I linked yesterday on the sidebar to Stanley Fish’s latest editorial in the New York Times, which takes as its occasion the possibility that President Obama will revoke the “conscience clause” allowing health care providers the right to refuse to provide certain services. I thought I’d add a few thoughts here.*
I like a lot of what Fish says, although I ultimately support the conscience clause and, upstart crow that I am, I differ a bit with Fish’s interpretation of early modern conscience. I think his reading of Hobbes is good, but from my work in the primary sources on early modern English conscience, I think both he (and Hobbes) mischaracterize what early modern private conscience was about. It wasn’t that conscience lent legitimacy to private judgment on particular moral matters, though some of the later casuists were heading that way—that would be “every citizen a law unto himself,” as Fish worries. Rather, private conscience was a kind of arbitrator of competing institutional claims to moral judgment and commands to loyalty. The individual conscience didn’t reach the moral conclusion on its own, but rather decided between, usually, the moral decision of the church and that of the state, or between the truth claims of competing religious sects.
In that sense, I think the conscience question with regard to contemporary healthcare providers is actually quite germane. These providers must choose between the demands of their profession and the claims of their religious affiliation; in other words, they must arbitrate between competing claims on their loyalty, or between what critical theory would call opposing subject positions. They are not, generally, putting forth their own closely reasoned moral judgment to justify their refusal; instead, they are deciding whose flag to fly—pharmacist or Protestant, or whatever—in particular contexts. In this sense, I think the earliest discourses of private conscience, engrained as they are in the boundaries between public and private that underlie liberal thought, indeed support their right of refusal.
*It’s always a good idea to mark one’s (at least temporary) return to blogging after a hiatus with a light post of general interest sure to garner many comments.