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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The secular state has no mandate to enforce religious morality

Or to enforce any all-things-considered moral system. It has a more limited remit than that.

The piece linked to was discussed in a radio conversation between Scott Stephens and Waleed Aly earlier this evening (the topic apparently related to the role of the state in enforcing morality, or something along those lines). I haven't yet had a chance to listen to it, but I expect it will soon be available on the Radio National website.

I hear that it was pretty favourable publicity. Considering both broadcasters are religious believers, that's heartening and interesting. Did anyone else manage to catch it on the Drive program on Radio National?


Anonymous said...

Advertising your book on the no-commerical activity and tax payer funded ABC? Thats a bit sneaky.

Russell Blackford said...

lol ... that's one to look at it, I suppose.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Nice publicity for what looks like a very worthwhile book, Russell. Well done! I wonder, though, about your use of the term "morality." You don't put forward such an argument explicitly in the article, which is limited to a discussion of religious morality. Yet the title refers to morality simpliciter, suggesting an equation of "morality" with "religious morality." Your comment here suggests that you see a difference between religious morality and "any all-things-considered moral system," but that you don't think the difference is significant in this context. Yet, some (Sam Harris, for example) will say that any systematic attempt to enhance the well-being of humanity, such as that expected of the State as per Locke's arguments, should be considered a moral system. While I don't agree with much of what Harris says about morality, I do think he would have a point here (if he were inclined to make it). Any systematic attempt to justify and enforce the law and public policy could be analyzed as a moral system, and could be criticized by appeal to moral principles.

Since you are an error theorist (or at least a philosopher with strong leanings towards error theory), I suspect you would prefer not to think of secular government in these terms. You would rather leave room for the possibility that law and public policy are not dependent upon a variety of thinking which is fundamentally erroneous. This, to me, reflects a weakness of error theory more than anything else. At the very least, it could make it difficult for you to fully connect with people who take a different metaethical approach. I'm curious if this is something you address in your book.

Russell Blackford said...

Jason, bear in mind that I didn't choose the title. I probably would have called it something more lurid, like "Locke's time-bomb". Most articles published by mainstream media organisations have titles chosen by editors or sub-editors, not by the authors. So just don't read too much into the title one way or the other.

That said, I don't think the role of the state is to discover the correct morality - religious or otherwise - then require us to conform to it. I think that, in practice, the state is more likely to do this with religious moralities than non-religious ones, but the same would apply to the non-religious ones.

I don't, for example, think that the state should try to make us all conduct ourselves like utilitarians or Kantians - and I don't think that utilitarians or Kantians should think this either.

I won't get into Kantianism, but a utilitarian would want the state to do whatever maximises utility, which may mean acting in some other way than coercing its citizens to act like utilitarians. More generally, it is not a tenet of act utilitarianism to say: "Try to coerce others to behave like act utilitarians." There may be all sorts of reasons why that would be counterproductive.

So, yes, you could say that the laws enacted by the legislative arm of the state form a system that is justified against certain values, or even that it has a moral justification. But it doesn't follow that the laws track the "correct" morality even if you think that there is such a thing as the correct morality. There may be a fair bit of overlap, of course, but there may be all sorts of reasons why, for example, the law may permit people to act in ways that the correct morality condemns or why it may require people to act in ways that would not be required by the correct morality. Space precludes me giving a lot of examples here, but you could probably think of some.

The deeper question, I suppose, is how we want the state to act, given our understanding of what it seems to do well, what it seems not to do well, etc., its historical record since ancient times, etc. What does the state seem to be useful for (where usefulness is presumably going to be judged against our desires, values, etc.)?

My argument is that, given all we know, we should not want the state to be in the business of identifying the correct comprehensive worldview, which is likely to include some sort of moral code, then requiring its citizens to conform to this whether they agree with it or not. For various reasons, that is unlikely to work out well.

Rather, we should want the state to allow its citizens considerable freedom to live in accordance with their respective and differing worldviews.

In the book, I discuss a number of aspects of this in more detail than I can do here or even in a 2000-word article. I don't, however, bring metaethical issues into it in any explicit way. That's a topic for another book, I think.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I appreciate the elaboration, Russell, but I think I need to press the point a little more. Sorry if this seems like a nit-pick, but bear with me for a second.

You wrote, "I don't think the role of the state is to discover the correct morality - religious or otherwise - then require us to conform to it."

I'm not sure why the word "correct" is included, but I suspect it betrays your inclination towards moral error theory. The issue, as I see it, is whether or not the state should enforce a moral system. The question of whether or not it establishes the correct one, or even whether or not it makes sense to talk about "the correct one," seems to be a separate issue.

We might say that, while the State is not out to establish the one, correct moral system, it is out to establish a moral system. Certainly some informed people are likely to think so, anyway. And in so doing, the State requires people to conform to moral precepts. But that contradicts your claim that the secular state has no mandate to enforce any "all-things-considered" moral system, doesn't it?

By the way, I think you might be mixing morality with metaethics when you write: "I don't, for example, think that the state should try to make us all conduct ourselves like utilitarians or Kantians - and I don't think that utilitarians or Kantians should think this either."

It looks like you're just saying that the State should not enforce metaethical views. I might agree, but that seems like a separate issue.

As for the State being in the business of identifying the "correct comprehensive worldview"--again, the word "correct" seems to have entered the discussion without warrant. In any case, I think the State is, in some cases, in the business of identifying the most beneficial or reasonable worldview. How else could we have a robust system of public education?

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, just quickly - because this can get very complicated - I don't see utilitarianism as a metaethical system. At the metaethical level, utilitarians can have many different views. Some of them might be moral (or ethical) naturalists, but I think you could be a utilitarian while also being, say, a non-cogitivist or an error theorist (you could say that a utilitarian's moral judgments are, strictly speaking, false, or not true, or some such thing, while also thinking that there are justifications for living your life as a utilitarian and recommending utilitarianism as somehow the "best" system; in fact, Joshua Greene seems to think something like this).

So, no, I'm trying to keep considerations of normative theory and considerations of metaethics separate. Unfortunately, it's difficult to do that when a lot of different points seem to be made.

My point about utilitarianism does not rely on any metaethical view. It is just that a utilitarian does not necessarily expect the state to enact laws that will require the citizens to act as if they are utilitarians. Doing that is not likely to maximise utility.

A utilitarian might want the state to decide that utilitarianism is the correct moral philosophy - and I think, importantly, that there are arguments that the state is not well-placed even to do that - but the point about utilitarianism is that even if the state goes that far it will probably have good reasons not to try to make the citizens act like utilitarians.

This is not actually what the book is about - the arguments are at a more practical level. But I do think it's worthwhile stating that even if you think you have the true or best moral theory (and I mean here normative theories, not metaethical theories) it doesn't follow that the theory will give you a reason to try to make others act as if they also believe/adopt the theory. Some moral theories may work like that (I can easily imagine a divine command theory working like that, for example), but it is not at all a general feature of moral theories that they do so.

This may be remote from what you're getting at, but this sort of issue seems to underlie what is being said to me in some of the discussions I've been having. There seems to be a folk assumption that once you have the correct moral theory it then just follows immediately that you'd try, even by coercion, to get others to follow it, and that you'd want the state to enforce it against its citizens. But that's taking a huge and unjustified leap. No one can just assume that that's how it works. Indeed, the usual assumption is that that's not how it works, that the modern state should, for one reason or another, allow its citizens considerable freedom to live in accordance with different moral systems.

Nothing turns at this point on scepticism about whether or not there is a correct moral theory in any event, though I do think the idea is, to say the least, rather problematic - hence the inverted commas. I think that some systems of moral norms, and some systems of legal norms, are better than others - much as I think some cars are better than others, some books are better than others, some tennis players are better than others, etc. - but I don't think that any moral system is unproblematically the "correct" one. But again, that wasn't the argument when I was talking about utilitarianism.

Russell Blackford said...

On "I think the State is, in some cases, in the business of identifying the most beneficial or reasonable worldview. How else could we have a robust system of public education?"

Well, we have robust systems of public education in modern countries without the state attempting to do anything of the kind. The state may teach many things as facts, but it doesn't try to indoctrinate children in, say, Roman Catholicism, or some variety of Hinduism, or philosophical naturalism. Parents may try to do that, but the state definitely doesn't. Remember, we're talking here about entire worldviews, not about particular facts or theories or even political approaches. The state doesn't even try to decide, in any official way, even something as basic to our worldviews as whether or not anything like a god exists. Public education systems get by reasonably well without having to decide one way or another what the truth is on things like that, let alone what children should be told, one way or the other. They allow children to go through the system with a variety of dramatically different worldviews.

So it's just false to say that the state must decide what is the most beneficial or reasonable worldview before it can provide a robust system of public education. There may be some weaker premise in the vicinity that you can rely on, but this one is false.

Jason Streitfeld said...

About worldviews . . . My point wasn't that the state has to identify the most reasonable or beneficial one before it can provide public education, but rather that the value of a public education system might reasonably be expected to be determined at least partly by the worldview it promotes. So the state might then be criticized for not identifying and promoting a good worldview.

Some of your critics/opponents are likely to think that any secular public education system is going to promote philosophical naturalism, either explicitly or implicitly. I've heard that kind of argument before. I don't think secular public education indoctrinates children in naturalism, but this a fuzzy area that leaves a lot of room open to doubt.

You observe that secular states allow children to matriculate in schools with a variety of worldviews--but that doesn't mean the school doesn't itself promote one in particular. Certainly schools say things that conflict with many of the worldviews of their students. So public education doesn't seem so clearly separate from the worldview business.

True that schools don't always have a view on every little point that might be important according to one worldview or another. But, again, that doesn't mean it's not promoting a worldview.

I'm not so attached to the word "worldview," actually. I'm not saying I think you have to use it one way or another. But you brought up the term as a marker to help us identify the limits of the proper authority of the state. I just think there might be some trouble in those waters.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, in the sense that a public education system that promotes a worldview that, in turn, promotes violence. We'd say that that was a bad public education system.

But it's quite possible to have a public education system that does not promote anything like a worldview - some sort of comprehensive understanding of reality - to the exclusion of others, but happily allows students to emerge at the end with a wide variety of such systems in their minds.

That's not to say that education is neutral in the sense that learning facts about the world is going to be neutral in its effects on what worldviews are intellectually tenable. E.g. facts about the age of the earth, etc., directly and unambiguously contradict funadamentalist forms of Christianity. Some worldviews just don't cut the mustard as we learn more about the world through science. But we don't teach science for the purpose of undermining certain views of the world. We teach it for its own sake, or perhaps to achieve certain ordinary worldly aims such as to economic ones, etc.

So I don't think the state is in the business of identifying a comprehensive worldview and deliberately imparting it. The worldly knowledge that it teaches will indeed have certain effects, but that is not what the public education system of a liberal democracy is "in the business" of doing. It's not something that I expect the state to do well; it's not something that most of us would trust it to do (unless, perhaps, we find ourselves in a firm majority that we think can control things); it's not something that the state's historical record suggests it will do well, and nor is it one of the things that, historically the state actually has done reasonably well; and by and large it's not something the state actually tries to do these days, at least in the liberal democracies. There are exceptions to the last of these, of course, as cases like Dover show. But everything I say in this para could be agreed with by most religious believers, not just by non-believers like me.

But I do agree (if you're saying this) that all sorts of things - including, simply, facts about the observed world - make some worldviews more intellectually plausible than others. What gets taught or not will unavoidably have some impact on the proportions of students who graduate with different views of the world (e.g. conservative Christians, fundamentalist Christians, philosophical theists or deists, philosophical naturalists, etc.). But, again, the decisions about what to teach are not made for that purpose. E.g. modern biology and geology are not taught for the purpose of undermining fundamentalist Christianity, and we would go on teaching them for quite different reasons even if there were no fundamentalist Christians in our society.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Well, to focus my point a bit more, it could be argued that secular schools do teach naturalism, at least implicitly if not explicitly. They teach that human beings have a certain place in the world and that this place determines how we can learn about the world and our place in it. I think a worldview, if it is anything, is a view of humanity's place in the world. So this might be a trickier issue than your previous comments allow.

Would you argue that naturalism, if it is taught at all, is not taught specifically to counter alternative views about humanity and its place in the world? That naturalism is not taught as an alternative to Christianity, for example, but simply as the most rational and reasonable view of humanity? If so, your detractors could say that your view of what is rational and reasonable is based on the very worldview you are trying to justify.

Russell Blackford said...

Jason, I don't see how naturalism is being taught at all. If we teach in school that the earth goes around the sun, that is just teaching something that's well established, though not something we had the means to establish in a convincing way until the seventeenth century. If we teach that the earth is an oblate spheroid, not, for example, the shape an upside-down plate, that is, again, just teaching a well-established fact, though there was a time when the fact was not well-established and was not demonstrable.

If there's a religion that teaches that the sun goes around the earth or that the earth is the shape of an upside-down plate, then that religion will be rendered less credible by what we know about the world. At the very least, it ought to revise some doctrines.

Likewise with a religion that teaches that the earth is 6000 years old (since it's now a well-established fact that the earth is billions of years old).

In all these cases, if we teach the facts we are going to have adverse impacts on the credibility of these religions. But we are not thereby "teaching naturalism". We are merely teaching the facts, and we would teach the same facts whether these religions existed or not.

Now, it may be that many religions are contradicted by the facts about the world - as it is opening up to science - even if the contradictions are rather indirect and subtle. Actually, I think this is the situation. The more we learn about the world, the less plausible religion in general may become.

But that is not because we are trying to suppress religion in general or to proselytise in favour of philosophical naturalism. It's just that the facts as they are coming out via science don't stand up very well against the claims of various religions, and various inferences can be drawn from this.

That, however, is all a matter for philosophical argument. After all, many theologians and philosophers of religion argue that the facts we are learning about the world through science actually make some religion or other more plausible.

Whoever is right about that - them or me - when we teach well-established facts made available via science, we are not doing so with the purpose of either undermining or bolstering the various religions that are on offer. Nor is that the direct or main or a disproportional effect of what we are doing (or whatever your favourite legal test might be).

We would teach this stuff whether these religions existed or not. No religion is being persecuted and no religion is being imposed. If the facts are inconvenient to some religions (and arguably convenient to others), that is the pesky facts being biased. It's not us trying to indoctrinate kids into some religious belief or into scepticism about religious views of the worlds.

When this has come up in the US courts they have ruled against the idea that there is any breach of the first amendment.

Really, the onus is on the various religions to adapt their theologies to maintain plausibility against the facts about the world that are coming from science. If they are either unwilling to do so or unable to do so (because, perhaps, core, non-negotiable doctrines sit badly with the scientific facts), then it's not our fault.

Russell Blackford said...

Btw, in case of doubt as to whether I discuss these sorts of objections in the book - yes, I do. Not at huge length, as there are many issues to discuss. But I do identify this concern and give it some discussion. I've also discussed it elsewhere.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I think there's a difference between teaching isolated facts which happen to conflict with religious beliefs and systematically teaching children that science and nature are of primary epistemological and ontological importance. Even in history classes, students are taught to understand the world in completely natural terms.

My view is that the sort of argument I'm outlining doesn't make sense, because there is no coherent alternative on the table. But that's because I'm a theological non-cognitivist. You, on the other hand, seem to respect the idea that different religions have more or less coherent world Jews. So I'm not sure how well you can meet the sort of objection I'm outlining. I don't think you can dismiss it as an over-sensitivity to factual incongruity. Some theists believe secular schools systematically exclude the role of the supernatural in all aspects of life. You apparently believe this is how it should be, but appear unwilling to say that this amounts to teaching naturalism.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Sorry, didn't catch my iPhone's autocorrect. That should've been "worldviews."