“‘This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.'”
“‘Atticus, you must be wrong….'”
“‘Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong….'”
“‘They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,’ said Atticus, ‘but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience'” (Lee 139-40).
In this passage from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Atticus Finch, my favorite fictional character, expresses his views on conscience to his daughter Scout. A lawyer, Atticus has taken on the case of Tom Robinson, a black man, who has been accused of rape. The novel takes place in the 1930’s when racism was still prevalent, and the Jim Crow laws were put place, which prohibited colored people from many things, limiting their freedom; sympathizing with them resulted in ostracism, as it was against the norm to do so. As such, the South in the ’30’s, where it is set, had prejudice everywhere. One of the results of this discrimination was the fact that trials were not fair: The juries were all-white and were hence biased against black people, who were punished severely, often despite their innocence, even when years later, exculpatory evidence appeared and proved them not guilty. Nonetheless, Atticus takes the case, declaring it to be the defining moment of his career. The problem is: Atticus could have easily taken up Mr. Ewell, the accuser, a white man, as his client and easily won; in doing so, he would make a ton of money, would be a respected lawyer, and would be a hero in the eyes both of the people of Maycomb and his children—yet he does not; he defends Robinson, and he acknowledges he has already lost, but that does not stop him; for he does what his conscience tells him to do, what his inner moral code—his moral compass—says. Yes, he could have taken up the winning side easily, but deep down, Atticus knows it is not right that Robinson is being unfairly judged, that he is not given a fair chance, nor that he should not at least try. While the odds are against him, he fights for what he believes is right. And as a true lawyer, a defender of universal Law, Atticus knows that he is bound to the natural rights of man, namely that they deserve a fair and speedy trial. True, he is an underdog, he has a disadvantage, the numbers are against him; but the majority rule is an external interference, and his conscience is an internal one, one with which he must live and act by. To disobey his conscience would mean not to be able to “worship God” anymore seeing as he has fought his own will and considering he has not the wisdom to know what is right nor the strength to do what is right. To act contrary to the voice inside, to violate the sanctity of human life, is to abolish one’s connection with a higher power or a moral one, so his taking the case is his way of saying to God that, yes, he is doing the right thing in His name because it is the right thing to do, even if others think contrariwise—really, they themselves are not worthy of worship, because they do not think for themselves, they only think as a majority, not listening to their consciences. Atticus knows many disagree with him, but even if he won the case on the wrong side, he would have to live with the decision, regretting it every day, knowing he did another man wrong. He would have to live with himself, not others, and so it is in his best interest to do as his conscience says, no matter how deviant it is.