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Courage to Refuse > Article > Bound by their Conscience - Joseph Raz
Bound by their Conscience - Joseph Raz 02/01/2004
 
 
To me, there is something strange about the approach that views the right to conscientious objection as limited to pacifists, but irrelevant with respect to people whose refusal is not total, people who believe that it is immoral to join a given army only if its actions involve humiliating people, killing them or violating their human rights.

Published in Haaretz on 31.12.03


Similarities and differences between conscientious objection and civil disobedience, and between conscientious objection by pacifists and what is called "selective refusal" - when objection is conditioned on something specific, like opposition to serving in the territories - have been widely discussed of late in Israel.

Thus, in convicting the five high school graduates who refused to serve in the territories, the military court stated in its decision two weeks ago, among other things, that this case is not one of individual refusal, but a social statement that seeks to induce change and, as such, incorporates an element of civil disobedience.

Acts of conscientious objection may be identified as acts involving violation of a law, a step taken because the objector believes that obedience to the law contravenes his most deeply-felt moral or religious principles. When such acts are termed "not political," the intended meaning is that what gives them the status of conscientious refusal is a personal reason or motivation; the desire not to contravene the demands of one's own conscience. Civil disobedience, by contrast, involves a person's political ideas or motivations; a protest against a law or a policy and the desire to effect change.

The same act can be, at one and the same time, both an act of conscientious objection and an act of civil disobedience. Many of our actions have multiple motivations. Sometimes these acts are done in parallel. Many American citizens who opposed the Vietnam War refused, on grounds of conscience, to take part in it. Others protested against the war, sometimes to the point of civil disobedience. In many cases, the same people did both those things.

The right to refuse on grounds of conscience is not a license for anarchy; it is not the right to ignore the law whenever it contravenes this or that opinion. It coexists with a recognition of the legitimacy of the government, including one whose laws the conscientious objector disobeys, and with the recognition that if the government is legitimate, then the individual has an obligation to obey its laws even when those laws are wrong. A person claiming a right to conscientious objection has an obligation to clarify what is unique about the act he refuses to do compared with other acts involving obedience to laws with which he disagrees. An abstract delineation won't do. Cases are diverse, and each must be judged on its particulars.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the right to conscientious objection exists with respect to military service. The edict to be prepared to kill when the order is given, or the demand that one take part in imposing an occupation that profanes human dignity in humiliating ways induced by the fact of occupation, are expressly the sort of cases bearing a right to conscientious objection. The taking of human life or subjection of human beings to control by a foreign regime must never be viewed lightly, even in unfortunate cases when such acts are necessary and justified. Whatever the justification, undeniably the readiness to kill or to participate in oppression have profound significance for the one who carries out such acts. Hence, the right to conscientious objection to such acts takes precedence over the legal obligation to take part in them.

What has been termed "selective refusal" is nothing other than ordinary conscientious objection. The government, whose laws are being infringed, classifies conscientious objection of one sort as selective and of another sort as not selective. This classification has no significance for the objectors themselves. They oppose what they see as necessitating opposition; their conscience obliges them to refuse precisely that. If they oppose any and all war, any and all war is what they must refuse. If they perceive a particular war, the use of a particular weapon, etc., as prohibited, then that's what they must refuse. They cannot be more, or less, selective. They are bound by their conscience, and cannot stretch it or shrink it on demand.

To me, there is something strange about the approach that views the right to conscientious objection as limited to pacifists, but irrelevant with respect to people whose refusal is not total, people who believe that it is immoral to join a given army only if its actions involve humiliating people, killing them or violating their human rights. Precisely such a stance - the stance underlying the position that has been termed "selective refusal" - is more reasonable, and certainly no less moral, than pacifism. Like pacifists, other objectors are entitled to defend their right to refuse when it is clear that serving in the army runs counter to their conscience and their moral integrity - profanes human dignity - and when their refusal arises from the fear of trampling on the dictates of their own conscience.

Recognition of the right to refuse on grounds of conscience does not imply recognition of the justice of claims made by those refusing nor does it mean agreeing with their opinions or taking their side. If the government is convinced that these opinions are justified, it has a duty to change the current law which prevents those who obey it from behaving in a moral manner.

Claiming a right of conscientious objection, however, arises from the assumption that the government and the courts do not agree with the ethical positions adduced by those who are claiming the right to disobey the law. In recognizing the right to conscientious objection, the government recognizes its basic duty to honor the freedom of human beings as autonomous creatures. This duty, the duty to honor human dignity, which may be the duty underpinning all other moral obligations, is the foundation for the right to conscientious objection.



Joseph Raz is Professor of the Philosophy of Law and a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford University, and a visiting professor at Columbia University.


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