Stanford Interdisciplinary Conference on Conscience

Thursday, November 8, 2012
12:00 AM - 12:00 AM
Bechtel Conference Center

Conference organizer: Nancy Ruttenburg

What is conscience, what was conscience, and what is its future?

The purpose of the conference is to examine the authority of conscience as it is presently invoked in various arenas of contemporary life—including law, medicine, journalism, and politics—and as its meaning is inflected by scholarly debates in the fields of history, literature, religious studies, psychology, and philosophy. From their various fields of expertise and interest, participants will address the central question the conference raises: in our post-Freudian and post-Nietzschean age, to what degree does conscience possess the kind of authority that an earlier and less secular age reserved for first things? This question entails a host of others.  Do our invocations of conscience reveal it to be the still-vital residue of a kind of certainty linked to infallible authority from which we cannot alienate ourselves even when we’d like to? If so, is the enduring vitality of conscience a sign that the process of secularization remains incomplete, even in secular rationalists, those who might consider themselves to be exempt from the religiosity that distinguishes United States culture from those of other modern Western democracies? Do we regard conscience as a type of knowledge? Or is it possible to understand conscience ontologically, as a category of self or mind that—insofar as it speaks to all humanity by means of a "small, still voice" issuing from each human heart—bridges the gap between individual and corporate being? Whether or not underwritten by a discipline or a tradition, conscience is commonly invoked to justify a range of acts and behaviors: what relation do these invocations of moral law, even when unexamined, bear to the burgeoning interest in ethics we see across the humanities disciplines and into the legal, medical, and journalistic fields? Between the extremes of authoritarianism and anarchy, where do we place conscience in American political life and how do we understand its peculiar agency?


Please click on the panel titles and the keynote speaker's name below to view videos and listen to audios of each:

November 8, 2012
Panel 1:  The Pre-Revolutionary Conscience: From Religious Burden to Natural Right (video)
Panel 2:  MIA: Conscience and the First Amendment (video)
Panel 3:  Roundtable: The Religious Conscience in Modernity (audio only)
Panel 4:  Conscience/Ethics: The Secular Conscience (audio only)

November 9, 2012
Panel 5:  Conscience and Reportage (video)
Panel 6:  Roundtable: Embodied Conscience (video)
Panel 7:  Roundtable: Conscientious Objection (video)
Keynote:  Anne Aghion, award-winning documentary filmmaker (video)



Opening Event: Wednesday, November 7, 6:00-8:30 p.m.
Screening of  keynote speaker Anne Aghion’s documentary film, My Neighbor, My Killer, to be introduced by the filmmaker.  Will be held in the Oksenberg Conference Room, Encina Hall Central, 3rd floor.

  • 6:00 p.m.  Reception
  • 6:30 p.m.  Screening

For more information on the film, please visit this event listing on our website by clicking <here>.


Thursday, November 8, 9:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m:
Conscience and its Conceptual Evolution: Religion/Rights/Ethics

  • 9:00 – 9:30  Opening Remarks:  Nancy Ruttenburg, Organizer

Thursday Morning Panels:  What Was Conscience?  The American Context

  • 9:30 – 11:30:  The Pre-Revolutionary Conscience: From Religious Burden to Natural Right

1) Andrew Murphy, Associate Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy, Rutgers University, author of Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America and Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11.

2) Mark Valeri, E. T. Thompson Professor of Church History, Union Presbyterian Seminary. Among the editors of the multi-volume Works of Jonathan Edwards, he is the author most recently of Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America.

Stanford Respondent:  Caroline Winterer, Professor of History, Professor by courtesy of Classics

  • 11:45 – 1:45:  MIA: Conscience and the First Amendment

1) Jack Rakove, William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and Professor of Political Science at Stanford, where has taught since 1980. He is the author of six books, including Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996), which received the Pulitzer Prize in History, and Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America (2010), which was a finalist for the George Washington Prize. He is currently at work on Beyond Belief, Beyond Conscience: The Radical Significance of the Free Exercise of Religion, which will be part of the Oxford University Press series on Inalienable Rights.

2) Michael J. Perry, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, and Senior Fellow for the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University School of Law.  Author most recently of The Political Morality of Liberal Democracy; Constitutional Rights, Moral Controversy, and the Supreme Court; Toward a Theory of Human Rights: Religion, Law, Courts; and Under God?: Religious Faith and Liberal Democracy.

Stanford Respondent:  Derek Webb, Fellow, Constitutional Law Center, Stanford


 Thursday Afternoon Panels:  What Is Conscience:  The Secular/Religious Divide

  • 2:45 – 4:45: Roundtable: The Religious Conscience in Modernity: 

1) Nathan Chapman, Executive Director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center who joined the Law School as a Fellow in 2010.  After clerking for the Honorable Judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit Court, he practiced with WilmerHale in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Duke University School of Law and Duke Divinity School in 2007.  His most recent publications include Disentangling Conscience and Religion, 2013 U. Ill. L. Rev. (forthcoming) and Due Process As Separation of Powers, 121 Yale L. J. 1672 (2012) (with Michael W. McConnell).

2) Steven Knapp, President of the George Washington University since August 2007, former Dean of Arts and Sciences and subsequently Provost at Johns Hopkins University, and Professor of English at UC Berkeley.  Author most recently with Philip Clayton of The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, Faith.  A specialist in Romanticism, literary theory, and the relation of literature to philosophy and religion, Dr. Knapp earned his doctorate and masters degrees from Cornell University and his Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University.

3) Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, NYC.  Author most recently of Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community and Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America.

Stanford Moderator: Nancy Ruttenburg, William Robertson Coe Professor of American Literature, Professor by Courtesy of Comparative Literature and Slavic, Director, Stanford Center for the Study of the Novel

  • 5:00 – 7:00: Conscience/Ethics: The Secular Conscience 

1) Jay M. Bernstein, University Distinguished Professor, New School for Social Research.  Author most recently of Against Voluptuous Bodies: Adorno’s Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting; Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics; and a co-authored volume published through UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center entitled Art and Aesthetics After Adorno.

2) Kent Greenawalt, University Professor, former Editor-in-Chief of the Columbia Law Review, Columbia Law School.  Author, among many other works, of Religion and the Constitution: Vol. I: Free Exercise and Fairness and Vol. II: Establishment and Fairness, as well as Does God Belong in Public Schools? and Private Consciences and Public Reasons.

Stanford Respondent:  Nancy Ruttenburg, William Robertson Coe Professor of American Literature, Professor by Courtesy of Comparative Literature and Slavic, Director of Stanford Center for the Study of the Novel


Friday, November 9, 9:00 a.m. - 6:45 p.m.
Contemporary Casuistry: Cases of Conscience in Action

Friday Morning Panels: Narrating Conscience: Modes of Witnessing

  • 9:00 – 11:00: Conscience and Reportage

1) Dr. Sheri Fink, M.D., Ph.D., 2010 Pulitzer Prize- and National Magazine Award-winner in investigative journalism for “The Deadly Choices at Memorial” about difficult choices made at a New Orleans hospital during the aftermath of Katrina; contributor to ProPublica who has reported globally on health, medicine, and science; senior fellow with the New America Foundation and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; author of War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival (2003) during the Balkan crisis, winner of the American Medical Writer’s Association special book award and finalist for PEN Martha Albrand awards.

2) Colin Dayan, Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities, Vanderbilt, and expert in literary, legal, and religious studies of the Americas; books include Haiti, History, and the Gods (1998); The Story of Cruel and Unusual (2007); and, most recently, The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, selected as a Choice top-25 "outstanding academic book of 2011."

Stanford Respondent: David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, Professor of Comparative Literature, Professor by courtesy of English 

  • 11:15 – 1:15:  Roundtable: Embodied Conscience 

1) Dr. Abraham Verghese, author of the novel Cutting for Stone (2010)as well as the non-fiction works, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story (1995)about his experience as a physician working in rural Tennessee at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and The Tennis Partner: A Story of Friendship and Loss (1998).  Currently Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, Stanford.

2) Mark Johnson, Philip H. Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Philosophy, University of Oregon.  Author most recently of The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (co-authored with George Lakoff); Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics; and a second edition of Metaphors We Live By (co-authored with George Lakoff).

3) Dr. Fady Joudah, Internal Medicine and Palestinian-American poet; former practitioner with Doctors Without Borders in Darfur, Sudan and Zambia; translator of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Zaqtan, and 2007 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition for The Earth in the Attic (2008).

Stanford Moderator:  Blakey Vermeule, Professor of English


Friday Afternoon Panels:  Conscience in the World: Problems of Toleration and Intervention

  • 2:30 – 4:30:  Roundtable: Conscientious Objection 

1) Air Force Reserve Col. Steven Kleinman, Senior Intelligence Officer, U.S. Air Force; a widely recognized subject matter expert with extensive experience in human intelligence operations, special operations, strategic interrogation, and resistance to interrogation; Senior Advisor to the Intelligence Science Board’s study “Educing Information” which issued guidelines for improving the government’s interrogation techniques. Publicly opposed “enhanced interrogation” techniques for battling the war on terror in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the House Judiciary Committee.  Authored numerous articles laying out his argument against torture published in several peer-reviewed professional journals, the law review of the City University of New York and Valparaiso University law schools, and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

2) Eyal Press, author of Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times and Absolute Convictions; contributor to several journals, including The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, The Atlantic Monthly, and others. 

3) Yusef Komunyakaa: Global Distinguished Professor of English, NYU, Vietnam veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose collections include The Chameleon Couch, Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy, Pleasure Dome and many others.

Stanford Moderator:  Debra Satz, Associate Dean of Humanities, Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society; Professor of Philosophy and by courtesy Political Science; Research Affiliate, Program on Global Justice



For her work on the gacaca trials in post-genocide Rwanda, documentary filmmaker Anne Aghion won the UNESCO Fellini Prize, an Emmy Award, the Human Rights Watch 2009 Nestor Almendros Prize, and she was a nominee for the 2009 Gotham Award. Her feature-length documentary, My Neighbor, My Killer, was one of the few documentaries to be an Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival.

Co-sponsored by The Europe Center, Stanford Arts Institute (formerly Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts), Stanford Law School, School of Humanities and Sciences, Office of the Dean of Humanities, Creative Writing Program, Stanford Humanities Center, Department of English, Taube Center for Jewish Studies, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, Center for Ethics in Society, Department of Art & Art History, the Department of Philosophy, and the Department of History.
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