Conscience and Refusal
My recent column on conscientious refusal is not behind the firewall, but available to all. I ended the column by saying that the whole issue of conscience in a pluralistic society needs a lot more conceptual work. Leaving aside the pragmatic questions facing us now (what to do about the Bush regulations), there are hard theoretical questions to think about, which may have pragmatic implications down the road. Here is one that I’m puzzling about, which I also hinted at in the column.
To what degree does making a claim of conscience in a pluralistic society involve a reciprocal obligation to respect other people’s consciences on the same issue? If I claim protection as a pro-life doctor not to be interfered with in my decision not to perform abortions because I have concluded conscientiously that they count as homicide, to what degree to I owe respect to your decision as a pro-choice doctor to perform abortions because you have conscientiously concluded that they are not homicide? And if I say, “well, you have to respect my conscience because it’s in line with the moral truth, but I don’t have to respect yours, because, well, you’re not in accordance with truth, and you’re harming an innocent third party,” to what degree has the ground shifted from respect for conscience to respect for truth?
Joe K., this one’s for you, too, by analogy: In the pre-Vatican II Church, the Church’s position was that we ought to receive the protections of freedom of conscience in situations where Catholics were the minority, but seek to establish Catholicism in cases where we were in the majority. In the pre-Vatican II Church, conscience was not the trump–religious truth was. Catholics should receive the protections of conscience clauses when in the minority because, well, the Catholic religion was true. What about the consciences of non-Catholics when Catholics were in the majority? Not so much–error has no rights.
But once we shift to protecting conscience, rather than truth, things change. J.C. Murray. Error has no rights, but the conscientious person grasping at truth, even erroneously, does. We now claim respect for own religious consciences, but also give respect to the religious consciences of others.
But if we switch to the moral realm, this doesn’t work as well. If you look at the pro-life movement, and the anti-gay-marriage movement, it’s clear that their appeals to conscience are strategic. In power, ban abortion and gay marriage, out of power, claim conscience protections. Moral error has no rights.
Now, this switch-off in stance stance is entirely understandable–people are fighting about what counts as the common good, and about the fate of innocent life. But it raises the question–is “respect for conscience” even the right framework to think through moral questions involving questions of justice? Or in the moral realm, unlike in the religious realm, are we always going to end up arguing about respect for truth?