Conscientious Objection and the Referral Requirement as Morally Permissible Moral Mistakes.

Dr Nathan Emmerich1

1ANU Australia

Harman (2015; 2016) has recently advanced the notion of a morally permissible moral mistakes. Whilst it can be compared to the category of suberogatory acts (Driver 1992) it is arguably a more pragmatic notion, one that can be used to frame aspects of the debate around conscientious objection in healthcare. In particular, it can be used to defend against criticism of the referral requirement against the who argue that providing such referrals can be thought of as going against the conscience of the objecting professional. However, whilst engaging the actual provision of the objectionable intervention may be impermissible from the objector’s point of view providing a referral might understood as a lesser wrong, as a morally permissible moral mistake.

Indeed, a similar line of thought can be applied to the notion of conscientious objection per se. From the point of view of the established moral perspective a healthcare professional’s refusal to provide a legal service might be thought of as a morally illegitimate. However, this need not mean it is impermissible: accommodating individuals who conscientiously object to an intervention might be understood as permitting them to undertake a morally mistaken course of action but one that is nevertheless morally permissible under certain circumstances.

Seen in this light, the concept of morally permissible moral mistakes may assist us in understanding various of conscientious objection’s parameters including: when a right to conscientiously object might be required; how it ought to be implemented; and when it might be eliminated.


Nathan Emmerich is the Lead for Professionalism and Leadership in the ANU M.Ch.D.

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