During the Nuremberg trials, a sticky subject came up regarding the duties of the individual to his “conscience” and to the legitimate authorities over him respectively. “Would you do X if you were ordered to do it by your commanding officer?” The “right” answer was “no.” Everyone wanted to believe he/she was a strong and upstanding enough individual to withstand the pressure to “do wrong” even if that pressure came from the most powerful quarters. It felt pretty safe for us Americans to make such a claim. We were never going to be ordered to throw any Jews into a gas chamber like those “Huns” over in Germany.
Ah, those days of innocence. Since then, we have had Mai Lai, discovered (or rather, faced) the atrocities practiced by our forebears on the indigenous native population of our “homeland” and realized that there certainly can be a divide between duty to conscience and duty to society. Some Americans actually took a heroic stand against what “legitimate” authority dictated. We know them as traitors or heroes depending on our political perspective. I’m talking about people like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn of the Weather Underground who committed acts of civil disobedience, lived underground for years and finally surfaced to face prison. Those who admire their actions are particularly proud of the fact that they never faltered in their convictions and are still as unblemished by compromise as ever. Others of that ilk include Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Daniel Ellsberg, etc. Their courage was such that they faced real consequences for acts based on their conviction that they were doing the right thing. All of these people are controversial. Expecting Nazis to stand up to authority is one thing. Evaluating the same thing when the authority being stood up to is that of our own society is something else. A similar issue was raised when some people wanted to charge members of the Bush administration of war crimes but couldn’t quite agree who was to blame. I thought it was obviously the leadership but the people obeying orders were all too often seen in the hot seat. It brings back memories of how disdainful we all were at Eichmann’s “I was only following orders” excuse.
It seems unreasonable to expect someone who is legally and even “morally” expected to obey legitimate authority to go against the current. Most people are not heroes. They just want to get along. We are taught all our lives that obedience is right. “The policeman is your friend,” we were told. Society is and always has been hierarchical. Decisions are made by those on top. Even in a democracy, the people vote in their authorities but then are supposed to obey them. By what right do we dare defy authority?
So far, I have only discussed people whose defiance of authority I agree with. But there is another group of people whose claims of conscience strike a decidedly discordant note. These people are primarily members of the Christian right. Their “conscience” prompts them to refuse to sell the “morning after” pill even though they are working in a drug store and that is one of their duties. Their “conscience” forbids the issuing of a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Half a million Christians signed the 2009 Manhattan Declaration stating:
Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.
There are even soldiers on active duty who vow to defy their commanding officers when and if they are given orders that violate their conscience. The United States was founded on the basis of defiance of authority and freedom of conscience. Ironically, this “defiance” was usually based on obedience to a “higher authority,” that is “God.” Since “divine authority” cannot be false, and, since there are a variety of religious credos, preaching contradictory religious ideologies, religion in command has historically lead to bloody conflict. The American founding fathers hoped to avoid this conflict by making the government religion-neutral. With a variety of religions and democracy, a king could no-longer declare “his” country Catholic or Protestant or Gnostic (for that matter). To be a good Frenchman and obey the dictates of the Catholic version of “God,” was one in the same. Of course a non-Catholic in France was in the same position as our modern-day heretics, taking upon themselves to decide what is right and what is wrong.
While this self-righteous faction styles itself as defenders of religious freedom, true religious freedom depends on plurality which, in turn, requires a secular society that remains neutral on the subject of religion.
“Conscience” is a powerful concept that individuals who want to go against the grain call upon for their legitimacy. With conscience on their side, these mavericks make themselves equal to the entirety of society. Thus, conscience is really a stunning aid to grandiosity. With conscience on his side, the individual crowns himself King. Of course, as Americans, we are all supposed to be sovereign in a sense. But we are not supposed to enjoy the kind of sovereignty that a nation has. Every nation defends it’s sovereignty by war or alliance with other sovereign nations. But the concept of democracy implies that the legitimacy of government power over it’s subjects is only as great as the people (the individuals) allow it to be. So true sovereignty can only reside in the individual, himself.
Conscience is defined as the ability to know right from wrong. So it begs the question. It’s not about conscience so much as it’s about “right and wrong.” Where do these things come from? Some say “God” which takes us right back to the age-old problem of determining which “god” is the true one. More modern thinkers place it in the concept of empathy. I guess the idea is that “right” and “wrong” come from connection to others. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I think understanding of “right” and “wrong” can also be derived from a sense of balance, fairness, a system based on everyone being treated in accordance to an even, equitable set of rules. In fact, that is where I derive my own sense of right and wrong. Not that I have always acted “fairly” towards fellow human beings. I guess a sense of connection is probably a necessary part of having a conscience.
Do We Really Need Morality?
Seriously. People with a lot of power are less likely to behave “morally” towards those not in their own social circle. Societies that embrace inequality, severely class-driven societies expect people of high rank to treat each other with some code of morality but don’t extend that expectation to other classes (nor to other species). I think a lot of morality is based on the idea of reciprocity. I support fairness because I want to be treated fairly. The Golden Rule again. If society embraces fairness, I am more likely to be treated fairly.
Entitlement by Conscience
This society is very pluralistic in many ways. There are all varieties of religion as well as atheism and agnosticism. There are different levels of commitment to morality. There are different levels of empathy. We have the rule of law to make sure “your freedom to move your fist is limited by the proximity of my face.” As long as we abide by the law, we manage to bump along without too much discord. Many Americans don’t agree with the laws of the land. Some protest. Some commit civil disobedience. Some just by-step the laws by breaking laws such as those on drugs and sex.
It is the most conscience-driven individuals who display the most grandiose and entitled behavior. That is because they are not only acting for their own benefit. They are acting altruistically on behalf of others. The fact that they are acting for someone else’s welfare seems to give altruistically inclined individuals the most entitlement. We see this in the animal-rights and in the anti-abortion movements. Would terrorists have murdered doctors for their own benefit? Probably not. But for the sake of others, in this case, animals, it’s justified. A popular Vlogger on You-Tube, Freelee, the Banana Girl, has actually said that people should be forced to go vegan. Those who quit the vegan lifestyle and go back to eating meat don’t deserve to live.
This may be the difference between psychopaths and narcissists. A psychopath is more likely to live and let live as long as we have what we want. Narcissists are more likely to lead messianic movements for the greater glory of mankind, animals and the planet. As a psychopath, I am all for the rights of the individual. After all, I have an officially “anti-social” personality. But I don’t have a conscience that informs me that I have the right or the darma to force my ideas on you.
Individual or Society?
Both have legitimate claims and most people would agree some kind of balance is necessary. But how to balance the rights of each? Where the individual has unlimited freedom, anarchy reigns. Libertarianism stresses individual rights but contradicts that principle when it comes to protecting property. Business practices by which one acquires property should be unhampered but, once the property is owned, the State must protect it. Our American society is more heavily balanced on the side of the general welfare than on the side of individualism. Business practices are heavily regulated, even individual decisions that only impact the person making the decision (such as drug use) are considered the province of the State.
Where do I stand? I am a total libertarian on “social” issues like drug use and “vice.” Where the economy is concerned, I don’t think the state should try to be laissez-faire unless it wants to be laissez-faire about property “rights.” If the “right” to own property is protected by the armed might of the State, the way that property is used in so far as it affects others should also be regulated. That said, I think a bit more freedom would be a good thing. The fact that I can buy things from China that are forbidden me by my own government, inclines me to move more to the side of liberty.
The individual in a democracy has the absolute right to all the information he can get. In fact, democracy would be a joke without it. So the whistle-blowers should be exonerated with the apologies of the over-zealous security fanatics in the government. “Armed propaganda” in the form of blowing up buildings is illegal, of course, as I’m sure even the activists would concede. What these activists want is a radical change of direction in American policy which is not an issue of individuality but one of society as a whole. What about the drug store pharmacist who doesn’t want to sell morning after pills? It’s a private store and I don’t think the State should be too controlling of every business decision of a retail store. I say, let the store owner decide but allow him absolute right to fire insubordinate employees. I know that it would make life difficult for people in certain parts of the country where too many individuals’ consciences prompt them to deny freedom to other individuals, exercising a petty tyranny. A price we must pay. Let the morning after pill be sold online in sufficient quantities that people who might need it will have it on hand. Terrorism against abortion providers must be cracked down on heavily. If these doctors are not in fear for their lives, they might want to open a practice where there is virtually no service available. Planned Parenthood, of course, should be funded and encouraged.
This country has always been dialectical. That is, a dynamic combination of opposites pulling in different directions. Given the minds of the present population, that is probably the place it needs to be until for the time being.
- When Should Christians Engage in Civil Disobedience? The Gospel Coalition
- When the Exception Is the Rule: Christianity in the Religious Freedom Debates.
- Empathy vs. Conscience; NTs Don’t Get it. Wrong Planet Autism Community Forum
- Empathy Without Conscience; Conscience Without Empathy? Discussion on PsychForums for ASPD.
- Conscience and Empathy. by Jorge Philosophy Forums
- Prairie Fire. Manifesto of the Weather Underground.
- Breaking Ranks: Dissent and Military Professional. Andrew R. Milburn