Danielle van Dalen

By Danielle van Dalen - 11/02/2020

Danielle van Dalen

By Danielle van Dalen -

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The peril of overriding personal conscience

One of the non-blockbuster films of the summer is Terrence Malick’s latest project A Hidden Life. It’s based on the true story of a young Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler when he was conscripted in the Second World War. The result was his execution. Franz’s story is an extreme yet timely reminder of the value of person’s individual conscience, and the importance of conscientious objection in free society.

It allows employers to refuse to hire, to fire, or even offer the employee “less favourable conditions of employment” if their conscientious objection would “unreasonably disrupt the employer’s activities.”

These days, conscientious objection is most often applied to questions of medical ethics. Issues like euthanasia and abortion loom large in our current public conversation, with Parliament currently considering changes to our abortion legislation, and the End of Life Choice Act 2019 going to public referendum in September. Both pieces of legislation currently include conscientious objection clauses allowing medical professionals to conscientiously object, however, the Abortion Legislation Bill in particular is not strong enough. It allows employers to refuse to hire, to fire, or even offer the employee “less favourable conditions of employment” if their conscientious objection would “unreasonably disrupt the employer’s activities.”

While I don’t work in the medical profession, I’ve spoken with medical practitioners who are concerned about this legislation requiring them to act against their own moral code or conscience for fear of losing their livelihood.

In contrast, there are a number of people who would argue that conscientious objection is unjustified. They argue that professional obligations, especially when choosing to join a profession, should trump the value that might justify conscience. That is, a doctor who has chosen her profession has also chosen to have a responsibility to her patients and to deliver the procedure they’re asking for, whether they morally object to it or not, (tellingly, not much is said about those doctors who chose their profession when the law didn’t allow the procedures they object to).

They argue that professional obligations, especially when choosing to join a profession, should trump the value that might justify conscience.

And yet, the desire to protect conscience is nothing new. The early Christian apologist Tertullian, for example, claimed conscientious objection is necessary because it’s impossible to force someone to believe something. Instead, “all we can do is compel people to act as if they believed something, which would be hypocritical behaviour.” John Locke, a founding father of liberalism, argued that there is always the possibility “that what we conscientiously believe is wrong and that those holding conscientious beliefs opposite to ours are right.” This means we can’t force others into actions that might be morally wrong.

The importance of protecting conscientious objection has also been explained as an “essential manifestation of freedom. When a person’s right to act according to his conscience is removed, his freedom is curtailed, and more so when it involves serious matters.”

This means we can’t force others into actions that might be morally wrong.

While being fired from your job isn’t the same threat of force faced by Franz Jägerstätter, we need to take seriously any serious incursion on people’s ability to conscientiously object in good faith in our society. With the End of Life Choice Act 2019 and the Abortion Legislation Bill steadily moving toward law, we should be aware of how they may affect the people tasked with implementing them.

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Danielle van Dalen

By Danielle van Dalen -

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