Fundamental Freedoms

Freedom of Conscience > Conscience

Many people, past and present, have acted on their conscience, followed their hearts, or taken a stand for something they believe in. How may can you think of? How many of these people do you know personally? Have you ever done such a thing? Would you? What would it take?

Consider Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for 27 years for acting on his conscience. In his 1964 trial - the so-called Revonia Trial - he addressed the Court saying:

"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Principles are easy to live by when you don't have to give up anything. What would cause you to make a similar statement?

In democratic societies we accommodate those who many consider eccentric, non-conformist or even bizarre. How much room is there for this type of behaviour? How far is too far in being non-conformist? At what point should society say that a particular action (or inaction) is unacceptable, even if the individual involved is acting on their conscience? Consider Mohammed Ali. He won the Heavyweight Championship of the World in Boxing.

When he was selected to enter the draft for the United States Army (which was embroiled in a war in Vietnam), he refused to allow his name to be submitted. He was stripped of his title and banned from boxing before being sentenced to five years in jail (which he did not serve). He argued that was that the Vietcong were not his enemy and that his conscience (informed by his Islamic religion) would not allow him to kill.
Sir Thomas More was Lord Chancellor of England in the 1500's. As a devout Catholic his conscience prevented him from swearing allegiance to Henry VIII as the new head of the Church of England, and Henry's new wife as Queen. Rather than denounce the marriage and reformation of the Church, he said nothing at all. His silence kept him alive for a while, but eventually cost him his head. Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England in the 1500's
Amnesty International is an international organization dedicated to the release of "prisoners of conscience" - people held in jail for acting (or not) on their beliefs. They may be writers, students, politicians or anyone who expresses an opinion that differs from those in power. They are often put in jail without a fair trial, and in some countries may be executed. AI has letter campaigns (where you write letters to government officials who are holding prisoners of conscience) in which anyone can participate. To find out more visit

Following one's conscience can mean an act of consent or dissent. Certainly More and Ali were dissenters as well as figures who followed their conscience. Check out the discussion of consent and dissent.

We can be loyal to ideas as well as to people. Again, Sit Thomas was loyal to his conscientiously-held beliefs even when it meant his death. Being loyal, remaining true, being unwaveringly committed to something ( a person, in idea or cause) can be an act of conscience. Check out the discussion of the concept of Loyalty.

Related to the concept of loyalty is the concept of Responsibility. We may feel a responsibility, or obligation or sense of duty to act in a certain way. But where does this sense of duty come from? What informs our obligations and why are we committed to them. At its most basic, responsibility is conscience-in-action. What obligations do each of us have that we cannot ever pass on? What duties are so fundamentally important that we cannot ignore? Check out the discussion of the concept of responsibility.

Further study:

Why We Can't Wait Martin Luther King, Jr
Nineteen-Eighty-Four George Orwell

A Man For All Seasons (Also a movie)


Other topics:
How art and music can be an expression of conscience
The death of Socrates
The life of Sir Thomas More
The Revonia Trial of Nelson Mandela

Suggestions for Teachers


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Last Updated: 29-Mar-2004