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In researching social movements, it’s often useful to distinguish between participants who stand to benefit if the movement achieves its goal, and participants who don’t. Theorists usually call the latter “conscience constituents”. They are thought to be important because they sometimes help to get movements started when the beneficiaries are unable to co-operate sufficiently to achieve their goal.

This is quite common, because even sharing an interest with other beneficiaries is not always sufficient to motivate participation. A rational, self-interested beneficiary will ask herself not only what the goal is worth to her, but how far her own participation is needed to achieve it. It may be that she can take a free ride on others’ participation, and secure the goal without needing to do anything herself.

Conscience constituents, self-propelled by their own consciences, can, it’s thought, be a useful stimulus for collective action. Acting as unpaid entrepreneurs they can help latent movements get started or grow, by providing the initial confidence or organizational framework within which rational self-interest can promote co-operation.

I think this approach does not do enough to illuminate its subject-matter. For one thing, there are many considerations that might motivate non-beneficiaries to act in others’ interests, and they cannot all be boiled down to conscience without distortion. For another, conscience itself is a complex motivation, and relying on it can be costly for social movements. Existing theory mistakenly treats it as a useful source of free energy, without considering where it comes from, or what costs it creates.

Conscience itself, after all, is both personally owned, and also located outside us. This is how it motivates people, but also why it can be awkward for social movements made up principally of beneficiaries. The part that belongs to us is a ‘solvent’, which might dissolve existing ties and allow us to side with other people’s struggles, but only on conditions that we make for ourselves. And the part of conscience that belongs to others tends to be ‘glue’ and not solvent, holding us where we are.

Thinking about what sort of motivation conscience is part of my current research project Other People’s Struggles. Among the questions I consider in this paper are: (1) What sort of motivation is conscience? (2) What sorts of problems might arise when some participants in a social movement are motivated by conscience, and others are motivated by self-interest? This paper uses philosophical theories of conscience and social movement theory to explore these questions.

IMAGE CREDIT: NICOLA GASTALDI, PAPER BOATS (2017), FROM THE 100 DAYS LOOPING GIF PROJECT (http://www.gasta.org/portfolio/gastaloops/).