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Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part III

November 25th, 2009 by Madeleine

In my last posts, beginning Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part I, I set out the doctrine of religious restraint and touched on some criticisms of it. I looked at and critiqued some of the key arguments in support of the doctrine of religious restraint. In this post I will look at the objection that the argument from respect is too thin, that applied consistently it excludes too much. I will conclude by looking at Audi’s response to this.

(b)        Thinness

A closely related problem is that if it is applied consistently the argument from respect excludes too much. If justification is limited to principles that no reasonable person can reasonably be expected to reject then little will be able to be justified. Glenn Peoples notes the problem;[31]

Given this view of justification, you can only endorse a policy if it is such that it can be endorsed in light of the actual beliefs and goals held by the KKK, the Catholic Church and the humanist rationalist society.

Wolterstorff observes that “in our actual societies, anyone who embraced this position would simply refrain from advocating any position whatsoever on any issue of importance to society.”[32] Quinn agrees, “as Wolterstorff notes, he knows of no law or policy that has come up for discussion in the United Sates in recent years that has had the support of a consensus of all the rational adult citizens.”[33]

Gerald Gaus, who is otherwise sympathetic to the DRR, also agrees; he notes that, given Rawls’s requirement for consensus, public reason “loses its character as a liberal doctrine, for little, if anything, is the object of consensus among reasonable people.”[34] Kent Greenawalt argues that public reason is incapable of grounding policy on most contentious political issues.[35] Peter de Marneffe concurs.[36]

Wolterstorff contends that public reason must be supplemented by ideas drawn from comprehensive doctrines or it will not be able to function as an adequate base for justifying many substantive policies. To make his point, Wolterstorff cites the welfare debate. Advocates for the varying perspectives appeal to ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ but mean different things by these terms; they prioritise the relevant rights differently, they disagree as to how such rights should be weighed against social utility. It is unlikely that public reason, common sense and uncontroversial science can justify welfare legislation to a standard that all can reasonably accept. [37]

Wolterstorff makes similar points over the fundamental premise in the abortion debate; equal protection has radically different meanings depending on how one interprets public reason’s answer to the question, ‘is the fetus a person or not?’[38] Eberle,[39] Quinn[40] and Jean Hampton[41] agree that public reason cannot settle the question as to whether a fetus is a person yet Rawls argues that public reason can settle the abortion debate (case in point: reasonable people disagree over the answers public reason can give). [42]

Rawls’ version of the argument from respect is not the only one that faces these problems; similar issues arise with other conceptions of the DRR. Any attempt to ground the DRR in the notion that coercive legislation cannot be justified unless the reasons advanced can be grounded in the reasonably-held principles and beliefs shared by all people will face the same problem. This is evident when one examines other versions of the DRR which do not employ Rawls’ idea of public reason.

Rawls employs public reason to place a restraint on all comprehensive viewpoints, whether religious or secular. Robert Audi’s position is less restrictive. Audi applies the restraint primarily to religious reasons. He proposes a principle of “secular rationale”, a principle of “secular motivation” and something he calls “theo-ethical equilibrium.”[43]

His secular rationale principle claims 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.”[44] 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.”[45] 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.”[46]

Audi argues that “an adequate reason for a law or policy is a proposition whose truth is sufficient to justify it.”[47] He places the restraint on religious reasons;[48]

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.

Given that comprehensive secular perspectives are not excluded by this version of the DRR, it appears that Audi’s conception can escape the problem of thinness that Rawls’ public reason faces. Comprehensive secular viewpoints should provide people with a thicker perspective, broad enough to justify many substantive policies.

However, an examination of the reasons Audi advances in favour of his version of the DRR will reveal this contention to be mistaken. By broadening public reason to adequate secular reason Audi’s position is thicker than Rawls’ but its asymmetrical treatment of religious and secular views puts it back in the path of the charges of incoherence and thinness. I will elaborate.

Like Rawls, Audi offers a version of the argument from respect. He states “as advocates for laws and public policies, then, and especially for those that are coercive, virtuous citizens will seek grounds of a kind that any rational adult citizen can endorse as sufficient for the purpose”[49] [Emphasis added] In another article, he argues that[50]

adherence to the principle of secular rationale helps to ensure that, in determining the scope of freedom in a society, the decisive principles and considerations can be shared by people of differing religious views, or even no religious convictions at all.

Audi assumes that secular views are accepted by all whereas not everyone accepts the truth of religious premises. This is a big assumption. In fact some secular views are not accepted by all; religious people can and do reasonably reject secular views. This renders Audi’s position incoherent as adherence to Audi’s position, by Audi’s position, requires us to reject it. Quinn explains, [51]

If the fact that religious reasons cannot be shared by all in a religiously pluralistic society suffices to warrant any exclusion of religious reasons for advocating or supporting restrictive laws or policies, then much else ought in fairness also to be excluded on the same grounds. For example, justification of a restrictive law or policy by an appeal to its maximization of utility should be excluded because many citizens reasonably reject utilitarianism. Indeed, it would seem that the appeal to any comprehensive ethical theory, including all known secular ethical theories, should be disallowed on the grounds that every such theory can be reasonably rejected by some citizens of a pluralistic democracy. And if justification of restrictive laws or policies can be conducted only in terms of moral considerations no citizen of a pluralistic democracy can reasonably reject, then in a pluralistic democracy such as ours very few restrictive laws or policies can be morally justified, a conclusion that would, I suspect, be welcomed only by anarchists.

In addition, Audi’s position imposes a burden on religion that is not imposed on secularism despite secularism possessing the same features used to exclude religion. In the absence of some other factor, specific to religion and not applicable to secularism, the asymmetry is arbitrary. To escape this problem Audi would have to reject not only religious reasons but all reasons that are not “shared by people of differing religious views, or even no religious convictions at all.” However, if he takes this line, his position is rendered too thin and fares no better than Rawls.’

(c)        Audi’s defence

In a defence of his position against this line of critique, Robert Audi questions if the DRR is as thin as critics maintain, [52]

I would think that if we stick to principles of justice, which form only a small part of a comprehensive view, and if we do not take agreement to imply unanimity as opposed to consensus, there is a better chance of agreement than on the whole of such a larger view. Perhaps the chance is still not good, … But is there not a strong consensus, at least among citizens of democratic societies, that justice requires not only equal protection of the laws but also laws that protect liberty, including political and religious liberty and freedom of speech, up to a certain level? There are of course disagreements on matters of detail…

While it is true that most people hold to some conception of justice and equality, and affirm the right to exercise certain liberties, the details of their understanding of these norms are not as minor as Audi suggests. As I alluded to earlier, people can mean quite different things by these terms and can prioritise and weigh their importance quite differently. Closer examination of these “matters of detail” reveals substantive lack of consensus.

Equal protection requires agreement over the question as to whom it applies. In Nazi Germany everyone was owed equal protection by the state; however, certain classes of people were deemed sub-human. Likewise with justifications offered for the new-world slavery as practised in the British Empire and antebellum United States, slaves did not qualify; similarly, with the abortion debate over the status of the fetus. Then there is the extent and nature of the protection to consider. Should the state regulate how many times a week one engages in exercise and eats fruit and vegetables on the grounds of protecting the health of its people or should it simply protect people from aggressors? Is Audi suggesting that simply agreeing that such protection should apply equally to all is sufficient to make his case and what form that should take is mere detail? Unless supplemented by definitions as to its recipients, nature and scope the term “equal protection before the law” is a vague statement lacking substantive content.

The liberties Audi lists are also fraught with difficulty in interpretation as reasonable people do not agree on them.  Are they negative or does the state have a duty to provide or subsidise them? The substantive content and meaning of the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ is disputed depending on whether one is talking to a libertarian or a socialist. Then there are the problems specific to each liberty.

Consider freedom of religion. Steven Smith has argued that, strictly speaking, it is inaccurate to claim there is such a thing as a right to freedom religion. Instead there exists a spectrum of views about religious tolerance. Diverse writers, such as Aquinas, Cromwell, Locke and Mill each agreed that some religious dissent should be tolerated by the state but disagreed both on the limits and on which religions should be tolerated in society. Smith concluded that as no state tolerates all religious sects and very few tolerate none, the idea of a concept of freedom of religion supported by some and opposed by others is illusory. Which account of religious tolerance is correct depends on comprehensive views; adjudication between different understandings of religious tolerance is not possible without appealing to some comprehensive view. Settling these matters from something like public reason or adequate secular reason seems extremely difficult.[53]

Does freedom of speech entail prior restraint or does it stop at the initiation of force? What about content and the manner of expression? How should we define speech? Does it include a right to engage in hate, racist, blasphemous, defamatory or sexist speech? Is it acceptable to wear Nazi emblems or deny the holocaust?

Reasonable people disagree over more than just the details; they disagree over the terms, the nature, the extent and hold to a different range of finite cases. People use and understand the relevant terms in very different ways. Audi misconstrues the situation when he argues there is unanimity in society on fundamental principles of justice. The thinness objection stands.[54]

In my next post, Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part IV, I will look at Gerald Gaus’ attempt to salvage the argument from epistemic inaccessibility and will offer some critical analysis of this.

[31] Glenn Peoples Religion in the Public Square: Liberal Political Philosophy and the Place of Religious Convictions
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, 154.
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), 488.
[34] Gerald Gaus Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory (Oxford University Press, New York, 1996) 293.
Kent Greenawalt Private Consciences and Public Reasons (Oxford University Press, New York, 1995) 141-150.
[36] Peter de Marneffe “Rawls’s Idea of Public Reason” (1994) 75 Pacific Philosophical Quarterly232.
[37] Wolterstorff, above n 32, 103-104.
[38] Ibid 104.
Christopher Eberle Religious Convictions in Liberal Politics (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002) 217-222.
[40] Phillip Quinn “Political Liberalisms and Their Exclusions of the Religious” (1995) 69:2 Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 35, 37-46.
[41] Jean Hampton “The Common Faith of Liberalism” (1994) 75 Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 208.
[42] John Rawls Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, New York, 1993) 243-244.
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, 25-37.
[44] Robert Audi “The Separation of Church and State and the Obligations of Citizenship” (1989) 18 Philosophy and Public Affairs 259, 279.
[45] Ibid 284.
Audi, above n 43, 21.
[47] Audi, above n 44, 284.
[48] Ibid 278.
Audi, above n 43, 17.
Audi, above n 44, 290.
[51] Quinn, above n 40, 39-40.
[52] Audi, above n 43, 131-132.
[53] Steven Smith Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom (Oxford University Press, New York, 1995). (PhD Thesis, University of Otago, 2007) 118.
[54] Paul Rishworth suggests these examples do not show there is no secular consensus but rather that there is a secular consensus at a high level of abstraction. Supervisor’s feedback from Paul Rishworth to Madeleine Flannagan dated 30 October 2009. This may be the case, however, the thinness objection does not maintain that there is no secular consensus; it maintains that there is no secular consensus thick enough to provide an answer to many substantive public policy questions. For Rishworth’s objection to stand, this higher level of abstraction would have to furnish principles thick enough to answer such questions and the examples above show that it cannot.

Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part I

Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part II
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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