What Are Your Values? – BahaiTeachings.org

The biggest and most important part of identity formation involves choosing the inner values we decide to emphasize and develop. Those choices start with a flock of inner questions like these:

  • Am I a good person, an honest person? 
  • Do I want to treat others kindly? 
  • What will I do, and what will I refuse to do? 
  • Do I have a strong sense of identity and autonomy, or do I go along with the crowd? 
  • Do I follow my conscience by trying to lead a more examined and self-aware life, allowing me to question my own decisions?

Those core “value questions” have a direct bearing on what makes us human — our conscience. Animals do whatever is necessary to survive, but human beings aspire toward a higher level of existence by trying to differentiate between right and wrong — because we have a conscience.

The Unique Human Conscience

This uniquely human facility of conscience, the Baha’i teachings point out, is a sacred trust given to us by the Creator. Abdu’l-Baha, in his book “A Traveler’s Narrative,” which centers on the functioning of the human conscience, wrote:

… the conscience of man is sacred and to be respected; and that liberty thereof produces widening of ideas, amendment of morals, improvement of conduct, disclosure of the secrets of creation, and manifestation of the hidden verities of the contingent world.

Your conscience belongs only to you, the Baha’i writings say, and cannot be conditioned or compromised by any outside force. In “A Traveler’s Narrative,” Abdu’l-Baha also wrote:

Now this is beyond the power of man, that he should be able by interference or objection to change the heart and conscience, or meddle with the convictions of anyone. For in the realm of conscience naught but the ray of God’s light can command, and on the throne of the heart none but the pervading power of the King of Kings should rule. Thus it is that one can arrest and suspend [the action of] every faculty except thought and reflection; for a man cannot even by his own volition withhold himself from reflection or thought, nor keep back his musings and imaginings.

Philosophers have called the human conscience “that still small voice within us.” Here, in this quotation above, the Baha’i teachings define that voice as a constant, never entirely suppressed or silenced.

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Why Do Only Humans Have a Conscience?

In the animal kingdom, we see little evidence of the presence of a conscience, even in primates, what we call the “higher mammals.” Animals will care for one another in family or larger groups, but they will also attack, injure, and kill one another without provocation if the need or the instinct arises.

In a speech he gave to the Theosophical Society in Boston in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha made this critical distinction between humans and animals:

Just as the animal is more noble than the vegetable and mineral, so man is superior to the animal. The animal is bereft of ideality — that is to say, it is a captive of the world of nature and not in touch with that which lies within and beyond nature; it is without spiritual susceptibilities, deprived of the attractions of consciousness, unconscious of the world of God and incapable of deviating from the law of nature. It is different with man. Man is possessed of the emanations of consciousness; he has perception, ideality and is capable of discovering the mysteries of the universe. … The animal can only know through sense impressions and cannot grasp intellectual realities. The animal cannot conceive of the power of thought. This is an abstract intellectual matter and not limited to the senses. The animal is incapable of knowing that the earth is round. In brief, abstract intellectual phenomena are human powers. All creation below the kingdom of man is the captive of nature; it cannot deviate in the slightest degree from nature’s laws. … Man transcends nature, while the mineral, vegetable and animal are helplessly subject to it. This can be done only through the power of the spirit, because the spirit is the reality.

This means that we human beings have something within us — call it the spirit, the soul, the conscience, or whatever you like — that transcends nature and prompts us to transcend it, too.

Forging a Conscience-Centered Identity

Our conscience continually reflects on our reality and our identity, and our minds cannot stop that process, even if we try. 

Yes, we can attempt to dull or deny our conscience with mind-altering drugs, or by staying artificially busy, or by sedating ourselves with mindless, frivolous pursuits, attempting to ignore the promptings of that still small voice within us — but our conscience, which can also be viewed as the voice of our soul, will still speak to us.

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It’s up to us to listen and to hear it. If we do, we can find the path to our truest inner self, the most authentic and real part of us, our actual identity, rather than the artificial, socially-constructed ones foisted upon us by society.

So the human conscience informs our identity by attempting to guide us toward the light, toward what is right, toward the eternal attributes of love, compassion, justice, and selfless caring for others. If we let our conscience be our guide along the spiritual path, it will inevitably lead us to those noble character traits, and will challenge us to make them our own.

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