Having the Courage to Follow Your Conscience

Thoreau’s Ideas about Politia

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right — Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

Henry David Thoreau is now regarded as a rather benign historical figure. And Thoreau’s formula sounds, to us today, simple enough to seem banal: have the courage to follow your conscience.

But in practice, Thoreau was willing (interested even) in being arrested so that he could sacrifice in opposition to what is wrong, rather unlike his reviled neighbors, who shared his opposition to slavery but would do nothing about it. (See “Civil Disobedience.”)

Scholars remind us that we misread Thoreau if we take him to be a political philosopher. (Nancy Rosenblum tells us he was no more interested in preserving a liberal order than in any order.) Ethically, he was an absolutist. Conscience was to be our guide in the sense that we can wait for it to “inspire” us to take up a cause, and then we were to be relentless and uncompromising without concern for any external impact. (See Nancy Rosenblum on Thoreau.)

Some concerns about his view? His trusting his conscience does nothing to direct our own. And seeing someone else is guided by conscience may not help us to more generally reckon with the values at stake in any political crisis. Politics certainly requires we specify and defend general principles.

At the same time, is there not a role for our personal limits when it comes to what we will tolerate politically? And can’t we understand these limits as ethical, even though they concern politics? Vaclav Havel argued as much. In the face of corrupt political power, personal ethics is our recourse, he explained. He called it “living in truth.”

Those with political power will, of course, mock personal ethics. They will do so in a typical way. Havel explains that the “representatives” of this political power will “invariably come to terms with those who live within the truth by persistently ascribing utilitarian motivations to them—a lust for power or fame or wealth—and thus they try, at least, to implicate them in their own world, the world of general demoralization.” (For Vaclav Havel’s work see here.)

Today this message will be delivered by those saying that people do not really care about ethical issues, it is always political, and others are merely “virtue signaling” when pretending to care about various political outcomes.

In response to this, we might want to retain Thoreau’s reminder about what it means to be personally and “continuously inspired” by an issue (such as children being separated from parents at the border).

And perhaps we can also retain his reminder about what is in our own power, his example waking us up to actual options. (See Thoreau on John Brown.)

Of course, some people do not even need these reminders. For example, the flight attendants refusing to work on flights with children who have been taken from their parents at the border seem to be already doing what Thoreau (and Havel) had in mind.

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