Liberty of conscience, according to John Stuart Mill, was the “first of all the articles of the liberal creed,” and Lord Acton agreed that the idea of conscience played a key role in the development of classical liberalism. A “reverence for conscience,” which consists of “the preservation of an inner sphere exempt from state power,” is essential to a free society. This “appeal to personal autonomy” is the “main protection against absolutism, the one protection against democracy.”
The idea of conscience is deeply rooted in Western thinking about ethics, religion, and politics. Among ancient schools of thought, it was developed most fully by the Stoics, especially Epictetus, who spoke eloquently of an inner freedom that is immune to external coercion. We can, he held, achieve this independence only through the use of “right reason,” a moral faculty that enables us to discern the precepts of natural law and thereby distinguish good from evil. Thomas Aquinas holds pride of place among medieval philosophers for his discussion of conscience—a fact that led Lord Acton to dub Aquinas “the first Whig.” There are instances, Aquinas claimed, where a person is justified in acting according to his conscience even if his judgment is objectively mistaken. Although Aquinas did not pursue the logical implications of this theory, it left open the possibility of innocent error in matters of religious belief.
The expression “liberty of conscience” had become commonplace by the 17th century, and this sphere of inner liberty gradually developed into the notion of inalienable rights. A right that is inalienable is one that cannot be surrendered or transferred by any means, including consent, because it derives from man’s nature as a rational and moral agent. For example, it is often argued that we cannot alienate our right to freedom of belief because our beliefs cannot be coerced. Similarly, we cannot surrender our right of moral choice because an action has moral significance only if it is freely chosen. Our beliefs and values fall within the sphere of inner liberty, the domain of conscience. This sphere is inseparable from our nature as rational and moral agents.
Thus, according to the 17th-century English clergyman, John Hale, “All the power in the world is neither fit to convince nor able to compel a man’s conscience to consent to anything.”
The inalienability of conscience has been defended not only by thinkers whose primary concern was religious belief, but by more secular thinkers, such as Spinoza, who wrote:
Inward worship of God and piety in itself are within the sphere of everyone’s private rights, and cannot be alienated.… No man’s mind can possibly lie wholly at the disposition of another, for no one can willingly transfer his natural right of free reason and judgment, or be compelled so to do.
A significant development in the history of freedom occurred as the authority of conscience was applied to spheres other than religion. From the distinction between the inner sphere of liberty and the external sphere of compulsion, there emerged the distinction between the voluntary sphere of society and the coercive sphere of government. As Guido de Ruggiero wrote in The History of European Liberalism:
At first, freedom of conscience is considered essential to [man’s] personality; this implies religious liberty and liberty of thought. Later is added all that concerns his relations to other individuals: freedom to express and communicate his own thought, personal security against all oppression, free movement, economic liberty, juridical equality, and property.
Herbert Spencer, who described the tradition of Protestant dissent in which he was raised as “an expression of opposition to arbitrary control,” provides an excellent example of how later libertarians extended the argument from conscience to spheres other than religion. In one of his first articles, “The Proper Sphere of Government,” published in The Nonconformist in 1842, Spencer maintained that the “chief arguments that are urged against an established religion, may be used with equal force against an established charity.” He wrote,
The dissenter submits, that no party has a right to compel him to contribute to the support of doctrines, which do not meet his approbation. The rate-payer may as reasonably argue, that no one is justified is forcing him to subscribe towards the maintenance of persons, whom he does not consider deserving of relief. The advocate of religious freedom does not acknowledge the right of any council, or bishop, to choose for him what he shall believe, or what he shall reject. So the opponent of a poor law, does not acknowledge the right of any government, or commissioner, to choose for him who are worthy of his charity, and who are not.
The ultimate test of any society is whether it permits its dissidents to think freely. Regimes that seek to control the way people think are far more pernicious than authoritarian governments whose object is to enforce conformity in behavior. Demands that we all act in ways that meet the wishes of the state rob us of our bodies, but those that demand that we also think in certain ways, rob us of our souls.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica, 1a2ae, 90–97. The Dominican Fathers, trans. London: R&T Washbourne, 1923–1925.
Dalberg-Acton, John Emerich Edward, First Baron Acton. The History of Freedom and Other Essays. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, eds. London: Macmillan, 1907.
De Ruggiero, Guido. The History of European Liberalism. R. G. Collingwood, trans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1927.
Epictetus. Enchiridion. George Long, trans. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991.
Locke, John. “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes. 12th ed. London: Rivington, 1824.
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Writings. Stefan Collini, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Spencer, Herbert. “The Proper Sphere of Government.” The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom. Eric Mack, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1981.
Spinoza, Benedict de. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Samuel Shirley, trans. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998.
Originally published .