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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Therapeutic cloning debate moves to Western Australia

Western Australia's lower house has now passed legislation to legalise therapeutic cloning, in line with federal legislation that has already been mirrored in Victoria and New South Wales.

Once again, the Catholic Church oppposed this legislation, with the Archbishop of Perth threatening Catholic MPs if they voted in its favour. What is especially nauseating about this whole protracted process of getting some reasonable legislative reforms in Australia is the continued attempt by religious leaders to tear down any separation of church and state. They continue their efforts to impose a specifically religious - and barbaric - morality on the rest of us by means of the coercive power of the state. Yet again, it must be said: bishops and priests have no moral or intellectual authority, and their views deserve no credence in the formulation of public policy. We've given their medieval view of the world too much respect in the past, and it's about time we stopped. They can believe what they want, but there is no reason to defer to them when they meddle in the public sphere.


Blake Stacey said...

Argh. And it's mainstream Catholicism which has no problems with modern biology, or so people keep telling me.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, Blake - some people just don't get it. The Catholic Church hierarchy does not equal "moderate Christianity".

Many individual Catholics - both laity and lower-level religious - are genuinely moderate, reasonable people. But the Vatican leaders and their worldwide network of ultra-conservative cardinals and bishops are far from moderate. They have their medieval morality ... and they have no compunction about trying to impose it.

By comparison, the antics of young earth creationists in Kansas, or wherever, seem relatively trivial.

Unknown said...

Hi Russell, I saw this link on the RD website. I have to agree totally with you. It's absurd that the catholics church false world view is treated as being morally sound and the rest of us have to treat it as worthy of consideration and deference.

Anonymous said...

Hi Russell,

I don't think you can criticise archbishops who threaten catholic MPs for attempting to "tear down any separation of church and state." I am assuming that the threats are withdrawal of support whatever form that may take, ex-communication or similar. The separation of church and state that should be insisted upon is nothing more than that the coercive power of the state should not be invoked to enforce beliefs or practices which are not necessary for the maintenance of society.

It is important that this principle of separation of church and state not include such an emotive, though amoral and ill-defined term such as religion. Using this principle we cannot make the mistake of French secularists in banning the veil in public schools, nor that made by those that suggest that religious practices might be exempt from legal scrutiny merely by virtue of being 'religious'.

What the principle implies in the case of these archbishops is that their views should not be ignored but only taken into account as much as anyone else's. Catholic MPs might take more notice of them but so long as they didn't run for office on the pretence of being non-catholic there is nothing intrinsically wrong in this.

Any problem must be sourced solely problems with what you call their medieval and barbaric morality not with their attempts to impose it on others. If therapeutic cloning is analogous to murder in the sense these bishops believe then they are correct to pressure for laws against it. As Singer has pointed out there is no way to deal with this issue except to consider the fundamental arguments for and against embryonic "rights". Unfortunately its not the sort of debate the general public wants to have since it makes it harder to consider the other side as 'evil' murderers or misogynists or whatever. It is the idea of evil as some independent moticating force and its embodiment in 'bad guys' which I suggest is one of the most incoherent, pervasive and dangerous ideas in the history of human thought. (Not that I'm suggesting you're taking this simplistic view Russell. I might have got a bit side tracked there. :P)

Thomas Hendrey

Russell Blackford said...

Thomas, you say:

The separation of church and state that should be insisted upon is nothing more than that the coercive power of the state should not be invoked to enforce beliefs or practices which are not necessary for the maintenance of society.

But isn't that my point? By seeking laws against things like stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, and so on, the bishops and cardinals we are talking about are, indeed, seeking to invoke the coercive power of the state to enforce beliefs and practices that are not necessary for the maintenance of society. By your own definition, that violates the separation that should be "insisted" on in a liberal society. I assume you're not going to want to distinguish between a positive practice such as attending church and a negative practice such as refraining from destroying embryos.

(Perhaps you're making a distinction between breaching the separation - as with enacting and/or retaining and/or enforcing a law - and merely lobbying for it to be breached by advocating the enactment or retention of the law? I suppose I could accept that distinction. I don't even deny them the right to lobby in that way, as long as I have the right to criticise what they doing.)

I think it's very difficult to argue that destroying embryos is akin to murder, or that refraining from it is necessary for the maintenance of society. The idea that it is akin to murder is going to have to use some sort of religious notion of murder - kiling something with a soul, perhaps - or else it will have to engage in some kind of intellectual gymnastics such as saying that what matters is whether we kill something that belongs to a species the embryos of which typically have the potential to become rational beings - the kind of thing that Rosalind Hursthouse toys with in one place. It's hard to see how that sort of analysis could be motivated from a purely secular viewpoint (and it's not even Hursthouse's ultimate view, since she's actually a virtue ethicist).

That said, I feel chastened to some extent by your request for more rigorous justification. This whole business of separation of church and state is very difficult. It gets murkier the more you look at it. Clearly there are some things that we don't want enforced by the state's coercive power - e.g. engaging in certain rituals or professing belief in such doctrines as transubstantiation. But where do we draw the line? You may have actually drawn it in a way that is too favourable to the position taken in my post, because a lot of laws are not strictly necessary for the purpose you gave. A more lenient test would be that a law something like the law was necessary, with the state having a "margin of appreciation" as to the exact form the law would take. But even that may be too tough a test to impose on the churches and too lenient to my position or that of other secularists.

I have an article ostensibly on the "New Atheism" - but largely about these church/state issues - coming out in the next issue of the Australian Rationalist magazine. There, I raise some of the problems about the rationale for separation and suggest why those problems might actually push some of us to be more hostile to some kinds of religion (though not necessarily all kinds), and more willing to engage in public criticism of religious belief.

I was going to hold off answering your comment until that article appeared, but it seems to be taking forever. I'll doubtless have more to say when it does. I'm not completely happy with how it's turned out: I think there's more thinking to be done on this issue.

Some of the rationale for separation of church and state may break down from the viewpoint of the churches when we get to modern bioethical issues and so on ... which would be a problem all round. Conversely, some of the rationale for the "toleration of all the sects" side of the doctrine as enunciated by Locke may not apply to all religious positions.

I'm not thinking here of Catholicism, even of the conservative kind that is currently dominant within the hierarchy, but there are some positions in both Christianity and Islam (and perhaps some other religions) that don't seem as willing to abide by the idea of separation of church and state - provided they are not persecuted - as Locke thought would be the case. Locke believed that "the sects" would be peaceable if not persecuted with fire and the sword, and that has largely been true, but it may not be true of all the sects that now confront liberal societies.

There may, of course, still be good reasons (based on compassion and so on) not to persecute even the most zealous and theocratic religious groups, but there's a live question as to whether we can completely tolerate the teachings of the most intolerant ones and allow them to indoctrinate their children.

With the conservative RC cardinals and bishops, all I advocate are very mild steps. I'm not asking the state to do anything except demand cogent argument that meets some reasonable secular test such as the need for laws for the maintenance of society (or whatever standard we adopt). Beyond that, I'm just into consciousness raising about the idea that these church hierarchs have no particular wisdom or moral authority. I think we have good reason, as individual citizens, to be sceptical whenever we hear from Cardinal Pell and his colleagues, and to be unimpressed by all the public praise that such folks receive in newspaper editorials and the like. But of course, I'm not wanting to shut them up; I defend their freedom of speech as much as anyone else's, along with our freedom to ignore it or criticise it.

Anonymous said...

Yes the issue of separation of church and state is difficult. Looking back on it I don't like the way I formulated the definition in my last comment because maintenance of society is such a vague term. I want something like Mill's harm principle but, of course, there are difficulties in considering what sorts of harm count. My point was that the doctine(?) of the separation of church and state should be cashed out in terms that don't refer to the church or religion in general.

So I would agree with you that we should not necessarily refrain from criticising or calling into question religious views merely because they are religious (altough we might still refrain for various other reasons depending on circumstance). My point is merely that if the bishops were right about the moral status of embryos et al they would be right to legislate against it. So criticising them for not honoring a separation of church and state is not the right criticism - like it would be, say, if they tried to legislate against blasphemy.

I think that you are probably right that their ethics breaks down here - that they are wrong to put so much value on embryos. But I also think that their position sounds more consistent and compassionate than some rights based pro-choice arguments such as Thompson's. For this reason I was, up until recently, pro-life. But I think that the issue is difficult.

You mention the indoctrination of children. This is another issue which is going to be difficult. I mean it's in the UN charter of rights that 'parents have a prior right to choose the education of their children' or something like that. But if they're born into some theocratic sect it seems a bit hard on the child. But then I'm not sure that's the right way of putting it. I mean the child's indoctrination will be part of who they become. A better way of putting it - to my consequentialist way of thinking - is to say that the existence of theocratic sects makes a laissez faire attitude to education appear less than ideal for producing a just future society. But then who has the right to decide what children are taught? I mean I love the idea of teaching children not what to think but how to think, but how do you do that? Then what about people who don't think that's the right way to teach children? For me its a problem because I want to be a complete anarchist when it comes to regulation of information, but I don't think this is tenable when children are involved.

Thomas Hendrey

Russell Blackford said...

I've been thinking quite hard about the church/state issue - I'm not entirely happy with my own current thinking on it, and it arguably becomes even more difficult when we look at Islam. I read Waleed Aly's book People Like Us recently, and I see Aly being quite bemused by the idea of a separation of church and state - it's just not an idea found in the traditions of Islam, which has nothing quite like "the church". He doesn't seem to understand why we can't all bring our religious views to the political table and let the electorate decide, or punish us if we go too far in one direction or another.

That really worries me; it suggests that we could have a tyranny of the majority - even if it's only a cobbled-together majority representing some social groups with common interests - and that there are no concepts within Islam to check this.

But he gives me hope elsewhere, because he does understand a distinction between crime and sin and a principle of religious tolerance. He even gives me the impression that classical Islam developed resources that could enable modern-day Islam to embrace something like Locke's account of religious tolerance, from Islam's own viewpoint, and something like Mill's concepts of individual liberty and the harm principle, again from its own viewpoint.

I'm starting to wonder whether I should forget about separation of church and state, or at least downplay the idea, and ask of religious believers that they simply find ways of endorsing (from within their traditions) the ideas of Locke and Mill and the distinction between sin and crime. Perhaps many of the more moderate Christians and Muslims and others could bring the political ideas of Locke and Mill to the table for their own reasons (all very Rawlsian here).

That may be more acceptable to them, and more like what people like me really want.

Of course, I have nothing like the knowledge of Islam to know whether it does have those sorts of intellectual resources. The kind of Islam that supports terrorism doubtless does not, but I'm obviously not silly enough to think that this is representative of all of Islam and its rich traditions.

The Catholic Church may find it harder than most to commit absolutely to such principles, at least interpreted in a way that secularists would consider acceptable, since it operates with a theory that moral good and bad are discoverable by reason and that its morality is not a specifically religious one. Islam, obviously, may also have more problems with the kind of Lockean/Millian/Rawlsian compromise I'm sketching than the protestant Christian denominations. But perhaps these ideas are worth developing. Rawls does talk a bit like this in Political Liberalism but at auch a high level of abstraction that it's often difficult to be sure what he's really getting at.

Russell Blackford said...

The one about children is really difficult. At least some kinds of religious upbringing can be psychologically traumatic, or otherwise damaging, for children, and merit being thought of as something very like child abuse. On the other hand, there are powerful reasons for the state not to step in unless some gross abuse is involved (ironically, given my comment above, these are largely separation of church and state type reasons ... reasons why the state should not be interfering with the religion-based decisions of parents).

I'm not sure that there's anything much we can ask the state to do here, except perhaps take some steps to ensure that kids get a broad knowledge of other religions, cultures, etc. (and of course, some parents even object to this). Perhaps all we can do, lame as it sounds, is try to raise public consciousness that it's an issue.