The peril of forsaking private conscience for the sake of public duty

Should human life be protected in all stages and conditions? Or should abortion and euthanasia be permitted and even promoted as “best” (or “least bad”) solutions to personal difficulties and social problems? Should we preserve in our law and public policy the historic understanding of marriage as a conjugal union-the partnership of husband and wife in a bond that is ordered to procreation and, where the union is blessed by children, naturally fulfilled by their having and rearing offspring together? Or should we abandon the conjugal understanding of marriage in favour of some form of legally recognized sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership between two (or more) persons, irrespective of gender, to which the label marriage is then reassigned?

Coming to terms with modernity is one of the fundamental issues of our age and the choices we make in facing this challenge are of such importance that the future of our civilization is truly at stake with the choices we make. The questions posed above are not the only ones which we have to face up to in meeting this challenge – they are currently the frontline questions across many jurisdiction and in the Irish parliament today, one of them is being voted on marking a stage in that nation’s answer to modernity.

But there is a more fundamental Rubicon facing the all those who undertake the care of the Common Good of their peoples in the public square and it is the question of their attitude to that one universal guiding principle which has kept mankind safe from chaos from time immemorial. It is that principle which when he has resisted it, fudged it or abandoned it, has reduced to rubble the community for which he has taken charge or control. This is the principle of conscience.

For over the half of the past decade the world has been grappling with economic chaos. We are still suffering – whether innocent or guilty of the acts which brought it about – in the midst of that chaos. But the common denominator among the primary perpetrators of this disaster was the abandonment of private conscience in relation to their acts. When Gordon Geko declared that “greed is good” he was thought outrageous. But nevertheless, millions followed his example and abandoned the principle of conscience which told them the “No, greed is not good. It is evil”.

The opening paragraph is a quotation from Robert George’s new book, Conscience and its Enemies. In it, mainly in an American context, he says that disputes surrounding those questions posed in relation to life’s beginning and end, and the institution of marriage in between, reflects the profound chasm that separates opposing worldviews. People on the competing sides use many of the same words: justice, human rights, liberty, equality, fairness, tolerance, respect, community, conscience, and the like. But they have vastly different ideas of what those terms mean. Likewise, they have radically different views of human nature, of what makes for a valuable and morally worthy way of life, and of what undermines the common good of a justly ordered community.

There is a truth all too rarely adverted to in contemporary “culture war” debates-namely, that deep philosophical ideas have unavoidable and sometimes quite profound implications for public policy and public life. Anyone who takes a position on, say, the ethics of abortion and euthanasia, or the meaning and proper definition of marriage, is making philosophical (e.g., metaphysical and moral) assumptions- assumptions that are contested by people on the other side of the debate.

It is precisely here that conscience is betrayed and where the phenomenon of groupthink – without our even noticing it – takes control. Once that happens, conscience is diminished or obliterated completely. In that surrender of the free will to the will of some spirit of the age, some party apparatus, or even some leader – be he charismatic or bullying – that personal integrity, supported by an informed and articulate conscience, is forfeited.

All this is not a question of modernity, good or bad? It is simply a question of what kind of modernity? Modernity resting on the truth of our nature as free rational beings and beings whose acts will be guided by reasonably exercised free will, not guided simply by naked and untrammelled emotions, or by the dictate of party apparatchiks.

This is what Ireland faces today. This is what the entire world has to contend with or we will all take that perilous road predicted in the words which Robert Bolt put in the mouth of Thomas More, “Any public servant who would forsake his private conscience for the sake of his public duty leads his country down the short road to ruin.”


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