When Worldviews Collide: Law and Personal Conscience

by Philosophy

For every act committed there is a set of beliefs in support of it and providing impetus for its fulfillment. Generally speaking we can refer to this set as a “worldview,” a structure of personal perspective. A person’s worldview determines what facts or evidence will be considered legitimate, in that those facts or evidence which support a particular belief within the worldview are and those that don’t, are not. A worldview also provides a funnel for determining, out of all potential behaviors, what will be selected and put into action. At the level of a society, every policy or law is also based on a worldview of how the world is or should be. Sometimes the structure behind a law and that which is held by a person come into conflict.

Living in a country where laws are based on a worldview that is both democratic and, to varying degrees, rational, sets up a system of establishing social policy and the means of its reform. This system requires both 1) generative dialogue and 2) placing truth in the realm of public accessibility. When either of those two pillars is broken or dismissed, then the whole system ceases to be democratic and rational.


Generative Dialogue 

Far too often when debate/dialogue occurs, there is simply the lobbing back and forth of interpreted facts. Little attention is made to the underlying assumptions/worldview that each party is bringing to the discussion. This is where a generative dialogue, “a collective interaction designed to increase inquiry into our own mental models and our underlying beliefs and assumptions,” is required (Forman & Ross, 2013).

When worldviews are ignored, dialogue often boils down to manipulation or coercion. The former often takes the form of emotional enticements that circumvent the rational parts of our brains (internet memes are famous for this) and identity-as-authority where statements follow some version of “X group stands for Y belief, I am part of that group, therefore my belief in Y is correct.” The latter, coercion, will take the form of mob-authority, increased volume of speech, and threats to continued inquiry, often of the “my (version of) god says Y is correct, to deny Y is to deny (my version of) deity and will lead to judgment.”

Generative dialogue seeks to address that ignorance by exploring the how and why of a person’s belief. This is not for the purpose of dismissal, but to better understand where a person is coming from and broaden the potential for finding common ground. Starting from the end of two paths will allow for no meeting place, but quite often the paths did intersect at some point along the way. It is in those places of intersection that a reminder of shared humanity and the potential for increased understanding can be found.individual-liberty-and-interdependence-are-both-essential-for-life-in-society-life-quote


Publicly accessible truth claims: 

There comes a point in everyone’s life where one or more beliefs one holds simply “because I do” bumps up against someone else’s contrary belief and the need for public justification occurs. Until that moment beliefs/knowledge solely justified based on special, personal and/or arbitrary bases had no effect upon others and could quite easily continue to exist without anyone having to know of them. However, once decisions start effecting others, the potential arises for needing to justify the beliefs that guide those actions. The means of justification, within the structure of a socially interactive and integrated society, can take different forms.

Writing previously on how faith, authority and reason work, I wrote:

Knowing or believing is an extension of our automatic interaction with life. The means by which someone personally justifies their beliefs is as much about providing a secure foundation for their worldview as it is about getting to “Truth.” A person’s central desire is a world and their place in it that makes sense to them, where desires and demands can be met. This worldview is put into practice by each person’s identity, a self capable of moving forward in life and meeting the ebb and flow of living. Knowledge and beliefs are bound to this frame, they are the substance of the worldview that the person is using.


The extent to which a person’s knowledge/belief requires justification is contingent upon the social context and the role the behavior which stems from it effects others. A person who believes little invisible elves clean up trash has little need to justify his belief to others when his only responsibility is cleaning up his own residence. If the person is hired as a cleaning contractor for a business or is hired as the manager for a city’s waste-management division, then such a belief and it’s subsequently derived behavior (i.e. not needing to do the job of cleaning) starts effecting far more people and being confronted about justifying his belief becomes necessary and a requirement for the increase of the social good.

Note that the person in question need not give up their belief in little elves of prodigious cleaning abilities. Rather, the person’s role in society must be changed, as their belief and actions based upon it brings harm to others and undermines the worldview that allows the society to function most fully. If the person refuses to leave their position, stating that they have access to a special revelatory body of information that only they possess and all others must therefore adhere to their understanding of it, they have not merely failed to perform the accepted job, they have begun undermining a central pillar of a rational democracy.


Personal Conscience and Law

It is possible, though highly unlikely, that a person who’s justification for a particular belief is completely based on their personal identity (what I refer to as “faith”) could be correct. As history can attest in bloody detail, however, beliefs based on special, arbitrary and/or personal means of justification are almost always put into place upon a group through some form of violence. Mob-justice, weaponizing groups and pleading to external authority who’s judgment is all encompassing (often some form of deity) are all violent acts. When such is the rule for discourse, there is no longer a democratic rational society, but only the despotism of might-makes-right.

When a person is within a society based on democratic rationalism, particularly when having accepted a role of leadership, it is morally incumbent upon them to act to uphold the pillars of that society’s worldview. When a civil servant, a general populace, or those who seek to represent a pluralistic society, act upon beliefs that limit generative dialogue and dismiss the requirement for beliefs that effect others be based on more than personal desire and the arbitrary interpretation of a “holy book,” the result is moral failure.

There is a certain level of irony to be found in noting those who are calling for the undermining of democratic rational society by pleading to their personal god can only do so precisely because such a society exists to allow them to do so, but the humor only lasts for so long.



© David Teachout



Forman, John P.; Ross, Laurel A. (2013-05-01). Integral Leadership (Kindle Location 178). . Kindle Edition.

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