Creating a Conscience

Dec 30, 2012 | News

By Ethan Vesely-Flad

The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still small voice of conscience. (Mahatma Gandhi, 1922)

As a first-time father, I am newly attuned to the issues of social, spiritual, and ethical formation that consume the minds of parents across the world. And as our child grows day-by-day, my spouse and I listen attentively to the stories of friends whose children are older, and may already be in school or other social settings. We have begun to wrestle with the questions of how our son will find his moral foundation, and what will shape his life choices. How is a conscience developed?

The sense of conscience — the ability to determine right from wrong; to decide whether to act with truth or deceit — is fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be human. But although we conceive of these ideas as integrally related to the individual person, throughout the centuries humanity has sought to apply them to states and institutions as well.

Indeed, increasingly it is the “consciences” of our governments and of corporations that are empowered. Political leaders are privileged to decide what is a “just war,” not those who are sent to fight. The U.S.court system strikes down efforts to regulate businesses toward more socially just principles, arguing that companies may determine their own level of compliance regarding environmental and human rights stands.

Yet the power of one person to effect change through principled action, rooted in conscience, is nevertheless significant. One hundred years ago, Mohandas Gandhi launched a civil disobedience campaign in South Africa, employing what he termed satyagraha to resist a white colonial administration’s attempts to compel registration of its Indian population. The struggle was successful; the law was not enacted.

Shortly thereafter, he published the landmark Hind Swaraj, which sought to describe satyagraha and his developing anti-Western philosophy. “When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience,” wrote Gandhi, “I use soul-force.” His teachings helped inspire a nation, as well as people of conscience across the globe, to rise and resist imperialism.

According to Bhaskar Menon (see page 20), Gandhi was not a “saint” and his legacy seems to have little influence on present-day Indian culture. Yet his impact continues to be felt in other ways worldwide. Pacifist organizations that were founded in the early 20th century — such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR, 1914) and War Resisters International (WRI, 1921) — connected personally with Gandhi and drew deeply upon his words. His philosophy influenced FOR and WRI as they worked to create a broader framework for the rights of resisting conscription to military service: what came to be known as conscientious objection (C.O.).

Americans may think of the C.O. concept as a 20th-century phenomenon, since C.O. status was debated heavily during the Second World War, and was only formally recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense on May 10, 1968. But as described in Conscientious Objection: Resisting Militarized Societydescribes, (Özgür Heval Çinar and Coskun Üstercí, Zed Books, 2009), conscientious objection has a long history preceding the modern era.

And conscientious objection is not the same as civil disobedience: as one writer in Çinar and Üstercí’s book, Nïlgün Toker Kilinç, argues, the former is a personal act that expresses a matter of moral integrity within the framework of existing law, while the latter is a public method of seeking to overturn a law or policy deemed unjust.

Regardless, the C.O. issue is a lens through which our society must continue to grapple with an individual’s conscience-based struggle to resist state-sponsored violence. It receives scant attention in our nation today because military conscription is no longer practiced here — and too often, the argument is made that someone who has “freely” decided to join the military cannot change their mind. In March 2010, a Truth Commission on Conscience in War will address the topic of “selective conscientious objection,” bringing this debate to national attention. And for members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and other young men and women who have refused deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, this conversation might literally be one of life and death.

I have not had to make the choice of whether or not to refuse a military draft; I hope that my son will never be forced to such a decision. But whatever his life choices, I find the courageous witness of IVAW a reminder that our conscience is always in development, and that is never too late to choose the path of nonviolence.