March 3, 2024

Obeying the Leviathan

A post-modernist looks at conscience

The "conscience clause" has reached the American intellectual stratosphere, Stanley Fish’s New York Times blog "Think Again". Fish, one of the best-known intellectuals and literary theorists in the US, is a post-modernist and relativist. He is an acknowledged expert on the poet John Milton, who wrestled vigorously with problems of conscience back in the 17th century. But surprisingly, in supporting President Obama’s move to rescind the previous administration’s "conscience clause", which allows people to opt out of supplying abortion and contraception, he cites someone quite different — Milton’s contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, the theorist of the modern totalitarian state, or, as he called it, the monster Leviathan.

Those who are bored to tears with philosophy and philosophers should hang on, for this is relevant to today’s debate. Hobbes had an odd notion of "conscience". By it he meant private shared knowledge, as opposed to public knowledge. There was no right to act on one’s conscience, he said, because this would put public order at risk. Fish feels much the same. Conscience is a private voice whispering what is right and wrong. Obeying this rather than government directives would lead to anarchy. Thus, says Fish, "obligations vary with different contexts and that one can (and should) relax the obligations of faith when one is not in church".

Of course, "one’s inner sense of what is right" — which is how Fish and Hobbes see conscience — does not correspond to the conscience of most conscientious objectors. Rather, they feel that they are following a law inscribed in the nature of things and that it is possible to hold a rational debate about whether this law exists, and whether it applies to this particular case.

So in Fish’s argument against conscientious objection, relativism comes full circle: from anarchically asserting that everyone’s conscience is right because there is no right and wrong to asserting that in a state of anarchy we have a duty always to obey Leviathan. "Everyone [should] agrees to comport himself or herself as a citizen and not as a sectarian, at least for the purposes of public transactions," Fish contends. Argument is pointless, for there is no truth to argue about.

Here’s where Fish’s exhumation of Hobbes becomes relevant. Hobbes was writing after England had been torn for generations by factional hatred, civil war, and religious persecution. The rack, the gibbet and the axe were common. An iron fist in an iron glove was needed to keep restless subjects in order. But is "obey, or else", really the message that the Obama administration wants to send? ~ New York Times, Apr 12