The deficiencies and dangers of ‘radical individualism’

Book Review: What it means to be human: The case for the body in Public Bioethics

BioEdge

Margaret Somerville*

The deficiencies and dangers of ‘radical individualism’

O. Carter Snead, What it means to be human: The case for the body in Public Bioethics, Harvard University Press, 2020, pp.321

Anyone concerned about the current values conflicts in our societies should read this book. Although it focuses on conflicts in public bioethics, the insights of the author, O. Carter Snead, have application to a much broader range of values conflicts in what are sometimes called the “culture wars”.

Snead starts with a history of American Public Bioethics. He then asks, “What does it means to be human” and addresses two competing responses – “expressive individualism” and “embodiment” – and articulates the anthropology (the study of human beings and societies) that informs each of these views. He argues the former is inadequate on at least two fronts. First, it “forgets the body” and sees the person as only a mind, a self-actualizing will. Second, it does not contemplate or accommodate human relationships and the reality that we are social beings.

Snead then takes an innovative approach to legal scholarship. He proceeds to an in-depth analysis of six judgments handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States in relation to abortion. He undertakes this analysis in order to determine the law’s view, as manifested in these cases, of what it means to be human, that is, the anthropology that undergirds and informs the judgments he considers. . . continue reading

Book Review: Religious Exemptions

Jacqueline Lang

Book Review: Religious Exemptions

Edited by Kevin Vallier and Michael Weber, New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 2018, 328 pp., £61 (hardback), ISBN: 9780190666187

An exemption from legal requirements is a right to be excluded from specific law that, to all intents and purposes, have general application. A religious exemption broadly, is an exemption on religious or conscientious grounds. Of course, an exemption can function in any positive legal framework and at any time. It can exist in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia or any oppressive regime we care to consider. . .

Religious Exemptions, edited by Kevin Vallier and Michael Weber, contains fourteen chapters by authors analysing the concept of a religious exemption in the context of recent accretions in contemporary American positive law. The text explores a variety of issues, including vaccine refusal, commercial accommodations, exemption from equality of the sexes, same-sex marriage and trial proceedings. Whereas, in the past, religious exemptions were limited in scope, governing such narrow subjects a pacifist exemptions against compulsory military service and certain small religious exemptions to education, now, large sectors of religious and conscientious objectors seek exemptions from an ever-burgeoning catalogue of state-mandated duties to participate in a wide range of contentious matters from abortion and euthanasia to same-sex marriage. In modem times, the laws newly introduced incur significant harm to whole sections of the community. A Muslim or Christian objector to same-sex marriage, for example, might never find employment in his field because he is automatically classified as guilty of hate and unlawful discrimination. . .


Lang J.  Book Review: Religious exemptions.  New Bioethics 2019 Sep; 25(3): 290-292, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2019.1649867

Book Review: The Conscience Wars; Rethinking the Balance between Religion, Identity, and Equality

Christopher Cowley

Conscience Wars

Edited by Susanna Mancini and Michel Rosenfeld. Pp. 493. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2018. £76. ISBN: 978-1107173309>

This volume is based on a conference held at the Cardozo School of Law in ew York in 2015, and brings together American and European law academics to discuss the distinctive ways in which conscience claims have ‘spread’ in the public discourse over the last two or three decades. Conscientious objection used to be an individual matter for e.g. draftees and doctors, aimed at recusing oneself from complicity with evil, in contrast to civil disobedience, which was a larger collective movement aimed at changing public opinion and the law. These days, however, conscience seems to be in the news much more, mostly associated with organized religious conservative agendas – hence the title’s reference to a ‘war’ playing out in parallel to the efforts in and around a country’s legislature. Perhaps the most famous recent case of mobilized public conscience was that of the US Supreme Court case of Burwell u Hobby Lobby (2014), in which the owners of a company successfully challenged the legal requirement (under the 2010 Affordable Care Act) that the company fund contraception for its female employees. The owners’ objection was religious, and was framed in terms of their right to religious expression. . .


Cowley C.  Book Review: The Conscience Wars; Rethinking the Balance between Religion, Identity, and Equality. New Bioethics. 2019 Sep; 25(3): 286-289, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2019.1647039

Book Review: Opting Out. Conscience and Cooperation in a Pluralistic Society

Morten Magelssen

Book Review: Opting Out. Conscience and Cooperation in a Pluralistic Society

By David Oderberg. Pp. 136. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs. 2018. Paperback, £12.50; free e-book, at https://iea.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Oderberg-Interactive.pdf. ISBN:978-0-255-36761-5.

Abstract: In this brief monograph, the philosopher David Oderberg argues that freedom of conscience and religion, as fundamental rights in a liberal democracy, need increased protection in legislation and from the courts. Conscientious objection – in which a professional refuses to perform specific tasks for moral or religious reasons – is especially relevant in healthcare. Oderberg draws most of his examples from this field (e.g. abortion, contraception, treatment-limiting decisions and euthanasia), but also discusses cases from other sectors, such as the bakers and florists who refused to sell goods in connection with gay weddings. . . [Full text]


Magelssen M.  Book Review: Opting Out. Conscience and Cooperation in a Pluralistic Society.  New Bioethics 2019 Sep; 25(3): 283-286, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2019.1647038.

Rawls, Reasonableness, and Conscientious Objection in Health Care

Xavier Symons

Rawls, Reasonableness, and Conscientious Objection in Health Care

Much ink has been spilled in recent years over the controversial topic of conscientious objection in health care. In particular, commentators have proposed various ways with which we might distinguish legitimate conscience claims from those that are poorly reasoned or based on prejudice. The aim of this chapter is to argue in favor of the “reasonableness” approach to conscientious objection, viz., the view that we should develop an account of “reasonableness” and “reasonable disagreement” and use this as a way of distinguishing licit and illicit conscience claims. The author discusses Rawls’ account of “reasonableness” and “reasonable disagreement,” and consider how this might guide us in regulating conscientious objection in health care. The author analyzes the “public reason” account offered in Card (2007, 2014), and argue that we should modify Card’s account to include a consensus among regulators about what counts as “basic medical care.” The author suggests that Medical Conscientious Objection Review boards should consider whether conscience-based refusals are based on defensible ethical foundations.


Symons X. Rawls, Reasonableness, and Conscientious Objection in Health Care. In: Grant B, Drew J, Christensen H, editors. Applied Ethics in the Fractured State (Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations, Vol. 20). Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Limited; 2018. p. 45-54. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1529-209620180000020004

Book Review: Moral Conscience Through the Ages: Fifth Century BCE to the Present

THE (Times Higher Education)
Reproduced with permission

Tom Palaima

Moral Conscience Through the Ages

Richard Sorabji, Oxford University Press, 240pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780199685547. Published 30 October 2014

Always let your conscience be your guide,” sings Jiminy Cricket, conscience personified as a kindly bowler-hatted cricket, to Pinocchio in Walt Disney’s 1940 film classic about a wooden puppet being transformed into a real-life boy. It is one of the few significant social pronouncements about the role of conscience in making us human not found in Richard Sorabji’s compact history of the ideas that important thinkers and doers, beginning with Euripides and Plato and ending with Martin Luther, Thomas Hobbes, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Mahatma Gandhi, have had about how a conscience works, where it comes from, and what good it is, if any – Nietzsche had no use for conscience, believing that modern men “inherit thousands of years of the vivisection of conscience”.

Sorabji’s close reading of subtle arguments spanning 25 centuries, as he transliterates key Greek and Latin terms and does his best to define their particular meanings in different periods, enables us to see how later figures took up or rejected earlier ideas. Gandhi, for example, came to believe unshakeably in his “still small voice within” – no Jiminy Cricket for him – as “the true voice of God”, as it steeled his commitment to non-violent social actions. Gandhi’s voice of God, we learn, sounded a lot like Tolstoy in his 1894 treatise The Kingdom of God is Within You and Socrates in Plato’s Apology, set in 399BC.

The Greek word for conscience first appears in passages in the work of late 5th-century playwrights where characters wrestle with what we would call moral choices, or defects in Sorabji’s view. The Greek compound verbal formation expresses the notion of a shared knowing (sun: “with” and oida: “know”, literally “I saw and I still see”), Latin con-sciens. The precise meaning of conscience is further complicated by the abstract nouns used for it that are derived from other verbal roots, eg, sunesis and the Latinised sunderesis. The notion of with-ness is the common element.

The key question is: shared with whom? In Sorabji’s view – surprisingly given the role that conscience plays in our interactions with others – we share our thoughts about moral behaviour and moral choices with ourselves. Conscience splits us into two people. From this come expressions like “I could not live with myself” and feelings of having a voice within or a cricket or guardian angel advising from without, as in Freud’s superego or Socrates’ daimōn.

Sorabji also argues that the original concept of conscience, ie, “sharing knowledge with oneself of a defect”, was a largely secular idea. Stoics and Christians turned conscience into a religious concept associated with the law or will of gods or God. Michel de Montaigne, Hobbes and John Locke began a resecularisation process that continued through Thoreau’s civil disobedience and then on to conscientious objection to armed service during the First World War.

But what does a largely secular idea in ancient Greek look like in context? Sorabji gives few original source passages at any length. Conscience appears as a daimōn in Plato’s Apology and arguably also in Euripides’ Orestes, where grief is called a terrible goddess in a kind of chiasmus. So how the Greeks viewed daimones becomes relevant to whether conscience ab origine is secular or religious or something in between. And Hesiod’s thoughts two centuries earlier in Works and Days about daimones as immortal and beneficent guardians of justice should be relevant, too.


Tom Palaima is professor of Classics, University of Texas at Austin.

Practicing Medicine and Ethics: Integrating Wisdom, Conscience and Goals of Care

Lauris Christopher Kaldjian

Practicing Medicine and Ethics: Integrating Wisdom, Conscience and Goals of Care

To practice medicine and ethics, physicians need wisdom and integrity to integrate scientific knowledge, patient preferences, their own moral commitments, and society’s expectations. This work of integration requires a physician to pursue certain goals of care, determine moral priorities, and understand that conscience or integrity require harmony among a person’s beliefs, values, reasoning, actions, and identity. But the moral and religious pluralism of contemporary society makes this integration challenging and uncertain. How physicians treat patients will depend on the particular beliefs and values they and other health professionals bring to each instance of shared decision making. This book offers a framework for practical wisdom in medicine that addresses the need for integrity in the life of each health professional. In doing so, it acknowledges the challenge of moral pluralism and the need for moral dialogue and humility as professionals fulfil their obligations to patients, themselves, and society.


Kaldjian LC. Practicing Medicine and Ethics: Integrating Wisdom, Conscience and Goals of Care. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2014.

Book Review: Why Tolerate Relgion?

New book questions preferential treatment of religious liberty

University of Chicago News Office

Why Tolerate Religion?

Brian Leiter, Why Tolerate Religion? Princeton University Press, 2012, 192 pp. ISBN: 9780691153612

The Western democratic practice of singling out religious liberty for special treatment under the law is not in sync with the world we live in today, argues University of Chicago Law School professor Brian Leiter in his new book,Why Tolerate Religion?

All people, both religious and non-religious, maintain core beliefs about what they feel they absolutely must do— a category Leiter calls “claims of conscience.” In the book, Leiter, the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence, explores whether there are good reasons for the tendency to grant legal exemptions to religious claims of conscience while largely rejecting non-religious claims.

“The current status quo is predicated on a fundamental inequality,” Leiter said. For example, he says a boy might be permitted to carry a dagger to school as part of his Sikh religion, but the same dagger would not be allowed if it were part of a family tradition.

“Namely, your claim of conscience counts if it is based in religion,” Leiter said. “My claim of conscience doesn’t count if it is not based in religion. That, it seems to me, is a pernicious and indefensible inequality in the existing legal regime.”  Read more . . .

Book Review: Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience

Alon Harel

Book Review: Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience

Kimberley Brownlee,Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience. Oxford University Press, 2012, 260pp., $65.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780199592944

In her thorough, careful and insightful discussion, Kimberley Brownlee explores the nature of conscience and conscientious convictions and draws important conclusions concerning the justifiable protection of acts of civil disobedience. The first part of her book discusses morality while the second part discusses law. In addition to its rigorous analysis, the book contains lively discussions of real-life examples and hypotheticals designed to illustrate and address all possible objections and establish the centrality of the protection of conscientious convictions and conscience in a liberal society.  . . .


Harel A. Book Review: Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2013-02-29

Equality, Freedom & Religion

New book documents erosion of religious freedom

Equality, Freedom & Religion

Trigg R. Equality, Freedom & Religion. Oxford: University Press; 2012 Jan 13. 224 p. ISBN: 9780199576852.

Is religious freedom being curtailed in pursuit of equality, and the outlawing of discrimination? Is enough effort made to accommodate those motivated by a religious conscience? All rights matter but at times the right to put religious beliefs into practice increasingly takes second place in the law of different countries to the pursuit of other social priorities. The right to freedom of belief and to manifest belief is written into all human rights charters. In the United States religious freedom is sometimes seen as ‘the first freedom’. Yet increasingly in many jurisdictions in Europe and North America, religious freedom can all too easily be ‘trumped’ by other rights.

Roger Trigg looks at the assumptions that lie behind the subordination of religious liberty to other social concerns, especially the pursuit of equality. He gives examples from different Western countries of a steady erosion of freedom of religion. The protection of freedom of worship is often seen as sufficient, and religious practices are separated from the beliefs which inspire them. So far from religion in general, and Christianity in particular, providing a foundation for our beliefs in human dignity and human rights, religion is all too often seen as threat and a source of conflict, to be controlled at all costs. The challenge is whether any freedom can preserved for long, if the basic human right to freedom of religious belief and practice is dismissed as of little account, with no attempt to provide any reasonable accommodation. Given the central role of religion in human life, unnecessary limitations on its expression are attacks on human freedom itself.