conscience.
Erich Fromm (1947) Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. (p.162 - 163)