Saturday, December 29, 2012

Archbishops are absolutely wrong about conscience

OPINION: Catholic bishops who attribute an absolute value to conscience are trying to force others to accept their position on abortion.

The Catholic archbishops of Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Emly, and Tuam released a public statement on December 18th that included this general principle: “No one has the right to force or coerce someone to act against their conscience. Respect for this right is the very foundation of a free, civilised and democratic society.”

I do not think they believe that. Nor do I.

Conscience could mean many things but it is usually understood as referring to the judgment of an individual about significant moral and religious matters. 

Unfortunately it is possible for someone to decide in “their conscience” that politically-motivated murder is acceptable in some circumstances, and the archbishops presumably do not mean the conscience of a murderer obliges a democratic state not to interfere in their behaviour, no matter how well-intentioned it may be.

A free, democratic state has to decide which kinds of behaviour it will allow and which it will not allow.

However, if the archbishops believe what they wrote they should apply it immediately to the consciences of women who believe that in certain unusual circumstances it is morally permissible to have an abortion.

The current situation in Ireland is that the religious beliefs of the majority of the citizens “force or coerce” some women, against their conscience, either not to have an abortion or to travel abroad.

If Irish statute law was changed to allow for abortion in certain circumstances it would allow those women whose conscience or moral values is inspired by Roman Catholic moral teaching not to have abortions and it would allow other women whose conscience is otherwise informed to follow their conscience too.

Unless they are inconsistent, therefore, the archbishops do not really believe each conscience is so precious that “no one has a right to force or coerce someone to act against their conscience”. 

In the context of abortion we struggle with an ethical issue about which well-informed citizens hold fundamentally different views and – as the report of the expert group showed, in appendix III – most other western democracies provide for abortion in certain circumstances. 

It seems at least rash to conclude that the legislators in Spain, France, Denmark, Germany, Norway, etcetera all lack the ethical insights to which we exclusively have access.

The archbishops would like Irish legislators to coerce all women resident in Ireland to accept their moral views. 

On what authority? 

The 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae claimed bishops had authority from God to interpret the “natural moral law” that applies to all people and not just Catholics. But such an authority rests on a religious faith not shared universally. 

To accede to the archbishops’ request would amount to the establishment of their religion in Irish law.

The statement of the archbishops appeals to a distinction between “direct and intentional killing” and other kinds of taking life. For most moral philosophers, however, it makes no sense to claim we are not responsible for actions that result in someone’s death simply because we do not “intend” it or because the consequences are “indirect”.

We are taken to intend all the likely and foreseeable consequences of our actions and we cannot escape responsibility for some specified consequences by some kind of private mental activity in which we disavow some of them. 

Here again the archbishops seem to wish to enforce their ethical views, no matter how implausible they may be, on others who reject them for good reasons.

It should at least be obvious, after almost 30 years of discussing this issue in Ireland and elsewhere, that no one can claim to have an exclusive hold on the truth (including this writer), and that the judgments of well-intentioned, morally informed experts in ethics and the law, internationally, have come down on the side of legally permissible abortion in certain circumstances.

If we follow that pattern it should be because our values as a free, civilised and democratic society conclude it is the best way to legislate, rather than because we attribute some absolute value to the consciences of individuals.

Desmond Clarke is emeritus professor of philosophy at UCC and a member of the Royal Irish Academy