Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The Inviolable Conscience

The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom.

Chandran Kukathas
Oxford University Press, 2003
xii + 292 pgs.
Chandran Kukathas has in this remarkable work made a major contribution to political theory. He has arrived at a strongly libertarian position, which he defends in an original and insightful way. Although his "sympathies with (some forms of ) anarchism are quite evident" (p. 8), he does not rule out as illegitimate any role for the state. He is not an anarcho-capitalist of the Rothbardian persuasion.

Nevertheless, Rothbardians will applaud Kukathas for one of his fundamental theses. He finds a flaw at the heart of much contemporary political theory, especially views that reflect the influence of John Rawls.

"Much of recent theorizing begins with the question: what should the state or the government—or ‘we’—do, or permit, in a good society? It asks what is the role of political authority to promote, and by what principles or considerations should it be guided; in short, by what values should ‘we’ live" (p. 5).

Kukathas rejects this question altogether: it is not the function of the state to promote any set

of values at all. If the state imposes values by force, then some people will be compelled to act against their consciences. Suppose, e.g., that certain religious groups restrict women to the home, denying them the opportunity to pursue independent careers. If the state requires the groups to end these practices, it will violate the consciences of those who wish to continue their accustomed ways. People should be free to form and maintain whatever groups they wish, even groups that reject freedom and tolerance. Liberty of conscience requires no less.

Kukathas is of course prepared for the question, what about the women in the group who do not wish to accept the restrictions? Are not they too forced to act contrary to conscience? No, our author responds; so long as they may freely exit the group, their liberty has not been infringed.

Those who favor intervention in such cases will remain unsatisfied, and Kukathas, ever fertile with arguments, considers a number of objections to his position. His principal target is Will Kymlicka, the most influential recent political theorist on cultural rights. Kymlicka also emphasizes tolerance of diverse groups, but his allegiance to freedom of conscience is not so absolute as that of Kukathas. What if women in our groups accept their restricted options only because they have from their earliest years been taught that certain religious doctrines are correct, and they have never been exposed to alternatives? Are their choices really their own? Kymlicka thinks it is the duty of the state to promote autonomous choice. By autonomy he means "the idea that individuals should be free to assess and potentially revise their existing ends" (p. 36). In our example, Kymlicka might say that the state can compel the groups to make women aware of alternative forms of life in which women are not subordinate to men.

Kukathas rejects this view. What if people reject autonomy as a value? Should they not be free to do so? To demand that people embrace forms of life that encourage people to reevaluate their beliefs is, as you will by now have surmised, to restrict freedom of action according to conscience. This freedom applies to people as they are, not to people reformed as we would like them to be.

Our author is equally decisive in rejecting another objection. He maintains that people in a group who reject its way of life retain their freedom to obey conscience so long as they may leave the group. But is it not often very difficult for people to leave a group? What if the women in our example would find life in the "outside" world baffling, owing to their insulated upbringing? Are they really "free" to leave?

Kukathas’s answer is "not to deny that exit can be extremely costly. It is simply to acknowledge that exit may, indeed, be costly; but the individual may still be free to decide whether or not to bear the cost. The magnitude of the cost does not affect the freedom" (p. 107). Once more Kukathas takes individuals as he finds them.

Our author risks everything on the overriding importance of freedom to act according to conscience. Will it bear the great weight he rests on it? He contends that the "most important source of human motivation is principle—or, better still, conscience. . . not because conscience always overcomes or overrules other motives." Rather, conscience is "what we think should guide us" (p. 48).

Once more an objection arises, and here I think Kukathas’s view is vulnerable. What if someone’s conscience tells someone to do evil? Can we unconditionally exalt conscience, regardless of what is chosen? Kukathas maintains "that an erroneous conscience has binding force. Thus, one does wrong in acting against conscience. Second, one should not do violence to other consciences—even if they are in error" (pp. 114–15). I do not think he has fully felt the force of Aquinas’s point that someone who acts according to an erroneous conscience also does wrong, if he is not invincibly ignorant. If Aquinas is correct, need respecting liberty of conscience always be right?1

1Kukathas’s views are similar to Part III of Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia; but, surprisingly, Kukathas does not discuss this.


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