Accidents—as the well-worn and completely information-free saying goes—happen. That saying was once again proven true recently when someone else’s car collided with mine. At least that’s what the evidence suggests. I wasn’t present when this particular accident happened, but I formed my hypothesis when I discovered, upon returning to my vehicle the next morning, that it was not in quite the same condition in which I’d left it. The first sign that something was amiss was the difficulty I encountered when trying to open the driver’s side door. Under normal circumstances, that door swings open with ease, as indeed most doors on most cars do. But on this particular day, a dent of a considerable size (which I discovered upon investigation) had rendered impossible the door’s usual trajectory. Further investigation revealed another dent in the hood and a dislodged headlight. Thus, my theory that someone had hit my car during the night was born.
But there’s no need to worry about the Curmudgeon. I’ve got plenty of insurance to cover the cost of restoring my automobile to its previous condition, a process that is already well under way.
No, believe it or not, the person I’m suggesting we worry about is the one who hit my car and then sped off into the night without leaving a note. Such a person is deserving of pity, as he is lacking in a fundamentally important quality that seems to be rapidly leaking out of our collective modus operandi: a functioning conscience.
Conscience (for those who might need a reminder) is that internal barometer that discourages us from unethical acts…even when we could get away with them. It’s the thing that causes us to return lost wallets, resist unsavory enticements, and tip waiters. It stops us from making false accusations or claiming credit for other people's work. It’s the nagging thought that says things like “Of course, I could escape responsibility for denting the Curmudgeon’s car in the middle of the night since there’s no one around…but that would be wrong.”
Conscience carries with it the threat of shame (another sadly waning concept). Those who defy the urgings of conscience risk being haunted by a subsequent sense of remorse which cannot be outrun. Conscience and shame, like collaboration and compromise, are necessary to the functioning of a civilized society. They can also foment personal growth or motivate the making of amends.
But a lack of conscience is a mental disorder, a miserable condition that removes the guardrails, eliminating any obligation to decency or to one’s fellow creatures. A lack of conscience can lead to crime, cheating, unmotivated cruelty, and, worst of all, total cynicism; how can someone with no compunction about doing wrong ever trust others? I can barely imagine the despair and meaninglessness such a person must experience.
On June 9th, 1954, Joe Welsh famously demanded of Joe McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” The impact of this question rested on the shared idea that people ought to have a sense of decency, and that one ought to feel ashamed when their decency is found to be lacking. But such things are no longer quite so common as they were in 1954. I can easily imagine a modern-day McCarthy responding to that question with a shrug and a careless “Nope.”
The person who dented my car has gone on with his life knowing what he has done and is yet untroubled—or at least, not troubled enough to do the right thing. My car can be repaired. But what of the soul of the person who damaged it?