Two concepts of liberty … and conscience

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One of the dubious achievements of the Obama administration has been to put the issue of religious freedom and the rights of conscience back on the agenda in American politics. Most notoriously, the administration sought to impose upon private employers, including religious people and even religious institutions, a requirement to provide health insurance coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives, even if the employer cannot, as a matter of conscience, comply. The administration’s mandates were challenged on under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by employers seeking exemptions for themselves and others who conscientiously object, and the Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell required the administration to grant the exemptions. Of course, the administration contended and continues to contend that its mandates do not violate religious freedom or the rights of conscience, properly understood. Indeed, its defenders argue that the mandates - which contain only the narrowest of exemptions - are necessary to protect the freedom and rights of conscience of women who wish to use contraceptives and abortifacient drugs such as “Ella” (some of which they deny are actually abortion-inducing), or to avail themselves of sterilization procedures. So we find people on both sides in the debate claiming to be the defenders of liberty and conscience. It would be well for us, then, to pause to reflect in a philosophically rigorous way on the moral foundations of competing concepts of liberty and conscience. To that end, we might consider the ideas of two of modern intellectual history’s most distinguished thinkers - John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman. Mill and Newman were the greatest English intellectuals of the nineteenth century. They were men of deep and wide learning and formidable intelligence. Both wrote powerful defenses of freedom. Mill’s was in the form of an essay entitled simply “On Liberty” (1859). There he defended what he described as “one very simple principle [that is] entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion.” That principle has been dubbed Mill’s “harm principle:".

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationReligious Liberty
Subtitle of host publicationEssays on First Amendment Law
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages8
ISBN (Electronic)9781316556214
ISBN (Print)9781107147607
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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