Social Service

Book cover
Conscience and the Common Goodby By Robert K. VischerCambridge Univ. Press. 328p $34.99 (paperback)

Issues of conscience and state power are other people’s concerns, not mine. That, anyway, is a preliminary conclusion that might be reached by many readers of this magazine. Unless you are a member of a sectarian religious group that on principle refuses to pledge allegiance to a nation or salute its flag, or expect someday to be drafted into the armed forces against your will, it might seem reasonable to expect that matters of conscience and civil law are unlikely to impinge much upon your life.

Robert Vischer, a law professor at University of Saint Thomas in Minneapolis, has written a book that challenges any such minimalistic notions of the meaning of conscience as it relates to law and government. Through case studies that illustrate his points as well as insightful forays into the history of ideas, Vischer demonstrates the many ways by which all members of our society are bound up in a web of conscience-related matters. Anyone who shops, consumes, works, pays taxes or sends children out to school participates in a network of relationships that involve conscience broadly understood.


Although modern life features many garden-variety conflicts regarding matters of conscience, Vischer directs the reader’s attention to the subtler ways in which our very participation in social life requires an application of conscience. At the root of his analysis is the contention that in order to retain coherence, any adequate definition of conscience must include more than the mere holding of opinions and recognition of values. Rather, “conscience is not just belief, passively held by the individual. It is belief applied to conduct, an act.”

Vischer is particularly eager to emphasize that our interior moral judgments acquire real meaning when they are directed outward, especially as contemporary people come to play distinctive roles in such institutions as families, corporations, schools and even the legal system. Much appreciated in this regard are the occasional references to Robert Bellah and four of his colleagues, whose 1991 collaborative volume, The Good Society, called overdue attention to the key role that such public and private institutions indispensably play in shaping the very moral possibilities we enjoy today. If U.S. society is to break the disheartening partisan gridlock and “culture war” impasses that have blocked further social progress in recent decades, then attention to a variety of such mediating institutions will have to be part of the solution. Vischer’s fresh analysis of conscience contributes greatly to our understanding of what is at stake and how we may map a way forward.

As a corrective to the narrowly individualistic ways conscience is perceived in the popular imagination and how it is treated in most contemporary discourse, Vischer has produced a book-length reminder of the relational dimensions of conscience. Two early chapters surveying philosophical and theological analysis of conscience reveal how a range of classic thinkers indeed recognized conscience (however they named and understood that human faculty) as corresponding to the social nature of the person. Vischer chronicles how Enlightenment concerns and several influential early modern thinkers (especially Hume) subsequently came to erode the received understanding of conscience in the direction of emotivism and arbitrariness. Freedom of conscience was reduced over time to mere freedom of belief, without its social moorings, practical dimensions and thrust toward the common good. In our modern setting of value pluralism, we are thus tragically less able than ever before in human history to give an account of our moral convictions, and we find ourselves locked in a cage of mere preferences. A more robust approach to conscience, as something more complex than an all-purpose trump card to preserve autonomy and individual choice, may just hold the key.

If this tour of intellectual history sounds heavy (and it often is), the second half of this volume supplies a felicitous dose of balm. With a lively but still rigorous lawyerly touch, Vischer guides us through several sectors of modern life where conscience plays an important role in shaping behavior. In the course of encountering vivid case studies involving schools, families, corporations and courts, the reader gains a rich appreciation of the dangers of relying on an overly individualistic framework regarding conscience today.

Particularly rich is the author’s analysis of the current “pharmacist wars.” Disputes over the availability of controversial contraceptives (the product “Plan B” receives much attention here) illustrate how matters of conscience regarding personal behavior as well as corporate policies come to unfold in marketplaces and beyond. How should society provide for the seemingly conflicting rights of consumers and professional dispensers holding moral qualms about certain products? Vischer’s consistently moderate approach, with an abundance of common sense, fits the sensitive subject matter in a most commendable way.

Safeguarding the conditions of human flourishing and freedom is rarely a simple matter of fending off government intrusion or asserting one’s abstract rights. As readers of this volume will better appreciate, it turns out to involve a project of tending more deliberately to the overall social ecology, with attention to the complex ways people communicate and interact in shared spaces. Vischer’s erudite and skillful analysis highlights the thick interpersonal commitments situated within the myriad associations that mediate between individuals and the state. Only within this context will a healthy respect for conscience be guaranteed today.

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