Acting with integrity in a morally diverse society
At a January 2020 symposium, the federal justice minister said the task of governments "is allowing people to flourish and live in a way they want to live, choose to live, and in order to make autonomy a real and robust concept."
These terms, choice and autonomy, have come to permeate our society.
At that same January event, another federal minister said, "Personal autonomy is a sacred right, a sacred choice to be able to make the choices for yourself, about yourself, and the life you choose to live."
It’s unusual for the word sacred to be invoked in our secular society – by a government official no less – but many in our society would affirm the minister’s meaning that choice and autonomy are primary moralities in our society.
The protection of individuals to pursue the life they choose is codified in our country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees a range of freedoms and limits the state from encroaching on them. A worthy aspiration.
It’s noteworthy, however, that choice and autonomy are not even mentioned. The term we find there instead is conscience.
Individual conscience is actually something that governs our choices. Conscience informs us of choices that would be harmful. As we consider the choices others make, there will always be some we can’t affirm. That’s conscience.
But conscience isn’t simply a voice that everyone has and that should be followed without thinking. Conscience can be nurtured, but can also be corroded.
The Apostle Paul talks about the testimony of our conscience (2 Corinthians 1:18). Our conscience can be weak and defiled (1 Corinthians 8:7,10) or can be purified through Christ (Hebrews 9). It bears witness to the law inscribed on our hearts (Romans 2:15).
Conscience prevails over choice. It’s at the core of human dignity to be free to live with integrity to the dictates of your conscience. This is why it has prominence in codes of human rights.
Why then today’s emphasis on choice? Following conscience usually refers to people dissenting from what is expected, accepted or deemed important to society.
Breaking rank to speak up conscientiously about injustice can often get you labelled a snitch or a tattletale. Such expressions of conscience, even though done for good, are usually unwelcome and often lead to ostracism.
When choice and autonomy are championed as the sacred blueprint for society, this creates a choking effect on conscience. Any minority voice that hinders or questions what the majority sees as sacred is seen as something to be opposed and overcome, or at the very least silenced – a secularized form of blasphemy within this emerging civil religion.
In this view, human dignity is not ensured by allowing individuals to abide by their conscience whether or not we agree (tolerance and respect). Rather, dignity is located in your autonomy, the sovereignty of the individual will and the ability to exercise your will without hinderance.
This blueprint espouses that disagreeing with my choices is a challenge to my sovereignty, and my chosen identity as expressed in my choices. When what I do is permissible according to government law, any dissent is an affront to my autonomy and dignity. I then need to be protected from the consciences of others.
The conscience of dissenters is seen as a threat, and there will be societal pressure to ensure the choices that flow from autonomy are affirmed and not questioned. Those who conscientiously object to the choices of others will be marginalized.
Advocating inclusion while fuelling the self-defined sovereign righteousness of autonomy and choice will exacerbate tensions – individuals as sovereigns can’t avoid clashing. My choice must trump your conscience, otherwise the objection to the choice impugns my dignity. You become the enemy to my sovereignty.
When others disagree with my choices as a matter of conscience, it is not that my freedom is curtailed, but rather the so-called sacredness of my choices is denied. It’s an insult to the pride I take in my life choices.
As an antidote let’s raise the bar and talk about conscience. A healthy democracy depends on it. Even though freedom of conscience means people will disagree and not all choices will be celebrated, conscience provides space for rational dialogue, diplomacy and witness.
Respectful conversations about conscience will turn us to the more noble task – not asserting our autonomy and freedom to choose regardless, but rather engaging in a robust conversation about what is actually good. It’s no wonder Scripture speaks of the importance of conscience being nurtured and guarded (1 Peter 3:21).
Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work and support us at www.TheEFC.ca/Donate or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.