Why does conscience matter? We all have different preferences, likes and dislikes, and they may say something about us. Stands, though, made on grounds of conscience, seem to be in an altogether different category. Conscientious objectors in time of war may, at great personal cost and against the judgement of those around them, refuse to fight. Not simply because they find the thought of killing distasteful. They also believe it to be utterly wrong, whatever the circumstances. Such a conscientious stand is not a judgement about a government’s policy. To be a matter of conscience, it must be moral judgement, drawing on beliefs about the nature of the world and the place of humans in it. Conscientious refusals to do something will always be connected with serious issues that go to the heart of what we believe about human life.
Why should we respect those who refuse to go with the majority? Should not there be one law for everyone, with no exceptions? Otherwise, people can pick and choose which laws to observe, and society would sink into chaos. This, though, ignores the process by which we in society come to agree on the standards by which we live. Democracy is only necessary as a system because we are continually faced with disagreement. We need to decide how to live together, and to do that we have to draw on the many differing conceptions of the common good that arise. That is all the more true in a pluralist society, like ours, where there can be basic disagreement about the nature of human beings, and, in particular, whether this world is all there is, or whether humans should be answerable to some transcendent reality. Religions give different visions of how we should live and what our priorities should be. They disagree about what is true, and are not just reflecting the subjective whims of individuals.
In a democracy, we cannot hope finally to settle such profound disputes, but we should be in no doubt that they are important. If, for instance, to revert to the case of the pacifist, we have a strong belief in the sanctity of human life, stemming from a religious conception that it is God-given, that, if true, is a matter that affects us all. Silencing those who wish to bear witness to such a belief deprives all of us of a potentially important insight. There is at the moment a growing and distressing tendency for many, even in universities, to silence those who disagree with them and to deny their right to voice an alternative position. The fact that they may be offended by other views seems to be enough to make them want to make sure those views are not heard. When people make a stand on conscience that is unpopular, it is a mistake in a democratic society to silence them, or to suggest they have no right to such beliefs. The pacifist witness to the importance of human life may be saying something important, even to those who feel that they have to fight a war.
The pacifist witness to the importance of human life may be saying something important, even to those who feel that they have to fight a war
In On Liberty (1859) John Stuart Mill says that ‘all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility’. He argues that if someone is silenced when they wish to express an opinion, or, we may add, coerced when they try to make a conscientious stand, the rest of us, if the silenced or coerced is right, can be denied an opportunity for escaping from error into truth. If he or she is wrong, Mill says, we are then unable to have a livelier impression of truth, which might come to us precisely because of its collision with error. Those who make such stands of conscience are often giving voice to positions that should be heard. In a democracy, minorities can become majorities. The tyranny of the majority can undermine the very nature of democracy and its search for the best way of living together.