When conscience and common good collide
Andrew Fiala, Fresno Bee, February 6, 2015
There is no easy way to reconcile individual conscience and the common good. The argument about the measles vaccine makes this clear. Some have refused vaccination, despite the dangers this creates for public health.
Similar disputes play themselves out in a variety of contexts: Ebola quarantines, eminent domain, and the like. During the past half-century, exceptions have been carved out for individual conscience with regard to military service and a variety of other issues. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a corporation, Hobby Lobby, an exemption to federal insurance laws requiring contraception coverage, based upon a claim of conscience.
Society demands that individuals should serve the greater good and conform to the norms of social life. The risk of allowing conscientious refusal is significant, as we are seeing in the current measles outbreak. Those who are not vaccinated put themselves and others at risk.
But individuals (and apparently even corporations) can refuse to comply. The advocates of conscience might quote Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Or they may assert with Emerson that nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Human beings are fundamentally conflicted. We are social animals. But we are also individual persons. Each of us views our own life as special, unique and infinitely valuable. And yet, each of us is merely a replaceable member of the herd, subject to biological forces that flow through our bodies and affect the whole.
Human life is fractured by this irreconcilable rift. Life is lived in the first-person: you are the hero of your own drama. And yet from the outside, each of us is merely a bit player in a much larger story. You will be entirely forgotten in four or five generations. And yet, this life is the only one you’ve got.
Your own death is one of the most important events in your biography — the final, defining moment of your life. But from the perspective of the species, your measly life is inconsequential. Nature will digest your flesh. The planet will not notice your departure. But for you and your loved ones, your departure to the undiscovered country will be an infinite loss.
Our heroes have often been conscientious refusers: Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther King. But refusal antagonizes the herd. It is not surprising that these heroes were killed. Occasionally the moment is ripe for a refuser to make a difference, especially when the herd is obviously wrong. But most of the time, the tidal movements of society and nature sweep individuals along, and away.
Some individualists claim that individuals should never submit to society’s demands. On the other hand, collectivists claim that social welfare always trumps the right of conscience. At one end is lonely egoism. At the other end is totalitarianism.
Neither solution is acceptable for those of us committed to a democratic social life. Individuals should not lose themselves completely in the herd. Nor should we live in defiance of society. To be human is to suffer in the middle. The tragedy of being human is that we are pulled in multiple directions by opposing forces and conflicting duties.
Religion appears to offer one sort of resolution. An omnipotent God can hold all of this together in his benevolent hands. God is big enough to love each of us infinitely, while also understanding the substance of the common good. But the mystery of divine omnipotence gives us little to go on. We live this side of paradise, without access to divine omniscience.
Does God want us to vaccinate our children, to provide contraception, or to serve in the military? Religious people disagree about the answer to those questions. Every act of conscience is a leap of faith.
Another solution appeals to science. Scientists understand how vaccinations help prevent epidemics. But science can’t tell us how to live in the first-person or how to balance our values, duties, and commitments. Individuals must still interpret the data and apply it to their own lives.
There is no way around this dilemma. Claims of individual conscience can cause outbreaks of measles. But each measly individual also has a claim on infinite value. And a democratic society of conscientious individuals is as dangerous as it is inspiring.