As employers and governments have become more stringent with COVID vaccination requirements, many are no longer honoring conscientious or religious exemptions to vaccination.
This is a mistake. Even if vaccination is generally a good idea, removing these exemptions is morally wrong and unjust.
What Is Conscience?
Why should conscience matter at all? Many people think that appeals to conscience (religious or non-religious) are just convenient excuses to get around the rules. But this is a grossly unfair characterization of what conscience is and why it matters. Let me explain.
Good decisions are responsible decisions. In order for a decision to be responsible, it must (among other things) proceed from a position of confidence. We must be convinced that what we are doing is right. After all, it would be reckless to make decisions—especially about important matters—if you do not bother to check that what you are doing is right or have sincere doubts about it.
Even if things turned out in your favor, it would still be reckless because you made the decision carelessly without proper consideration of its merits. That is to say, you did not make the decision for the right reasons. What makes a choice reckless isn’t a matter of its results, but how it is chosen. We can still make reckless decisions about things that are good and beneficial.
Now, it would be wrong to coerce someone into making a decision that they are not confident about, even if that decision turns out to be the right course of action. What makes it wrong isn’t merely the fact that you’re overriding their autonomy—although that is certainly relevant—but the fact that they are being compelled to act recklessly. They are not acting from a position of confidence, but fear and doubt. Even if their decision turned out to be right, it would be a pure accident. It could have easily been the other way, given that there was no confidence that what was done was actually right.
That is why conscience is morally significant. There are many good ideas that are worth acting on. To avoid making reckless decisions about these ideas, one’s decisions to act on these ideas must proceed from a position of confidence. This is what conscience provides us with. Conscience is the ability to make rational judgments about matters of morality. It yields confidence, trust, or assurance that what one is doing is the right course of action. This confidence, trust, or assurance is what allows us to act in a responsible manner. The importance of conscience pertains to how we make decisions, not what we end up deciding.
Conscience is not a “still small voice” in our heads that mysteriously guides the individual, but an attitude of reasoned conviction about one’s actions. Protecting conscience is a matter of protecting the ability to make responsible decisions. Forcing someone to act against their conscience (even if their conscience is mistaken) is wrong because it means that they are being compelled to act from a position of doubt, which is reckless behavior on the part of the person doing the coercing and the person being coerced.
However, one might worry that this view of conscience is far too permissive. Wouldn’t it imply that the right of conscience can be used as a universal permission slip for anything we want?
No. This objection is based on a misunderstanding of what conscience is. As the Emg;osj theologian John Henry Newman (1801-1890) put it, “conscience has rights because it has duties.” Conscience matters because we have an obligation to make responsible decisions. It serves to illuminate our obligations by giving confidence to our decisions.
Conscience is thus a judgment of reason, not a reflection of sheer emotion or preference. It considers arguments and evidence and identifies obligations, not permissions. Indeed, we are under an obligation to inform our consciences by diligently considering the evidence. Appealing to conscience does not make our personal preferences immune to examination.
Conscience is a moral right in that it is a precondition for the exercise of our responsibilities. Rights exist to protect that which we need in order to flourish. Since human beings flourish by performing actions in pursuit of what is good, conscience is an essential ingredient of liberty and autonomy. Indeed, as we have seen, conscience is essential for any meaningful pursuit of the good life, for it identifies what the good life is.
Thus, if we have the rights to liberty and autonomy, then we must also have the right of conscience. Insofar as these moral rights are also enshrined into law as legal rights, so must the law also recognize conscience as a legal right. Moreover, given how central conscience is to decision-making, the right of conscience must be a fundamental right that carries serious moral weight. It is not contingent like the right to vote or the right to drive, but a right that comes with being a human person.
For these reasons, conscience deserves serious moral protection.
Conscience and COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates
How would conscience apply to recent debates over vaccination mandates? Let’s assume that COVID-19 vaccination is generally effective. However, some individuals have sincere doubts about its safety, believe that it is an unnecessary risk given their natural immunity, or are uncertain about the morality of using abortion-derived cell lines in vaccine testing and production. If vaccinations are going to be mandated as a matter of policy or law, then the doubtful conscience of these individuals must be respected, even if these beliefs are erroneous. They must have the right to refuse on grounds that they are not confident that what they are about to do is right. Removing conscience-based exemptions compels these individuals to act in reckless ways.
The reasoning is straightforward. In order to make responsible decisions, we must make them from a position of confidence. But one cannot act from a position of confidence about a medical decision if he is coerced into it. Vaccine mandates are an example of medical coercion, since they involve penalties of various kinds. So, vaccine mandates without conscience-based exemptions conflict with the obligation of each person to make responsible decisions. In the absence of these exemptions, these mandates are unjust and immoral.
If one is convinced that COVID-19 vaccination is a wise choice and that individuals should choose to be vaccinated, the right thing to do would be to work to change the minds of those who are unconvinced. This is done through reasoning and education, not threats. One can be pro-vaccination without having to resort to coercive mandates that violate conscience.
One might object on the grounds that refusing vaccination can be risky. Even if correct, this objection misses the point. The value of conscience is not a function of its benefits or risks, but rather has to do with its being an essential part of one’s personhood. If we deny someone the right to make responsible decisions, we deny him the very thing that makes him a unique human person: his rationality. The right of conscience is a basic right that comes with being human. As such it cannot be overridden simply because it would reduce risk.
Note also that there is a difference between risk and harm. The right of conscience cannot be used to justify activities that are intentionally harmful, i.e. damaging or injurious. This is because conscience functions to facilitate responsible decision-making, and decisions that intentionally cause harm cannot be responsible. Thus, conscience does not protect activities such as human sacrifice. By contrast, risk is simply the likelihood that an action might lead to harm. Everything we do generates some non-zero probability of risk, whether it be commuting to work, shaking someone’s hand, or just opening a window.
While refusing vaccination might be risky, it is not harmful. Someone who refuses vaccination might have a greater chance of becoming ill or spreading illness to others. However, it is the illness that causes actual harm, not the refusal to be vaccinated. For that reason, vaccine exemptions do not fall outside the scope of conscience protections. Although refusing vaccination may increase risk, there is not a moral obligation to reduce risk as much as possible. Otherwise, we couldn’t drive to coffee shops, build campfires, or give hugs.
This isn’t to say that there is no threshold at which risk becomes unacceptable. Rather, the mere fact that some course of action is risky is not by itself sufficient to override one’s conscience. Given just how significant conscience is to one’s personhood and autonomy, the threshold of risk for overriding conscience must be incredibly high.
Moreover, there are other options (e.g. natural immunity, regular testing, mask-wearing, social distancing, remote working, and other kinds of reasonable accommodations) that must all be exhausted first before resorting to overriding conscience, given how deeply intrusive such an act would be. Thus, it is unlikely that the risk of being unvaccinated by itself warrants this kind of intervention. Intruding on conscience, if it is ever justified, can only be justified as a last resort.
It is important to point out that I am not saying that all vaccinations are unhealthy, bad, or otherwise morally dubious. On the contrary, I believe that vaccination in general is typically a wise course of action. The point is simply that individuals should not be coerced into decisions they are unsure about, even if those decisions are good for them or society.
Individuals who cannot in good conscience submit to certain vaccination requirements should be granted relief from them. At the same time, we ought to continue examining the evidence and forming our conscience.
Whatever one ends up deciding, appealing to conscience does not provide an excuse to remain in ignorance, nor does it function as a permission slip that lets us get out of anything. We ought to align our consciences to what is true.