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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: John Kelly Defines “Conscience”

Morality is nothing more than loyalty to a given political system.


John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, gave his account of the moral stakes during the American Civil War, whose central issue was the defense of the institution of slavery. He defended the reputation of General Robert E. Lee: “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state which in 150 years ago was more important than country. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had to make their stand.”

Here is its 3D definition:


1. loyalty to the bellicose policies decided by the leaders of the political entity one chooses to identify with

2. a mysterious mental faculty that pushes people to make a stand

Contextual note

Contrast Kelly’s concept of conscience — basically, choosing who you will fight for or back in a war — with its usual definition in traditional dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster: “conformity to what one considers to be correct, right, or morally good”

Oxford Living Dictionaries: “A person’s moral sense of right and wrong, viewed as acting as a guide to one’s behaviour”

Historical note

In political morality — which in Kelly’s moral system appears to trump any other source of moral decision — “compromise” is elevated to the status of the most noble action. Employing the consummate rhetorical flourish of the impersonal passive voice, Kelly defines one thing with absolute moral clarity: that the party whom he considers guilty of a “lack of an ability to compromise” is unclear. Is it the union? The Confederacy? Both?

And one is left wondering what the desirable moral compromise he evokes might have been. Slavery restricted to only a few designated states of the American South? Slavery to be phased out gradually over a generation, as the existing slaves gradually began to “retire” from their slave positions or simply die off? Emancipation for mulattoes only, who after all are the products of slaveowners’ caring interaction with Africans?

Or perhaps something similar to a soft Brexit, with slavery intact and open trade between North and South, to parallel Britain’s goal of “unfettered access to the European single market”?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: DHS