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Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part IV

November 27th, 2009 by Madeleine

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

(d)        Gaus’ attempt to salvage the argument from epistemic inaccessibility

I have argued that the argument from respect is subject to two objections, incoherence and thinness. One should not appeal to religious reasons to justify coercive legislation because people can reasonably reject religious reasons; as religious reasons are not shared by all reasonable people there is a duty to not appeal to them.  However, if this is true then both the DRR in its “public reason” form, as exemplified by Rawls, and in its more secularist form, as exemplified by Audi, should also be rejected. Reasonable people do not agree on secular moral theory nor do they agree on the principles of public reason.

In addition to being incoherent the DRR excludes far too much. It leaves us with content that is insufficiently thin to justify substantive legislative questions. I cited Gaus above who agreed that “little, if anything, is the object of consensus among reasonable people.”

In response to the thinness objection Gaus introduced the idea of “open justification.”[55]

Open justification … takes a person’s current system of beliefs and asks, first, whether given this system that person is committed to accepting some new piece of information, and, second, whether that person is then committed to revising his or her system of beliefs in the light of that new information.

According to Gaus, what respect requires is not that laws be justified to all reasonable people in such a way that those reasonable people can be expected to accept the justification, but rather “a coercive law is justified to an agent only if, were he reasonable and adequately informed, then he would have a sufficient reason from his own perspective to support it.”[56] [Emphasis added]

Peoples explains,[57]

[One] might hold to all kinds of prejudices and false beliefs that would lead him to reject a policy, and yet we might still be justified in advocating that this policy be imposed on him because if he were a bit more reasonable and open to new information, he would have a reason to endorse it. Stated differently, a person can be openly justified in accepting a policy, and yet consciously reject that policy because he doesn’t realise that if he only knew a bit more, understood the situation a little better, or was more open minded, he would have reasons to accept the policy.

Gaus prefers open justification over two other forms he identifies as “closed justification” and “strong externalism.” Gaus describes closed justification as being justified internally from the viewpoints that person currently holds.[58] He defines strong externalism as being justified from a viewpoint where one was adequately informed and had no mistaken beliefs. Gaus suggests that respecting others means that one is able to openly justify the policies one supports to other reasonable people in society. He does not require that persuasion is achieved or that a person’s current comprehensive viewpoint endorses the policy in question. Rather he holds that one must be able show the person that his or her current viewpoint provides grounds or reasons for believing things they currently do not. Further, that if they did accept these other things then they would have reasons for embracing the coercive policy being advocated.

Gaus’ opinion does appear to improve on that of Rawls. He is not alone in suggesting this. Audi has offered a solution to the thinness problem along the lines Gaus suggests.[59]

Two people who disagree on the justice of allowing a Nazi group to present its case may share intuitions about freed speech in general and be divided by, for instance, paranoia about Nazis, which one party has and the other does not. When this happens, there is often a possible route from the shared intuitions about the justice of protecting freedom of expression to agreement on the case in hand. It appears, moreover, that among rational civilized people, establishing agreement on what factual information is relevant and on what the relevant facts are tends to bring intuitions closer together.

Often when two people disagree there will be a set of moral intuitions[60] on which they do agree. The disagreement stems from other facts brought about by certain biases. If people can be shown that they are mistaken on these facts, it is possible that the biases can be corrected and agreement might occur. Audi suggests that something like open justification will decrease the amount of disagreement between rational people on at least some issues of justice.

As Audi’s example is simply that of a dispute between two people I am not sure that it escapes the thinness objection. It is one thing for a person to openly justify his or her position to one other but, according to Gaus, it is wrong to advocate a coercive law unless one can provide open justification to all reasonable people. Further, in the context of a defence of the DRR, and in the face of a charge of unjust asymmetry, Gaus must also contend both that religious reasons can never achieve open justification in this manner and that secular reasons can.

(i)         Open justification and the thinness objection
According to Gaus, the provision of open justification for a policy, to another person who rejects that policy, should proceed in two stages. First, one should assess whether the other person’s viewpoint commits that person to “accepting some new piece of information”. If it does, then one should assess whether the person is then “committed to revising his or her system of beliefs in the light of that new information.” Consequently, a person is only permitted to advocate a position if he or she can show that the position follows from premises that all reasonable people in society currently accept and according to a type of inference that all reasonable people recognise as valid.

An immediate problem arises, namely that few, if any, laws are justified by arguments that meet this standard (probably because few arguments on any substantive topic meet this standard). Marilyn McCord Adams notes, “the defence of any well-formulated philosophical position will eventually involve premises which are fundamentally controversial and so unable to command the assent of all reasonable persons.”[61] Consider the list of controversial issues I gave earlier: welfare, abortion, state funding of social projects, euthanasia, pornography, genetic modification of foods, climate change, capital punishment, Maori seats and so on. Do any of the proponents on either side of these debates offer arguments that ultimately appeal to premises that all rational people accept, without ever appealing to some premise, that is either drawn from or depends for its plausibility on, a comprehensive perspective that only some reasonable people accept? Could anyone advance such a justification? I doubt it.

This doubt stems from the fact that in such ethical debates often the very foundations of the subject are a matter of dispute. Nihilists deny moral claims are defensible at all. Non-nihilists disagree fundamentally over whether moral language is descriptive, prescriptive, both or merely an expression of emotion. There is disagreement over how moral knowledge is gained, what the fundamental criteria for right actions are and so on. Given this, almost any moral premise will be subject to dispute by some reasonable people.[62]

Eberle and Cuneo raise a related point by citing the example of Islamic intellectual, Sayyid Qutb.[63]

While in prison, Qutb wrote an intelligent, informed, and morally serious commentary on the Koran in which he laid the ills of modern society at the feet of Christianity and liberal democracy. The only way to extricate ourselves from the problems spawned by liberal democracy, Qutb argued, is to implement shariah or Islamic legal code, which implies that the state should not protect a robust right to religious freedom. In short, Qutb articulates what is, from his point of view, a compelling theological rationale against any law that authorizes the state to protect a robust right to religious freedom.

People like Qutb are not alone in society. Whatever we might think of the conclusions they draw, Islamic intellectuals appear to be educated, rational and morally serious people. Qutb rejects “a robust right to religious freedom” and liberal democracy itself. A coercive law that protects a robust right to freedom of religion and any of the other substantive commitments of a liberal democracy is only defensible if secularists can provide a valid argument for these commitments, from premises that Qutb accepts, to the conclusion that such commitments are correct. It is doubtful that secularists have done this or even that they would be able to.[64] Cuneo and Eberle note the conclusion.[65]

If respect for persons requires that each coercive law be justified to those reasonable persons subject to that law, and if a person such as Qutb were a citizen of a liberal democracy, then the argument from respect implies that laws that protect the right to religious freedom are morally illegitimate, as they lack moral justification—at least for agents such as Qutb.

In my next post, Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part V, I will examine and critique Gaus’s idea of open justification in more detail.


[55] Gerald Gaus Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory (Oxford University Press, New York, 1996) 32.
[56]
Christopher J. Eberle and Terence Cuneo “Religion and Political Theory” (2008) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (at 9 August 2009).
[57] Glenn Peoples “Religion in the Public Square: Is it Justified?” (speech delivered at Thinking Matters, Laidlaw College, 12 May 2009, 14; text obtained via Email from Glenn Peoples to Madeleine Flannagan, 12 October 2009.
[58]
Gaus, above n 54, 36.
[59] 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, 132-133.
[60] Audi is a moral intuitionist. He believes people can discern basic moral truths through moral intuition; hence, for Audi, agreement on intuitions means agreement on basic moral principles.
[61] Marilyn McCord Adams Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1999) 180.
[62] I am grateful to Matthew Flannagan for the development of this point.
[63] Eberle and Cuneo, above n 55.
[64] For a critical discussion on the standard arguments for religious freedom and the controversial premises on which they rest see, Philip Quinn “Religion and Politics” in William E Mann (ed) The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell Publishing, Blackwell Reference Online 2004) (at 7 October 2009).
[65]
Eberle and Cuneo, above n 55.

RELATED POSTS:
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part I

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

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