I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term “conscientious objector” – especially as it is used, to identify those entitled for exclusion from military service (whether in body or in wallet) on the basis of moral principles. I object to military service, on that basis, but I don’t have a conscience.
Phrases such as “Follow your conscience” and “Do what your conscience tells you” suggest that one’s conscience is a fixed sort of thing, an unchanging absolute. Indeed, it often sounds like one’s conscience is innate, something we’re born with. And something quite separate from us, a sort of homonculus, or at least an ‘inner voice’ (the voice of God?). Chomsky may have proven that there are innate structures of language in the human brain, but to date, to my knowledge, no one has proven there are, in the human brain, innate moral principles. Nor, despite a dictionary definition of conscience as “the moral sense of right and wrong”, has such a sixth (?) sense been established.
On the contrary, our ‘conscience’ is acquired: it is the collection of moral principles, or more accurately, since the acquisition occurs before we have the cognitive competence to handle principles, it is the collection of moral habits, that have been inculcated during childhood. So our conscience is dependent on our parents’ moral principles, or habits, and to some extent on the principles manifested by our community, our society. Our conscience amounts to nothing more than a moral reflex. We say “Examine your conscience”, but we do not intend a critical examination; rather, we mean a simple examination of discovery. We never say “Develop your conscience”‘ or, God forbid, “Reconsider your conscience”.
And yet surely that’s what our attitude toward moral principles should be: moral principles should not be inherited by indoctrination, but developed and maintained by careful, rational thought. I propose therefore that we replace the word “conscience” with “ethics” – “ethics” refers, of course, not to one’s ‘sense‘ but to one’s system (hopefully it’s a system, a coherent collection) of moral principles. And those of us who object, on ethical grounds, to military service, and are therefore granted exemption, should be called “ethical objectors.”
Now many people may be reluctant to replace ‘conscience’ with ‘ethics’ because, well, whose ethics? But that’s exactly the question that must be asked. And it should be asked of conscience as well. I suspect there’s a rather naive presumption of homogeneity with respect to conscience: when someone advises you to follow your conscience, my guess is that that person assumes you will choose to do the right thing, which is the same right thing he or she would do. But what if my conscience tells me to torture? What is the response to that – ‘Your conscience must be wrong’? Until we ask whose ethics, we’re avoiding the issue, skating on the thin ice of individual relativism, the very weakest of ethical systems: X is right because I think it’s right (I followed my conscience). It’s circular and most unhelpful: Why do you think it’s right? How do you come to that thought? What makes you think it’s right? (Where did you get your conscience from?)
The fear, of course, is that the question has no answer, that we will set ourselves adrift on a sea of cultural relativism. Not true: we’re capable of making anchors. We must confront the fact that we decide what’s right and wrong, and surely deciding consciously is better than deciding unconsciously. Surely it is better to identify and compare, to critique, to evaluate, to choose our moral principles. And then to act, and lobby, according to those principles, instead of merely according to our ‘conscience’.