Freedom of Conscience is a fundamental value

(Cross posted at dkos)

Freedom of conscience is not only a value, it is the fundamental American value that superceeds all other political values. The Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights have freedom of conscience as the fundamental building block of all our rights.

Freedom Forever has a thorough survey of all of the different ways that freedom of conscience impinges on every aspect of American life. The arguments have the standard libertarian flaw of valuing liberty over all other values, but it makes an important point. Freedom of conscience is central to all of our basic freedoms.

As an aside and as a building block, the three great political values are justice, liberty and equality. Of these three fundamental values, from which all other political values are derived, justice is the greatest. You can imagine a society with too much freedom or too much equality. It is impossible to imagine a society with too much justice.

More in Extended Entry

Freedom of conscience is the fundamental freedom. Freedom of conscience is recognized around the world:

"It should also be noted, however, that an emphasis on individual conscience and individual judgement also lies at the heart of our democratic political tradition. The ability of each citizen to make free and informed decisions is the absolute prerequisite for the legitimacy, acceptability, and efficacy of our system of self-government. It is because of the centrality of the rights associated with freedom of individual conscience both to basic beliefs about human worth and dignity and to a free and democratic political system that American jurisprudence has emphasized the primacy or "firstness" of the First Amendment. It is this same centrality that in my view underlies their designation in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as "fundamental." They are sine qua non of the political tradition underlying the Charter."

Chief Justice Dickson
Supreme Court of Canada
R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd.
[1985] 1 S.C.R. 295

"Conscience" is more than just what you think. It is a difficult concept to study because of it's abstract nature, but Freedom of Conscience is without equal in a democratic society as all other rights flow from it. The idea of choice is born out of it. A free conscience is, indeed, the beginning of freedom.

The defining characteristic of conscience in a democratic society is the freedom to have, hold and act upon (or not ) one's conscientiously-held beliefs. The concept is connected to a number of other ideas in democracy: consent, dissent, and freedom of speech in the first order, and loyalty and responsibility in the second.  

Note what the following documents have to say about liberty and freedom of conscience: (click through for links)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Constitution of the United States The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
The Constitution of the Russian Federation

A consideration of liberty or freedom in general is essential before beginning a discussion dealing with the specific context of freedom of conscience. On the subject of liberty, Madam Justice Bertha Wilson of the Supreme Court of Canada wrote extensively on the subject of liberty and freedom of conscience in the Morgentaler decision of 1988  

Freedom of conscience is individual in it's nature; it does not have a public component on it's own. It may inform debate on issues of the Public Good, but nothing more. The role it plays in a democratic society is one of "kingpin," in that it is from there that freedom and choice flow. It cannot be given or taken away. It can be informed and nurtured, and that is the essence of the task we have undertaken in Nurturing the Spirit of Democracy.

Freedom of conscience is central to Freedom of religion and freedom of association.

Freedom of conscience is the fundamental basis as the Center On Conscience And War (PDF file) for consciencious objection to war.

FIRE is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

Freedom of Conscience

Liberty cannot exist in a society in which people are forced to conform their thoughts and expression to an official viewpoint. Differences of opinion are the natural byproducts of a vibrant, free society. At many of our nation's colleges and universities, however, students are expected to share a single viewpoint on controversial matters like the meaning of diversity, the particulars of racism, and the impermissibility of "hate speech." Mandatory "diversity training," in which students are instructed in an officially-approved ideology, is commonplace. Some institutions have enacted policies that require students to speak and even share identical attitudes on these matters or face disciplinary charges. The FIRE cases listed below showcase our efforts to roll back this unprecedented intrusion into students' freedom of conscience and ensure that students are given the right to make up their own minds on the issues of the day -- without administrative coercion.


Freedom of conscience applies to all of our individual rights even when it comes to women's rights to make private health care decisions. The only moral basis for making a moral or ethical distinction for abortion is the same "yeeewwwhhh! factor" that makes it OK to discriminate against gays.

Anthropomorphizing the fetus is not a moral or ethical argument. A lot of men anthropomorphize their car and refer to it as "her" or "she". They may also devote more time, money and affection to their car than their wife or girlfriend. That does not give a car legal rights.

Any medical procedure can be described as "horrible." I watched one episode of "Nip Tuck". Any medical procedure more graphic than re-runs of Mash is more than I want to know or see. Any medical procedure can be described as "horrible." Abortion is no more "horrible" than any other medical procedure.

Individual autonomy is another way of phrasing the right to freedom of conscience. There is a Declaration of Individual Autonomy.

Individual autonomy has been posited as An Inalienable Right.

There are casebooks on The Law of Bioethics: Individual Autonomy and Social Regulation.

Individual autonomy and state involvement in health care is at the root of the problem with abortion. At its core, the fundamental argument of the anti-abortion crowd is that a woman cannot be trusted with grave moral decisions.

Since God Is Pro-Choice, no one has the moral authority to impose their religious views on another human being. No one has the moral right or moral authority to impose their religious beliefs on me and my family. There is not a single verse in the Bible that supports the anti-abortion position.

No one has the moral right or moral authority to compel any woman what medical decisions she must make about her body. Her husband and family have persuasive authority to influence her decision. The final decision is hers.

Every woman is an autonomous human being with the unique authority to make her own health care decisions about her body and her life. No one has the moral right or the moral authority to deprive her of her God given inalienable right to live her life according to the dictates of her own conscience as informed by her personal religious beliefs.

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