Citizenship, cowardice and freedom of conscience: British pacifists in the Second World War

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Abstract / Description of output

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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)694-722
Number of pages29
JournalComparative Studies in Society and History
Issue number3
Early online date25 Jun 2015
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2015

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • freedom of conscience
  • liberalism
  • pacifism
  • Second World War
  • Britain


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