Of course, the affairs of others often seem simple to the casual observer. Yet, human interactions are extremely complex. Most of us appreciate this better in our own lives then when we assess the life choices of others. When each of us knows as much as we do about the complete fabric of our own life (to borrow a phrase from David Kelley), we cannot help but to see a huge complexity of activities and relationships. It is a never-ending intellectual and emotional challenge to handle it all. But this is what makes life so rich with value and interest. It also means that errors of choice are inevitable and not infrequent. The exercise of freedom of conscience allows each of us the means to discover, develop, and alter our lives until we achieve the conditions that make us happy. Each of us is necessarily experimenting with his own life. This gives others some opportunity to observe the results and to either follow or avoid those paths those paths of others that they believe may be right or wrong for them. This may be a lifesaver or it may at least make others more efficient in finding the right path for their lives. Their evaluation of our actions in living our life does not necessarily affirm or deny the choices we have made for ourselves, however. Our choices are good, bad, or neutral in the context of our very rich individual lives and largely based upon a long string of daily choices and our differing natures. What is right for me may or may not be right for you.
Now, you may be concerned that I am arguing for an ethics of moral relativism. I am not. Yet, I do not think we should confuse good and bad choices with moral principles. There are moral principles appropriate for a relatively solitary life in nature. These change somewhat for a man in a primitive society where the use of force is rampant with one tribe taking anything they can get from another by force. Again, the appropriate moral principles change for men living in a relatively free and civilized society. While our primary moral values are always based on the value of our own life and our need to use our ability to reason to maintain our life, the complete code of principles that we each have is very dependent upon our personal circumstance. A major component is determined by the kind of society in which we live. It is very important to understand that as individuals we are each so complex that we need still more moral principles to help us make the choices that apply only to our own personal pursuit of our own values. My detailed values differ from yours. My complete code of ethics starts with an Objectivist ethics, but it adds many, many principles that help me to cope with the complex choices in my own life. Some of these additional principles may be unique to me and probably are. Similarly, I expect that most thinking people will have some principles important to them that are not to me. If I try to prescribe what your choices should be in life, I may very well be at odds with some of your important moral principles. I would be messing with your freedom of conscience. You see, our freedom of conscience is as tied to our freedom of action and choice as our mind is tied to our body.
Each individual needs freedom of conscience for the following reasons:
- to formulate an idea - Simple ideas do not require that a society recognize freedom of conscience, but life and our world are complicated. Complex ideas or those standing on an understanding of complex issues of reality need to be developed by many thinkers who can make their ideas known to one another without fear of suffering violence (or excommunication, in some circumstances)
- to experiment with that idea and its consequences - Many ideas require that experiments be performed to test them and to illuminate the productive paths for further development. If an idea is important, whether it deals exclusively with physics or it involves the interaction of many human beings, experimentation must in many ways be used to test theory, or fallible man can and will go far astray over time.
- to evaluate the results - When an idea is put to use, it is essential that many minds are free to evaluate and compare their evaluations so that more effort may be put in those directions which are fruitful and less into those that are deadends.
- to redevelop the idea or abandon it as a failure - This is the result of evaluating the truth and consequences of ideas. Those that have problems may be corrected or must be abandoned.
- to improve upon an accepted idea - The idea that is evaluated as resting substantially upon a true perception of reality and has demonstrable good consequences, may often be improved upon by others with other viewpoints and experiences either now or in the future.
- to question an accepted idea - It is usually an unpopular role to be the one who questions the truth of a generally accepted idea. But generally accepted ideas are often wrong and have very harmful consequences. The one who questions the bad idea performs a very valuable service to everyone else. We should all be very willing to provide for the general right of freedom of conscience in order that we can enjoy the great benefit the questioner of the generally accepted idea provides us in helping us to see the rut we are in.
Our need to survive by using our minds makes it essential that we always err on the side of allowing others the maximum possible freedom of thought and choice. When we do this, we enrich our own lives. The result of giving others this freedom is a present in a civilized society and a future in which progress can be a constant expectation. In a free society, the consequences of others bad thoughts and subsequent acted choices fall primarily upon themselves and little upon us. Their good thoughts and subsequently acted choices often provide us critical help in understanding life and our world. This gift of understanding has always been the basis of human progress. It is why we no longer generally die before age 30. It is why we do not work hunting and farming from daylight to sundown. It is why we rarely need to worry that a marauding band of Vikings, Visigoths, or Turks will descend upon our home and carry away our wives and children. It is why we know about atoms, electrons, stars, silicon chips, magnetic tape and hard drives, structural steel, stressed concrete, jet engines, vaccines, constitutionally limited government, drugs to lower high blood pressure, x-rays, the novels of Ayn Rand, recorded music, combustion engines, long-life batteries, computers, and a host of other wonderful things. It is also why the world is full of interesting people, despite the fact that many people either choose or are forced to be uninteresting. Freedom of conscience, when allowed in a generous manner in a society, causes that society to flourish in ways we cannot image without standing back and actually observing it with wonder.