Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Anderson, Douglas


Despite its ubiquity in debate over the justifiability of civil disobedience and conscientious objection, “conscience” remains an opaque concept. The attempt to define and employ it properly is not a purely academic exercise. The political language and behavior we associate with conscientiousness are empty to the point of being vulnerable to co-option by manifestly non-conscientious, violent, and reactionary movements. My argument is that the ease with which political actors adopt the language of conscience is due, not poor public understanding of the concept of “conscience,” but to the concept itself. In modern philosophical interpretations of conscience, such as that of Martin Luther and John Locke, the conscience is reified as a moral faculty or interior conversation of the individual. This is a departure from classical views of conscientiousness (for instance, Augustine’s), which emphasize the shared, fragile and habitual nature of conscience. Once “conscientiousness” is reified as “conscience,” it becomes difficult to characterize, except in negative terms, as an inner space free from tradition and force. My thesis is that the co-option of the language of conscience stems, in part, from the empty and conflicted characterization of philosophy in modern contract theory. One example of this conflicted characterization of conscience is the abortive project of distinguishing civil disobedience and conscientious objection. In law, politics, and philosophy, it is difficult to offer sound reasons for distinguishing these latter categories, despite frequent attempts to do so. The attempt fails on conceptual as well as practical grounds. I criticize two prominent treatments of civil disobedience and conscientious objection in evidence of this claim (John Rawls and Michael Walzer). When it comes to the language of conscience, modern American culture has committed the philosophic fallacy (John Dewey). We have substituted the clear divisions and images created by conscientious movements for the process that created them. I argue that “conscience” is best seen as a quality of healthy debate between adversaries—debates over problems so fundamental that they will be carried on in extra-legal and even illegal spheres. Conscience is a not a language that just any political actor can speak at will. It is a series of decisions that indicate to a public that we are not political enemies but political adversaries, seeking a political future together (Chantal Mouffe).




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