"Every man has a conscience, and finds himself observed by an inward judge which threatens and keeps him in awe (reverence combined with fear); and this power which watches over the laws within him is not something which he himself (arbitrarily) makes, but it is incorporated in his being. It follows him like his shadow, when he thinks to escape. He may indeed stupefy himself with pleasures and distractions, but cannot avoid now and then coming to himself or awaking, and then he at once perceives its awful voice. In his utmost depravity he may, indeed, pay no attention to it, but he cannot avoid hearing it." Immanuel Kant, On Conscience, 1785.
I believe that honestly obeying your conscience is the key to living an ethical life. Although that "little voice" may be difficult to hear sometimes above the roar of peer pressure, media pressure, social pressure, and our own desires, it's always there and should be given the respect it deserves. Whether it originates from millions of years of evolution, God, or life experience, this intuition is the most valuable resource we have when faced with an ethical dilemma. There are two main reasons why I believe so strongly in listening to my conscience: I favor moral objectivism and deontology, and see my conscience as the voice of that objectivity; and secondly, I believe the human conscience always favors honesty and integrity -- which I consider to be the most important hallmarks of good character and virtue. Honesty and integrity are the groundwork upon which all other moral and ethical actions must be built; a relationship, endeavor, or life built upon deceit is inherently worthless.
To apply this principle to a realistic ethical dilemma, imagine two people working in an office. One is the "go to" girl, the intern, still learning and naive. Her name is Sophia. Suppose that English isn't her native language, and a lot of what goes on in the office is over her head. Now imagine the other worker -- a female who has been there many years, knows the ropes, and doesn't miss a thing. Her name is Lydia. One day, Lydia attempts to do some fancy maneuvering with the computer filing system to speed up a mundane task; she inadvertently deletes many important client files that cannot be recovered. She is horrified and extremely embarrassed; if she admits to the mistake she will surely never advance in the company. On the other hand, she knows her boss is very sympathetic toward Sophia, who is still prone to making many mistakes. And if the intern can be blamed, Lydia can "protect" Sophia by stepping in and offering to fix the mistake for her, thereby actually gaining favor with the boss. In fact, recovering the lost client information will involve a lot of time, and Lydia will offer to stay late for a few weeks in order to fix the problem that the "naive intern" caused. Even better, Sophia need not know that any of this is going on; the other woman can figure out a way to blame it on her and tell the boss she's already been reprimanded. Lydia knows he would do anything to avoid having to confront Sophia about something so embarrassing -- she's still learning after all. All in all, it will be a "hush-hush" topic in the office.
So what should Lydia do? The obvious answer is to be honest and admit her mistake; this is what her conscience is telling her she must do. But she's fighting an inner battle. She can think of so many good reasons to go the other route: to save face, to save her career, to avoid extreme shame and embarrassment, and to keep the issue quiet rather than the subject of numerous staff meetings. Besides, she will be punished for her mistake anyway. Rightly, she is the one who will have to fix the problem, working late for no extra pay. And there won't be any consequences for Sophia at all -- she will be excused this time because she is so new.
This is a perfect example of a situation calling for great inner strength and character. If Lydia isn't committed to honoring her conscience and putting honesty above all else, she will easily be tempted to blame her mistake on the unknowing Sophia. And if she does blame it on Sophia, even though there may not…