Freedom of conscience is widely claimed as a central principle of liberal democracy, but what is conscience and how do we know what it looks like? Rather than treat conscience as a transcendent category, this paper examines claims of conscience as rooted in distinct cultural and political histories. I focus on debates about conscientious objection in Second World War Britain, and argue that, there, persuasive claims of conscience were widely associated with a form of “detached conviction.” Yet evidence of such “detached convictions” always verged on being interpreted as deliberate manipulation and calculation. More broadly, I argue that the protection of freedom of conscience is necessarily incomplete and unstable. The difficulties in recognizing individual conscience point to anxieties within liberal democracy. Not only strangers are suspect and mistrusted, but also those who claim to stand most strongly by the principles of liberal citizenship.
- freedom of conscience
- Second World War