Can the conscience vote?

by | May 17, 2015

Surely the ‘conscience vote’ is one of the most disconcerting phenomena in the generally disconcerting panorama that is our federal politics.

Only rarely, and apparently only on certain kinds of ‘moral’ issues, individual members of a political party are given leave to vote according to their consciences rather than according to agreed party policy. But what does a ‘conscience vote’ imply?

Does it mean that only this particular issue has a moral component that individual politicians might genuinely feel differently about?

That’s hard to believe, given that so many issues that governments deal with touch on ethical issues. To take just two obvious ones:

  • What is the nature of our obligation to care for the poor and suffering in our community, and how might this be best reflected in our welfare system?
  • How should we balance compassion and just process in responding to asylum seekers who arrive by boat?

There are in fact very few public policy issues that do not have moral or ethical dimensions, if we scratch even slightly below the surface. What is the role of the policy-maker’s conscience in these circumstances? Is it parked at the door? (That’s disturbing.) Or are MPs required to follow the party line in violation of their consciences? (Even more disturbing.)

Just as disconcerting is what the ‘conscience vote’ says about the way our leaders think morality or conscience works. About more ‘normal’ issues (like welfare settings or asylum seekers), there is debate, discussion, weighing of alternatives, consideration of principles and consequences, and (we can only hope) a reasoned and thoughtful policy decision. But about some questions, everyone is allowed to consult an elusive inner umpire called the ‘conscience’, and then vote.

What sort of umpire is this, and why does it tell people different things? And is the democratic rule of the majority the best way to resolve the very real differences people have over what their inner umpires say?

The disconcerting phenomenon of the ‘conscience vote’ show just how confused our society is about how to think morally. We don’t really know what morality is, how we might know it when we see it (or feel it), and how we might resolve genuine differences over what might be the ‘good’ or the ‘right’ in a particular circumstance.

In popular culture, this confusion is often cast as a battle between the head and the heart—between what on the one hand seems conventional, rational and effective, and what feels intuitively right or authentic on the other. And in our Disneyfied world, unlike in Jane Austen’s, ‘sensibility’ is almost always to be preferred to ‘sense’.

It’s hardly surprising that Christians living admist such rampant moral confusion would suffer some confusion too. Just what is our ’conscience’, and should we listen to it? How do head and heart figure in the moral decisions we make? And what if they are in conflict—if intellectually we know that something is right or wrong, but emotionally we feel a powerful pull in the opposite direction?

These important questions are the subject of our next Centre for Christian Living event, to be held at 7:30pm next Tuesday, May 26, at Toongabbie Anglican Church. I will be talking mainly about what ‘conscience’ is, and how we should understand it (and our experience of it). Peter Bolt will be speaking about the closely related subject of our ‘minds’.

Read. Watch. Listen.

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