Friday, September 15, 2006

Religion and public policy

Now, relative to church participation in public debate, when churches or church leaders choose to enter the public sector to engage in debate on a matter of public policy, they should be admitted to the debate and they should expect to participate in it on the same basis as all other participants. In other words, if churches or church leaders choose to oppose or favor a particular piece of legislation, their opinions should be received on the same basis as the opinions offered by other knowledgeable organizations or persons, and they should be considered on their merits.

By the same token, churches and church leaders should expect the same broad latitude of discussion of their views that conventionally applies to everyone else’s participation in public policy debates. A church can claim access to higher authority on moral questions, but its opinions on the application of those moral questions to specific legislation will inevitably be challenged by and measured against secular-based legislative or political judgments. As James E. Wood observed, “While denunciations of injustice, racism, sexism, and nationalism may be clearly rooted in one’s religious faith, their political applications to legislative remedy and public policy are by no means always clear.”

If it hadn't been the "11th hour," I would have enjoyed the opportunity to think about gay marriage a lot more before deciding whether to support or oppose the particular amendment considered by the legislature. As it was, the reponses I got from my congressman and senators were assuringly rational, if a bit surprising. They agreed that marriage should be between one man and one woman, but that such things ought to be governed by states, not in a federal constitutional amendment. Having been involved in policy making on a very small scale, I think it's interesting to watch a popular idea destroyed because the implementation is all wrong. It's a good thing, certainly, but also a marvel anything ever gets done.

But my reluctance to support the amendment wasn't based on the execution, it was based on the idea itself. And my opposition to the idea was based on the way I thought it was appropriate for goverment to codify religiously based morals. Basically, I've come to believe as Oaks expressed above that religiously informed moral views have every right to be aired, but they are judged on the same basis of every other view. And I thought in this case the only argument I could make was "because God says so," which is a fantastic reason, but one unpersuasive when considered on the same basis as every other view. "On the same basis" means largely for me that science ought to give legitimacy and credibility to a view whenever science has something legitimate and credible to say on that view. The problem is, of course, that science is routinely obscured in favor of pseudo-science marketing crap that makes much stronger conclusions than are warranted. Without science or pseudoscience, the argument often becomes a series of assertions and denials that beg the question.

Anyway, this post isn't about science. It's about religion and public policy. I was excited to find this article from Elder Oaks (who is one of my favorite writers in the church). I found it persuasive. I'd be interested to hear everyone's thoughts.


Chris (hurricane) said...

Elder Oaks lost me in paragraph six when he set up this straw man to knock down:

Unfortunately, other educators deny the existence of God or deem God irrelevant to the human condition. Persons who accept this view deny the existence of moral absolutes. (Bold emphasis added.)

This is not always or even usually true. Belief in moral absolutes does not require a belief in God. Moral relativism is not the necessary companion of atheism or agnosticism.

But I do agree with Elder Oaks that religious people have every right to vote their values and make their voices heard in the public square. And citizens of all faiths and no faith have the responsibility to challenge religious principles and values when their implementation infringes on the rights and interests of others. Religious people also better be prepared to back up their moral assertions with some evidence that they serve the greater societal good. That a point of view is rooted in religion does not give it a pass when it comes to critical scrutiny.

Scot said...

This is not always or even usually true. Belief in moral absolutes does not require a belief in God. Moral relativism is not the necessary companion of atheism or agnosticism.

That’s a good point Chris.

I’d like to add that theism doesn’t necessarily make one a moral absolutist either.

Not that I think Oaks (or L) has, but I’ve been accused by folk who’ve claimed to be moral absolutists, for denying the immorality of homosexuality, of being a moral relativist, when I think I’m sticking to a pretty old and universal moral ideal. But in previous debates with the same people they were proven to be far more morally flexible than I could ever imagine, excusing everything from slavery to infanticide, because, at the time, for those people, it was the right thing to do.

I know we went over this, and I’m not taking issue with that sort of reasoning (here ;-)), but accusations of moral relativism don’t mean much after that.

-L- said...

I'm still not convinced. Universal morality and absolute morality (at least, the way I think of them) are entirely different with universal denoting morality common to everyone and absolute denoting morality independent of everyone. Maybe that's an artificial distinction, but I think Oaks is deliberately evaluating the coupled ideas of relativism and secularism. They go together often and well and I don't think it's a straw man to consider them as such unless you generalize your conclusions.

I'm still not clear how an absolute morality can exist except through God.

Chris (hurricane) said...

I think Oaks is deliberately evaluating the coupled ideas of relativism and secularism.

Clearly. His arguments depend on it.

They go together often and well and I don't think it's a straw man to consider them as such unless you generalize your conclusions.

That they go together often does not mean that they go together necessarily.

I'm still not clear how an absolute morality can exist except through God.


Scot said...

“I'm still not clear how an absolute morality can exist except through God.”

I’ll give it a condensed shot in one page :-).

Have you every played with so-called artificial life, L? The way I see it, rules of morality, such as reciprocity, come as naturally as breathing into most any complicated social creature. Otherwise they’d not survive. You see the benefit in your family, right? You are far greater than the sum of your parts; you try to be fair, cooperative, and selfless with them, and are better for it.

But evil, deceit, and cruelty come in similarly. This happens because selfishness and clannishness can obviously benefit a person and their progeny. Stuff like bigotry and prejudice against the others are also often useful to that end. Lastly, goodness in your fellow humans leads to trust and selflessness, and that makes deceit and cheating more profitable and easy.

The trick to maximizing morality is to make it so there’s zero benefit to cheating another and/or it can’t be done without being caught; we call these attempts the criminal justice system and America’s Most Wanted :-).

To me, the rule is relatively simple, if not difficult to state (The Golden Rule is a great concise version). It’s the practical application that’s difficult, mapping what exactly is moral and what is not. Like a fractal, a simple rule leads to an infinitely complicated landscape and there’s our confusion. We’ve been mapping this coastline for a very long time, and have made some significant errors, some later corrected, and we’re still correcting, arguing, measuring.

Now, what people do by only believing this coastline exists, if there be a God, is to merely hide the question around a supernatural corner. But I’ll hope to bring it back (If you lose your faith, I don’t want you out there wreaking havoc :-)).

Think of the most horrible thing you can bear that one person can do to another, to a child maybe; far worse than what you’ve already okayed for the Canaanite children. This idea of God can make that moral too. It could make it so faithful parents went around in hysteria that government isn’t making that thing, once unspeakably monstrous, happen to their children. Some could say nature even creates other, “evil” folk with the aberrant proclivity to NOT want to do that. Yes?

If yes, and God has no moral limit, then anything can become right at any moment, and absolute morality means nothing. Anything can be right, anything wrong. Why? Because my God says so and whatever He says to do is the very definition of righteousness. It’s even less ordered and absolute than most forms of secular moral relativism.

But if no (and I think you’ve already said as much)? Then you admit there are moral rules you’re sensing that God too is bound to follow, just as He must allow and abide by “2 +2 = 4” (for most theists I’ve known). If God has no ability to change them, how could any person? We are beginning to learn they are near mathematics in their solidity, and are just as “independent of everyone”; we see the rules pop up in computer simulations. With or without God, they can still exist, just as 2 and 2 may still be 4.

-L- said...

Chris, all due respect, you seem to be wrangling for something to criticize. It's like you're trying to emphasize a non-issue, not allowing even the slightest concession of semantics in order to address the genuinely interesting issue of the place of religion in public policy. The idea that God is necessarily connected with absolute morality is pretty much the default in philosophy and history (at least, that's my impression). But looking back now, Oaks specifically acknowledges "Of course, not all moral absolutes are based on traditional religion." Why didn't that quote make it into your comment?

I think it's the semantic way I think of the word absolute that makes it necessarily connected with God in my mind. What people call "absolute" morality without God, I would use Scot's term of "universal" morality instead (or something else yet) because the manner in which it is immutable or common is entirely different. The way we know and understand it is different. It's a different concept, and although perfectly legitimate, the distinction is not central to what Oaks is talking about. If he had stuck the word "many" ahead of your bolded quote, as I think he probably meant, would that solve the issue?

If you're still concerned about it, I could probably be pretty easily persuaded otherwise if you could offer some examples. History validating an absolute morality as Scot suggests? I don't think that comes off well with the most literal sense of "absolute". Something else?

Chris (hurricane) said...

I don't think it's a non-issue at all.

Elder Oaks is a lawyer and is consistently careful with the language he uses. If he had meant "many" he would have said "many." But he didn't. He states that there can be no moral absolutes without God, and that without God there is only moral relativism. That's just not true.

And it is entirely relevant. Moral absolutes can have a place in determining public policy without having to make appeals to God--or rather, appeals to how various religious leaders intepret God.

That's all I have time for now. I may pick this up later in the weekend. Or maybe not. I've come to accept that you see my criticisms as nit picking.

-L- said...

Scot, sorry I didn't see your comment before that last response. I'm completely with you on the odd way religion is less absolute with morality than the simple straight-forwardness of a simple model like the golden rule. And, really, philosophical references to absolutes like the immutability of God... or any of his absolute qualities really... traditionally rely on God as the creator of morality. It is as absolute as He says, no more and no less. But it is certain and absolute ontologically with Him as the source, and thus absolute even when variable.

The LDS position, of course, departs from the tradional concept of God in many ways. One of them is that, just as you've said, the absolute moral law is independent of Him as well as independent of us. But He is still the Executor and Interpreter of that law. He still has a perfect knowledge of how it applies and how it doesn't, and we don't. So, when He provides what appears to be an exception, it is actually still consistent with some higher manifestation of that absolute law, not an exception at all.

If it appears I'm pulling this out of nowhere, it's because I am. This is how I've thought of it and it could have all sorts of problems with it.

Nowhere in the article is there the slightest mention of homosexual sex or gay marriage, but those are the topics that interest me in public policy at the present moment. Within that application I can see how there is a distinction between the absolute morality of God and the "absolute" morality derived from human experience. The latter isn't relativistic, but it's not absolute either. It's just our current best understanding as a society.

-L- said...

Moral absolutes can have a place in determining public policy without having to make appeals to God--or rather, appeals to how various religious leaders intepret God.

Yes, and I just quoted Oaks as specifically conceding that. I don't always see you as nit-picking. But I do now.

Your comments are appreciated regardless.

Anonymous said...

In Section 89 it states that “All grain is ordained for the use of man…, to be the staff of life” – A moral absolute, if you ask me, since God is the one who speaks (at least if your LDS) this is what one is taught. However, is it really an absolute? My wife’s girlfriend has three kids, including her husband, who suffer from a disease that does not allow them to eat most grains – it’s called Celiac. For the rest of us “grain is the staff of life” but for them it literally is means death. So much for the absolute.

In Exodus it clearly states “thou shalt not kill.” Legally there is no leeway there. Fairly absolute in its definition it seems. But when we read the story of Nephi we read that he was commanded to kill Laban. The scripture gives us a justification for the action by stating that the needs of the righteous outweigh the needs of the wicked. The original absolute seems to again be diluted.

Oaks is correct that religion isn’t the only party that has claim to absolutes. Especially in the marketplace of ideas, but absolutes only owe sway to the believer. Freedom allows the hearer to select their truth – however way they wish to perceive it.

The two biggest issues of the absolute marketplace are (1) when people believe (collectively or individually) that their absolute trumps all others or (2) the denial the consequence of their absolute.

Regardless, we cannot deny a voice, however Morally Absolute it may be stated or however stupid it sounds. The United States has the most unique structures in the entire history of the world, and that is the common market place of ideas where people work together for the greater good of all.

Sorry, L for taking up so much space in blog.

Anonymous said...

i am not a philosopher so don't do well with some of these abstractions. i look at the concrete [i know, piaget/kohlberg stage 3 or 4], for example, the church claims tax exempt status yet tells its members in no uncertain terms to support a very specific piece of legislation [to the point where my elders quorum was e-mailing sample letters for quorum members to sign and send on]. i think a little honesty is in order. i'm uneasy with the ends justifies the means mentality that is present here.

i don't know what a moral absolute is, how can i given the veil over my eyes? but i can try to figure out what good i can do today. i live in the bluest neighborhood in a blue state so politics is probably not the best place for my efforts. but in ward meetings, among relatives, i will continue to make comments, not disruptive or angry, that peace is good, that environmental collapse is pending, and that gay couples need the same legal stability as other couples--all three issues that seem to fly over most ward members as they focus on church attendance and white shirts.