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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, February 08, 2010

A little bit more on religious freedom

Whether religious freedom is a concept worth supporting really depends on what it means. No one wants to be heard saying that they are opposed to it, but not every conception of it is as liberal as the one that I support. I'm currently reading Michael J. Perry's Under God? Religious Faith and Liberal Democracy. At this stage, I haven't absorbed the whole thesis, and there are some points to come that I'll probably find attractive. But he does seem to think that, for example, there is nothing wrong with politicians voting to ban conduct merely because it is against their moral views, and even though they would not have those moral views except for their reliance on a holy book. Thus, if a society dominated by people whose holy books say that eating pork is an abomination decides to ban eating pork that is fine ... even though the ban is not for public health reasons, or because there is a temporary shortage of pork so all pigs must be used for breeding for the time being, or whatever other secular reason we can imagine, but merely because the relevant holy books condemn the eating of pork.

Needless to say, Perry's ideas of what a government can do in a society that embraces religious freedom are radically different from mine. For me, the above is a paradigm example of a religious doctrine being imposed on population - believers and non-believers alike - by means of the coercive power of the state. And whatever else that is, it is not freedom of religion.

Of course, Perry is correct that in the real world of Western democracies such as the US it will be difficult to find such clear-cut examples. For example, people who think homosexual acts should be criminalised can always dream up some kind of secular-sounding reason. But that's not a reason for us to stop complaining about essentially religious doctrines being imposed by the state and backed up with guns and police: "We will force you not to have sex with the person of the same sex whom you love, or between whom there is simply a mutual attraction, on pain of locking you away in a small space behind iron bars, and even though you are not hurting anyone and don't accept the holy book on which we base our decision to do this."

No, that's not acceptable. That's tyranny.

Even if the state can get away with banning X for what are preponderantly religious reasons - e.g. by convincing a constitutional court that it also had some secular reason - so what? This does not give us a reason to say that banning X for preponderantly religious reasons is consistent with plausible ideas of what freedom of religion is all about, or that banning X for preponderantly religious reasons is a proper thing for the state to do.

I'll read further as the week goes on. Although it's a short book, it's very densely argued (to its credit), and the issues are, at least from my point of view, extremely important. So I'll take my time, make close notes, and so on. I can see, looking ahead, that Perry is going to qualify his argument considerably, but I can't see him doing so to an extent that will mollify me.

28 comments:

NewEnglandBob said...


Thus, if a society dominated by people whose holy books say that eating pork is an abomination decides to ban eating pork that is fine ...

Not only is Perry's idea not religious freedom but it is the antithesis of democracy. The next step is to ban by skin color, then hair color, then nationality, then views of which shoes are more comfortable.

This guy could not have thought about this more than five minutes or wishes to have tyranny.

Daniel said...

Is there a sense in which the concept of religious freedom is redundant in a liberal democracy? I mean, once we have all agreed to let each other be to do what we want without hurting others and being a jerk about it, why do we need to go to the next step and stipulate certain things?

Would things not be slightly easier if we just applied a few simple rules or tests to social questions instead of getting lost in pedantic notions of what actually constitutes religious freedom.

I'm probably totally naive, but it seems that in some cases specifically mandating religious freedom has elevated this concept above others (such that the right to choose a sexual/life partner) that should be equally valued.

Russell Blackford said...

I think the harm principle largely outflanks it, and it's the principle that I always emphasise. But the harm principle is difficult to put into a constitution (it needs to be structured and elaborated) and too controversial to be given that kind of force.

I don't think ideas of freedom of religion are totally redundant, and I do see a place for some such principle, but the harm principle, freedom of speech, judicial independence, and so on are at least as important.

Daniel said...

I'm curious. In what specific ways is the principal hard to put into law? How would a hypothetical constitution be deficient if it lacked only a "freedom of religion" clause?

Russell Blackford said...

Btw, Perry is certainly no fool. This is a view that we need to come to terms with, and he's erudite, writes clearly and intelligently, etc. As you may have guessed, he's religious, and the whole thing is instructive as to how a very intelligent religious person can develop a complex, densely-argued political theory that appears to involve seeing the world in a totally different way (his more recent book on human rights, likewise).

Because he's no fool, he'll be qualifying his claims as the book goes on, but, for example, he just takes it for granted that it's okay for a legislature to impose whatever it considers the true morality - as if Mill (and even Locke) had never lived, and as if the Devlin-Hart debate had never taken place. Maybe we'll get something about them later ...

Russell Blackford said...

Will have to come back to that Daniel - bedtime here, and I still need to do some other things. Maybe someone else will give you an interesting answer.

Daniel said...

Only tangentially related I guess, but I'm reminded of this presentation by Jonathan Haidt. It doesn't necessarily relate only to the liberal/conservative divide. This explains that disparities of philosophy such as the one you might be experiencing with Perry could be related to differences in core values. It seems sort of tautological when I explain it that way...

http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

Anonymous said...

I actually think I agree with Perry here. As I've tried to argue before, people don't make decisions by applying formulaic moral calculi -- they do whatever seems right to them based on the sorts of behaviors they've internalized throughout their lives. Thus, I don't think it's simple or trivial to draw a line between moral beliefs held because of culture and moral beliefs held by religion, in which case a rule against religiously-motivated laws would effectively ban any religious person from government positions. Which seems wrong to me.

There's also the fact that many -- I'd say almost all if not all -- humanists have moral beliefs that can't be backed up without reference to some sort of more or less arbitrary moral code. I find it difficult, for example, to find a non-arbitrary moral reason to forbid animal cruelty (I'm glad that such rules are on the books, mind you, but I'm hard-pressed to justify them using the normal precepts of humanist ethics).

Anonymous said...

Anonymous comment was:

-Dan L.

NewEnglandBob said...

Anonymous, your comment is specious. A lot of it is argument from ignorance (I don't understand, so it can not be so) and other parts are opinions based on nothing.

Greywizard said...

Certainly sounds like an interesting book. However, I guess my chief question would be this. He asks whether there is a religious ground for rights, and says that of course there is. Then he asks the question: Is there a secular basis for rights? And he answers this in the negative. However, if religion itself does not have a ground, how can it ground anything else? And what religion is he talking about?

To Anonymous. Your post is, as NewEnglandBob says, largely an expression of ignorance. Let me give you a counterexample, however. Jean Chretien was for many years Prime Minister of Canada. As a Roman Catholic he might be supposed to be personally opposed to abortion and gay marriage, but he did not feel that his personal religious beliefs should find expression in Canadian law. That seems to me anyway to be a desirable attitude towards the relationship between public office and law, and it is not impossible to achieve this kind of impartiality, especially when (as I suggest above) religious morality, regardless of how it informs your own life as a person, has no plausible rational ground.

To base laws upon religious morality is therefore to impose your values on people who do not and need not share them. The only plausible principle which should guide public decision making is the harm principle. Since the Roman Catholic Church has made a public issue of this by excommunicating politicians who do not support the Vatican line, I will not vote for a Roman Catholic politician, as a matter of principle, unless they make it clear that their public views are not driven by their church. I will only vote for someone who will make decisions, not on his own private superstitions, but on a reasoned basis that can appeal to the people that the politician represents as a whole.

I will, however, look with interest at what Russell discovers as he reads and meditates on Perry's book.

Anonymous said...

@New England Bob:

" Anonymous, your comment is specious. A lot of it is argument from ignorance (I don't understand, so it can not be so) and other parts are opinions based on nothing."

First of all, I gave my handle in the subsequent post: Dan L. Feel free to refer to me by that. Second of all, if my post is an argument from ignorance (and I don't think it is), yours is no argument at all.

While I provided no explicit discussion of why I believe those things, that does not mean I am arguing from ignorance. Furthermore, you have provided no reason to believe otherwise.

I've seen you posting before, and you seem to have problems with taking a reasonable tone with anyone who disagrees with you. I'm not really excited about discussing this stuff with you for that very reason.

Incidentally, I am a relatively hard-line atheist and would prefer that religiously-derived morals not be enshrined in law. However, I have yet to hear of a method of determining whether a particular moral precept is derived from secular or religious principles.

Since not all secularly-derived moral principles are necessarily just, it seems to me the best way to deal with the question is not the "religious/secular" dichotomy, but the "just/unjust" dichotomy. You could argue that any religious law is unjust by definition, but I would disagree; some of the ancient Judaic laws concerning conflict adjudication in the case of slain cattle seem to me eminently just despite being written in stone by Yahweh.

-Dan L.

Anonymous said...

@Greywizard

"To Anonymous. Your post is, as NewEnglandBob says, largely an expression of ignorance."

As I said to him, no it's not; or at the very least, if you want to convince me of it, you must give me a better reason to believe it than the mere assertion.

The character limit prevents me from making a full-scale argument for what I believe about ethics. But from Bob's post and your own, it's not even clear to me what it is I'm arguing for "from ignorance."

Do you think that people DO apply moral calculi to make their decisions? That secular morals are ALWAYS intellectually derived rather than culturally and unconsciously derived? That laws derived from religious morals are NEVER just? Does the derivation of a law determine how just it is in any way (does the Biblical provenance of "Thou shalt not kill" render it unjust despite the fact that secular moral systems invariably contain the same precept?)?

Again, my problem here is that I simply don't think the question is as simple as "religious vs. secular," because I think ethical systems can generate unjust and arbitrary (or, for that matter, just and justified) rules regardless of whether they're religious or secular.

Also, since I think moral judgments are culturally derived and internalized through exposure, I think it's not quite just to judge a person on the ultimate justification for his moral beliefs. After all, few children have very much control over the culture in which they are raised. I think this (simple, empirical) observation demonstrates that at the very least it is problematic to disentangle moral beliefs held for good secular reasons and moral beliefs held for murkier, less intellectual reasons -- even among non-believers.

As far as my particular moral and epistemological beliefs, they're probably largely congruent with those of the other readers here. I just don't agree that it's a straight-forward exercise to justify them.

-Dan L.

NewEnglandBob said...

In Dan L's original post he said:

"As I've tried to argue before, people don't make decisions by applying formulaic moral calculi..."

This is opinion, not supported by facts.

"Thus, I don't think it's simple or trivial to draw a line..."

Once again, not a fact, just opinion.

"...in which case a rule against religiously-motivated laws would effectively ban any religious person from government positions."

Reductio ad absurdum, or straw man.

"There's also the fact that many -- I'd say almost all if not all -- humanists have moral beliefs that can't be backed up without reference to some sort of more or less arbitrary moral code."

Which poll or study shows this? Where did this 'fact' come from?

"I find it difficult, for example, to find..."

This is the argument from ignorance.

"...but I'm hard-pressed to justify them using the normal precepts of humanist ethics"

Another case of argument from ignorance.

-------
I have come to understand that morals are derived from genetics (self preservation) driving cultural interaction through kin selection, altruism, the need for trade and commerce, etc. driving civility and cooperation and punishing aberrant behavior (prisoner's dilemma)and that the overriding determinant is whether a behavior causes harm, particularly unnecessary suffering.

There are many studies that support this. These human traits long preceded any organized religion and therefore have no need to consider religious doctrines.

Reference books: Good without God by Greg Epstein; The God Virus by Darrell Ray; How We Believe by Michael Shermer; God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger; Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals By Frans de Waal

Greywizard said...

I apologise, I was referring to Perry's book on human rights, not to the book Under God?, whose title is troubling enough, however bright and brilliantly argued it may be. However, I suspect, the same thing applies in this book as it does in his book on human rights, which I have not read yet, though I have dipped into the intro.

Is there a difference between religious and secular arguments for moral judgements? Well Dan L: Yes there is, and religious people demonstrate it every day. There are a few people who argue strenuously on what they take to be secular grounds that abortion, for example, is absolutely wrong and should be forbidden, but most people who argue this are religious, and base their judgements either on revelation or on something that is called 'natural law'. However, almost all natural law arguments are based on the supposition that God is the foundation of natural law, so it comes to much the same thing in the end. Of course, religious people will use consequentialist arguments, but when push comes to shove, the judgements are absolute, and are not really based on consequentialist grounds.

Indeed, Michael Perry argues that there is no secular ground for human rights, which makes about as much sense as suggesting that there is no reason to be moral if you don't believe in a god. Of course, which god is always an important question. Muslims around the world don't seem to think that women have any rights, or at least that their rights should be severely restricted, and this judgement is based on a supposed revelation. So, if Perry thinks that religion grounds human rights talk, or morality, he's going to have to explain why his particular religion should be chosen as that ground. I warrant he can't do that no matter how hard he tries. So his grounding of morality in religion will be high and dry.

As to the question about the speciousness of what you wrote, Dan. You suggested that you agree withn Perry here, and then you talk about formulaic moral judgements and arbitrary moral codes. Well yes, I suppose some of our judgements can be formulaic, but when you're making decisions regarding laws, you have to give your ability to think about things more play, and basing laws on what you think a god said, or what your scriptures say, or what your first impulse might be is not enough. So, agreeing with Perry doesn't really say very much. It seems quite empty to me. I expect my representatives in the legislature or parliament to do a bit more work. Not that they do always. In fact, right at the moment I'm trying to convince the Canadian parliament that they should give more consideration to a bill legalising assistance in dying, instead of mouthing off religious one-liners about God's law and the sanctity of life. So - yeah - I think what you said was pretty vacuous.

Anonymous said...

@NewEnglandBob:

Again, I feel like you're being needlessly dismissive of my opinion simply because it's different from yours.

"In Dan L's original post he said:

"As I've tried to argue before, people don't make decisions by applying formulaic moral calculi..."

This is opinion, not supported by facts."

No, it is an empirical observation. Every day, myself and thousands of people around me make decisions based on what they think is the best action in any given situation. Very rarely does anyone seem to take the ethical implications of that action into account; or at least, not in any conscious, reasoned way. At the very least, there is no reason to BELIEVE that they are doing so in a conscious, reasoned way, partially because the outcomes for any two people can be so different even in very similar circumstances, and partially because the outcomes so often seem unjust.

Contrast your view:

"I have come to understand that morals are derived from genetics (self preservation) driving cultural interaction through kin selection, altruism, the need for trade and commerce, etc. driving civility and cooperation and punishing aberrant behavior (prisoner's dilemma)and that the overriding determinant is whether a behavior causes harm, particularly unnecessary suffering."

OK, but this is the thousand-yard-view. You're not talking about individual decision making, but society-wide trends in decision making. I'm talking about individual decision makers in the context of a particular decision -- I do not decide whether or not to take the last banana of a bunch on the basis of kin selection (perhaps my inclination one way or the other is influenced by kin selection's influence on my genes, but none of that is part of my conscious decision-making process).

"There are many studies that support this. These human traits long preceded any organized religion and therefore have no need to consider religious doctrines."

But it also doesn't tell us a priori what are or should be accepted moral precepts. There's also no guarantee that genetically-derived morals are any more just than religiously-derived morals. I agree that morality needs to be examined empirically, not analytically; in fact, that is the justification for my belief that for the individual, morality is culturally derived rather than established from an analytic propositional ethical system.

@Greywizard:

I also think you're being unnecessarily dismissive of opinions merely because they are different from yours. It is one thing to demonstrate that what I'm saying is vacuous, and another entirely to merely assert it.

I think your attitude is precluding you from understanding what it is I'm saying. The fact that I'm advocating for the "just/unjust" dichotomy should indicate that I don't think "God said so" implies that a law is just. Such a justification will not render a law just unless everyone in that society agrees there is a God and that is, in fact, what God said.

I agree with Perry that there is no secular basis for human rights, but in a very qualified way. There is no secular basis for human rights EXCEPT that we all seem to agree that they are a very good idea. It seems like the main difference between your position and my own is that you think there is some a priori basis for human rights apart from the cultural values of tolerance, cooperation, etc. (which are far from universal, which is why I don't believe in the a priori reality of universal human rights).

-Dan L.

NewEnglandBob said...

Dan,

I said:

"the overriding determinant is whether a behavior causes harm, particularly unnecessary suffering."

and You said:

"OK, but this is the thousand-yard-view. You're not talking about individual decision making, but society-wide trends in decision making.

A 'thousand-yard-view"? 'Not individual decision making'? Are you kidding me?

Apparently communicating with you is hopeless. Your statements are ludicrous. Sorry, I will no longer discuss with someone so illogical.

Greywizard said...

Well, Dan, let's go back to basics then.

You said this: " I find it difficult, for example, to find a non-arbitrary moral reason to forbid animal cruelty (I'm glad that such rules are on the books, mind you, but I'm hard-pressed to justify them using the normal precepts of humanist ethics)."

What do you mean by this? What are 'the normal precepts of humanist ethics'? I assume that causing harm or pain comes into it somewhere, or causing unnecessary or gratuitous pain. There's nothing particularly arbitrary about such a principle. Ethics has to do with benefits and harms, at the very least. So, it shouldn't be hard to justify rules against cruelty. (The word itself bears its moral meaning on its face.)

Second, you say this: "I don't think it's simple or trivial to draw a line between moral beliefs held because of culture and moral beliefs held by religion, in which case a rule against religiously-motivated laws would effectively ban any religious person from government positions. Which seems wrong to me."

But I wasn't suggesting drawing such a line. I was suggesting that we put our moral beliefs, held for whatever reason, to the test, and see if they stand up to some kind of moral scrutiny. If a religious person is not prepared to do this than he is a danger and should not be an elected representative. There are different methods that we can apply, from Kantian deontological considerations to utilitarian calculations. But thinking about ethics, especially if you're a lawmaker, is particularly important, and whether you're religious or not, you have to be prepared to see that, while to your mind some things are just plain wrong, they are not the sorts of things that you can outlaw, based on, say, your particular religious beliefs. You certainly have a right to argue your point, but you do not have a right to impose on others values that they may not share, and by ignoring which they will do no harm. Of course the religious person might say that to do that is to do harm, because it is quite simply wrong, but that is not an argument against it that will bear very much weight in public dialogue, unless he can give other than religious reasons for saying so. The same goes for my cultural upbringing.

And I'm not disagreeing with you because I don't share your opinions as such. In fact it's not altogether clear what your opinions are, but one important consderation, I suggest, is a respect for critical reason, and its ability at least to appraise our moral approvals and disapprovals, whether these originate in our cultural upbringing, or are adopted as a result of one's religious commitments. In other words, I don't think we are simply the playthings of our culture or religious upbringing, and have a responsibility to subject our value judgements to serious analysis and criticism. That is what I don't sense in the things that you said.

Anonymous said...

@NewEnglandBob:

"the overriding determinant is whether a behavior causes harm, particularly unnecessary suffering."

A 'thousand-yard-view"? 'Not individual decision making'? Are you kidding me?

Apparently communicating with you is hopeless. Your statements are ludicrous. Sorry, I will no longer discuss with someone so illogical.""

I don't believe that people apply the "least harm view" in individual decision making, no. For example, under the "least harm view," it should be unjust to hold a person who steals bread to feed his family accountable to the law -- as the harm obviated by the theft is worse than the harm caused by the theft. And yet, this is at odds with our notions of jurisprudence where not only intention but also effect must be taken into account in deciding guilt and sentencing. This is one fairly trivial example; if I had any patience to deal with you, I could provide more. At the very least, you should make some argument that people use the "least harm principle" in individual decision making if you want me to consider it to be true, even for the purposes of discussion.

That said, I was able to disagree with you without accusing you of any of the garden variety logical fallacies, even though I no doubt could have justified their use in some cases. I also didn't describe your arguments as "specious," "vapid," or any of the other negative terms you applied.

From my perspective, if my arguments were really "vapid" or "specious," that could be demonstrated without necessarily saying so. But the fact that you said so without demonstrating the fact indicates to me (as if I needed anything but other posts you've made) that you are either unwilling or incapable to entertain, even for a moment, the notion that you are wrong about something or that someone else might have a little bit of a point.

So you're done with me, huh? Go ahead and pretend you're taking the high road. I tried to engage and have a mature discussion about this despite the fact that I already knew this was what was going to happen when I didn't just roll over and say, "Gosh, you're right NewEnglandBob!"

-Dan L.

Anonymous said...

@Greywizard:

What I mean by the normal precepts of humanist ethics are in fact utilitarian and "least harm" models. The philosophical arguments demonstrating that they so often go off the rails are rather commonplace; I don't see the need to go around bringing them all up. I'll run through a few:

-Under the least harm view, a foetus has no more value than a yeast infection
-Under the least harm view, I see no clear way to delineate between abortion (morally OK) and infanticide (morally wrong). When, exactly, does the foetus become more important than a yeast infection?
-We do not seem to apply "least harm," or really any ethical calculus at all, when it comes to animals that are either destined to be food or experimental subjects. Will chronically inserting an electrode into a rat's brain obviate more harm than it causes? It's at the very least not obvious. As for factory farms, raising a cow at a feedlot is self-evidently cruel; how much worse is it that NOT raising the cow would free up ten times the meat's weight in grain?
-Consider the following thought experiments: at some point in the future, psychology and sociology have become deterministic science. Sociologists can assure us that we can nearly eliminate ALL violent and sexual crimes against women, but to do so an innocent 5 year old girl must be tortured to death on national television. The "least harm principle" implies we should torture the girl to death, as the harm obviated is far greater than the harm visited upon the girl.

The last example shows that it is not necessarily straight-forward to combine "least harm" with a natural rights view, in which the girl's autonomy would be protected as a right even if breaching that autonomy would create a good outcome for society.

"Least harm" also falls short in telling us whether we should take the risk of short-term harm for some probability of long-term gain; should we use probabilistic expectation values of "good" and "harm," and if so, how do we usefully define them mathematically such that we can make a probability calculus of them?

"In other words, I don't think we are simply the playthings of our culture or religious upbringing, and have a responsibility to subject our value judgements to serious analysis and criticism. That is what I don't sense in the things that you said."

Funny, because what I am saying is actually that secular humanists have as much of an onus on them to seriously analyze and criticize their own moral precepts as do believers. So we entirely agree, except that I seem to be less sanguine about the foundations of secular ethical systems, much of which I do believe to be arbitrary, or in other cases based on incorrect or incomplete premises ("least harm" for example).

So what's the correct system? I don't think there is one, which is one reason why I think humanists need to be a little more circumspect about assuming that they have all the answers. All the more reason to, in your words, subject our value judgments to serious analysis and criticism.

Anonymous said...

@Greywizard:

The other really important part of my perspective on morality and law is that consent and consensus are more important than the specific moral precepts being applied; thus, having a justification for a law (let's use "God said so" just for an example) does not make that law just. There must be some consensus that the justification is worthwhile and there must be consent by the governed before that law is just (by my lights, anyway; I've been using "just" relatively loosely throughout this discussion).

This gives you the "secular" criterion for free in any society containing atheists, as they will never be part of consensus on a law inspired only by religious moral precepts.

When we look at any particular debate, especially in America today, I probably agree with you 100% on what I think the outcome should be. Abortion should be legal. Marriage is a little stickier since I see no a priori reason to forbid polyamory that doesn't also apply to gay marriage, except that polyamory opens up the possibility of abuse if marriage carries any legal benefits (tax benefits, etc.). Ideally, I think the state shouldn't be in the marriage business, but I'm willing to entertain arguments to the contrary.

When it comes to abortion, however, I think the best arguments are not from moral principles, but from results: outlawing abortions does not reduce the number of abortions performed, but it does make the abortions performed more dangerous to the mother. Whether or not abortions are moral, the result of outlawing them is even worse by anything that I would call a reasonable metric.

-Dan L.

Greywizard said...

Dan, I can't respond to everything, so let's just take a couple of points.

You say: "Under the least harm view, a foetus has no more value than a yeast infection." I don't understand how this follows from the least harm view.

Take your thought experiment where we have eliminated freedom altogether. We know and can predict everything that happens. I don't see how moral language gets a purchase in this world at all, because you already know whether or not the little girl is going to be tortured on TV. It certainly doesn't have anything to do with the harm principle, which has to do with the basis for making laws which restrict freedom, and can only do so if its purpose is to prevent harm. Torturing youngsters doesn't really apply here. I think perhaps you are mistaking the harm principle with the utilitarian principle of maximising utility. The harm principle, as formlated by Mill, goes like this: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." (my italics) That certainly doesn't give you a license to torture little girls in order to benefit others.

In answer to your last question: What's the best system? I don't know that there is one. Morality is by its very nature, I think, transgressive, because it is always discovering new ways in which we can understand what is good and bad, and so it is constantly changing as our moral sensibility becomes more acute. As Steven Pinker says, in sixteenth century France it was thought that roasting live cats was hugely entertaining, and was sometimes done as an intermission in the theatre. Been at any cat roasts lately?

In short, I think your scepticism is excessive. It's probably true that most global theories of morality, carried to their limits, produce monstrosities. (It's hard to provide a global theory that justifies induction too, but science seems to carry on just the same.) But I don't think that's how critical morality works. It should not be system building, but sensitively discerning. Literature is very helpful, and even religious anthropology can contribute to our understanding of how to be more morally responsible (read Richard Holloway's Between the Monster and the Saint, but also read his Godless Morality, where, as a bishop, he argues for secular morality). I don't think it is hard, in many cases, to discern what is morally best, and give reasons for thinking so. I do not think that religion has anything to offer as a way of grounding this kind of discernment, which is why I think that Michael Perry is hunting the snark. Besides, I've been there, tried that. Of course, individual religious people may be very morally discerning, but that is a different thing.

Lastly, then, of course humanists and secularists have as much responsibility for careful and critical moral discernment as anyone else. That's what I've been saying. I'm just saying that it's not impossible to do, and I expect religious people to do it as well as anyone else. But talking about what we've picked up from our culture or religion, while it may be where we start, certainly can't be where we end in our project of living an examined, responsibly moral life.

Russell Blackford said...

Folks, remember that Dan L isn't one of the bad guys.

Dan L, I need to write a whole book on this, and am trying to do so, but we're not talking about the moral judgments of individuals. We're talking about the actions of the state, which wields the scary power of fire and sword (i.e. it can lock you up, fine you, sequester your assets ... thankfully there are no longer many jurisdictions where it can actually kill you).

The state is faced with a situation where there will be different, perhaps many, religions practiced within its boundaries, and many moral beliefs. Which of these should it enforce?

The liberal view is usually that the state should not attempt to discover which belief is true, all things considered, which would require investigating which holy book is divinely inspired and so on, and would perhaps mean imposing a comprehensive set of instructions on many people who would experience them as tyrannical. Rather, the state should concentrate on a limited set of tasks, the sort of tasks that appear to make it necessary in the first place. E.g. it should protect us from internal and external violence, establish a system of property and then enforce it, etc. Even this may get complicated as well as divisive, but far less so than if it tried to work out which is the true morality among all of those available and then enforce that.

There's a further complication. By about 1870 it was becoming apparent that the state could not just stand back and watch unrestricted capitalist competition produce big winners and losers, with much suffering as a result. So the state has increasingly taken on a whole range of responsibilities well beyond what was imagined by Locke. Still, these are aimed at people's worldly (largely economic) welfare, not at their spiritual salvation, or even their virtue. There is still no reason for the state for start investigating holy books and determining which one is correct, etc., though its expanded role (which I support; I'm not a political libertarian who thinks "taxation is theft") does cause problems.

In all, the vision that Locke had of the state stepping back and concentrating on worldly welfare, while the various churches concentrate on spiritual salvation, and perhaps offer a "richer" or "thicker" morality to their members, still seems convincing to me, though it will be more complicated in practice than Locke thought in about 1690, or even than Mill thought in about 1860.

But whether or not this vision of the role of the state is correct, or attractive, or not, my beef is that Perry doesn't even consider it, at least not in these opening chapters. He just seems to assume that all this is wrong and that it's legitimate for the state to impose whatever it thinks is the true morality. If you assume that, it's inevitable that you conclude that the state may legitimately impose a specifically religious morality from a holy book or wherever. How could it know in advance that the true morality is not one of the religious ones?

I do think that Perry is aware of some of the dangers in all this, so he's going to ask that politicians voluntarily restrain themselves in certain ways. But I doubt that he's going to say enough to satisfy me.

Anonymous said...

@Greywizard:

I think we are largely in agreement, but there are definitely a few points of contention:

"Take your thought experiment where we have eliminated freedom altogether. We know and can predict everything that happens."

That is not what I said. I said "psychology and sociology have become deterministic sciences." I did not say, "freedom has been eliminated." Relativity is a deterministic science, but we cannot use it to determine, for example, how many stars will be spawned in a particular nebula over the course of the next 20 years. It does not follow that because analysts can guarantee one outcome at a particular level of granularity ("any hydrogen cloud of that mass density will eventually become a black hole") that they can guarantee every outcome at every level of granularity ("that particular hydrogen cloud will collapse into a planetary system containing 3 super earths, 2 gas giants, and 1 ice giant"). Taking the example as literally as you have rather defeats the purpose of a thought experiment, don't you think?

"I think perhaps you are mistaking the harm principle with the utilitarian principle of maximising utility. The harm principle, as formlated by Mill, goes like this: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." "

I'm having trouble here; are you claiming that torturing the girl within the context of the thought experiment does not prevent harm to others (the thousands of women who will not be killed, beaten or raped as they otherwise would have)? Is it the fact that the prevention of harm is mediated through other causal factors one or more degree removed from the girl herself? If that is the case, then is it morally wrong to hire a hitman to kill someone I don't like? After all, I'm not directly causing his death -- there is at least one degree of separation between myself and the cause of harm. In other words, I don't see an easy way to distinguish between "maximizing utility" and "minimizing harm." You have to invoke causality to do so, and causality is not a well-understood or well-defined phenomenon.

We can obviate the above by appealing to intention. But we can't ONLY appeal to intention. That would create serious problems when you apply it to law, since it is often difficult to assess the true intentions of a defendant. It also weakens the case for negligence ever being immoral -- crimes of negligence can't really be prosecuted on the grounds of bad intentions, since there was most likely no intent to be negligent. Thus, we still have to come to a decision about how much weight we give to a defendant's intentions versus the outcome of the defendant's actions. I see no way to decide this a priori; thus the focus on consensus and consent of the governed.

There is also the question of how much leeway we give the enforcers of laws. It is, after all, a value judgment or informed guess on the part of a legislator whether the imposition of force is going to prevent harm or not.

You're probably right that I'm mixing up utility and least harm. However, either way you have to define "utility" and/or "harm." Can you do so from first principles, or can such a definition only come (as I would argue) from consensus and consent of the governed? Or is there another possibility I'm ignoring?

By the way, the thought experiment isn't my own. I was exposed to it by a political science professor. I don't mean to appeal to authority here, but I do want to make the case that someone more credentialed than myself believed this to be an illuminating thought experiment concerning ethics.

-Dan L.

Anonymous said...

@Russell Blackford:

"we're not talking about the moral judgments of individuals. We're talking about the actions of the state, which wields the scary power of fire and sword (i.e. it can lock you up, fine you, sequester your assets ... thankfully there are no longer many jurisdictions where it can actually kill you)."

But can we decide what state actions can be justified without any reference to morality whatsoever? For example, isn't it a moral judgment whether and how much the intention of the defendant is taken into account? Could a legal system that didn't take morality into account possibly be just (for example, if intention didn't count, there would be no difference between intentionally and accidentally running someone over with a car as far as the law was concerned)? Don't we have to decide whether criminal sentences are imposed as punishment, rehabilitation, or deterrent, and isn't that also a moral question? Isn't the question of whether capital punishment can be justified a moral one at some level? If the law is concerned with either "good" or "bad" outcomes, we need some definition for those and I don't think we can do so without invoking morality. And if the state has no regard for good or bad outcomes, isn't that an even more serious problem?

Anyway, I certainly don't agree with Perry that we need the leviathan. My impression from your post was that he was arguing something closer to the idea that the precepts on which secular notions of morality are based are in some ways just as arbitrary as those on which religious notions of morality are based.

To Perry, this is apparently a dilemma soluble only by giving the state final say. To me, this is simply a rationale for the necessity of consent by the governed. Which in a pluralistic society should yield something very like Locke's notion of a state with limited and worldly goals allowing, as you say, specific religions or other organizations to offer a richer morality or culture or whatever it is being provided.

-Dan L.

Greywizard said...

Well, let me start by saying that I don't think anyone is the enemy, so long as we're prepared to discuss civilly! I did think that Anonymous - AKA Dan L. - started out rather unpromisingly, but he soon set us straight on that.

Just to clear up a couple points.

I decided to take a closer look at Perry on human rights - I have the Kindle sample - and I must say he makes my skin fairly crawl. It's like a book of Christian apologetics, and his idea that religion can ground human rights and atheism/secularism can't is about as farfetched as it gets. I don't think I'll be buying it. (That's one of the great things about e-readers.) Indeed, the idea that religious legislators should legislate morality in the way that you (Russell) describe Perry's argument is positively frightening. They do it now, and they do it too much.

I have an account from a woman in Poland about the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church in influencing legislation and enforcing legislation that is deeply worrying. One reason I didn't vote here in the last provincial election, is because the leader of the party I would have supported is a Roman Catholic and had made some impromtu remarks about the immorality of homosexuality which came straight out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

But I do have one concern. You said that the book was densely argued - which is untrue if the bits that I read of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd chapters of the Towards a Theory of Human Rights is anything to go by. Much of it is pretty light weight apologetics, heavily larded with quotes from the NT. Besides, as you say, regarding the idea that the state should not get involved in legislating morality: "He just seems to assume that all this is wrong and that it's legitimate for the state to impose whatever it thinks is the true morality." Which, as you point out, is tyranny. It's also fairly inadequately argued, if he just assumes this. Indeed, it tends to confirm my suspicion that religion is quickly becoming a menace to democracy, if he is actually proposing this kind of thing to be taken up in a reasoned public dialogue.


That being said, I move on to a couple things that Dan said. Regarding the thought experiment. I'm not enamoured of thought experiments, to tell the truth. But in this case, if the human sciences have become deterministic, and know that torturing a little girl on TV will actually prevent many women from being killed, then I assume, this being a thought experiment, that they can also predict that that is what is going to be done to the little girl. If they can predict one thing then I take it they should be able to predict the other, quantum indeterminacy notwithstanding.

As to the other remark about the uncertainty of preventing harm. The point of Mill's principle, as I understand it, is that legislators must provide good reasons for believing that certain prohibited activities would, if not prohibited, cause harm. Of course, they might be wrong. For a long time here in Canada, at least, we had film censors, and the movie Last Tango in Paris (I'm not a Marlon Brando fan, so it wasn't a great loss) was banned, people were prevented from exercising their freedom to see a (simulated?) act of anal sex. I never watched to the end, so I never saw it, but I think that was the shock du jour. It was hard to justify that kind of restriction of freedom, and censors are no more.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, it's densely enough argued that I find myself having to take lot of notes.

But yes, the harm principle isn't supposed to be some kind of panacea. There's no such thing in politics. There'll always be questions of judgment, and the system of democracy is there to make them. But as you say, the harm principle is to focus us on why we forbid something not to produce totally uncontroversial or mathematically demonstrable answers. It can't guarantee that we'll reach agreement or end up making the right decision. I can't imagine how any ethico-legal-political sort of principle could ever be able to do that.

Axxyaan said...

Personnaly I am of a mind that religious freedom results in religious people having priviliges over non-religious people. Take Russels example of banning pork. What if the banning of pork was not motivated by religion but by cultural taboo. Shouldn't we protest that minorities get this taboo imposed on them in this case too? I don't see why the minorities shouldn't be protected from this imposition, simply because it isn't religious in nature. IMO we need some kind of protection against arbitrariness.