how much of a constraint is conscience?

I recently asked students to discuss Seamus Heaney’s poem, “A Republic of Conscience.” When the narrator departs from that republic, he is offered dual citizenship; he is authorized to speak “on [the republic’s] behalf in my own tongue”; and he is installed as an ambassador who can never be “relieved.”

The Republic of Conscience is a metaphor. But when Heaney imagines it as an actual place, he presumes that it would have a government, including customs and immigration officials, ambassadors, and “public leaders” who, “at their inauguration … / must swear to uphold unwritten law / and weep to atone for their presumption to hold office.”

Evidently, this is a minimalist state, a “frugal republic.” Its leaders are very gentle and accommodating. But it still has borders, officials, and laws. Is that the right way to think about conscience?

We might say that in a hypothetical place where everyone fully obeys his or her conscience, there would be no need for restraint or coordination. Conscience would constrain individuals’ will and opinion to the point that all our thoughts and behavior would be in full harmony. As Hamilton writes in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

A different view holds that we are irreducibly diverse in our backgrounds and perspectives. Conscience constrains us a bit, but two people of excellent conscience can still hold legitimately different and even contrary views and desires. Since citizens of the Republic of Conscience would disagree and conflict, they would need some system for decision-making and adjudication: a government.

At its deepest level, this is the question whether there is a right thing to do in each particular situation. If there is a right choice, then people of ideal conscience would know it and act accordingly. If there is not a right decision–if it’s a matter of opinion–then one can ask why doing right matters (or why right is better than wrong).

Other views are available. For example, one might argue that there is a right thing to do in each case, but we cannot know it by conscience alone; knowing what is right also requires information and prediction. Equipped with perfect conscience but imperfect reasoning ability, people in the Republic of Conscience would legitimately disagree. In short, if people were moral angels with human-sized IQs, they would need a government.

That conclusion depends on a particular definition of “conscience.” If it means good will or altruistic intent without any cognitive element, then it can accommodate deep disagreement. But that view is problematic, at least if taken to an extreme. Hannah Arendt portrayed Adolf Eichmann (the bureaucratic leader of the Holocaust) as a man compelled by a sense of duty that constrained his natural inclinations, yet a profoundly stupid man unable to see things from other people’s perspectives–to a loathsome degree. Can we say that he had a conscience, and his only defect was cognitive? I would say he was responsible for his failure of understanding, and therefore his conscience was appallingly bad even though it constrained his will. That reading pushes us in the direction of the idea that conscience requires seeing what is right, and therefore everyone with perfect conscience would act in harmony and there could be an Anarchy of Conscience.

About Peter

Director of CIRCLE and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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