This article has as its theme conscience and conscientious objection. In this section I will explore the moral cost of acting contrary to one’s conscience. Some theorists offer a detailed description of the emotional sanctions that agents experience when they act contrary to their conscience (Childress 1979; Lyons 2009). In this section, however, I will focus on the cost of acting against one’s conscience and the implications that this has for one’s self and one’s character. Indeed, it seems that we ought to focus on the self first and emotions second, at least insofar as we are to get to the heart of why conscience matters. I will argue that moral agents risk losing their basic orienting ideals should they act in a manner contrary to their deep moral and other normative commitments. Specifically, they imperil those life projects that are the very conditions for their existence and that give meaning and purpose to their lives. Agents who abandon their deeply held beliefs and commitments, furthermore, also undermine their capacity for independent moral judgement. Our personal moral ideals are an epistemic standpoint from which we can independently judge the social and professional norms of the communities to which we belong. To the extent that one lacks personal moral ideals, or one allows these ideals to be eroded, one loses the vantage-point from which one can independently critique the norms of professional work and social life.
Some theorists appeal to the notion of inner harmony or psychological integrity when attempting to describe the disvalue of acting contrary to conscience. In the previous section I described this as the integrity view of conscience. Wicclair, for example, refers to the importance of preserving moral integrity, which he defines as consistency between one’s actions and one’s core moral convictions (Wicclair 2017, pp. 7–8). Similarly, Childress (1979, p. 318) associates violations of conscience with a ‘fundamental loss of integrity, wholeness, and harmony in the self’. The question remains, however, as to why a loss of inner harmony or psychological integrity is of disvalue. Why is it problematic that we act in a manner contrary to our deep beliefs?
To answer this question, we should recall that conscience provides agents with a personal sense of moral obligation. It helps agents to see the requirements of morality in relation to their own self and character. Importantly, what we are focused on here is not an abstract conception of morality—such as a Kantian deontological framework or a utilitarian framework—to which an agent is bound by the force of reason. Rather, what we are concerned with is an agent’s own considered understanding of morality formed and sifted through the filter of their own life experiences (Williams 1981). What conscience draws an agent’s attention to is their own way of conceptualising the moral life and their own deep beliefs about their social and professional responsibilities. These beliefs may contingently overlap with a particular universalist conception of moral obligation (be it a Kantian deontological conception of morality, a utilitarian moral theory, or some other moral framework). Yet there is no necessary connection between any one moral framework and how an individual moral agent understands morality. Ultimately an agent’s conception of morality can be as subtly varied as the variety of human experience itself. What makes an agent’s conception of morality normative from the perspective of conscience is that it constitutes a fundamental part of her character and identity. By virtue of her conscience, an agent feels that she is bound—on pain of inauthenticity—to abide by the requirements of morality as she so conceives of it. Besides, conscience also consists of someone’s considered moral judgements about the world, and it makes sense for an agent to act in accord with their best judgement about the right course of action.
As I mentioned earlier, I do not claim that conscience never goes awry. Conscience can be misled by practical reason, or, alternatively, an agent may internalise a conception of morality that is, in the last analysis, fundamentally misguided. For example, it may be that an agent has internalised cultural norms that are manifestly misogynistic or even racist. Conscience, in this respect, could end up enforcing beliefs that are morally reprehensible. But we should not jump from this fact to the conclusion that conscience consists of nothing more than a series of arbitrary likes and dislikes. Quite the contrary, for a belief or commitment to form part of an agent’s identity it must be something that she has reflectively endorsed and held for a sustained period. It must be sincerely felt and shape the agent’s very outlook on life. Nothing is further from a whim than an agent’s deepest beliefs and commitments.
Here we arrive at a bedrock insight concerning the moral harm arising when one acts against one’s conscience. Acting against conscience does not only lead to emotional distress. The moral psychological reality is more profound than this. Agents also experience a weakened sense or total loss of meaning and identity when they transgress their deepest commitments. Bernard Williams (1981, p. 13) offers an insightful discussion of this matter, describing an agent’s basic commitments or ‘ground projects’ as ‘the motive force which propels him into the future, and gives him a reason for living’. Williams writes:
[it need not be the case] that if [an agent’s ground project] were frustrated or in any of various ways he lost it, he would have to commit suicide, nor does he have to think that… but he may feel in those circumstances that he might as well have died...in general a man does not have one separable project which plays this ground role: rather, there is a nexus of projects, related to his conditions of life, and it would be the loss of all or most of them that would remove meaning. (Ibid.)
My claim is that deep and repeated violations of conscience lead an agent to experience a loss of purpose and meaning and a concomitant loss of identity. The cost of acting against one’s conscience is higher where an agent acts contrary to not just one commitment but the very nexus of commitments that makes her life worthwhile. Self-betrayal of this kind would fall into the category of actions that are, from the perspective of an agent, ‘unthinkable’. I am referring to actions so contrary to an agent’s beliefs that he ‘cannot find anything in his self-conception to make it intelligible as something that he would do’ (Velleman 2009, p. 108). To seriously violate conscience is, in a very meaningful sense of the word, to do violence to one’s identity.
To use one example, we can consider the character of Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s stage play A Man for All Seasons. The play focuses on the life and death of More, a Chancellor of England in the sixteenth century who famously refused to endorse Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon. More was executed for this. At one point in the play, in a tense theological conversation with his friend the Duke of Norfolk, More defends his commitment to the Catholic conception of the indissolubility of marriage, stating: ‘what matters is not that it’s true, but that I believe it; or no, not that I believe it, but that I believe it’ (Bolt 1960, p. 110). More is here emphasising the fact that the belief is part of his identity, and that he feels bound in conscience to act in accord with the belief. More acknowledges that there may be other views about the permissibility of divorce that fall within the pale of reasonableness. But that is beside the point. He is committed to the Catholic conception, and therefore is bound in conscience to act in accord with this belief. To do otherwise would be to betray himself and to do violence to the ‘I’ that is the subject of the belief.
Suffice to say that conscience involves a commitment to acting in accord with one’s deep beliefs, and that a failure to do so can result in a dissolution of one’s own understanding of one’s identity (something that More believes is a moral harm worse than death).
The literature on moral injury is also a useful point of reference when trying to understand the psychology of conscience. Moral injury refers to the strong cognitive and emotional response that can occur following events that violate a person’s moral or ethical code. Potentially morally injurious events include a person’s own or other people’s acts of omission or commission, or betrayal by a trusted person in a high-stakes situation (Williamson et al. 2021). For example, healthcare staff working during the COVID-19 pandemic might experience moral injury because they perceive that they received inadequate protective equipment, or when their workload is such that they deliver care of a standard that falls well below what they would usually consider to be good enough (Williamson et al. 2021).
Moral injury is a much broader concept that has relevance beyond the psychology of conscience. Moral injury can be caused by the actions of others, such as when a trusted friend betrays you, whereas acting against conscience is an act of self-betrayal. Moral injury is thus a concept that ranges beyond betrayals of one’s conscience. But acting against one’s conscience is, nevertheless, a potentially morally injurious event and can produce the same effects as those described in the moral injury literature.
Specifically, violations of one’s conscience can produce a loss of meaning and moral identity akin to that experienced by the morally injured. Fontana and Rosenheck (2004) found that potentially morally injurious events in war (such as killing, enjoying killing, participating in atrocities, contributing to another’s death and failure to save wounded) positively predicted guilt, the experience of spiritual crisis and a loss of meaning in life. In some studies loss of meaning is deemed to be one of the most common experiences of people with moral injury (Ames et al. 2019). Some of the language used to describe moral injury also speaks to the idea of a loss of moral identity. Sherman describes moral injury as ‘global feeling of a sense of shattered moral identity, moral despair and or profound moral disillusionment’ (Sherman 2017, p. 1). Other authors use terms such as ‘moral affront’, ‘moral disruption’ (Drescher et al. 2011); ‘moral dislocation’ (Sherman 2015) and ‘moral disorientation’ (Molendijk 2018) to capture the notion of a loss of moral identity. These terms acknowledge the disturbance to one’s sense of self and character that moral injury can produce.
Something similar is liable to occur when someone violates their own conscience in a fundamental way. After all, violations of conscience undercut the basic beliefs around which one orients oneself in the morally complex world in which we live. Without such beliefs to orient oneself, it stands to reason that moral agents will experience moral disruption, dislocation and disorientation.
So much for the harm of violations of conscience to one’s sense of meaning and identity. Second, I would like to discuss the impact of acting against conscience on an agent’s capacity for moral agency. It is important to reflect on the criteria according to which we ascribe moral agency to an individual. I would like to focus on two related aspects of agency in particular. First, I would like to focus on the notion of a discretionary space in which a moral agent can make moral decisions in an unconstrained way. Second, I would like to focus on an agent’s reflective endorsement of those desires that motivate action. Both of these elements of agency are undermined when one acts against conscience in response to duress from an external authority. By a ‘restriction on conscience’, I will be referring to a conduct rule issued by an external authority that prevents an agent from acting in accord with her conscience.
First, we should recognise that moral agency requires discretionary space in which an agent is free to make their own moral decisions. It may sound like a truism to say that one requires freedom to make free decisions; yet there seems to be widespread confusion about this in the context of social and professional ethics. Some commentators, for example, believe that it is acceptable to enforce professional standards such that a health professional has no option of dissenting from mainstream practice (cf. Stahl and Emanuel 2017). Without the ‘discretionary space’ to choose between different options, however, a moral agent’s ‘choice’ of a particular action can only be said to be free in a highly qualified way (cf. Sulmasy 2017). It matters if the moral agent could have chosen otherwise. If someone’s actions were constrained such that she only really had one viable option from which to choose, then she can hardly be said to exercise moral agency in choosing this option. Rather, she would say that her agency has been diminished or distinguished by the constraints that have been imposed on her.
Second—and even if we reject the claim that agency requires that an agent has an ability to do otherwise—a moral agent’s capacity for agency is, at the very least, conditional on her reflective endorsement of the reasons and desires that motivate her actions. That is to say, for an agent to exercise moral agency, she must reflectively endorse the reasons and desires that lead her to act in particular ways. The agent must have pro-attitudes towards the reasons and desires in question, and must desire at a second-order level that the first-order reasons and desires that motivate them actually form part of their will. A failure to do this means that the agent remains ‘wanton’ or indifferent towards the reasons that drive their actions (cf. Frankfurt 1971). This is hardly an example of rational and reflective moral agency.
The trouble with a restriction on the exercise of conscience, however, is that it involves agents acting on the basis of coercion or compulsion rather than reflectively endorsed desires. If we force people to behave in particular ways, we are not allowing them to act based on reasons and desires that they have reflectively endorsed. Rather, we are leading them to act on the basis of duress, and there is a very real sense in which they are not exercising their agency—at least, not in the fullest sense of the word. For example, if someone commits a crime in the heat of passion, there is a sense in which her responsibility for that crime is diminished. She has not fully reflectively endorsed their course of action, and so cannot be said to be acting with the full force of her character. I would argue that something analogous is occurring when social or professional norms are enforced in such a way that individual moral agents have no choice but to conform to these norms. Agents’ adherence to these norms is motivated by an external force rather than by a rationally endorsed, interior conviction that one ought to act in accord with these norms.
It is instructive here to return to the idea of integrity, and to consider how this might be related to agency. Part of what it means to be a moral agent is to form an identity, based on one’s considered views of the world. We might think of this as an extended process of reflective endorsement, whereby one steadily acquires a series of identity-conferring beliefs that come to define her character. These beliefs and commitments, in turn, function as the content of one’s moral agency. MacIntyre (1999, p. 317) links integrity to maintenance of a fixed identity, and suggests that maintenance of one’s identity underpins one’s capacity for agency. He writes:
To have integrity is to refuse to be, to have educated oneself so that one is no longer able to be, one kind of person in one social context, while quite another in other contexts. It is to have set inflexible limits to one’s adaptability to the roles that one may be called upon to play.
Integrity, in other words, is precisely about not adapting to community practices that conflict with one’s moral code. If one were to be limitlessly open to adaptation based on social context, then one’s values would ultimately be a mere reflection of social context rather than reflectively endorsed commitments.
Some theorists may argue that adaptability is a virtue, particularly when one is discharging an important social or professional role. That is to say, it could be argued that it is virtuous to make oneself amenable to the relevant conventions that one encounters in one’s social or professional life. I would argue, however, that adaptability is only a virtue when one has manifestly fallen into moral error. In contrast, where one is indeed convinced upon reflection that one has arrived at the correct moral conviction vis-a-vis one’s social or professional obligations, it is a virtue rather than a vice to hold to one’s beliefs rather than adapting to the demands that have been placed on oneself by one’s peers. This is precisely what it means to have integrity. Conscience, for its part, is that aspect of our psychology that leads us to maintain integrity and to persist in our beliefs and commitments when these conflict with prevailing social or professional norms.
Agency follows on from integrity, as agency is about acting in a manner consonant with one’s desires. And those desires that are most truly our own are those that have been sifted through reflection and experience and that we have interiorised to form part of our character. We exercise moral agency, in the fullest sense of the word, when we act wholeheartedly (Frankfurt 1988). This wholeheartedness in turn requires at least some degree of inflexibility (enough inflexibility for us to maintain some grip on our own personal identity).
As I suggested earlier, agents who abandon their deeply held beliefs also undermine their capacity for independent moral judgement. Building on the foregoing discussion, we can say that our personal moral ideals are an epistemic standpoint from which we can independently judge the professional norms and standards that are imposed on us. They are a means by which we can step outside of our professional role and view the world from our own unique moral point of view, which may have been developed on the basis of (or may have been informed by) various moral frameworks or principles. By setting ‘inflexible limits’ on the kinds of social and professional functions that we are willing to perform, we maintain an important degree of epistemic and volitional independence from the social and professional communities of which we form a part. To the extent that we lack personal moral ideals, however—or, to the extent that we allow these ideals to be eroded—we lose the vantage-point from which we can independently critique the norms that characterise our social and professional communities. If the moral content of our character becomes indistinguishable from the moral conventions of these communities—or, perhaps more to the point, if we fail to sift these conventions through the filter of our own capacity for critical reflection—we lose the capacity for impartial and detached judgement that is necessary to externally critique social or professional conventions. If we are endlessly willing to adapt ourselves to any convention that is foist upon us, we will lose the agential independence necessary to externally critique the communities of practice of which we form a part.
A problem with restrictions on conscience, then, is that they undermine those features of moral rationality that are prerequisite of agency and independent judgement. Agents are encouraged to suppress and abandon those beliefs that ultimately form the bedrock of their unique, personal moral point of view. Rather, they are led to make themselves fully beholden to professional moral standards instead of following their own interiorised standards of what is right and wrong. These factors combine to undermine an agent’s capacity for independent moral judgement (which presumably is a core feature of moral agency). Restrictions on conscience, in this sense, greatly diminish an agent’s capacity for considered moral judgement and action independent of the norms of social and professional practices.