Conscientious Objection-A Liberal Principle?

st paul's during the blitz

Following the fall of France in 1940 Britain remained the only European power at war with the Axis of Germany and Italy. Given that its foes had formidable military might and effective control of almost all of Western Europe the UK faced an existential crisis. Only a narrow channel and a few aeroplanes stood between Britain and invasion.  Faced with this situation the country was militarised and organised to an hitherto unprecedented level. Yet in the midst of all this it remained possible for individual British citizens to register as conscientious objectors and opt out of involvement in the defence of the nation. Thousands indeed did so, most notably perhaps Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

No tyranny, of course, would tolerate such a category under any circumstances let alone in time of war. In that era however making such provisions was considered to be a key defining category for a liberal democracy. It was one of the things that made them morally superior to dictatorships. Majority rule on its own was insufficient, fascist and communist countries after all claimed that mandate for themselves. Freedom of speech, of the press and of assembly on their own were not enough either. It was necessary also to guarantee that no person would be compelled to act against their own deeply held and well formed conscientious principles except in circumstances more urgent and extreme than an attack by Nazi Germany.

Humans being what they are it happened that, in fact, many conscientious objectors (CO’s) were subject to persecution by local authorities and members of the public. In the light of subsequent events it is noteworthy that it was the Left that spoke out most strongly in support of the rights of CO’s. Dealing with questions about CO’s in broadcasting the Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “the rights which have been granted in this war and the last to conscientious objectors are well-known, and are a definite part of British policy. Anything in the nature of persecution, victimisation, or man-hunting is odious to the British people.(Hansard) That there were limits though he noted in typical Churchillian style “Very spirited renderings of “Deutschland Uber Alles” would hardly be permissible.”

Nor was this liberal opinion confined to the United Kingdom. In 1944 another world leader enunciated the same principle “State absolutism….consists in fact in the false principle that the authority of the state is unlimited and that in face of it… to appeal to a higher law obliging in conscience is not admitted.” (Democracy and a Lasting Peace) This builds on his earlier 1942 remarks on The Internal Order of States and People where he talked about “those perilous theories and practices…which derive their origin and promulgation from false postulates. Among such postulates We must count the juridical positivism which attributes a deceptive majesty to the setting up of purely human laws, and which leaves the way open for a fatal divorce of law from morality. There is, besides, the conception which claims for particular nations, or classes, the juridical instinct as the final imperative and the norm from which there is no appeal.” These liberal principles articulated by Pope Pius XII were applauded by the New York Times “Pope Pius expresses as passionately as any leader on our side the war aims of the struggle for freedom when he says that those who aim at building a new world must fight for free choice of government and religious order. They must refuse that the state should make of individuals a herd of whom the state disposes as if they were a lifeless thing.” (NYT Editorials)

In the West today, some 70 years later, however liberal voices often demand ‘one law for all.’ The premise being that once a law has been democratically decided upon it must be obeyed without any provision being made for conscientious objection. What has changed in the intervening decades? The West is under less threat than it was at any time between the years 1939 to 1989 when it faced first fascist and then communist totalitarianism. Liberals freed from the fear of external enemies seem to feel that internal opponents can be summarily dealt with. More profoundly, perhaps, earlier generations recognised that a conscientious conviction was something more substantial than a strongly held personal opinion. The contemporary idea that religion is a purely private matter appears to lead on to the further notion that religious or conscientious beliefs are exactly the same in type or intensity as any other belief about, say, the right colour of socks or whether the Oxford comma should be used.

To me, though, it seems that the opposition to providing opt-outs on the grounds of conscience is based more on a desire to hammer opponents over the head than on any thought through philosophical basis. If we consider the 1940’s UK again we will see that a democratically elected and accountable parliament upheld laws outlawing homosexual activity or abortion. Today’s liberals consider these to be unjust and uphold those who defied them such as Alan Turing as heroic figures. They might argue that expressing sexuality or having an abortion are necessities but having a conscience is a luxury so the cases aren’t compatible. However that might be if the point is conceded that even a single law democratically arrived at might be so unjust as to require honest people to break it then a principle is established. A liberal democracy must find ways to both ensure that its laws are enforced and that those with conscientious objections to them are not compelled to violate their consciences without overpoweringly good reasons for that compulsion.

The flashpoint for these debates today is often to do with new laws enacted on behalf of sexual minorities (LGBT.) The word most overlooked in these arguments is “new.” When a person has been employed to do a particular job, say preside over marriages, which is re-defined in ways they cannot conscientiously acquiesce to subsequent to them being employed then it seems reasonable to make provision for them to continue doing that job on the original basis. The State has an obligation to ensure that the law is complied with so it can bring in staff to perform the new tasks in cases where existing employees feel unable to do so. Additionally it can make as a condition of employment for new staff that they accept the new law. This will place a little inconvenience on service users and the State for a few years until all the old staff retire or move on but rather less inconvenience than Britain potentially faced in 1940 so it seems a small price to pay.

More troublesome perhaps is the provision of goods and services. To discriminate against individuals simply because they identifiably belong to a group of which the vendor of goods or services disapproves cannot be permissible. However, vendors are not obliged to sell goods to everyone who asks them. They might reasonably refuse to sell a baseball bat or a pot of glue to people whom they think will misuse them. One such ground of refusal should, I think, be the right not to be forced to express an opinion which one finds morally unacceptable. So, for example, a vegetarian printer could refuse to print copies of “Factory Farm Weekly” not because they are discriminating against farmers as a group or meat eaters as a group but because they think factory farming is abhorrent. What they couldn’t do is refuse in principle to do work of any kind for the Factory Farm Association.

Liberal opponents of conscientious objection often suggest that anyone can state that they have such an objection when they are ‘just bigots.’ Or people can establish groups at the drop of a hat and claim exemptions from any law they don’t like. This harks back to the inability to distinguish between a conscience and an opinion. Only those can claim conscientious objection who can also demonstrate clearly what that objection is. That is, it needs to be coherent and it needs to rest upon premises which a reasonable person would consider to be sufficient to justify the conclusions arrived at. So, for example, the British military authorities might think that the premises relied upon by Quakers or Jehovah’s Witnesses were absurd and positively dangerous to the State but they were nonetheless willing to accept that such premises genuinely believed in would lead to the conclusions arrived at. Even in the face of appalling danger respecting conscience was considered to be a greater priority than regimenting people. Perhaps we can learn from them.

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2 thoughts on “Conscientious Objection-A Liberal Principle?

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  1. Quite wonderful! i came across your blog looking for a well-put description of what USED to be the liberal position on conscientious objection. I was delighted, after quoting you and posting, to read further down the page and learn that you are Catholic; further, that you espouse the “oddity” of social conservativism and economic and ecological liberality – not odd, but consistent with the Faith.
    I wish you had addressed the enthronement of the god Suicide that seem to be going on currently, most especially in Belgium.
    Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

    (Save hte Liturgy, Save the World)


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