Counterfeit Conscience

  Last month the Supreme Court of Montana ruled that the state constitution's guarantee of privacy ensures a woman's absolute right to an abortion. The ruling itself is, of course, troubling. But even more disturbing was the way the Court defined "conscience"—in stark contradiction to the classic Christian understanding of the term. The opinion involved a challenge to a 1995 Montana law prohibiting physician's assistants from performing abortions. In overturning the law, the Court said that when the Montana constitution uses the term "right to privacy," it means a right to personal autonomy—including so-called "procreative autonomy." The Court argued that a woman has a "moral right to decide... whether to continue a pregnancy." "The fundamental right to personal and procreative autonomy and... to individual privacy," the Court said, "prohibits government from dictating, approving, or condemning values, beliefs, and matters ultimately involving individual conscience." Using the Court's logic, of course, a state could not prohibit sexual harassment or even rape. But what really stands out is the court's degraded understanding of "conscience." This faulty understanding of conscience was illuminated by political philosopher Robert George at Prison Fellowship's recent Wilberforce Conference on worldview in Colorado Springs. As Professor George explains, modernists define conscience as little more than self will: Conscience merely "licenses behavior by establishing that one doesn't feel bad about doing it." Or, in the words of philosopher Russell Hittinger, conscience is reduced to being "the writer of permission slips" for our behavior. This is what people have in mind when they say, for example, "My conscience does not tell me that abortion is wrong, therefore abortion is not wrong for me." What they mean is, "I don't feel bad about it, so it's not wrong." By contrast, the Christian definition of conscience sees it as a monitor and guide to our behavior. As John Henry Newman wrote, "conscience has rights because it has duties.... It is a stern monitor." What Newman meant is that the function of conscience is to identify what our specific duties are under the moral law. These duties include both negative prohibitions and positive requirements, such as feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and visiting prisoners. These positive duties are every bit as binding as the prohibitions. Modern culture's failure to see the connection between duty and conscience mirrors a period of time in ancient Israel. Recall the last verse of the Book of Judges: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit in his own eyes." In other words, in the absence of moral leadership and example, people lose a sense of duty, and abandon themselves to their own autonomous choices. But the good news is that, by the same token, leadership can help restore a proper definition of duty and conscience. Not a king as in Old Testament times, but the leadership of godly men and women in the church. There's no time to lose. As the Montana court amply demonstrates, a failure to understand what conscience really means can literally make the difference between life and death.


Chuck Colson


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