Liberal democracies attempt to accommodate conscientious objections without having a clear understanding of the claims of conscience. This might lead to an Antigone claim, when conscience is irreconcilable with state authority. In this essay, I sketch three different models of conscience: a knowledge-based model where conscience gives priority access to moral norms; an emotional model that treats conscience as a natural capability that alerts us to wrongdoing; and a reflection model that argues that conscience works as our inner tribunal. Each model presents a different challenge to political authority. The conflict becomes tragic in Antigone’s sense only when conscience is portrayed as providing knowledge of moral norms. The other two models can be squared with political authority in various ways, but they do not offer a final case for the authority of conscientious claims; at best, they show that political authorities should hear conscientious claims and engage with them in public deliberation. Conscience thus reconstructed can provide a constructive function in any society a) by holding political authorities to account; b) by forcing them to provide reasons for their actions; and, ultimately, c) by refining our deliberative and adjudicative practices to make sure that action is always anchored to truth.
Claims of conscientious objection are on the rise in Western liberal democracies. Not only do people object to military service or to performing abortions, but they now also claim the right to be exempted from providing services to a particular class of people. This is not a good symptom: historically, the rise of conscience goes hand in hand with the decline of political authority. C. A. Pierce noted that: “It is clear that conscience only came into its own in the Greek world after the collapse of the city-state. The close integration of politics with ethics, with the former predominant, was no longer possible: there was no sufficiently close authority, external to the individual, effectively to direct conduct.” The examples of this predicament could be multiplied: the Corinthians rebelled against St. Paul by appealing to their conscience. Martin Luther spurred a protestant revolt against the Roman Catholic Church by appealing to conscience. Conscientious claims signal a deep disagreement with established authority. If conscientious claims become widespread, they might help undermine the established political order.
How can we accommodate claims of conscience in liberal democracies? This question presents various challenges: First, we need to grapple with the nature of conscientious claims. Second, we need to understand the structure of the conflict between authority and conscience. Third, we need to assess the moral authority of conscience. To do so, I map out the terrain in order to tentatively figure out what one might mean when one speaks about conscience and what that entails with regard to the conflict between law and conscience. Once the mapping is complete, I argue that conscientious objections do not entail a right to be exempted, but they do entail a right to be heard. I conclude by putting forward an alternative theory of how conscience could contribute to the search of truth in law and public policy.
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