(May 2018) Public cartels, private conscience

Michael Cholbi
May 30, 2018
Sage Journals


Many contributors to debates about professional conscience assume a basic, pre-professional right of conscientious refusal and proceed to address how to ‘balance’ this right against other goods. Here I argue that opponents of a right of conscientious refusal concede too much in assuming such a right, overlooking that the professions in which conscientious refusal is invoked nearly always operate as public cartels, enjoying various economic benefits, including protection from competition, made possible by governments exercising powers of coercion, regulation, and taxation. To acknowledge a right of conscientious refusal is to license professionals to disrespect the profession’s clients, in opposition to liberal ideals of neutrality, and to engage in moral paternalism toward them; to permit them to violate duties of reciprocity they incur by virtue of being members of public cartels; and to compel those clients to provide material support for conceptions of the good they themselves reject. However, so long as (a) a public cartel discharges its obligations to distribute the socially important goods they have are uniquely authorized to provide without undue burden to its clientele, and (b) conscientious refusal has the assent of other members of a profession, individual professionals’ claims of conscience can be accommodated.

Source: Sage Journals