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Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part II

November 24th, 2009 by Madeleine

In my last post, Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part I, I set out the doctrine of religious restraint and touched on some criticisms of it. In this post, I begin looking at and critiquing some of the key arguments in support of the doctrine of religious restraint.

II         Arguments for the Doctrine of Religious Restraint

Of the reasons advanced in favour of the DRR most fall into one of two categories, an appeal to respect or arguments around the dangers of religion.

A         Arguments from Respect
Two variants of the argument from respect are common in the literature; one appeals to the golden rule, that we should do to others what we would have them do to us, the other is that religious reasons are epistemically inaccessible.

1          The golden rule
Audi advances a version of the golden rule;[12]

Let us apply the do-unto-others rule to that case: one would not like having a different religious group, with which one deeply disagrees, press for its religiously preferred policies solely for religious reasons of its own, even if a good secular reason could be offered. … We are especially likely to disapprove of the dominance of religious motivation if the policy or law in question is backed by severe punishments.

Audi expands a hypothetical example offered by Kent Greenawalt[13] where people advocated voting for candidates on religious grounds because they would protect animals. [14]

Suppose, however, that much money must be spent in enforcement and that many jobs will be lost through the changes in the food sector of the economy, so that human conduct is significantly restricted, even if meat consumption remains legal. Then one might ask the religious voters in question whether they would accept comparable restrictions of their conduct, as well as similar job losses or mandatory shifts, on the basis of coercive legislation protecting the dandelion as a sacred species.

Audi’s example imagines a “religious group, with which one deeply disagrees,” and gives the example of a belief in “the dandelion as a sacred species.” However, it is not just that one is being subjected to coercion on religious grounds, it is that the grounds are ones that we consider to be false. Lydia McGrew explains,[15]

A major reason, perhaps the only reason, why many of us would not want other people to impose their religious standards on us is that we think their religions false, not that there is something special about religion. …. So the Golden Rule argument turns out to have very little to tell us about religion, specifically. [Emphasis added]

Imagine the situation where a false secular belief is being imposed; an environmentalist political party seeks to impose a policy that the aesthetic value of dandelions requires all adults within society to make the same substantial sacrifices Audi refers to. The policy could be reasonably objected to in spite of its grounds being secular. The same is true in reverse. Consider a policy most people strongly agree with being proposed on religious grounds; a Christian party advocates the abolition of female circumcision on the basis that the practice conflicts with its religious belief of the body being sacred. The policy could attract widespread support despite its grounds being religious.

These examples suggest that the merits of the policy itself are what is important and not that the grounds used for its justification are religious or secular.[16] Audi disagrees;[17]

Citizens in [a democracy] are naturally and permissibly resentful about coercion by religious factors…in a way in which they are not permissibly resentful concerning coercion by, for instance, considerations of public health. Even the moral errors of others are, for many, easier to abide as supports of coercion than religious convictions having the same result.

McGrew responds by contrasting two cases; first she argues that, “A slave owner would not be permissibly resentful of the emancipation of his slaves on the grounds that their emancipation had come about as a result of religious arguments.”[18] Conversely she argues, a parent would “be permissibly resentful of the forcible administration to his perfectly healthy child of mind-altering drugs even if such a policy was argued for from secular premises.”[19] So it appears that[20]

How permissible (if one means, as Audi must mean, something like “understandable” or “reasonable”) one’s resentment of some law is depends on how reasonable the law is. It does not depend upon the origin of the considerations that brought about the law but rather upon whether the law is good or bad, merely annoying or outrageous, and so forth.

That we should do to others what we would have them do to us does not just apply to the religious. While it is true that most people would strongly object to having to abide by religiously-grounded policies they reject as false, it is also true that they would strongly object to having to abide by secularly-grounded policies they reject as false. Consider a Muslim woman who believes it is her religious duty to wear a burqa. The passage of a law requiring her to remove her burqa for her driver’s license photo would likely be offensive to her. A parallel golden rule argument would require us to oppose coercive laws drawn from secular grounds.

2          Epistemic inaccessibility
Simplified, the most prominent type of argument offered in support of the DRR is that in a pluralistic society, coercive legislation cannot be justified unless the reasons advanced can be grounded in the reasonably-held principles and beliefs shared by all people. People disagree over which religious views, if any, are correct; therefore, any coercive laws justified on religious grounds cannot be legitimate because not all reasonable people accept religious premises. As such, religious reasons are epistemically inaccessible. Eberle sums this up, “the norm of respect imposes on each citizen an obligation to discipline herself in such a way that she resolutely refrains from supporting any coercive law for which she cannot provide the requisite public justification.”[21]

The paradigmatic and most influential version of this argument is that of John Rawls. Rawls argues that society [22]

is always marked by a diversity of opposing and irreconcilable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines. Some of these are perfectly reasonable, and this diversity among reasonable doctrines political liberalism sees as the inevitable long-run result of the powers of human reason at work within the background of enduring free institutions.

Rawls uses the fact of diversity of comprehensive viewpoints, present in a pluralistic society, to argue for his version of restraint. Any justification drawn from such distinct grounds will always be reasonably rejected by someone.[23] Given this, some form of restraint is necessary.

Unlike most advocates of the standard view, Rawls’ version of the DRR does not only exclude religion but also other comprehensive secular doctrines that reasonable people disagree over. He notes,[24]

Our exercise of political power is proper and hence justifiable only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational.

Note that the reason that Rawls excludes comprehensive views is that “[not] all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse [such views] in light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational.” Rawls argues that when comprehensive views are removed from consideration there remains sufficient common ground from which coercive laws can be justified to all reasonable people. Rawls refers to this “public reason,” which he explains as follows;[25]

We start by looking to the public culture itself as the shared fund of implicitly recognized basic ideas and principles. We hope to formulate these ideas and principles clearly enough to be combined into a political conception of justice congenial to our most firmly held convictions. We express this by saying that a political conception of justice, to be acceptable, must accord with our considered convictions, at all levels of generality, or in what I have called elsewhere, ‘reflective equilibrium.’

Public reason should comprise[26]

presently accepted general beliefs and forms of reasoning found in common sense, and the methods and conclusions of science when these are not controversial … we are not to appeal to comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines–to what we as individuals or members of associations see as the whole truth–nor to elaborate economic theories of general equilibrium, say, if these are in dispute.

Whilst the boundaries being drawn this way enables Rawls’ position to escape the charge of asymmetry, his critics and even many of those who also advocate some form of restraint on justificatory reasons claim that his position excludes too much.

(a)        Incoherence
Nicholas Wolterstorff identifies several problems; [27]

No matter what principles of justice a particular political theorist may propose, the reasonable thing for her to expect, given any plausible understanding whatsoever of ‘reasonable and rational,’ is not that all reasonable and rational citizens would accept those principles, but rather that not all of them would do so. It would be utterly unreasonable for her to expect all of them to accept them. It would be unreasonable of her even to expect all her reasonable and rational fellow theorists to accept them; the contested fate of Rawls’ own proposed principles of justice is illustrative. What is reasonable for her to expect is that her proposals will stir up controversy and dissent not only at the point of transition from the academy to general society, but within the academy.

In short, there is no more hope that reasonable and rational citizens will come to agreement, in the way Rawls recommends, on principles of justice, than that they will come to agreement, in the foreseeable future, on some comprehensive philosophical or religious doctrine. It is odd of Rawls to have thought otherwise; [Emphasis original]

The divisions in society over welfare, abortion, state funding of social projects, euthanasia, pornography, genetic modification of foods, climate change, capital punishment, Maori seats and so on seem very broad; in most cases no argument or reasons advanced for these issues are likely to be accepted by all reasonable people. That reasonable people will disagree over what constitutes public reason does, prima facie, seem plausible. If this is the case then Rawls’ position is incoherent.

Rawls argues that we have a moral obligation to reject any view that “[not] all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational.” Public reason will “alone give a reasonable public answer to all, or to nearly all, questions involving the constitutional essentials and basic questions of justice.”[28] However, as Wolterstorff pointed out, even the deliverances of public reason are such “that not all reasonable people will agree.” Wolterstorff’s reference to the lack of consensus on Rawls’ own “principles of justice” supports this claim. In A Theory of Justice Rawls attempted to expound on his idea of public reason to develop principles of justice that a society could be ordered by.[29] The reception to A Theory of Justice was not a consensus in favour; present in the literature are a number of rejections, offered by reasonable people, on anything from the conclusions drawn, through to the methods used, to the principles themselves.

If we have a moral obligation to reject any view that “[not] all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational” and principles drawn from public reason are themselves things that not all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse then, by Rawls, we have a moral obligation to reject any principles drawn from public reason.

Matthew Flannagan agrees,[30]

Rawls rejects appeals to comprehensive doctrines because people can reasonably reject them and argues that there is a duty to not decide questions of basic justice this way. If this is true then we should reject appeals to public reason as well; in fact, we have a duty to not follow public reason.

In my next post, Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part III, I will look at the objection that the argument from respect is too thin, that applied consistently the argument from respect excludes too much. I will conclude by looking at Audi’s response to this.


[12] 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, 30.
[13]
Kent Greenawalt Private Consciences and Public Reasons (Oxford University Press, New York, 1995) 67.
[14]
Audi, above n 12, 28.
[15]
Lydia McGrew “The Irrational Faith of the Naked Public Square” (2008) 1 The Christendom Review (at 2 October 2009).
[16]
Wolterstorff makes the same point, above n 3, 106.
[17]
Audi, above n 12, 32.
[18]
McGrew, above n 15.
[19]
Ibid.
[20]
Ibid.
[21]
Christopher Eberle Religious Convictions in Liberal Politics (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002) 12.
[22]
Ibid 3-4.
[23]
The policy itself might be accepted as it may be able to be justified on grounds the person does accept, though these grounds are not immune from being reasonably rejected by other people. I am grateful to Glenn Peoples for the development of this point.
[24]
John Rawls Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, New York, 1993) 217. Note: Rawls limits his support of a form of the DRR in the policy areas of “constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice.” Rawls’ critics argue that his position commits him to holding to his version of the DRR for all coercive legislation; see for example, Wolterstorff, above n 3, 106; Glenn Peoples Religion in the Public Square: Liberal Political Philosophy and the Place of Religious Convictions (PhD Thesis, University of Otago, 2007) 88; Matthew Flannagan Is Historic Christian Opposition to Feticide Defensible in the 21st Century? (PhD Thesis, University of Otago, 2006) 200.
[25]
Ibid 8.
[26]
Ibid 224-225.
[27]
Nicholas Wolterstorff “The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issues” 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) 67-120, 99.
[28]
Rawls, above n 24, 225.
[29]
John Rawls A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1971).
[30]
Matthew Flannagan Is Historic Christian Opposition to Feticide Defensible in the 21st Century? (PhD Thesis, University of Otago, 2006) 195.

RELATED POSTS:
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part I

Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part III
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part IV
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part V
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part VI

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