Rights of Conscience
CONVENORS: Angus Menuge, Barry Bussey
Central to human dignity and to intellectual, moral, and religious liberty are rights of conscience. Thus, one may conscientiously object to military service, or to the provision of medical treatments and procedures (e.g. abortifacient drugs or therapies for sexual orientations) on moral or religious grounds. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights directly refers to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” The idea is that it debases human dignity to make people affirm creeds they do not believe or perform actions which they believe to be profoundly wrong.

Yet it is hardly controversial that rights of conscience face serious challenges from a number of quarters. Some argue that appeals to conscience can serve as a means of legislating intolerance by trampling on the autonomy of those with a different worldview. Why should pro-lifers have the right to impose their conscience on the pro-choice? Others argue that the common good trumps rights of conscience, and that human flourishing requires us to focus on collective goals, not private convictions. Thus, some deny even the right to oppose lockdowns, or argue that those with conscientious objections to the Covid-19 vaccine should still be vaccinated. And some point out that the conscience is unreliable and cannot be used to discover universal truths, since consciences conflict and can be seriously deficient (e.g. those of psychopaths).

This workshop seeks to clarify the nature, scope, and limits of rights of conscience. Participants may address such questions as the following:
(1) Can the conscience be distinguished from mere autonomy and license?
(2) Are there principled reasons for recognizing a right to conscience that do not entail moral anarchy?
(3) When, and to what degree, should rights of conscience be recognized in decisions impacting liberty of thought, speech, and action?
(4) When, and for what reasons, can rights of conscience be overridden by other rights or principles?
(5) How do rights of conscience apply to the decisions of lawyers and judges?
(6) How do rights of conscience apply to contests between the identity of religious schools and demands to recognize alternative lifestyles?
(7) What progress can be made in recognizing rights of conscience in the law, e.g. through conscience clauses and informed consent laws?
(8) Are rights of conscience properly understood and respected in contemporary policies related to Covid-19?
(9) What are the leading historical and contemporary cases where conscience has been recognized and vindicated or dismissed and debased? What can we learn from these cases, and what is the best way forward?