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Nature of Conscientious Beliefs

Conscience is part of the human psyche. It influences the moral behavior of a person. Specifically, conscience determines whether an action is considered to be right or wrong.  A person’s conscience is informed by the belief system held by that individual. The belief system in turn is influenced by many factors. These usually include religious, humanist and philosophical. Conscience can engender emotions like guilt, shame or remorse in a person who engages in behavior considered wrongful. Similarly conscience can engender emotions like pleasure or a sense of wellbeing in a person who engages in right behavior.

A conscientious objector is a person who objects to engaging in specific behavior because it is against that individual’s conscience. The objection is likely to be strongest when an external agent is attempting to mandate behavior which is considered wrongful. Conscription by the government for war is an example.

Conscientious objection has a long history in relation to conscription into the military and participation in war or a particular conflict. The term has wider application, for example the conscientious objection to abortion, vaccination and blood transfusion. A conscientious objector who believes that killing other human beings is immoral is called a pacifist. This includes war but may also include abortion, capital punishment and self-defense. The conscience of others may allow participation in a just war or a war of liberation or killing in self-defence.

The 1964 National Service Act (NSA) only recognized persons who had a conscientious objection to all war, that is pacifists. The NSA did not precisely define what the nature of conscientious belief was. The closest it got was to state that for its purposes a conscientious belief could be religious or non-religious. It also added that for religious grounds it did not matter if the belief was or was not part of the doctrine of a particular religion or denomination. Provision was made for conscientious objectors to apply for exemption from combatant duties or from both combatant and non-combatant duties.

The proof of a person’s conscientious (pacifist) beliefs was tested in a court of law. Because the NSA did not allow for conscientious objection to conscription itself or to a particular conflict for example Vietnam. In doing so it forced other young men of conscience to declare non-compliance with the Act.

Over time the legal determinations of the courts helped clarify a pacifist conscientious belief as something that was deep-seated and compelling. If the belief was long-held this strengthened the chances of an applicant’s success in gaining an exemption. This is now reflected in the current (2019) legislation which was strongly influenced by the experience during the 1960s.The current  Defence Act now permits opposition to a particular conflict.