Ellen Goodman’s Incoherence on Freedom of Conscience

Whose Conscience Rules?,” by Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe, 10 April 2005, http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2005/04/10/whose_conscience_rules/.

Collounsbury seems to be alone in being able to sensible defend forcing pharmacists to serve patients they don’t want to. His arguments are coherent. Ellen Goodman’s aren’t

How much further do we want to expand the reach of the individual conscience? Does the person at the checkout counter have a right to refuse to sell condoms? Does the bus driver have a right to refuse to let off customers in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic?


A clerk can refuse service to any customer. The clerk’s boss can fire the clerk. It’s freedom of contract, and it is an important part of America. Goodman might have attacked it on technical grounds, as Collounsbury did. Instead she can’t get her facts straight.

Yes, we want people to have a strong moral compass. But they have to coexist with others whose compasses point in another direction. In the debate over conscience clauses, Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice says properly, ”There is very little recognition that the conscience of the woman is as important, let alone more important, than the conscience of the provider.

This is a post-Liberal opinion. America was founded on the belief in equal rights. Goodman wants to move away from this, for special rights for special classes of citizens.

Pharmacists don’t have the same claim to refuse filling a prescription as a doctor has to refuse performing an abortion. But there are other ways to exercise a private conscience clause. Indeed, in a conflict between your job and your ethics, you can quit. It happens every day.

What other laws designed to protect ethics does Goodman want repealed? Does she believe that sex discrimination laws meant to protect womanly virtue should go, because the woman can always quit?

I do, but my position is intellectually consistant.

Reality is complicated, and complicated solutions may be best in the short term. But Goodman’s political rhetoric doesn’t see complexities — she sees pseudo-simplicities.

When Thoreau refused to pay taxes as a war protest, remember, he went to jail. What pharmacists and others are asking for is conscience without consequence. The plea to protect their conscience is a thinly veiled ploy for conquest.

Freedom of contract is analogous to tax protesting. Again, genius.

However, on the subject of being jailed for doing the “right” thing. This is another post-Liberal stance. If the innocent are being unjustly jailed, the solution is to free the innocent. Not to harrang other innocents for not also being imprisoned.

Did Goodman say to Iraqi exiles: why are you not in mass graves too?

This is not easy stuff. But in the culture wars we have become enamored of moral stances. Have we forgotten that what holds us together is the other lowly virtue: minding your own business?

She confuses horizontal and vertical freedom. Government should not use its power to enforce its morality, which is one reason why her desire to use vertical controls to enforce sexual licentiousness if troubling.

However, she is exactly wrong if she is saying horizontal isolation somehow “holds us together.” The ties of culture, our horizontal bonds to each other, hold us together. It is the critical component of civil society. Goodman’s disregard for horizontal ties is breathtaking.

To each his own conscience. But the drugstore is not an altar. The last time I looked, the pharmacist’s license did not include the right to dispense morality.

A “liberal” using masculine language? Interesting, but that’s a post for another time….

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