Pleasure without Conscience

Pleasure without Conscience

“Pleasure without conscience is one of the key temptations for today’s executives.” This is the conclusion of management guru Stephen R. Covey, author of the ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,’ which is widely recognised as one of the best-selling business books of all time.

According to Covey, the danger lies in mistakenly believing – with continual reaffirmation from marketeers – that “You’ve arrived. You are now a law unto yourself. You don’t need a conscience to govern you anymore.”

The world’s favourite radio station is WiiFM (What’s in it For Me?). This preference is part of our nature from the moment we’re born. Yet we also have a conscience, which Covey defines as “the repository of timeless truths and principles – the internal monitor of natural law.” Our conscience provides a check and balance to our selfish instincts.

In recent decades, conscience has had a bad rap. In a society that has placed self-fulfilment as the highest priority for our lives, feelings of guilt have often been branded outmoded obstacles to “whatever makes you happy.” The Bible says this is searing your conscience with a hot iron. (1 Tim 4:2)

Actually, this approach to life is nothing new. One of the wealthiest, most-powerful, internationally celebrated, best-dressed and sexually profligate people of the ancient world tells us “I refused my heart no pleasure … yet … everything was meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11) and “Whoever loves pleasure will become poor.” (Proverbs 21:17)

Daniel Bell, ‘one of the great sociologists of capitalism,’ died just last month. In his book ‘The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism’ he observed that the material abundance that capitalism produces undermines the fundamental values on which it is predicated (the Puritan virtues of hard work, thrift and deferred gratification) and thus is bound to fail.

At a more personal level, what Ghandi told his grandson Arun in 1948 were The World’s 7 Blunders, Covey expands as ‘self-destructive errors’ – common mistakes the world over that seem liberating, noble and desirable but result in tragedy. The costs of pursuing our own pleasure independently are high in terms of money, health, reputation and relationships.

The antidote to these errors is not social values but external standards. One of those standards, Covey asserts, is that human beings are not independent but inter-dependent. Our ‘interconnectedness’ is a theme stressed by environmental campaigners and encouraged by the social network revolution. The Bible goes further: not only are human beings inter-dependent on each other and their environment, but they are completely dependent on God.

Those who seek pleasure without conscience – without reference to external standards – the Bible calls “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” (2 Tim 3:4) The results are horrifying: people who are boastful, proud, abusive, ungrateful, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, treacherous, rash, conceited. (See 2 Tim 3:1-7). Would we really want to become like that – because we’re worth the pleasure, because we deserve it, because we don’t have to answer to anyone?

Thankfully, the alternative is equally striking: keeping your conscience clear means you have nothing to fear (1 Peter 3:16), will be a more accurate judge of character (2 Corinthians 5) and are free to truly love (1 Tim 1:5). The Good News of Christianity is that faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ does not dismiss our conscience but restores it by dealing with its legitimate guilt.