Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Religion and Politics: Legitimate and illegitimate reasons for political action

Sorry, Michael, but I don't see what your point is.  Perhaps I'm being obtuse.  We've got a country full of all types of people, and they have differing views on all sorts of morally-charged political issues, including the issue of what marriage is and what it isn't.  They also have all sorts of different views about whether moral knowledge is possible, and if so what its sources are and how we have access to those sources.  And obviously among people who believe in moral truth there are all sorts of differences about its content.

We have fideists, including many Evangelical Protestants of the Carl F.H. Henry school, who don't think too highly of the idea of natural law, and who believe that all moral knowledge is the fruit of Biblical revelation.  We have Catholics who believe in natural law.  We have secularists, some of whom believe in the possibility of objective moral knowledge, and many others of whom do not.  We have Humeans, for example, who don't believe that moral truth is obtainable at all, whether by revelation or reason ("Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and may pretend to no office other than to serve and obey them.")  We have Nietzscheans and nihilists of other descriptions.  (Even nihilists have fierce disputes amongst themselves as to which form of nihilism is correct.)  Among the intellectual classes, we have Foucaultians.  Lord, do we ever have the Foucaultians.  Then, of course, we have utilitarians of various descriptions.  And that only scratches the surface in accounting for all the different types of people who are out there.  Now, all of these people have political views.  They are all prepared to fashion policy, grant legal recognitions of various sorts, and restrict liberty on the basis of beliefs they hold about how society ought to be shaped and run. Some are libertarians, some are egalitarians, most don't fit neatly into either of those categories.  Are you saying that some of them may legitimately act in the political sphere to enact laws that they favor and others may not?  If so, who is in, and who is out?  And according to what criterion?

Let's say Agatha is an Evangelical Christian.  She believes that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and that polyamorous partnerships ought not to be legally recognized as marriages.  She also believes that hotel owners and restaurateurs should be punished by law if they discriminate against African-Americans.  Her reasons?  The Bible tells her so.  Is she out?  Are laws that were enacted with crucial support from people like her illegitimate?  Should some body that excludes people with her convictions be established to invalidate those laws?  Benny is a Catholic.  He believes that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and that polyamorous partnerships ought not to be legally recognized as marriages.  He also believes that hotel owners and restaurateurs should be punished by law if they discriminate against African-Americans.  His reasons?  Well, he believes that the Bible and sacred tradition support these ideas, but he also believes that they can be grasped even by unaided reason as matters of natural law and natural rights.  Is he in?

Then there is Carson.  He is a disciple of Hume who teaches in the Philosophy Department in those green pastures of Princeton.  He shares Agatha's belief that reason cannot identify objective moral norms, whether about marriage or about racial justice.  But he doesn't believe in revelation.  As far as he is concerned, there is no true moral reason to prefer one view of marriage over another, or to oppose racial discrimination.  But, as a matter of feeling, he happens to dislike polyamory and racial discrimination.  So he opposes the legal recognition of polyamorous unions as marriages and he favors laws punishing racial discrimination.  Is he in or out?

And what about Cynthia?  She's over in the even greener pastures of Rutgers.  She shares Carson's Humeanism, but not his feelings.  Her feelings have led her to a rather thoroughgoing libertarianism in politics.  She has no aversion to poyamory and would like to see polyamorous partnerships recognized as marriages, if the state recognizes any marriages at all.  She feels (to speak precisely) that no one should be forced to associate with anyone he doesn't wish to, so she is opposed to laws criminalizing people's choices to exlude patrons from hotels and restaurants on any grounds, including race.  Is she in or out? 

Now, we could keep going with this, considering the views of Debbie, the nihilist, Edgar the Foucaultian (who is in favor of legally recognizing polyamorous unions as marriages), Frances, the Kantian . . . all the way to Xavier, the utilitarian, and Zeke the guy who thinks that moral knowledge comes from drug experiences, and who decides questions like whether to favor or oppose the legal recognition of polyamory or the criminalization of racial discrimination in public accomodation on the basis of what comes to him when he is in drug-induced trances.

Now, as you know, I'm with Benny all the way.  I believe we have, and can be aware of, reasons for moral judgments and we ought to form our moral opinions (including those that shape our political opinions) by reference to those reasons and in line with their integral directiveness.  I think that traditions of faith are often bearers of wisdom--indluding wisdom that is revealed--so I think that its perfectly legitimate, and, indeed, desirable to view faith and reason as complementary sources of moral knowledge.  But I don't want to disenfranchise (or question the legitimacy of political participation on the part of) my fellow citizens who see things differently.  I certainly don't see any ground for treating Agatha as acting on politically illegitimate motives while supposing that Carson, Debbie, Edward, and Zeke aren't.   Sure, I'd be happy to try to talk them out of their fideism, Humeanism, nihilism, etc. (and to give them a chance to persuade me that my belief in natural law is misguided).  But that's a different issue.

For what it's worth, I think that most Americans throughout our history have understood themselves as drawing their moral convictions (including those that bear upon moral issues such as slavery, suffrage, abortion, and marriage) from their religious faith, and most have not fully understood the relationship of reason to faith, even as presented in their own religious traditions.  This is true even of a great many Evangelcial Protestants.  Far from all Evangelicals (now or in earlier periods of our history) belong to traditions that embrace the strict fideism insisted upon by the late Professor Henry.  I think that it is also true that many people who speak in religious language about morality and politics, could and would, if pressed in argument, reveal that they do not believe that God's will (whether about murder, slavery, marriage, or anything else) is arbitrary.  They might begin by saying "the Bible tells me so."  But, if pressed, they would find themselves developing an account of why God commanded X and not its opposite.  In many cases, the well-being and dignity of the human being (as a creature made in the image and likeness of God) would find its way into the argument, together with the belief that a good and loving God (the sort who would send His son as a man like us to suffer and die for our sins) would will (only) what is good for man, and would command (only) what is in line with the integral well-being and fulfillment of human beings. In other words, they would turn out to be believers in natural law after all.  (Of course, that does not mean that their moral and political judgments would necessarily be correct.)

I take your point that these are contested questions requiring detailed treatment that can scarcely be given in a blog posting.  Given their importance, I don't mind spending $80 to get the answers.


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