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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXI No. 4
Christmas 2006 - Epiphany 2007

When subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of ethics,
we have reached

A Dangerous State of Affairs

by Rita Joseph

It is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science” and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective.

The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity…

— Pope Benedict XVI
“Three Stages in the Program of Dehellenisation”
University of Regensburg - September 12, 2006

For five years now I have been involved in the debate in Australia over legislation that licenses the use of “surplus” human embryos (discards from in vitro fertilization [IVF] programs) and the creation of cloned human embryos for lethal stem cell research. I was struck by the overwhelming number of politicians who, seeking to justify their support for unethical laws, began their speeches speaking of their conscience — many of them at considerable length.

I was reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lines:

“The more he talked of his honor: The faster we counted the spoons.”

It’s not just Australian politicians. Around the world there appears to be an upsurge of these disingenuous appeals to conscience in order to forestall or disarm any criticism of an unprincipled stance on sanctity of life issues. In this climate of sanctimonious claims by politicians, each to be obeying his own personal private conscience, the pope’s warning is timely. When political debate on the lawful limits of science seeks to exclude religion and ethics from “the purview of collective reason”, then as Pope Benedict said at Regensburg, “the subjective ‘conscience’ becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical” and “this is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity”.

A subjective conscience can deceive people even in high places, such as the US Congress and Senate. They can be deceived into contravening the most basic human rights -- such as the right of each human being, irrespective of age or stage of development, to be protected by law from arbitrary deprivation of life. Every human embryo, even a cloned human embryo, is an embryonic human being -- a being that is already in existence and belongs to the human family. Belonging to the human family entitles embryonic human beings to the same human rights as all other members of the human family. Equality and non-discrimination are basic incontrovertible tenets of modern international human rights law.

A conscience that gives the green light to cloning certain human beings for scientific research is discriminatory in that it contradicts the inherent and inalienable human rights and dignity owed to all human beings. Such a conscience becomes subjective as it rejects the basic rules of conscience -- the Golden rule that one may not do to any other human being what one would not have done to oneself, and the universal principle that the doing of evil is prohibited even that good may come of it.

Rejecting objective moral truth — holocaust deniers
Appealing to one’s conscience when advocating an immoral course is a dubious political ploy. It may seem to make it all right for politicians to license evil actions when they are held to be excused or even honored for holding to their conscience. But this is a perversion of conscience, a rejection of the true concept of conscience as testifying to both the possibility and the grave duty to discern objective moral truth. Those who deny objective moral truth are holocaust deniers. They should be accorded no credibility, and trusted with no position of authority in a democratic society.

Politicians, who appeal to conscience on the use of embryonic human beings for scientific research, trade on the moral confusion of their constituents, who, dazzled by the vision of wonderful cures to come, are easily persuaded that it would be immoral not to use these human embryos. A deceitful impression is maintained that there is equal moral validity for both sides of this debate. Facile claims to good conscience on this issue signal to a democratic society that, depending on each subjective conscience, and denying the possibility of objective reason, it can be both right and wrong to consign an embryonic human being to the laboratory for research and premeditated destruction. Objective reason says that both sides of this debate cannot be morally right. One is right and the other wrong.

The flawed logic of “necessity”
As in the Nazi era, today’s politicians argue the flawed logic of “necessity” and base their rationalizations on denial of the humanity of a vulnerable class of human beings. They ignore age-old collective values that would warn them to question the morality of the means used to pursue what they regard as justifiable ends. Consciences have become dysfunctional when unethical means are embraced as the “necessary” price for medical advances.

Nazi contempt for certain classes of human life has resurfaced in this debate on using embryonic human beings as laboratory rats. As Professor Edmund Pellegrino, the newly designated head of the US President’s Council on Bioethics, warned some years ago: “Moral lessons are quickly forgotten. Medical ethics is more fragile than we think. Moral reasoning based on defective premises tends to recur in new settings”. (“The Nazi Doctors and Nuremberg; Some Moral Lessons Revisited”, Ann Inter Med. 1997)

Right formation of conscience
Meanwhile, there is urgent need for public education in the right formation of conscience. The longstanding philosophical concept of conscience is that it is a judgment of reason by which a person recognizes the moral quality of an act. Faced with a moral choice, a well-formed, truthful conscience can formulate a right judgment according to reason and in conformity with what is truly good. On the other hand, an ill-formed conscience can deliver erroneous judgments -- particularly where issues are not explored honestly or where they are influenced by self-interest, financial gain, ambition, intellectual arrogance, or even an idealistic or emotional attachment to a particular course.

Right formation of a conscience is critical to right judgment. On particular moral questions, a politician’s conscience can be very wrong.

The trouble with subjective conscience
Had you asked Idi Amin if, in executing hundreds of thousands of human beings, he had governed according to his conscience, he would have put his hand on his heart and sworn absolutely sincerely that he had. Similarly, with the other political tyrants of history.

How did these tyrants justify their inhumanity toward vulnerable human beings in their power? By citing the good that would come from terminating the lives of their expendable subjects. All were convinced that they were morally justified -- that their actions were morally valid and perfectly in accord with their consciences.

Their consciences were, of course, subjective -- they were working from invalid premises: that some human beings are more equal than others; and that it is their duty to sacrifice some (inferior) human beings in order to advance the well-being of other (more highly valued) human beings.

The flip-flop “conscience” vote
Confused politicians need to be told that conscience isn’t something to be used only when they want to get away with supporting an immoral course of action. Indeed, no politician should ever vote against the certain judgment of his conscience.

In 2002, the Australian Parliament, voting according to their consciences, banned the cloning of human embryos for research.

Now four years later, the consciences of many of these same people appear to have done a flip-flop.

A true conscience -- not easily bribed or intimidated or corrupted or changed
Yet, in general, a true conscience is formed over a long period of seeking what is right and good. It involves inquiring, listening, learning, reasoning as objectively as possible according to principles rather than feelings, putting aside personal advantage, and giving the matter serious and prudential consideration.

And when a truthful conscience is formed, it is the nature of that conscience that it is not easily bribed or intimidated or corrupted or changed. It is not susceptible to the social conditioning and psychological manipulation of ambitious charlatans who parade children in wheelchairs, and other vulnerable people with chronic disabilities, and promise fantastic cures all round. A fully-formed conscience will never be deceived or cajoled into approving the production for laboratory use of a new class of human beings.

The writings of Saint Thomas More should be prescribed reading for politicians who want to claim piously that they are performing a genuine exercise of conscience. They should study the decisions taken by some of the hundreds of German Catholic martyrs like Karl Leisner and Otto Neururer, or Polish martyrs such as Anton Julian Nowowiejski and Josef Pawlowski, who made their stand on conscience against Nazi contempt for principles of humanity.

Attempts to exclude religion from the debate
In the debate here in Australia, I have observed with dismay a growing chorus of anti-Catholic criticism of those politicians who dare to raise in debate even natural law principles that apply across all faiths and cultures. It is particularly ironic that, in this 60th anniversary year of the Nuremberg Trials, these critics have attacked Catholic politicians for their principled stand against the abortion drug RU-486 and other forms of government-funded abortion as well as against the cloning of humans for laboratory use. In the United States also, genuinely Catholic politicians like Senator Rick Santorum have been punished at the ballot box for their allegiance to natural law principles. Even careful legal, logical, science-based arguments establishing the humanity of the human embryo and the legal protection due to them are met with anti-Catholic prejudice and dismissed in the Public Square as “emotional” arguments or denigrated as “merely religious-based”.

Such modern-day critics join, I’m afraid, a long list of other proponents of separation of Church and State on critical sanctity of life issues. One of the most infamous of these was Dr. Gerhard Wagner1, head of the Nazi organization of physicians in the 1930s.

He too complained of the Church’s opposition to abortion and other elements of the State’s health programs. He wanted health to be left “primarily in the hands of the approximately 20,000 expert physicians with a reliable worldview” (Catholics need not apply!)

Dr. Wagner condemned the Church for being among “those who reject or oppose us because they hold to another worldview”, and resented that they “warn their sheep in Christian piety … of the errors of the measures taken by the Third Reich”.

He too warned off the Church: “When you don the worthy priestly robes … and claim that ‘your kingdom is not of this world’ please concern yourselves with your kingdom and leave to us the responsibility for the kingdom of this world. Allow us to form our German state according to our laws and needs.”

Objectors to Nazi abortions: “… mostly Catholic physicians”
A secret police report, dated October 25, 1943, singled out Catholic doctors as the main objectors to the new abortion policy that was being extended from Russia, Poland and Eastern Occupied Territories to the German homeland. It was “mostly Catholic physicians”, the report said, who were objecting “that the decree was not in accordance with the moral obligation of a physician to preserve life...”

The Nazi eugenic abortion program at home was promoted as “saving the German people from a steady stream of new moral and economic burdens resulting from genetic illnesses.… We have a good conscience before the world when we eliminate life that is unworthy of life…” (Dr. Wagner)

Can a democratic vote validate ditching principles of conscience?
We have a good conscience before the world, the Nazis said. But we know now that Nazi atrocities were not consistent with a good conscience. So where are the checks and balances to ensure that our politicians today don’t repeat Nazi errors? Accepted wisdom right now implies that democracy protects us from such errors. Not so. Any democratic vote that permits the fundamental moral principles of conscience itself to be ditched is logically flawed. It is to abandon the only objective rational basis we have for deciding morality. It is to regress to the primitive mob methodology of cannibals and pirates -- a naïve facing off the numbers, sizing up two opposing forces with the bigger force having its way in deciding what is morally right.

There is something rotten in the State when politicians presume to vote on a course of action that will violate any of the core set of fundamental moral values that underpin the whole democratic system. Every successful democracy is built on a solid foundation of essential moral principles which must stand immutable amidst the changing winds of ideology or the shifting sands of politics. History has shown again and again: a moral law that changes with each passing ideology or each party-political fad offers no enduring protection for the dignity and human rights of the very young, the very old, the unwanted, the disabled and the most vulnerable.

Antithesis of true conscience … his conscience makes him blameless
It is the antithesis of good conscience when politicians vote to abandon moral principles in order to bow to popular media, electoral or commercial pressures; cave in to the demands of opportunistic research scientists peddling personal and national ambitions to be “first” in some grotesque international scientific race; or agree to be swayed by self-centered interest groups who, to relieve their own medical conditions, advocate mandatory destruction of another vulnerable group.

Invoking conscience to justify an immoral decision may deceive people initially. But such a deceit cannot be maintained. Just as it was in vain that the people of Nazi Germany took comfort in the numbers around them who all claimed to have clear consciences. And so the green light was given to the unprincipled extermination of human beings conveniently classified as less than human.

Were they good people -- the Nazi doctors who used unborn Jewish children in lethal research projects? Were Nazi political leaders good people because each was acting according to his conscience? They may have been misguided people, but they were certainly not good people. Yet today we are being coaxed to believe just this -- that every politician is a good person even when he contravenes universal moral principles of humanity -- that a politician’s conscience makes him blameless.

Not so. History will not condone the “conscience votes” of those who advocate the production of a new class of expendable human beings for laboratory use only. They will be condemned for contravening principles of objective moral truth.

Without objective moral truth, communities become dysfunctional
The Holy Father is absolutely right about this: without objective morality, without an agreed platform of fundamental natural law moral principles, “ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter”.

Pope Benedict goes on to conclude: “This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity…” And in this too, he is right.

Without consensus on objective moral truth, humanity can find no answers to the scourge of terrorism. Denial of the principles of conscience forms the basis of most acts of terrorism. Democracy itself cannot work when it attacks its own foundational principles. Thus the Palestinian State’s recent disastrous exercise in voting for Hamas leaders whose first illegitimate pronouncement was to deny their neighbor Israel the right to continue to exist.

This is the same mistake that any government makes when it hands over for a democratic vote the principle of the right of embryonic human beings to continue to exist. No government, no democracy has a right to vote down that principle: that all human beings, no matter how they are brought into existence, have a right to continue to exist. This is a first principle of natural law: that life is good, to be supported and favored, and whatever threatens it is to be avoided.

Principles of conscience must govern science and politics
All the scientific data in the world cannot change such a principle. The pro-cloning scientists continue in the delusion that if they can build up a big enough portfolio of attractive possibilities for curing diseases and other idyllic outcomes that will help humanity, then governments will excuse and endorse contravention of moral principles.

There is a failure to understand that any vote to suspend or rescind the principles of objective moral truth resembles a donkey vote in that it represents a rejection of reason and an abjuration of human solidarity -- of our responsibility for one another.

Our need for God
For those with belief in God (and in both the United States and Australia we are still a majority), government is not the highest authority. So why have we gone along with the public deceit, the pretense practiced by powerful elites in politics, academia, the judiciary and the media that God does not exist? Why have we been sidelined in public debates and exhorted not to impose our religious views on others? Why do our governments continue to legislate as if there is no God?

Whatever the reason, it is time to remind legislators that no government is a law unto itself. Governments must humbly defer to and comply with the natural law that underwrites human dignity and rights. For this is the essence of what our founding fathers committed us to -- that we would seek always the blessing of Almighty God by respecting always the natural law -- the universal law written in all hearts, across all faiths and able to be acknowledged even by atheists and agnostics -- an objective natural law established by some higher authority -- however one may wish to name that higher authority.

Edward M. Andries, constitutional law and hermeneutics expert, teaches the necessity always to disclose the original intent of the framers of national constitutions. In a comparative study of the Constitutions of Germany and the United States2, he affirms clear moral convictions grounded in an authentic philosophy of human dignity and the natural law, rooted in reason and historically present behind the constitutional text. No less than the US and German Constitutions, the Australian Constitution too, I believe, is grounded in this same “authentic philosophy”.

Natural law obligations embedded in Constitutional text
Constitutions with natural law foundations require humble recognition of the moral and ethical limits of human authority. This means that our laws must remain within the moral and ethical parameters of natural law, parameters that may never be crossed.

Constitutions based on natural law philosophy cannot be converted mid-stream to a utilitarian base without colossal loss of logical coherence. The use and destruction of human embryos in research is prohibited by that most basic of all ethical principles: human beings may not be used as mere expendable means no matter how noble the ends.

Nowhere in these constitutions is there to be found any authority to license the creation of a new class of human beings created specifically for development, use and destruction in research projects. Such a license, as an affront to long-held principles of human morality and dignity, is implicitly prohibited by our Constitutions. Recall that constitutional hermeneutics confirm a commitment by the original framers to natural law that forbids abuse and arbitrary destruction of human life.

Wherever the natural law covenant between God and man is abandoned for a pluralistic man-made bumblebroth of law, communities fragment, societies disintegrate. Reason, working from a multiplicity of faulty premises and spurning recourse to religion and ethics, cannot achieve a just, humane and integrated society.

International Law Professor Michael Ignatieff, issued a grim warning in the Tanner lectures at Princeton in 2000:

If one end product of Western rationalism is the exterminatory nihilism of the Nazis, then any ethics that takes only reason for its guide is bound to be powerless when human reason begins to rationalize its own exterminatory projects.

We must expose and reject the rationalization of exterminatory projects being proposed by scientists in this 21st Century involving “surplus” and/or cloned human embryos. Armed with objective moral truth in which religion, ethics and reason are rightly integrated, we will not remain powerless. As in the great battles against evil in Old Testament times, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is still with us. And now we have too the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, our Emmanuel, who comes each day to us in the Holy Mass -- He who is truth, He who is our courage, He who promised us eloquence when we confront in His great name the corrupt and powerful of this world.

Yes, we confront now “a dangerous state of affairs for humanity” -- but we will not be defeated.

1 Gerhard Wagner, “Rasse und Bevölkerungspolitik,” Der Parteitag der Ehre vom 8. bis 14. September 1936. Offizieller Bericht über den Verlauf des Reichsparteitages mit sämtlichen Kongreßreden (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP., 1936)

2 Edward M. Andries: Religious and Philosophical Norms in the Constitutions of Germany and the United States 2nd European/American Conference on Church Autonomy and Religious Liberty Trier, Federal Republic of German, 1999.

Rita Joseph has represented family concerns at UN conferences, and writes and lectures on social issues especially concerning women and families, and has made a special study of the Holy Father's writings on family and on women. She has previously lectured at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne.  Rita and her husband live in Canberra, Australia.

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