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Audi and the Infallibility of Religious Reasons

November 7th, 2009 by MandM

In “Liberal Democracy and the Place of Religion in Politics”,[1] Robert Audi defends the liberal thesis that religious reasons should not be utilised in debate on issues of public policy. Instead he contends that “one should not advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct unless one has, and is willing to offer, adequate secular reason for this advocacy or support.”[2] Audi explains that “an adequate reason for a law or policy is a proposition whose truth is sufficient to justify it.”[3] Audi’s position is that it is immoral for a person to defend any legislation or public policy on theological grounds alone; one can only licitly defend a policy if one has secular reasons for it.

A secular reason is, roughly, one whose normative force, that is, its status as a prima facie justificatory element, does not (evidentially) depend on the existence of God (for example, through appeals to divine command) or on theological considerations (such as interpretations of a sacred text), or on the pronouncements of a person or institution qua religious authority.[4]

Audi supplants this principle of secular reason with two others, a principle of “secular motivation” and something he calls “theo-ethical equilibrium.”[5] His principle of secular motivation goes further; “one should not advocate or promote any legal or public policy restrictions on human conduct unless one not only has and is willing to offer, but is also motivated by, adequate secular reason, where this reason (or set of reasons) is motivationally sufficient for the conduct in question.”[6] Theo-ethical equilibrium is “a rational integration between religious deliverances and insights and, on the other hand, secular ethical considerations … a mature, conscientious theist who cannot reach it [theo-ethical equilibrium] should be reluctant or unwilling to support coercive laws or public policies on a religious basis that cannot be placed in that equilibrium.”[7]

So construed there is an obvious asymmetry in Audi’s position. In a review of a book which defends Audi’s position, Philip Quinn observes;

These principles impose burdens on religious people that Audi nowhere suggests imposing on nonreligious people. … Audi does not propose that nonreligious people must be sufficiently motivated by adequate religious reason for their advocacy or support of restrictive laws or politicise. The lack of symmetry is striking. [8]

The fact that Audi’s position singles religious reasons out for exclusion from public discourse in a manner which he does not apply to secular reasons, raises the obvious question of why? What’s so special or objectionable about theological reasons being used in public?

Elsewhere in his article Audi offers some reasons for this; he notes, “[religious reasons] are special in relation to liberal democracy even by contrast with [secular reasons] … that are not accessible to any normal adult.”[9] He gives five “salient points” to support his case, all based on the idea that religious reasons are dangerous to society.[10]

In this post we want to focus on the first of these. Audi thinks any appeal to God’s commands in public debate is dangerously divisive because “religious reasons … are directly or indirectly taken to represent an infallible authority.”[11] This line of thought strikes a chord with many, concern about the infallible nature of divine will is often the basis for criticism of appeals to theology in public discourse.

However, as Audi defines the term ‘infallible’ any reason a person offers for their position would be infallible; according to Audi, propositions are infallible if it is “impossible that they be both endorsed or accepted by God and false”.[12] God, as Audi understands him, is omniscient. God only believes true propositions. It follows then that any proposition one can imagine, regardless of its content, will be such that it is impossible for both God to believe it and that the proposition be false. Given this it is hard to see how “religious reasons” are especially objectionable on Audi’s contention.

Perhaps, however, this is a technical point based on a mistaken definition of infallibility. Audi’s main concern is that a person, who believes that an action is commanded by God, believes that an omniscient, infallible being has endorsed that action. Appeals to purported divine commands are therefore problematic because the authority appealed to cannot err.

The obvious rejoinder is that many secular ethical theories face precisely the same problem. One of the most influential secular theories is the ideal observer theory, which is endorsed by ethicists as diverse as David Hume, Adam Smith, Henry Sidgwick, Richard Hare, Roderick Firth, John Stuart Mill, Tom Regan, Richard Brandt, Immanuel Kant and others. On this theory, an action is wrong, if and only if, it would be proscribed by an ideal observer, by a person who is perfectly impartial and perfectly informed on all the relevant facts. A hypothetical ideal observer is no less infallible than religious believers take God to be. It is hard to see how invoking religious reasons is not acceptable but invoking the secular reasons is.

This is probably enough to address Audi’s concerns but there are several other points worth noting.

Firstly, the fact that the law of God is infallible does not entail that there is or cannot be debate over what the law of God in fact is. Claiming that God’s law is infallible is not to claim that any human never errs in his or her discernment of what this law is, his or her interpretation of it or his or her application of it to particular cases. Claiming that there is debate over the interpretation of divine law and debate over how to apply various precepts of divine law to specific cases, is compatible with affirming that divine law is infallible.

In this, the law of God is analogous to deductive reasoning. By definition, a sound argument can never have a false conclusion. It is impossible for the conclusion to be false if the argument is sound, hence sound arguments are infallible. It does not follow from this that people never err in constructing arguments that they mistakenly believe are sound or that there is no debate over which arguments are sound. Reason is authoritative; however, human reasoners are not. It is hard to see why the infallibility of the law of God means that appeals to this law are any more problematic than appeals to logic.

A similar response is available on the immutability of divine law. The fact that God’s law is immutable does not mean that any person’s understanding of this law cannot change. He or she may find his or her particular beliefs about God’s law were mistaken or that he or she had applied it incorrectly.

In this respect, the law of God is analogous to numerous things that it is unobjectionable to appeal to. Consider an appeal to facts and reason; these too are immutable. If it is a fact that the world was round at the time of Columbus then this is something we cannot change. It cannot be true 100 years from now that the world was not round when Columbus sailed. Moreover, whether an argument is sound is also immutable; we cannot repeal the laws of logic. Therefore, both facts and reason are as immutable as God’s law is.

Moreover, consider a precept such as it is wrong to torture children for entertainment. Is this mutable so that society could repeal it tomorrow? Is the claim that rape and genocide of Jews is wrong something that is mutable, that human beings can change and repeal these things? Obviously not. Immutability is a feature of any serious, ethical viewpoint. If you cannot base civil law on immutable things, then you cannot base it on facts, reason or secular values.


[1] Robert Audi “Liberal Democracy and the Place of Religion in Politics” in Nicholas Wolterstorff & Robert Audi (eds) Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, Lanham Md, 1997) 1-66.
[2]
Robert Audi “The Separation of Church and State and the Obligations of Citizenship” (1989) 18 Philosophy and Public Affairs 259, 279.
[3]
Ibid 284.
[4]
Ibid 278.
[5]
Audi, above n 1, 25-37.
[6]
Ibid 284.
[7]
Audi, above n 1, 21.
[8]
Philip Quinn “Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate” (2000) 60:2 Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 486, 487 (book review).
[9]
Audi, above n 1, 31.
[10]
Ibid 31-32.
[11]
Audi, above n 1, 31.
[12]
Audi, above n 1, 62.

This post was jointly authored. It is largely a mash of extracts from Madeleine’s  paper “Religious Restraint and Public Policy” and from Matt’s “Is Historic Christian Opposition to Feticide Defensible in the 21st Century.”

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6 responses so far ↓

  • […] more from the original source: Audi and the Infallibility of Religious Reasons | MandM and-the, Audi, defends-the, democracy, liberal, liberal-democracy, liberal-thesis, place, […]

  • Of course there’s a lack of symmetry. And so should there be.

    You can’t seriously expect to invent an imaginary friend, claim that policy should be influenced by what you’ve pretended it to say, and think that you should be treated the same as reality-based folk. That’s just ridiculous!
    .-= My last blog-post ..Why the Government Fails to Maintain Anything =-.

  • […] and my post Audi and the Infallibility of Religious Reasons is […]

  • Eric,

    the problem with your take on the issue is that you assume that your subjective belief about what is “reality” is just your version of what you call the imaginary friend. You can no more prove infallibly that your version of reality is right and true than I can prove infallibly that my Christian view is right and true. All any of us can do is simply weigh with our rational faculties as much of the evidence as we can, and combine that with our personal experience, to come to some balance of faith and reason. You have done that just as much as I have. Calling your faith “reality based” does not change the fact that it is still faith based. Therefore any belief that it is right to exclude full Christian participation in the democratic process and the creation of laws is nothing more than a dishonest and hypocritical attempt to deny Christians their democratic rights in favour of your personal “reality based” religion.

  • Eric, while you are entitled to hold that view on religion, it is not the view that the state can take towards religion if it is to remain “liberal” in the sense that Audi (or Rawls) mean. So your position should be acknowledged, but it hasn’t helped Audi.

  • The Philosophers Carnival is Here…

    MandM make an argument that religious considerations shouldn’t be excluded from political thought just because they may be infallible. Sounds obvious? They attribute the opposing view to Audi, so who knows……