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Conscience, like most words that describe human experience and recommend human action, has changed its meanings over time and takes on subtly different meanings in different contexts. Since the time of Thomas Aquinas, when conscience referred to moral judgments about action, and our founding era, when “freedom of conscience” dominantly referred to individual religious liberty, our understanding has evolved. In this paper, I concentrate on present usage. My aims are partially descriptive and mainly normative. My hope is that by clarifying various ways the notion of conscience is conceived, I can contribute to a thoughtful elaboration of normative issues concerning responses to assertions of conscience and to near relatives of such assertions. This essay is modest in two important senses. I neither try to develop a full theoretical account of the distinctions I suggest nor do I try to resolve the hard questions about when legal accommodations to conscience should be extended.


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