Conscience, like most important concepts in the contemporary world, is widely misunderstood. In fact, its more popular usage is the perfect antithesis of what it really means. The world, being skeptical and not believing that one can know what is true, has disconnected conscience from the realm of the objective and has transferred it in the purely subjective.
Thus, a person declares that we cannot judge whether abortion is good or not in a particular situation and therefore we must leave the decision up to the conscience of the individual.
Once conscience is uprooted from the objective order, however, it is no longer “conscience,” but a guess — a shot in the dark. Even worse, it is a rationalization for expediency. “Conscience” in this sense, therefore, has paved the way for choosing contraception, sterilization, abortion, euthanasia and other objective disorders.
The etymology of the word conscience tells us that it means “with knowledge” (cum + scientia). Conscience does not constitute moral truth, but reflects it. It is a synthesis between knowledge of the objective order of being and my free decision to act morally in the face of that knowledge. There should no more be any rift between objective knowledge and my response as a subject to that knowledge as there is between light and the eye. The intrinsic harmony between light and the eye us captured by the very title of Pope John Paul II's encyclical on moral values, Veritatis Splendor (the splendor of the light of truth, which is naturally recognizable by the human faculty of reason).
It is in keeping with the freedom, nature and dignity of man that he is allowed to act in accordance with his objectively based conscience. This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience, especially in religious matters’” (No. 1782).
The citation within this statement is taken from the Second Vatican Council's Dignitatis Humanae — respecting conscience is consistent with respecting the dignity of the human person.
Why the Subjectivist Prefers the Dark
The subjectivized notion of conscience is shorn of any relationship with the truth. It is rooted in one's self-will, or one's ego. In this way, one might say, “anything goes.” Nonetheless, this is not the case. Those who form their “conscience” solely on the basis of willfulness naturally oppose those who are confident that conscience has an objective basis.
If conscience does have a basis in truth, then the position of the subjectivist is seriously challenged. Rather than admit that he may be morally wrong, he fiercely denies that his challenger can be objectively right. The subjectivist prefers to remain in the darkened world of his own ego, where he maintains his illusion of freedom, than to venture into a world of objective values that may prove him to be complicit in wrongdoing.
Plato has written about this in his Analogy of the Cave. It is a parable of education, he reminds us, that people who prefer the dark are sworn enemies of those who stand by the light.
This inversion that the subjectivization of conscience represents explains why “pro-choice” advocates are pro-choice about abortion, but not necessarily pro-choice about extending the right to choose to those who do not want to participate in abortion.
It is painfully ironic that the appeal to conscience, which was a significant factor in legalizing abortion and other immoralities, loses its force when used by pro-life advocates. A few examples:
Michelle Diaz was fired from her job at the Riverside Neighborhood “Health” Center in June of 1999 when she refused to sign a document requiring her to dispense to patients RU-486 and other abortifacient pills.
Elain Tramm was discharged from her post at a hospital in Valparaiso, Ind., for refusing to clean and prepare instruments used in performing abortions or handling fetal tissue after abortion procedures.
Lorraine Carbonneau was dismissed after five years as a full-time worker at a facility in North Bay, Ontario, because she would not counsel women for abortions or refer them to any pro-abortion counselor.
Karen L. Brauer lost her position as a pharmacist in Cincinnati because she refused to dispense contraceptives that function as abortifacients.
Dr. Everett Julyan was denied employment by North Glasgow Universities in Scotland because he had moral objections to participating in abortions.
An internal memo in a Calgary, Alberta, hospital, published by the Alberta Report, informed nurses that they would have to begin caring for aborting women, regardless of their own moral qualms.
Some Ontario hospitals require a nurse who is being considered for employment to consent to the following: “I further agree that my personal opinions, private or religious beliefs in respect to certain hospital procedures will not prevent me from carrying out my assigned duties and responsibilities.” “Certain hospital procedures” is a euphemism for abortions.
Pharmacists in Florida, Indiana, Washington and California have been reprimanded or fired for refusing to dispense abortifacient drugs.
The College of Pharmacists of British Columbia has demanded that conscientious objectors dispense abortifacient drugs or otherwise help the patient, even if this is contrary to their conscientious judgment.
Opinions vs. The Truth
For those interested in learning more about these cases and many others, consult http://www.consciencelaws.org Here .one will find the Web site of the Protection of Conscience Project. This effort is working to ensure that people not be coerced (or required to act contrary to their conscience) into participating in medical procedures such as abortion, artificial contraception, sterilization, artificial reproduction (in vitro fertilization, prenatal diagnosis, cloning, etc.), euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, various forms of human experimentation and so on.
In a 1992 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Prolife Perinatology — Paradox or Possibility?” the authors argue that only the moral skeptic should have a place in prenatal care. “If a physician cannot discuss issues of antenatal diagnosis with patients and present both viewpoints [abortion or birth], then it would be better for all concerned if he or she entered another field. Patients should not be subjected to one-sided arguments for or against antenatal diagnosis and the subsequent options.”
The article makes it clear that respecting people's moral opinions (whatever they may be) takes precedence over respecting the moral truth of the situation. This is just another instance of giving subjectivized conscience priority over a conscience that is formed in truth.
The authors go on to state: “Theoretically, pro-choice physicians will have less difficulty in counseling patients because they do not consider either the choice to abort or the choice to continue a pregnancy to be immoral.”
Again, indifference to the objective moral order has greater value than compliance with it. As a result, people who have a properly formed conscience become targets for discrimination.
Conscience will continue to be a major and dramatic issue in social life for some time. If the “liberal establishment” continues to contemn the views and actions of people who have a properly formed conscience, it will continue to operate in moral darkness, obliging its workers to function in an ethical vacuum, while rejecting those who represent truth, freedom and genuine human care.
We cannot have conscientious people unless we value conscience. By dismissing true conscience, we take a significant step in reducing the conscientious worker to a mere functionary, and civil society to a heartless bureaucracy.
Don DeMarco is a philosophy professor at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.