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HAT Forum - "The Place of Conscience in Society"

  • The 519, Rm 304 519 Church Street Toronto, ON, M4Y 2C9 Canada (map)

The word "Conscience" comes from the Latin for "knowledge with" and the concept of a joint knowledge especially about ethics, justice and fairness. It comes with the sense that humans have a duality created when there is a discrepancy between what one "knows" and how one "acts". When this discrepancy occurs one's conscience is said to be "pricked" or that their conscience "pricks them". 

As Humanists we are encouraged to be alive to this "pricking" sensation and take the time to analyze and resolve the feeling so that we can avoid hypocrisy and live according to our ethics and values. There are many famous examples of those who lived according to their conscience (MLK, Gandhi, Peace Protesters) and these people are seen as the Moral Heroes of the time. But what about when one's personal conscience is out of step with society (or our personal opinions) or when conscience interferes with our duties in the public sphere?

  1. Personal Conscience grounds objections to LGBTQ rights, same sex marriage, and abortion have led bakers, justices, government officials, pharmacists and doctors to withhold services and refuse their occupational duties. These objections have often been upheld by courts on appeal. On what grounds can we object to these people exercising their conscience rights?
  2. Civil disobedience (like Kinder Morgan pipeline demos) and Jury Nullification (Black juries refusing to convict drug cases in L.A.) are other examples of people exercising their conscience rights. How can governments still conduct the "business" of government with such extra-legal tactics occurring? What response should we expect from them?
  3. Medical professionals in Ontario have been using conscience appeals to passively, and sometimes actively, block people's right to Medical Aid in Dying (MAID) by refusing to have anything to do with it including provide "effective referrals" as the legislation requires. How do we balance personal conscience rights with the societal objectives?
  4. How can we as a society still preserve an individuals right to conscience objections while still advancing the goals and values of society? Can governments act, in good conscience, on issues when there is a large dissenting minority?