Preserving consistent application of the principle of individual conscientious objection

Liberal democracy and community harmony are buttressed by enabling individuals to conscientiously object to specific acts they believe to be fundamentally abhorrent morally. Our reformed (1992) laws concerning conscientious objection to conscripted military service provide a good model for application of the principle to other contentious moral issues. As a society, the longstanding proven validity of the conscientious objection principle for community harmony and individual liberty means we either accept the right to conscientiously object in every such issue or none. If proposed new laws on contentious moral issues fail to honour the exercise of individual conscientious objection we risk replacing one form of real or perceived discrimination, or indeed bigotry, with its opposite extreme. Conscientious objection does not somehow contradict our laws against unethical discrimination. In fact, it reinforces them.


Letter to The Canberra Times
Tuesday, 21 November 2017
(published Wednesday, 22 November 2017)

Debate about SSM and assisted dying is incorrectly confusing individual conscientious objection (ICO) with religious freedom and freedom from religion.

1992 Hawke Government reforms concerning military conscription now enable ICO to be secular as well as religious.

This law, and a century of legal precedents, provide a useful ICO model for resolving other contentious moral issues.

Claiming ICO requires longstanding and deeply-held moral beliefs capable of being articulated intellectually in, and whose nature, consistency, depth and sincerity can be adjudicated by, a court.

Transient opinion, political belief, prejudice or a bigoted “phobia” cannot justify ICO.

Moreover, preserving ICO across all contentious moral issues does not cause, “reintroduce” or otherwise risk unethical discrimination.

ICO instead involves consistently declining to participate in a specific act  which the prospective participant sincerely believes to be fundamentally abhorrent.

The oft-cited hypothetical baker could not claim ICO in refusing service generally or individually to people as people, such as blacks, whites, asians, Jews, Muslims, gays, Carlton supporters, etc.

Our notional (and undoubtedly rare) baker could cite ICO to politely decline participation in a particular forced or same-sex wedding celebration, just as medical staff can decline to participate in an assisted suicide or an abortion.

Finally, tolerant and harmonious liberal-democratic societies acknowledge the ICO principle across all highly contentious moral issues.

They do not try to pick and choose its application on what a majority may or may not think is proper at any one time.


[An 11 September 2017 ADA article on applying the ICO model used for compulsory military conscription to other contentious moral issues is on the ABC Religion and Ethics program website at ]




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