There was an article written recently in The Telegraph, a British paper, discussing a statement by Lady Hale, the UK Supreme Court Deputy President, that there should be some sort of “conscience clause” put into law to protect religious folk who wish to exercise their beliefs, and not be at risk of losing their jobs over it. On the face of it, this seems like an entirely reasonable suggestion.
But, with a bit more analysis, it’s complete tripe.
What on earth is a “conscience”? A rough-and-ready explanation of that thing that we call a conscience is that it’s nothing more (nor less) than a set of internalised beliefs that we have adopted from those around us since childhood, and we reflexively put them into action in our everyday life. While it may be the case that a particular individual may have delved into the whys and wherefores of their own belief system, typically this is not the case: our “conscience” does nothing more than reflect the beliefs that we grew up around.
Thus if we grew up around people who expressed homophobic beliefs, our conscience is likely to say that “homosexual relationships are baaaaad”. If we grew up around decent people, our conscience likely has nothing to say about homosexual relationships. And so it goes for everything else.
What Lady Hale is suggesting is simply that should someone have a gut reaction against homosexuality, then they can invoke a “conscience clause” against, I don’t know, carrying out civil partnership ceremonies because they believe that homosexuality is a sin. This is clearly problematic.
The core issue here, as a Philosopher, is that people are not trained with regard to evaluating their conscience. Depending on which sect of what religion you follow, you’re largely encouraged to simply ‘follow your conscience’ because of the nonsense that you have a spirit or soul to guide your thinking, and/or that your preferred god will guide you to the correct conclusion. As it turns out, this is the kind of bullshit that causes religions to do so much damage in the world: the KKK was founded on Christian principles, as was the Human Rights marches of Martin Luthor in the 1960s. If it were the case that Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism, or any of the rest) were as unambiguously clear as their followers claimed, we wouldn’t have these problems. Or, perhaps, everyone would be a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Who knows? It’s hard to say precisely because the religions are entirely vague and contradictory even in the best-case scenarios.
Don’t misunderstand: I don’t believe that Lady Hale is wrong in principle, but in order to make it work in practice we would first need to institute a national (ideally global) education policy whereby Ethics is taught from an early age, rather than letting children simply accrete whatever bullshit and nonsense they are surrounded with. If you are simply unable to interrogate your bigotry, and provide good reasons for being a shitty person, then no: you do not get to invoke your “conscience”. It’s bad, and in need of servicing.
The bottom line is that beliefs are not free-floating things in some sort of fourth dimension idea-space: they inform your actions, and you are not allowed to deny other human beings access to their rights, regardless of whatever your preferred sky-fairy allegedly tells you in your brain. If you act in a bigoted way, you don’t get an ‘out’ by claiming your bigotry is rooted in your preferred holy book: that is, as a matter of fact, an indictment of your holy book. To claim that your conscience is synonymous with your holy book is an issue you need to settle with all the other people who allegedly share your faith. Did I mention the Westboro Baptist Church? The KKK? These are poor bedfellows for an allegedly infallible holy text…
If you have beliefs that preclude you from doing central aspects of a job you’re applying for, that you are choosing to do: choose something else. Don’t try to bullshit the rest of us by declaring that your bigotry isn’t bigotry because sky-cake…