17 March 2013

Concerning Conscience in the Liberal State

Some time ago my piece Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition (download by going here) compared and contrasted some contemporary competing theoretical (and theological) justifications for human primary rights. Although it wasn't my purpose to extend the argument to address the substance of such rights, freedom of conscience would certainly be included.

The obvious trouble with conscience is, so to speak, its interiority.  Freedom of conscience doesn't amount to much if it can't come to expression. But how is a liberal polity to evaluate expressions that are conscientious and not mendacious? Libertarians would say, "Who cares?" In other words, a libertarian reduction in the scope of civil government's activities would have the salutary side effect of increasing the scope of freedom of conscience. Alas for such folks, the modern state is not about to wither away.

If you click here you will be taken to the abstract of an article by Pepperdine law professor Michael Helfand, A Liberalism of Sincerity: The Role of Religion in the Public Square.  Unfortunately, the full article can't be downloaded because, I suspect, it will be published in the Journal of Law, Religion, and State rather than a typical law review. In any event, Helfand argues that "liberalism imposes a duty of sincerity to prevent individuals from consenting to a regime that exercises control over matters of core concern." Sincerity of conscientious consent is at the core of political liberalism. Thus, Helfand seems to be saying that liberalism can, and indeed must if it is to be "liberal," permit a wide scope of "opt-ous" for its citizens. (For some earlier thoughts about opt-outs as a surrogate for exit rights se my musings about Abner Greene's book, Against Obligation, here.)

Why, one might ask? Helfand states that "because religious conduct and religious arguments flow from an individual’s commitment to sincerity, liberalism should provide broad protection for such religious activity in order to enable citizens to pursue sincerity." In other words, sincerely is a core virtue of political liberalism; without it, liberalism is a charade.

Just so. Which can easily lead one to conclude that those who seek to mandate provision of contraceptive services by employer-sponsored health insurance plans are illiberal. It is not those whose deep-rooted religious commitments that are not liberal. Instead, it is those who, claiming to be heirs of the liberal tradition, are subverting it. Indeed, one might even wonder about the very sincerity of members of the current administration who claim their liberal bona fides while working to subvert the core virtue of political liberalism. (Check here for some of my thoughts relating the contraceptive mandate to corporate employers.)

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