Justifying your Conscience through Objection
“…conscience can also be conceived as a moral sense giving us direct access to moral principles. Understood in this way, conscience is typically seen as intuitive and influenced by emotions, rather than a reason-based faculty” — Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
In chapter six of Michael Walzer’s Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship he seeks to answer whether and in what circumstances there are grounds for conscientious objection and that given these grounds, do current restrictions focusing on religious purposes merely serve the benefit of the state. Walzer initially covers the history surrounding the concept of consciousness and how it posed no threat to the state as it was controlled via religious ideals. Following the protestant reformation, however, consciousness became an independent force having an intrinsic divine nature. Fo the first time in history, “conscience was profoundly separatist in character” (Walzer 122). Despite the new independence gained by man’s consciousness, it was still associated with the divine as it stemmed from the protestant idea of conscience. Walzer asks then, how is it that as time went on and the church and state separated, was the allowance on conscientious objection on religious terms accepted? He gives two reasons for this; first, the state realized it could accommodate objections from small, recognizable religious traditions without invoking a negative connotation on their, the states, political judgments, and legitimacy. Allowance under these terms was permissible as it was only a small percentage of the population they could rely on to object, and this objection posed no threat to their power. Second, they also realized that while they could function without religious support, not having an army would be unacceptable. Thus, objections under these pretenses could be acknowledged. In other words, protestant conscience provided the religious legitimacy necessary for it to be tolerated in societies following the protestant reformation. These traditions carried over into the development of the American constitution and bill of rights.
Walzer moves on to define conscience in more modern terms, describing it as “merely personal moral code” (128). This viewpoint was also taken by the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court when distinguishing religious from secular scruple. However, identifying consciousness as something “merely personal” weakens the grounds on which the objections are made. They are no longer backed by long-standing religious beliefs founded in a community; instead, they represent the individual’s ideas on a stand-alone basis. To Walzer, this incapacitates the functioning of an individual’s objections and, in turn, compromises their beliefs. This draws attention to the idea that it is only in the shared views of a group that one’s morals and objections find legitimacy in the state’s eyes. Nevertheless, the state cares only for its security and legitimacy, and as such, it is not the differences between groups or individuals that are paramount, but rather how their objections weigh against threats to such categories. Once these objections are recognized, how do they gain a firm footing to stand against political processes written in the pretenses of separation of religion and state? Walzer believes that footing can be found in Cohen’s definition of conscience as “personal governing principles to which a man is ultimately committed” (129). This provides a secular base for consciousness because the objection represents political pluralism in a democratic society (132).
Consequently, if objections made outside of a community are considered legitimate, how is the state to justify political processes that pertain to the masses? Walzer believes the answer is simple, the state must evaluate the consequences of conscientious objection and whether those objections threaten the political aspects of security and legitimacy. In these situations, it may be the case that objections will not be granted. Given this argument, it follows that these political decisions would create state enforcers of the law to which citizens now face subjugation, as is the case of mandatory military service. On the one hand, this military service may be viewed as a necessity to defend against an imminent threat, and it is in these circumstances, Walzer believes conscription is justified. On the other hand, it may also be viewed as necessary for the state to allow the refusal of such compulsory service, not based on the moral convictions of a community or individual, but rather to maintain the quality of the state’s democratic values. In other words, relinquishing the requirements of compulsory services to the state may serve as a means to legitimize their standing with their citizens further and, as such, poses no threat to the aforementioned areas of utmost importance to a state: security and legitimacy. Thus, Walzer believes that provided a cause is just, democratic, and does not undermine the state’s political processes, the refusal of service via conscientious objection is justified. Nevertheless, exemptions that arise from conscientious objection should be equally available to all groups; otherwise, the state may face resentment from those not granted exemptions and see the legitimacy of their democratic establishment questioned. This brings us to Walzer’s final question, whether it is the case that conscription is even democratic. Since limiting objections to a small community poses a threat to those not granted exemptions on the grounds of having to choose between conscience and justice, it thus imposes on the legitimacy of democratic ideals of freedom and violates the first principle under Rawls principles of justice as fairness (144). Walzer believes the best possible solution is to avoid conscription whenever necessary, barring national emergencies (144). This understanding of conscience does not require toleration through exemption, but rather a freedom to exercise choice based on it being independent of religious or state-held constraints and able to act with minimal restraint and not merely dispensation (144). It seems that through objection, one may be justified in so much as it follows from their conscience and moral beliefs. Under these circumstances, is it even required, though, to justify one's actions? Or is it the case the state should question their imposed obligations?
Walzer, Michael. Obligations: Essays on disobedience, war, and citizenship. Harvard University Press, 1970.
“Conscience (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 11 Feb. 2021, plato.stanford.edu/entries/conscience/#:%7E:text=As%20well%20as%20merely%20witnessing,than%20a%20reason%2Dbased%20faculty.