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Conscience Matters

Paul A.

 A prevalent idea of conscience minimizes its claims by treating it as only one thing among others that the practitioner must take into account in deciding how to act.  This view trivializes the very concept of conscience and renders it incoherent.

 As Christian social workers come under increasing pressure to cooperate with evil in the name of professional duty, the question of conscience becomes correspondingly urgent.  Recent statements from NASW, its executive director (May 2012 NASW News – http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/news/2012/05/spring-and-danger.asp) and its Legal Defense Fund, make it clear that our professional organization will not defend the conscience rights of its own members when policies they support are involved. 

 Opponents of Christian orthodoxy, the adherents of a rival orthodoxy of secular liberalism (see Robert P. George on The Clash of Orthodoxies) have become increasingly aggressive and intolerant of dissent on matters of life, death, sexual morality and marriage.  At the same time they dismiss the claims of conscience or appeals to religious liberty, the country’s first freedom and a key defense against an overweening assertion of state power.

 Christian social workers who adhere to professional (Hippocratic) ethics and to Christian teaching as understood for millennia are in a tight spot.  We face growing demands to subordinate our “personal” consciences to professional “duty.”  Conscience in this view is only one value among others and must be left at the office door when duty calls.  At least, as it is put in one formulation, professional duty trumps personal conscience. 

 But this peculiar account of conscience runs counter to the traditional understanding of the term, according to which conscience is the supreme and final arbiter for an individual’s actions precisely because it represents the agent’s best ethical judgment all things considered.  All things here must include considerations of what the agency or the state or professional codes of ethics tell us our duty is.  It could never be right to act against one’s own conscience.  It is hard to see how a notion of conscience as one value among others from which a professional should choose could be other than incoherent. On what ethical basis could such a choice be made?  What is to be counted after everything has been counted?

 Following one’s conscience is a necessary but not sufficient condition of acting well.  We must follow our conscience because it is the highest guide in us but our conscience may be badly formed.  Karl Jaspers gave the example of a young German concentration guard he met in hospital at the end of WWII – the man’s conscience tortured him still because he let a Jewish boy escape instead of doing his duty of rounding him up and sending him to the gas chamber.  Our conscience is our last defense against cooperating with evil in the name of duty, but conscience can itself be wrong.  We must both follow our conscience in all matters and also form our conscience well by following reliable authorities and the advice and models of prudent persons.  (Conscience in this respect is another word for the classical virtue of prudence, the master virtue that guides application of all the others.)

 In social work we do wrong both when we act against our conscience and when we follow a badly formed conscience into evil actions thinking they are good or neutral.  In any case, we must oppose attempts to dismiss or trivialize conscience in the name of some other priority or god.

Paul  is a recently retired professor of social policy from The University of Hawaii. He has been a member of NACSW for 3 years.

  The argument here is developed in more detail with application to abortion at http://www.socialworker.com/jswve/spr11/spr11forumadams.pdf

3 thoughts on “Conscience Matters

  1. Thanks very much for your piece here, Paul. I have a quick question. Most of what we I've read in the media thus far has focused on advocates for different positions on this issue attempting to spell out, clarify, and make the case for their respective positions. I certainly think this is a crucial part of the discussion. At the same time, I wonder whether you are aware of any discussions/conversations currently occurring between individuals and groups on different sides on this issue attempting to seek any common ground and/or forge together policy decisions and directions that show respect for and attempt to honor various positions represented by folks on different sides of this important issue?

  2. Paul, I think you sum up the key issue about conscience very well–"conscience is the supreme and final arbiter for an individual’s actions precisely because it represents the agent’s best ethical judgment all things considered….In social work [or in life generally] we do wrong both when we act against our conscience and when we follow a badly formed conscience into evil actions thinking they are good or neutral." I would only add that this ethical judgment must grow out of virtuous character. For Christians, this is the mind and character of Christ growing out of a life of discipleship, informed by God's word, life in Christian community, and the Holy Spirit.

  3. Paul,

    You touch on what is an issue for all Christians who practice any of the helping professions, in the West at least. I think that we Christians have to learn again how to be a not-well-regarded minority in a challenging, secular world. David's point is very true: we need to acquire the appropriate virtues that will sustain and guide us.

    What those virtues are and how we acquire them is a whole other discussion!

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