Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

The Normative Significance of Conscience

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

The Normative Significance of Conscience

Article excerpt

MEMBERS OF LIBERAL SOCIETIES respect conscience. They generally consider it wrong to force another to do something she thinks is morally odious. John Rawls asserts, "the question of equal liberty of conscience is settled. It is one of the fixed points of our considered judgments of justice" (1971: 206). In this paper, we attempt to explain why liberty of conscience is a fixed point, or, why conscience has normative significance. Our answer, which draws on the resources of the contractualist tradition in moral philosophy, is not only of interest in its own right, but also clarifies a number of practical questions concerning the legal protection of conscience. We begin in section 1 by developing a definition of conscience and explaining what it means to violate conscience. In section 2, we criticize three attempts to explain the normative significance of conscience, including Martha Nussbaum's recent defense. In section 3, we develop a contractualist explanation of the normative significance of conscience that we believe can remedy the defects in the accounts assessed in section 2 and ground a norm of respect for conscience. In section 4, we conclude.

1. What Is Conscience?

Conscience is a faculty of moral reasoning. When John asserts that, say, his conscience requires pacifism, he acknowledges pacifism as a deliverance of this moral faculty. It is often claimed that an intervention, such as conscripting John to fight in a war, violates his conscience. However, if conscience is a faculty of moral reasoning, this standard way of speaking is misleading since it is unclear how a faculty can be violated. We would do better to say that violating John's conscience means to force him to act contrary to his judgments. Therefore, we should rather say that John's freedom of action is restricted when he is forced to do something that contravenes some deliverance of his conscience. The claim that "conscripting John for military service violates his conscience" is simply shorthand for the idea that conscription would violate John because his faculty of moral reasoning delivered the judgment that it is wrong for him to kill people. Shorthands like this are useful and we may use them in the discussion that follows. When we do use them, however, keep in mind that violations of conscience are violations of a person, rather than a faculty or a judgment.

Many understand conscience as a faculty of perception, but we want to avoid the implication that conscience is a faculty that perceives an external moral reality. Such a view has figured prominently in the history of philosophy, and we will discuss it in section 2, but here we propose a definition of conscience that is neutral between views that understand conscience as a basic perceptual faculty that directly or immediately receives information about moral reality and views that understand conscience subjectively, as a faculty of reasoning where moral judgments are mediated through other beliefs and attitudes of the agent. To define conscience as a basic perceptual faculty would be to endorse a substantive characterization against subjective interpretations in our definition and preclude an assessment of more recent understandings of conscience.

Conscience is not implicated in all moral judgments. Rather, it is the human faculty that delivers judgments that lie at the core of one's moral judgments. To understand the idea of a core moral judgment, consider a moral judgment that is clearly not a dictate of conscience. Brody judges that he should not go into the office this particular Sunday. His family has been complaining that he spends too much time working, so he feels guilty and concludes that he ought to stay home. This conclusion is a moral judgment, but were his boss to require that he come to the office on Sunday, we should not say that Brody's boss violated his conscience. Suppose, however, that John is a practicing Christian who believes that God has set apart Sundays for worship and rest. …

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