The question? Why do certain people do the right thing even amidst difficulty? This book takes a broad range of disciplines and tries shine a light on how to explain them, offering “rich, provocative narratives of moral choice” according to Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University. (Also, reviewed on NPR).
Press examines his subjects carefully, alert to the different personalities and circumstances of each individual. He weighs the role of prejudice, idealism and community. He explores the “element of reciprocity” in one case and the “anxiety of responsibility” in another, sees the importance of “mutual support” and discusses the frustrations of being ignored. He reads about oxytocin receptors; he studies David Hume. He makes modest conclusions. I don’t mean that as criticism. If Press made more comprehensive claims, I wouldn’t trust him. It’s no more possible to explain an act of conscience than it is to dissect a dream.
We often use the word “conscience” when we don’t know what other word to use. When Grüninger said he “could do nothing else,” he may have been deflecting judgment, or he may not have been able to describe his sense of compulsion any better, his feeling that he didn’t have a choice when he clearly did. “Conscience” is indefinable. It can be indefensible, too: An act of conscience describes an action motivated by loyalty to a conviction, but it usually requires the defiance of other loyalties. It can mean turning away from your family, or your country, or your job, or even your sense of self. Press’s real achievement in this short book is not in his research or analysis, but in his refusal to flinch from that disquieting fact.