Why We Should Respect Someone Else’s Conscience

The scene is from C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.  The callow young sociology professor, Mark Studdock, an atheist and a social climber, has been detained in a cubicle deliberately fashioned with odd annoying angles and not-quite-right pictures on the wall.  His detainers aim to break down in him any last sense of the inner harmony between beauty and the moral good, or even between ordinary presentability and decency.  The fight is for the man’s soul.

His instructor presents him with a crucifix and asks him to tread upon it.  It’s a meaningless act, he says.  It isn’t a man, only a cheap piece of carved wood.  There is no moral import to it.  But something in the young man recoils.  He does not believe there was anything special about Jesus.  As far as he knows, Jesus was only a man condemned to a shameful death by his enemies, on a trumped-up political charge.  And all of Jesus’ friends abandoned him on Calvary, and all of the intellectual people that matter to him in England have long abandoned him too.  But for that very reason, to tread upon the crucifix seems base.  Why add that last small act of shaming to all the rest?  The still small voice speaks to him, saying, “This would be foul, petty, ignoble.  You must not do this.”  If he complies, as far as he knows, his career is made.  If he refuses, his career is shot.  He’s a married man, and he’s ambitious, and he needs the money.  It’s only a piece of wood.  The meaning of his life hangs in the balance.  Nor can we ever be sure that a man who betrays so clear a prohibition issued by his conscience will be given that choice again, to undo the evil.

He refuses.

These days in our political and even ecclesiastical battles we hear a great deal about the primacy of the conscience, but almost nothing about what the conscience is and why we should care, not about our own conscience, but about someone else’s.  Robert George, in his new book Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism (ISI Books), aims to supply the lack.  He reminds us that conscience is, to use Newman’s words, a “stern monitor,” not, as David Hume asserts, much to the comfort of adolescents everywhere, the ratiocinative faculty by which we construct “justifications” for what we wanted to do (or to get out of doing) in the first place.  Rather, the conscience warns us of what we must do and of what we must not do.  “The duty to follow conscience,” George writes, “is a duty to do things or refrain from doing things not because one wants to follow one’s duty but even if one strongly does not want to follow it.  The right of conscience is a right to do what one judges oneself to be under obligation to do, whether one welcomes the obligation or must overcome strong aversion to fulfill it.”


Robert George covIn other words, as George notes, conscience is not a “permissions department.”   It commands and proscribes; and that’s why we spend so much effort trying to circumvent it, muddle it, or stifle it altogether.  Mark Twain gives us a humorous instance of it when Huck Finn must decide whether to rat on the runaway slave Jim or to protect him.  Huck “knows,” in an exterior way, from common chatter, that the “right” thing to do would be to betray his friend and profit by it, but something deep inside him tells him no, and so he too refuses, even though he figures that he’ll probably end up in hell for it.

When someone says, “I may do this, because my conscience doesn’t forbid me,” he is treating an absence as a presence.  He feels no command or proscription, and transmutes that insensibility into a proof that what he wants is permissible.  But that doesn’t follow.  It may be morally permissible; it may be downright virtuous; but it may be wicked.  Many an SS officer’s conscience was comfortably silent on the issue of slaughtering Jews.  People steeped in evil may even hug themselves for the benefits their evil confers upon mankind.  So it is that snuffing out the lives of unborn children, in the minds of some, is more than permissible: it is a great and glorious good, to be celebrated with cake and icing.  Conscience can be unformed or deformed; conscience does not determine what is good or evil, but must hearken to the truth of the matter, even if the person cannot articulate just why he must do what he would prefer to leave undone, or why he must not do what he would dearly like to do.

We are not obliged to respect a man’s permission slips.  We are not obliged to throw the hedonist his party.  We are not obliged to buy the adolescent’s toys, or even to stock our shelves with them.  Indeed, when someone asserts that he ought to be allowed to do something because he wants to do it, and because he doesn’t hear the voice of conscience warning against it—he wants to use cocaine, he and his enemy want to engage in a duel, he likes pornography—we needn’t give much standing to his feelings.  His permission slip puts the matter on the table, that’s all.  We need to ask about the nature of what he wants, whether it is indeed morally neutral, or virtuous, or vicious, whether allowing it conduces to the common good.  But it is a different matter entirely when that man’s monitor does speak, “Thou shalt!” and “Thou shalt not!”

Why is that?  Is it because then his preferences or repugnancies are especially strong?  Your dog may have a strong desire to snitch food from a guest’s plate, but we aren’t overriding his conscience when we keep him from doing it.  He may have a strong aversion against going outside in the pouring rain to do his business, but we aren’t shackling his moral sensibility when we make him go out anyway.  That’s because the dog is not a moral agent.  He does not apprehend the good and internalize it, making it his own, allowing it to inform his choices, to build his personality.  We might say that he knows “rules” but not law.

But man is a moral agent.  That isn’t just something accidental to man, as for instance that he has five fingers on a hand and not six.  It is essential to his being.  It isn’t just Christians who believe that.  All the great pagans did also.  It’s why the poet Hesiod says that the Muses, daughters of Zeus, grant to the man they favor the wisdom to craft straight judgments—we might say beautiful judgments, right verdicts—and the eloquence to persuade others of their rightness.

To forbid someone to do what his conscience commands him to do, or, worse still, to compel him to do what his conscience instructs him he must not do, is thus to work violence upon him at the core of his being.  It is not the same as when we restrain people from the evils that their consciences, dormant, silent, do not tell them they must not do, or when, more rarely and with a heavier burden of justification upon us, we compel them to do something which their consciences do not tell them they must do.  For then we are not violating an express decree of the conscience; we are supplying the lack of one.  We may even, but most rarely and with an extraordinarily heavy burden of justification, overrule another man’s conscience, not by compelling him, but by taking the reins ourselves and doing what he will not do; that’s the case when we give blood transfusions to infants in imminent danger of death, over the wishes of parents who object.

But no man has the right to require another to be less than a man, to demote him to the status of a non-moral agent, like a beast, or a cog in a machine.  No man may steal my humanity, by demanding treason against that stern monitor, my conscience.  But this is exactly what is happening before our eyes, in what used to be a free country.  We are demanding obeisance to and participation in things that until eleven o’clock last night almost everyone (and all Christians and observant Jews) believed to be evil, and believed it with strong reasons prescinding from the nature of man and from revelation.

The “enemies of conscience,” as Professor George calls them, simultaneously and incoherently deny the existence of moral truths that bind the conscience—other people’s consciences, while they reserve for themselves a moral right to bind and loose those other people, mechanically, pragmatically, to bring about some vague ideal society.  In such a world, everyone is a god or an ant, but not a man.  More to follow.

Editor’s note: The scene above shows Robert Shaw as Henry VIII and Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More in the 1966 film “A Man for All Seasons.”

Anthony Esolen


Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. Dr Esolen has authored several books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008), Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013).

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