Dr. Stanley Fish fails to grasp why to Thomas Hobbes’s understanding of Conscience should not be applied to the current debate over the “conscience clause”:
Hobbes is aware that others take conscience to be the name of the private arbiter of right and wrong, but he regards this as a corrupted usage invented by those who wished to elevate “their own . . .opinions” to the status of reliable knowledge and try to do so by giving “their opinions . . . that reverenced name of Conscience.”
Hobbes’s larger point — the point he is always making — is that if one gets to prefer one’s own internal judgments to the judgments of authorized external bodies (legislatures, courts, professional associations), the result will be the undermining of public order and the substitution of personal whim for general decorums: “. . . because the Law is the public Conscience . . . in such diversity as there is of private Consciences, which are but private opinions, the Commonwealth must needs be distracted, and no man dare to obey the Sovereign Power farther than it shall seem good in his own eyes.”
If the Law is the public Conscience, it must be a remarkably dynamic and malleable thing indeed. Given the Law’s observably transient nature, Hobbes’s argument is based on a flawed foundation, leading one to conclude that the argument is best left to languish in historical obscurity rather than cited in the debate over the conscience clause.
Furthermore, appealing to public order as a basis for forcing the majority of doctors and nurses to violate their religious beliefs is self-defeating. The lack of observable damage to public order caused by the conscience clause – which, after all, is already in effect – will stand in contrast to the very real damage to public order if large quantities of religious individuals exit and/or avoid the medical field in order to avoid committing what they believe to be murder.
As Jeffrey Collier has already pointed out, the “public Conscience” argument could be just as easily used to justify euthanasia or even genocide.