Different people mean different things when they talk about the conscience. Some talk like it’s inner spiritual wisdom, a voice from the Divine or the Higher Self, while to others it’s a natural instinct, always available for snap decision-making.

I want to suggest that these are two different feelings. I do believe that everyone has access to both, but I believe that each has different utility. I’ll call the two inner voices the “Everyday Conscience” and the the “Deeper Conscience”, just to stay belief-system-neutral about it.

The Everyday Conscience is something that people gain as part of normal early childhood development. It’s inherent to the human mind, and some other animals appear to have glimmers of it. Sometimes a problem in brain chemistry or certain types of trauma can cause people to not have access to this emotional tool, but the vast, vast majority of humans feel the pricklings of the Everyday Conscience without making any effort at doing so. The Deeper Conscience, on the other hand, takes skill to access, and most of us never bother to learn how. I’ll go into it in more detail another time.

For now, I want to discuss the Everyday Conscience and its strengths and weaknesses as a tool for moral choice.

I personally view the Everyday Conscience as a mush of instinctive impulses that help one to determine “proper” behavior in social situations. I don’t see it as a spiritual thing. The Deeper Conscience is the one with a spiritual vibe, while the Everyday Conscience is much more “primate”.

The Everyday Conscience mixes together things like the information from your mirror neurons and empathy, the cultural norms you’ve absorbed from the people around you throughout life, your own self-concept and sense of place in society, your deeply held beliefs, your fears, your sense of disgust, and whatever other spare bits of socially-oriented data it finds lying around. It decides based on this tangled information whether to stab you with guilt and/or shame over possible courses of action.

Guilt shows remorse for the actions, or at least self-dislike over them. Shame only shows that you don’t want other people to know you did them (or, if you’re already caught, it’s the sense of losing status as a result).

The Everyday Conscience is something that a lot of people in our society learn to ignore from a young age. To maintain or increase one’s privilege in an unjust world, the Everyday Conscience must be regularly numbed. Humans are an inherently egalitarian species, like many other primates. Status must be earned and maintained, and doesn’t vary a huge amount between members of the group. Sure, some people are prettier or stronger or more charismatic, but everybody matters, and everybody is just people in the end. Choosing to maintain a position far above others requires forcing down the guilt and shame inherent to denying human natural egalitarianism.

This is just a small piece of the complex relationship between privilege and morality, and I’ll go into other aspects another time, but the numbing of one’s conscience among the powerful is how many social ills are maintained.

The higher your status in an unjust system, the more you deep down you know that if the structures of the current order were suddenly removed, the greater your chances to be mobbed and killed by those whose oppression you have actively or passively condoned. Some assuage this guilt or shame by donating or acting in the public good. Others rationalize justifications for being horrible, numbing themselves with defensiveness. Others shut out all information that might bring guilt or shame to the painful forefront of their consciousnesses (a major component in most cognitive dissonance). Others still compartmentalize, choosing to believe that egalitarian justice is only required within a small in-group, such as only the super-rich, or only white evangelical Christians.

The truth is, most of us do a little of all those things, especially when functioning within an unjust society. (Ordinary Examples: Generosity—tipping well. Defensiveness—tipping badly over minor, human errors. Not Listening—Only watching news that agrees with you. Compartmentalizing—Only humans matter; it’s okay for pigs to suffer horribly.)

From all of that, it may seem obvious that the Everyday Conscience should be relied upon heavily, being super useful in determining morality. That’s not untrue, but it’s important to remember that the Everyday Conscience only cares about one’s status within one’s social context. It isn’t reasoning out the best course of action. It isn’t weighing anyone’s well-being on its own merits. The Everyday Conscience just wants as few people as possible to violently hate you, and as many as possible to help you if you need help. It’s about stacking the deck in favor of your own future survival.

As such, the Everyday Conscience can be downright unhealthy when society’s norms tell you to hate yourself. It can decide you deserve to die over something like who you love, or the color of your skin. If society is telling you you’re wrong just for existing, over things you can’t possibly change, your Everyday Conscience can’t tell the difference. It only knows you’re “wrong”.

Similarly, the Everyday Conscience can advise grossly immoral behavior based on the culture surrounding you or what you were taught to be ashamed of. Your fears and the things that disgust you can make cruel acts feel strangely moral, as in the case of self-righteousness.

In other words, all the Everyday Conscience really tells you is how to be seen as a good person. It can help you to genuinely be one in certain ways (especially in understanding that status-differences should be minor and flexible, not vast or systemically enforced), and I therefore DO recommend cultivating and listening to this inner voice, but I also recommend constant self-examination to contextualize its messages. Sometimes, to do the right thing, you have to do it despite the guilt and shame.