A Comparative Anthropology of Conscience, Ethics and Human Rights
What is conscience, and where might it take us? For its proponents, conscience is a universal concept, speaking to our inner most sense of right and wrong, and goes to the heart of what it means to be human. Yet, if conscience is so important, what is it and how do we know it when we see it? How do we distinguish it from self-interest or fanaticism? And what happens when the concept, often associated with a specifically liberal or Christian history, travels across linguistic and cultural boundaries?
This anthropological research project examines conscience as a culturally and historically embedded ethical category, whose precise meanings are always the product of particular conflicts. It examines how claims to conscience have been made and contested through the comparative analysis of British conscientious objectors to military service, Sri Lankan rights activists, Soviet dissidents, and the history of the international human rights movement. In doing so we ask how ethical categories are made socially, politically and culturally meaningful, and what implications they have for the people who use them.
The aim of my project is to transform our understanding of the practical limits and potentials of claims of conscience, and the particular role of human rights in this process. The issue of freedom of thought, conscience and religion is of immense global significance. Recent politics has been marked by disputes over the limits of tolerance, and the extent to which people’s convictions should be protected. In this context, claims of conscience are particularly significant. The invocation of conscience can capture a form of conviction that cannot necessarily be reduced to the religious, potentially involving a wider and more varied form of thought, affect or action. Against the background of often-violent conflicts over the relationship between religious and secular convictions, the questions as to what, if anything, is distinct about claims of conscience, under what grounds they can be made, and who can make them, is therefore of the utmost urgency. If we are to understand the restraints and possibilities involved in attempts to protect conscience, it is therefore important to examine how and why such claims are made, and under which conditions they are successful or not. Rather than coming up with more precise legal or philosophical definitions – such as labeling conscience as rational or emotional, interior or exterior, individual or collective, secular or religious, for example, – it is necessary to explore the practical conditions and implications of claims to conscience.