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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); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Is religious freedom self-contradictory?

Over on his CFI blog, It's Only Natural, John Shook addresses an argument against religious freedom. The view that he challenges is articulated like this in a piece on the American Catholic blog: there is a built in contradiction in the place of religious freedom in classical liberalism: While religious freedom is a central element of classical liberalism, the ability of a state to function as a liberal democracy will collapse if a large majority of the population do not share a common basic moral and philosophical (and thus by implication theological) worldview. Thus, while religious freedom is a foundational element of classical liberalism, only a certain degree of religious conformity makes it possible. Now, before going any further, I must observe what a recipe for intolerance and bigotry this is. I'll try to discuss it dispassionately in the paragraphs that follow, but you can be assured that I fully appreciate that it's morally repellent. How does Shook respond? Quite sensibly - for example, by emphasising that what is required is not theological consensus but some degree of basic moral/philosophical consensus. As he says, these are not the same thing. But that actually understates it. Sure, there has to be some consensus that we cannot, for example, just go around using violence to promote our own interests in social, economic, and sexual competition. The benefits of social life will be impossible unless there are some strong norms against that kind of violence. Given the scarcity of resources, there also has to be some sort of property system; whatever form this takes, it will need to be experienced as "fair" (in practice, this is likely to involve such things as some emphasis on effort and contribution in acquisition, while also a place for property to be transferred as a gift); and there will need to be a strong norm that property rights be honoured (which does not preclude, and may even require, the overlay of a scheme of taxes and transfers based on need and other relevant values). This level of basic agreement on certain sorts of legal and moral norms is, in fact, required for any society to operate. However, the reasons have nothing to do with theology and can be agreed to from almost any comprehensive worldview. Whatever their comprehensive worldview, nobody wants to live in a Hobbesian state of nature. Generally speaking, we all have good secular reasons to support these sorts of norms and to socialise children into internalising them. Theology has nothing to do with it. When it comes to issues such as whether homosexuality or polyamory or abortion or stem cell research or the use of contraception or IVF or reproductive cloning is morally wrong, however, the situation changes. It is not necessary for social survival and the benefit of living in societies that there be agreement on these things. The law can allow somebody who thinks one of these things is morally wrong to refrain from it, while also allowing those who have no such moral aversions, and who find these things good, to act on their own beliefs. In such a case, neither group of people is subjected to tyranny. The former are not subjected to tyranny because they are not forced to do anything that goes against their own morals. It would be a bizarre definition of "tyranny" to say that someone is tyrannised merely because she is powerless to stop others doing things she disapproves of. The latter group - the homosexuals, polyamorists, women seeking abortions, etc., are not tyrannised either. They are not prevented from doing what they want. (They might be tyrannised if their activities are legal but nonetheless lead to social ostracism, but in a society where their actions are not only legal but approved of by large numbers of people they cannot claim to be tyrannised. If social tyranny is too much of a problem, some specific laws may need to be enacted to ensure they can function in society.) Human societies can certainly operate with no theological consensus, so long as there is even a fairly rough consensus on the norms required to protect such worldly things as life, limb, and property. Someone with a theologically-based morality may wish to see many things prohibited that are actually allowed, but she cannot complain merely because she doesn't get to use the state apparatus to control what others do. If she wants more than that, the rest of us may rightly regard her as unreasonable - she wants her own way not only in how she gets to behave but also in forcing others to do likewise. Stook deals with a further argument: If, however, there is fundamental disagreement among the populace about basic issues of right and wrong and what the purpose of the human person is, the victory of the other side will increasingly look to the defeated like an unacceptable tyranny, and the state will risk coming apart at the seams. His reply is that this is essentially a fantasy, as no such fundamental disagreement is actually tearing apart the country that both bloggers are talking about, i.e. the United States of America. But I'd go further. It is quite possible for a society to get along with fundamental disagreements about such things as "what the purpose of the human person is". You could have half the population claiming that the purpose of the human person is to worship a particular god, while the other half denies that there is any "purpose" at all (though they may still think that life can be rich, personally meaningful, lived with zest, and so on). There is no reason at all why these two groups cannot co-exist in the same society. All that is required is that neither attempt to coerce the other to live in a certain way. They will, of course, also have to have some consensus about the need to refrain from violence, respect property rights (and legitimate redistributions of property through the official tax-transfer system) and so on. But that's already covered above. In other words, it is indeed possible to have a state that does relatively limited things - protecting us from internal and external violence, establishing and enforcing a scheme of property, imposing taxes and redistributing wealth in the form of public programs based on such things as individual need - without anyone having to feel defeated or tyrannised. Of course, you may literally be defeated if you campaign for, say, the criminalisation of homosexual acts ... and your pet theologically-based campaign fails. But your "defeat "simply means that you have failed to coerce others, or to get the state to do it for you. It is bizarre to claim that you are, yourself, being tyrannised. If your views are based on religious doctrine, you will have failed to impose your religious morality on others who don't share it. That does not, however, mean that they are tyrannising you or that your freedom to live by your own religious morality has been lost. There are, of course, any number of complexities and ramifications to all this, but if there is any contradiction in classical liberalism, or in freedom of religion, the arguments that Stook refers to certainly do not establish it. Of course, as with almost anything in this domain, there are going to be some grayish areas, but some can be dealt with in a principled way, while others can be dealt with by means of the reasonable discretion of electorates and governments. Overall, the view of the world sketched above can be elaborated indefinitely to cope with real-world complications, and I see no reason why it should ever come apart - at least not under pressure from the crude arguments dissected in this post.


Eamon Knight said...

Of course, some religionists do, in fact, assert that they are being repressed by laws guaranteeing rights for gays etc. Some people are just whiners who like running other people's lives, and religion gives them an excuse with wide social acceptance.

ColinGavaghan said...

I agree largely with this thesis, but I do wonder about the examples of abortion and stem cell research. I personally don't share the worldview that species membership is either necessary nor sufficient for the attribution of moral value (and I'm a bit suspicious of those who do, tbh, or certainly would be if we ever encountered intelligent alien life, sentient AIs or uplifted dolphins.)

But if I did, if I really did think that embryos and fetuses were full moral persons, I would have great difficulty living in a society where their 'murder' was tolerated - in much the same way as I wouldn't tolerate honour killing or slave owning on the basis that if I don't like it, I don't have to do it.

The abortion & stem-cell cases, I fear, have to be won on their merits. Appealing to committed 'pro-lifers' to 'live and let live' doesn't really cut it.

ColinGavaghan said...

'The law can allow somebody who thinks one of these things is morally wrong to refrain from it, while also allowing those who have no such moral aversions, and who find these things good, to act on their own beliefs. In such a case, neither group of people is subjected to tyranny.'

Just to clarify, I guess the argument would be that, while that statement is technically correct, a third group of 'people' is indeed being subjected to tyranny, and it is our duty to come to their defence.

Unknown said...

^ Was about to write something very similar to what Colin said.

Russell Blackford said...

So, gentlemen, if Catholics are going to feel tyrannised just because we don't ban abortion, what do we do about it? How do we respond? I don't think it's reasonable to feel tyrannised about something like that, and I do have some more to say about it, but meanwhile I'd appreciate your opinions. It may be that if they do have a reason to feel tyrannised by something like that - which doesn't coerce how they behave - it might be a case of so much for Catholicism.


Unknown said...

I didn't mean to imply that RCs, or any other group who disagree with abortion law, are themselves being tyrannised - they aren't, not by any sensible definition of the verb - but rather, that they believe they are witnesses to tyranny, and of a particularly vulnerable group. As such (and while I think they are completely misguided in that view), it's probably unrealistic, and maybe unreasonable, to expect them to tolerate that perceived tyranny.

There are many strong pro-choice arguments re abortion, and luckily enough, several of them seem to strike chords with the populations of the UK, Aus and NZ. But for those who think abortion tantamount to murder, the 'if you don't like abortion, don't have one' line just will not cut it - any more than 'if you don't like slavery, don't keep a slave' would impress you or I.

Unknown said...

You or me, even. Ahem.

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, Colin, but I was addressing the crude argument that one side or the other must end up being or feeling tyrannised if there's deepseated moral differences in a society. I think that that argument is fallacious.

Similarly, I don't think the abolitionists in the ante-bellum South were tyrannised or that that is even how they felt. What was wrong with slavery was not what was done to abolitionists (such as tyrannising them) but what was done to slaves.

The abolitionists did, however, have perfectly good secular arguments against slavery. These involved, e.g., getting white people who had the social and political power to see black people as having inner experiences (hopes, fears, capacity for deep pain, grief, anguish and so on) much like their own. Once you get to that point, it becomes very difficult to justify treating people as simply property,let alone mistreating them in atrocious ways.

Again, I don't think that Catholics can claim that they are being tyrannised in any sense except a bizarre one, merely because abotion is legal (and I realise that you agree with me on this). But do they have a good secular argument to ban abortion? If all they have are very poor secular arguments (e.g. those based on potentiality) plus some theological arguments as to why it's a terrible sin (it destroys something that's in God's image, or that God has told us to value, or that God Himself places value upon, or whatever), and they then equate our refusal to take notice of them or let them have their way as being the same as us forcing them to live in tyranny, then I think they are taking a very unreasonable position.

Here, "unreasonableness" is just something like a disposition not to compromise fairly in the interests of harmony and social peace. They are asking that the state enforce their particular theological position, when it could, consistently with our welfare and social survival, just do worldly-motivated things (protecting us from violence, providing a reasonably fair property system, providing an economic safety net, etc.).

They definitely don't have any arguments analogous to the secular arguments against slavery. Take an early embryo to keep this simple, but the ground isn't much stronger even with a late-term fetus. It does not have any inner experience like ours. It's not even sentient. Destroying it is not going to harm the social contract (societies survive just fine with legal abortions, so that can't be the issue). It's certainly not like killing someone's baby - one of the worst things that can happen to someone. And you can't "tyrannise" something that has no will or hopes or emotions of its own.

Someone who takes an unreasonable position may be pissed off if we don't defer to it, but we cannot be accused of tyrannising them if we simply don't ban a practice that they consider sinful. We may be doing something that's bad by the standards of their theological system of morality, but the badness can't consist in tyrannising somebody, as the word "tyrannising" is usually understood.

Russell Blackford said...

Of course, they may still think that abortion is bad for the same reason that they rationalise murder as bad (it's destroying something made in the image of God, or whatever). And they may still, as you say, not want to live in a society that allows this. So maybe they'll take the law into their own hands by murdering doctors, or they may try to mount a rebellion. I don't by any means think I've solved all the problems that can come up, but that doesn't entail that classical secular liberal is inconsistent, merely that some people have reasons, in some circumstances, by the light of their own theological or other worldviews, not to accept it. I don't want to be taken as denying that, and I don't think that classical secular liberalism need do so.

But again, how do we respond to those people? Surely not by deferring to them. Then again, suppressing their religion seems like overkill. I'm not proposing that we start jailing Catholics. There's a definitely a practical problem to respond to ... but the problem is of their making.

Unknown said...

I don't think the Liberal position is inconsistent either, I just think it leaves a number of questions still to be answered (and, by the way, it's none the worse for that). If 'harm to others' is the only justifiable basis for intervention by the criminal law, then we still need to decide what constitutes 'harm', and who - for these purposes - qualify as 'others'.

If pro-lifers persuaded us that fetuses or even embryos were capable of being subjects of harm, then that wouldn't undermine the Liberal position; it would just make it more difficult to defend abortion on straightforward liberal grounds.

(In fact, it's interesting that anti-abortionists have quite often switched tactics to arguing that abortions harm the women who have them, but that's a different discussion.)

I agree with you that fetuses aren't the sort of entities that can be harmed by being destroyed, and that embryos can't be harmed by anything at all (though what I do to an embryo may some day cause harm to the person that it subsequently becomes). But IMO, two people could disagree about whether the harm criterion is satisfied in those cases, without departing from the liberal paradigm.

Unknown said...

Btw, while I'm in Midnight Rant Mode, the 'liberal' position that really makes me squirm is the claim that, of course, no woman takes abortion lightly, and of course it's always an agonising choice for them.

Well, even if that were always true (which I doubt) how the hell does that make it less troubling? If killing a non-person is ethically permissible, then why should I be reassured by the thought that someone is suffering as a consequence? And if it isn't ethically permissible, if it actually harms the fetus, then compunding that harm with distress to the woman is hardly improving matters.

Russell Blackford said...

I agree, and I think that socialising girls or pressuring women to think that it should always be an agonising choice is a Bad Thing. I hate that kind of propaganda even for the pro-choice cause.

It may legitimately be a difficult choice in some cases, e.g. if the woman does actually want to have a child but maybe not right now, but that's because of her particular values.

I'd like to encourage girls to grow up thinking that it is perfectly okay to have an abortion, if it helps their lives go well (or as planned), and there need be no psychological agony about it. I hate the way we, as a society, put emotional pressure on young women. As you say, a fetus is not the kind of thing that can be harmed by being destroyed, and a pre-sentient embryo can't be harmed at all, in the relevant sense of "harm". That really ought to be the end of the story for young women who don't buy into some religious theory of what's wrong with killing. They're not really doing anything wrong, so let's make it as easy on them as possible.

Daniel said...

I agree with everything you have said about abortion issues above.

But I think there's another issue that hasn't been discussed. What if a religious worldview did not include, or in fact directly opposed, the requisite moral precepts for a free and civil society? What if a particular religion held that it was immoral to stand by and watch as others committed sin? A member of that religion would obviously be restricted in actioning those particular tenets. I sometimes feel disingenuous when claiming that religious freedom is an integral part of a liberal society, because "religion" is pretty much synonymous with "shit someone made up". It needs to be declared plainly that the freedom to practice one's religion ends the second it impinges on another's basic (secular) rights.

J.J. Emerson said...

I believe Daniel nails it. If a religion doesn't violate the harm principle or the golden rule (insert your preferred secular moral principle here), then I think religious freedom is not self-contradictory.

However, certain very common strains of religion do seem to define themselves in such a way as to set themselves at odds with freedom of religion principles. However, this conflict is a general feature of such combative religions that puts them at odds with many other belief systems (religious or otherwise), not just with the "classical liberal" state.

In this case, I think it takes a very disingenuous person to argue that the problem is with the "classical liberal" state or any number of other religions and not with the original offending religion which has such combative doctrines.

Eamon Knight said...

(In fact, it's interesting that anti-abortionists have quite often switched tactics to arguing that abortions harm the women who have them, but that's a different discussion.)

Tangential to the main topic, but:
This, by my definition, is where "pro-life" (which I take to be an honest but mistaken position) starts turning into "anti-woman". There are potential negative sequelae to all of the possible outcomes of an unplanned pregnancy -- but surely the choice of risk to take should be worked out by medical ethics and informed consent as applied to the individual situation, not as a blanket legal restriction of those choices. The latter implies that women are too stupid to decide for themselves.

steve said...

You could have half the population claiming that the purpose of the human person is to worship a particular god, while the other half denies that there is any "purpose" at all (though they may still think that life can be rich, personally meaningful, lived with zest, and so on).

There is quite a bit of historical evidence that shows that the part of the population that worship a particular god find it very difficult to refrain from coercing the out group.

Paolo Scimone said...

Many major religions have a pretty strict sense on the 'laws of the universe' based on a moral code given to them by 'God'. The current world ethical view appears to contradict that stand at times and at others, aligns with it. The basis of these codes are often based upon their original doctrines written for a society many years ago.

I would think that a reinterpretation of many such doctrines would be necessary within such religions. I actually find it quite arrogant of many religions believing themselves to be the carriers of "God's Word" and I feel that the view of religionists is to disregard any moral or ethical precepts and base their views on this 'obscure' God's law (whatever that means).

In our world, there appears to be no ultimate authority regarding religious truth, hence the apparent disparity.

Many atheists believe that the world will eventually 'grow up' and will 'face facts' but it's these very 'facts' which are the issue at hand. When we all get this part figured out, our moral and ethical POV will most likely change or at least be clarified.

Paolo Scimone

Lisa said...

As a concrete example of what others have mentioned about religions and believers not accepting the "live and let live" liberal model, in Islam there is a hugely important duty known as "enjoining the right and prohibiting the wrong" (amr bil-maroof wa nahi an al-munkar), which is found in the Qur'an several times and is the subject of a huge literature by scholars. This is buttressed by a saying of Muhammad (among other such sayings): "Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart."

The problem, obviously, is how, exactly, are the concepts "right"/"good" and "wrong"/"evil" defined? Traditionally, anything against shari'ah such as alcohol, unlawful sexual intercourse, blasphemy, etc., was an "evil", while commanding the people to pray and live according to shari'ah was "good." Of course, it could also apply to more defensible things like not ripping off widows and not killing people in cold blood, but obviously there's no distinction between the two classes in religious law.

This is the justification for the mutawa'een in Saudi Arabia and the religious police in Iran giving women a hard time for being "immodestly dressed" and arresting people with alcohol, etc. The Taliban would have said the same thing -- they were merely performing their duty of enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong.

The liberal concept that everybody should live and let live as long as nobody is harmed is, obviously, not something that everybody in the society will subscribe to, so how do you deal with that? What if religionists believe that the misdeeds of the whole community will be punished by the deity, and therefore it's their sacred moral duty to extirpate "evil"? How does a liberal society deal with that without violating the right to religious freedom? Hence why religious freedom can be self-contradictory, as in a hypothetical case where in the name of religious freedom the Muslim religious authorities were permitted to follow their religious law and execute apostates from Islam.

Russell Blackford said...

Just to try to be super clear on this, I'm not saying that the classical liberal model can accommodate any religious or moral viewpoint, no matter how unreasonable. Maybe no one thinks I'm saying that, but just in case ...

The point is (a) that this is not an inconsistency with the classical liberal model, since it acknowledges that there will be specific views that it can't accommodate, and (b) if your view isn't being accommodated it doesn't follow that you are being subjected to some kind of tyranny, merely that you have one of those worldviews that cannot find the resources to adopt a "live and let live" policy, and (c) the classical liberal model can, in fact, accommodate a whole lot of positions, which is maybe the best that we can expect.

I think, in other words, that if some radical Catholics who can't tolerate abortion being legal therefore can't stomach living in a society based on classical liberal principles, that's a problem ... but not an inconsistency with those principles. The radical Catholics have to work out what they are actually going to do about it (murder abortion doctors?), and we have to work out what to do about them.

The classical liberal model doesn't demand that we tolerate the intolerant, because it doesn't hand out absolute rights of freedom of religion, etc. It just invites everybody into a framework of mutual tolerance and limited government. There's then a separate problem of what to do with those people who don't want to enter the framework. If they are just talking, maybe we still tolerate them. But if they become violent, things look a bit different.

Lisa, this partly answers your question. How do we reconcile dealing with people who won't play nice with religious freedom? But the model doesn't give absolute religious freedom, come what may. It says that the state should not impose a particular religion. It also says that the state should not suppress a particular religion merely because it believes the religion to be mistaken. But it doesn't have to tolerate a religion that won't play along and starts to enjoin its followers to harm others. The state could have perfectly good secular reasons to suppress a religion that goes around harming people in an effort to push its theology.

Locke, you'll recall, thought there were good secular reasons not to tolerate Catholicism or atheism. He was wrong on both counts, as it turned out, but the idea that there may be secular reasons to suppress religions that won't accept the model is built into the model itself. If there were a very dangerous sub-set of Catholicism that started to kill abortion doctors or if there are certain sub-sets of Islam that want to impose sharia law by force, we don't have to tolerate them. We should, however, be very reluctant and hesitant before we get to the point of trying to suppress a religion, because it could obviously be a recipe for disaster. But it's not totally ruled out in principle.

Another way of putting this is to say that your religious freedom is an outcome of the model, and is conditional on your acceptance of the model itself (perhaps you can criticise the model, because freedom of speech is important for all sorts of other reasons, but if you try to overthrow the model by violence we don't have to tolerate you).

Maybe all this was clear to everyone, but I'm tired this morning and maybe not understanding some of the points y'all are making. If I'm stating the obvious, just ignore me.

Russell Blackford said...

Wow, that was wordy! Maybe I should just have said, "The state must always act for secular reasons such as preventing secular harms to its citizens. It can't act on the basis of its own preferred theological view. Thus, it can't suppress a particular sect for believing in its preferred god, but it can suppress a sect for carrying out human sacrifice."

But one thing I'm painfully aware of is that there are grey areas as to what counts as secular harm, and what constitutes not accepting the model and so on. Thus, the model never works perfectly or uncontroversially. But I don't think that's necessarily a flaw with the model - maybe this sort of imperfection is inevitable with any model. And the model does work well enough, most of the time, for us to muddle along with it.

Damn, I'm getting wordy again. But I just want to emphasise the important point that the model does not hand out absolute rights to freedom of religion. It gives all the sects a chance to be tolerant of each other and to refrain from committing secular harms. Perhaps no sect will comply perfectly, but most will comply subtantially. If one doesn't, we are free to work out how to deal with it. In the extreme we can suppress it.

"Tolerate the intolerant" is not a maxim of classical liberalism. At the most we may have to give the intolerant freedom of speech, but even that can be constrained in extreme situations, and if they want more than that ... potentially, WHAM!

Anonymous said...

They definitely don't have any arguments analogous to the secular arguments against slavery. Take an early embryo to keep this simple, but the ground isn't much stronger even with a late-term fetus. It does not have any inner experience like ours. It's not even sentient.

Is the ground much stronger for a newborn infant? Many people believe there are good secular arguments for e.g. vegetarianism and veganism, which aren't too dissimilar to arguments against late-term abortions. There are also pro-life-ish arguments based on the role of men in sex, and their 'claim' to a fetus they helped create. Inner experience and sentience are not obviously the only morally valuable things, even on secular grounds.

It's not always so easy to distinguish secular from "theological" arguments, and there is no one obvious "secular" position on most issues. (I notice, for example, that you didn't include consensual incest or zoophilia in the list of liberal OKs in your post.) I realize now I'm more-or-less agreeing with your last post Russell. I'm just suggesting that abortion is one of those grey areas.

Russell Blackford said...

Nice comment, Anonymous. Would you please (I ask nicely) establish some kind of identity so we can tell you from all the other Anonymouses?

Fortunately for people who do legal and political philosophy, the framework doesn't solve everything. What counts as a good secular argument? Should we prohibit only those actions that are directly (in some intuitive sense) harmful (as Mill apparently thought), or is it legitimate to prevent indirect harms (as Locke apparently thought)? How should we deal with conflicting secular interests of various kinds? How far should we go to guarantee economic welfare (providing positive rights to the unemployed and so on)? How paternalistic should we be?

The framework leaves a lot of room for debate about these things, but I think that's probably a strength rather than a weakness. It means that a lot of views can fall within the framework. I'm a fairly strict Millian, for example, but I don't think the classical liberal framework requires that we go as far as Mill. E.g. it allows space for debate about how far the state should be entrusted with dealing with indirect harms: not very far in my view, and I do think it can get pretty damn illiberal if the state prohibits things because of remote and speculative harms, but all that can be argued out.

As for bestiality (or zoophilia) and incest, though, it depends partly on whether we think the welfare of (non-human) animals is a legitimate secular reason to prohibit it. Even if we do, a lot of zoophilia may not harm the welfare of animals. If someone get can an orgasm simply by cuddling a cat in a way that the cat finds pleasant, I don't find anything immoral about this, let alone anything that the law should interfere with.

As for incest, there's a lot that's been written about the origin of the incest taboo (Westermarck, etc.). It looks to me as if the real issue is child abuse. We need laws that will work in protecting children from sexual abuse. If some of our laws against incest are not needed to accomplish that, then those laws should be repealed. I don't think that concerns about genetic deformities carry much weight here (we allow people with a bad genetic "hand" to reproduce; and in any event, there's always contraception). What seems clear though, is that "my holy book forbids it" is not a good reason, from the point of view of the framework, to ban incest.

(It might conceivably turn out to be a perfectly good reason to regard incest as immoral, but (a) I very much doubt that it'll turn out that way (i.e. that the holy book is reliable about moral issues) and (b) the state is not there to identify and impose whatever is, all things considered, the true morality. It's role is more practical and less ambitious.)

Lisa said...

I didn't think your comment was that wordy at all! And yes, I agree with you that there's no reason for a liberal society to be so tolerant that it undermines its own reason for being.

However, there are a couple of questions I still have. Namely, at what point does the religion or the expression of its views become a "threat" to the liberal society, and who decides this? A few disaffected Muslims calling for the overthrow of the government and its replacement by a caliphate is unlikely to be a real threat, and so such speech is often tolerated, even if strongly denounced.

More threatening may be the seemingly more "reasonable" religious people who discuss among themselves how corrupt and awful the present social order is and how it needs to be changed ASAP by the election of politicians who will implement their views and nominate congenial Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade and other rulings they don't like. (I recall more than one article in "respectable" religious journals insinuating that the Supreme Court had forfeited its legitimacy with Roe and other rulings.) Given the huge number of people in the US who are at least somewhat amenable to this view, this must give one pause. But using the state to limit or censor or suppress such opinions would mean suppressing the views of as much as half the US electorate, depending on which polls you believe, and that's certainly not a pleasant prospect. What if fewer than 50% of the electorate really "buys in" to the idea of a liberal society? This issue also comes up in the case of, for example, the citizens of resolutely secular Turkey electing an Islamist party to run the government.

There's also the multicultural and relativist viewpoint, which holds that a liberal society shouldn't "impose" its values on the communities it comprises, but let them alone to practice their own faiths and customs. It's a bit odd but not at all unusual to find both right and left united against Enlightenment and liberal ideals!

Lisa said...

Ah, yes, I found it. The infamous First Things (a conservative Catholic journal) article in the November 1996 issue, "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics."

This is a concrete example of the kind of thing I'm thinking about, and mind that it isn't necessarily foaming-at-the-mouth fundies who might be inclined towards such a view -- "moderate" Catholics and other Christians may also find it plausible.

Daniel said...

Russell and others,

Thanks for keeping this lengthy and interesting discussion going. I never meant to imply it was being held that classical liberalism meant that we must tolerate the intolerant.

I was just expressing my discomfort in openly supporting religious freedom (which I do), when in many public contexts people take this concept to entail deferral to religious authority on moral and social issues. When you hear religious freedom mentioned in the Australian media, it is often during an abortion, gay marriage or human rights discussion - and it is usually by some fancy-hat-man or other claiming that a progressive reform or policy is impinging in their particular religious freedom.

Add to that the fact that when religious belief is made subservient to secular values, the notion that religion is not the absolute revealed truth of the omniscient creator of the universe is implicit. I don't know if I feel comfortable in saying to someone's face that they are free to practice their religion, when I know full well that they are only free to do so when their beliefs have no real social consequences. It's sort of condescending in a way - "you can delude yourself as much as you want, but the rest of us know you are full of shit". I'd be more happy if we openly admitted that religion has no authority on matters such as the proposed human rights charter.

See this from Cardinal Pell in The Australian:

"A federal charter of rights would be used, he said, as it was in Britain, to harass those manifesting religion in public life."

Well, yeah, too fucking right it will - in certain circumstances.

Daniel said...

Just read the first couple of paragraphs. Seems to be a pertinent read:

Michael Kirby on religious freedom and the law - FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS AND RELIGIOUS APOSTASY

Anonymous said...

I think the "but what about religions that MANDATE coercion?" question is easily answered. Here's how:

Religious freedom doesn't mean people are free to do whatever they want simply because it's religious.

Rather, religious freedom means that a practice can't be banned simply because it's based on a religion or belief that the state disapproves of.

Russell Blackford said...

Lisa, I always think there are grey areas. You can't produce a mathematically precise answer, and some of these things have to be decided through the democratic process. No amount of philosophical reasoning or sociological data will tell us where to draw the line even if we apply the same principles.

I actually think it's quite legitimate for different political parties to take different views on how direct a harm has to be. However, I also think that there are strong reasons to take the Millian approach of looking for direct harm. In my mind, that never rules out a case for some exceptional and compelling circumstance to ban something that causes indirect harm. Directness is not a fetish. I suppose, though, that I'd want to know, for example, what compelling evidence there is that, in circumstances relevant to the jurisdiction concerned, this thing actually causes harms that are so inevitable and of such magnitude that no less coercive approach is possible. I'd also like to know of any negative side effects, e.g. the side effects from turning bad people into martyrs.

I'm not going to be persuaded by arguments such as: "This is morally repugnant or shocking or outrageous on its face; therefore it must be causing some kind of indirect harm that can only be dealt with by prohibiting it." I often see arguments like that from, for example, anti-pornographer campaigners.

I don't think we can be selective about this. Many people want to silence robust criticism of Islam for just these reasons - it's horrible (by their lights) so it must be causing harms, and these must be worse than any harms that will come from banning it.

But I can well imagine circumstances where we might have to ban the Nazi Party, and the fact that an organisation is unequivocally religious (not just quasi-religious like the Nazi Party) doesn't change anything. As Anonymous says, the state should not ban a religious group for being theologically incorrect, but if the case is strong enough it can ban it in order to protect people's lives. Whether the case actually is strong enough in any particular situation is a matter of judgment on which reasonable people can differ - even if, as I say, they are applying the same principles.

Anonymous said...

This essay gives a unique Understanding of the basis of a universal ethic.


Paolo Scimone said...

Not too bad an essay, in principle, though the wording could be a little better. The word "right" should be omitted entirely from that discourse and the end of point 2 appears to be an excuse for supporting a personal Christian point of view, not really related to the rest of the essay. If you cut "right" or "rightness" or replace "moral" with "ethical", most of it reads a lot better.

The criminal reasoning within the essay is based on this apparent need to justify "rightness" (must be from the US as we don't have such extreme capital punishment here).

Globalisation may almost inherently imply a new form of ethical responsibility. For the sake of the world, it may be necessary to forget certain fervour, bearing in mind the importance not to create "just another sect".