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

The deficiencies and dangers of ‘radical individualism’

Margaret Somerville

What it Means to be Human (book)

O. Carter Snead. What it means to be human: The case for the body in Public Bioethics. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2020, pp 321. ISBN-10: 0674987721.

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

Religious Exemptions

Kevin Vallier and Michael Weber (eds). Religious Exemptions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018, 328 pp. 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. . . .

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. . . .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

The Conscience Wars

Susanna Mancini and Michel Rosenfeld (eds). The Conscience Wars: Rethinking the Balance between Religion, Identity, and Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018, pp. 493. 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

Opting Out: Conscience and cooperation in a pluralistic society

David Oderberg. Opting Out: Conscience and Cooperation in a Pluralistic Society. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2018, pp. 136. ISBN:978-0-255-36761-5.

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. . .

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.

(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. Moral Conscience Through the Ages: Fifth Century BCE to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, 240 pp. ISBN 9780199685547

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.

(Book Review) Why Tolerate Religion?

Robert Merrihew Adams

Why Tolerate Religion?

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

“Why tolerate religion?” The question is raised by someone who thinks there is something wrong about religion as such. To tolerate, Brian Leiter emphasizes, is to “put up” with beliefs or practices that one regards as “wrong, mistaken, or undesirable” (p. 8). His paradigm case of principled tolerance is one in which a “dominant group has the means at its disposal to effectively and reliably change or end [a] disfavored group’s beliefs or practices, and yet . . . acknowledges that there are moral or epistemic reasons . . . to permit the disfavored group to keep on believing and doing what it does” (p. 13). Forcibly changing or ending religious belief has commonly been extremely difficult or impossible to achieve by any means short of total extermination or banishment of the disfavored group, as history shows, and is therefore a really scary project. With his stated paradigm in mind, we might think that Leiter’s statement that “the contemporary problem, at least in the post-Enlightenment secular nations, . . . is why the state should tolerate religion as such at all” (pp. 14-15), would be ominous indeed if it were an accurate reading of political reality.

Adams RM. Why Tolerate Religion? [Internet]. Notre Dame (IN): University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews; 2013 Jan 6.

(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. 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

(Book Review) Conflicts of conscience in health care an institutional compromise

Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharya

Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise

Holly Fernandez Lynch. Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise. Boston: The MIT Press; 2008, 368 pp. ISBN: 9780262123051

Lynch demystifies the practice of medicine as a value-neutral panacea to remedy social ills with physicians as unwavering obligors to provide service on demand. . . . As far as the provision of services goes, protecting patient and physician interests are, as Lynch argues, not mutually exclusive propositions. In practice, physicians who check their moral apprehensions at the hospital doors may even compromise patient safety. An enlightened approach, as proposed here, encourages health professionals to embrace moral plurality to inform, rather than stymie, the provision of services in the best interests of patients—while respecting physician individuality.

Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise will serve as an excellent resource for educators and policymakers eager to parse the complex issues of patient wants, physician duties, and institutional prerogatives to secure individual and population health and well-being.

Bhattacharya D. (Book Review) Conflicts of conscience in health care an institutional compromise. J Leg Med. 2009;30(2):289-298.

(Book Review) Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise

Sean Murphy

Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise

Holly Fernandez Lynch. Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise. Boston: The MIT Press, 2008. 368 pp. ISBN: 9780262123051

Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care was published in 2008 as the 24th volume in the Basic Bioethics series from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is an American book dealing with the American political and legal controversies over freedom of conscience in health care. However, the discussion of the American experience by Holly Fernandez Lynch is relevant elsewhere, since the United States has the most extensive and varied network of protection of conscience legislation in the world.

While acknowledging that freedom of conscience is of concern to all health care workers and institutions, Fernandez Lynch focuses exclusively on physicians. This carefully and deliberately restricted focus is one of the strengths of the book.

After a preface and introduction, discussion and argument occupy about 260 pages, supplemented by 53 pages of end notes, many of which offer expanded comment on the text. A good 12 page index has been included, as well as four pages of cited statutes and cases. The earliest source found in a list of 300 references is from 1951; the rest date from 1972 to 2007. . .

. . . . As the subtitle of the book indicates, she is seeking a compromise that will provide “maximal liberty for all parties.” She believes that freedom of conscience for physicians and the provision of legal medical services are both important social goals, and that they are not incompatible. Thus, she rejects “all-or-nothing” strategies that seek “total victory.” Ultimately, quoting the Protection of Conscience Project, she affirms that all legitimate concerns can be met by “dialogue, prudent planning, and the exercise of tolerance, imagination and political will.”

Murphy S. Book Review: Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise. Protection of Conscience Project; 2009 Dec 17.