Conscience, Morality, and Judgment
In the final chapter of this book I would like to turn to Arendt’s work on conscience and argue that it can function as an intersubjective foundation for human rights. Although conscience is rooted in the subject, it is not merely subjective or idiosyncratic. Arendt’s understanding of conscience, as the ability to be with and think with myself, can be situated between two traditions. In both the Western tradition of natural rights (from which human rights emerge) and in some non-Western traditions, human rights are justified, in part, because of their appeal to conscience, and not simply because they issue from a divine source or human reason. That is, they have a subjective foundation that is the fundamental ground of their legitimacy. In contrast, contemporary justifications of human rights either look for an objective foundation or simply assert the pragmatic importance of human rights as their justification. In contrast, Arendt’s understanding of conscience is a secular alternative to both a non-secular version of conscience, and the denial of conscience implicit in contemporary theories. This is a way of understanding an intersubjective foundation for human rights that is rooted in the subject. In comprehending her view of conscience, we will see that conscience can play a role in our understanding of human rights. Indeed, in times of moral crisis, conscience is a better safeguard against human rights violations than moral norms alone.