Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Eberle and Pubic Justification

Eberle, C.J. Religion and Liberal Democracy in Simon's The Blackwell Guide to Social and Political Philosophy (2002).

Eberle discusses the role that religious beliefs should play in a liberal democracy, and whether the theist based solely on religious reasons is justified in supporting a law that coerces others. The introductory example that Eberle uses is one relating to laws that discriminate against homosexuals. Some portion of Christians (and it should be noted not exclusively Christians or even exclusively religious folk) are, broadly speaking, against homosexuality and a reason/justification for this is based on passages in the bible, e.g. Leviticus 18:22 "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." Eberle argues that theist citizens should attempt to put forward a public justification for laws (and such) that other citizens can accept, but if this fails they are fully justified in supporting laws that coerce others (e.g. to discriminate against homosexuals) if they hold this to be a moral course of action.

I disagree with the arguments presented in Religion and Liberal Democracy, and don't find the case made for justification for citizens to coerce others based on a position that has failed the test of public reason to be compelling. I shall attempt to argue for my position.

A possible mistake that Eberle makes is to identify religious belief as a special case. If one takes it as a specific instance of a more general case of citizens' strongly held beliefs and world views, then his arguments are weakened. There is no clear reason why a religious belief as a motivation for moral views and endorsing of laws should be considered separately from idealogical beliefs and the like (e.g. strong belief in the efficacy of certain alternative medicines, or adherents in conspiracy theories that lack any credibility).

The general argument from Eberle appears to be:

  1. A religious person has personal moral beliefs that influence support for coercive laws (our problematic set of cases)
  2. A subset of these are wholly based on their religious views, and therefore cannot be given as a publicly acceptable justification
  3. Coercive laws can only be supported if a citizen can give publicly acceptable justification
  4. Therefore, in cases where a religious person cannot provide public justification for a law, by requiring that they abstain from supporting that law we are making them act against their morals, which is wrong
The first response to this argument is to generalise it and consider all persons in the polity collectively; to apply the principle of equality to their beliefs and motivations. This gives us the general principle for which Eberle is making a case for a religious exemption: Laws that coerce others which cannot be given publicly acceptable justification should not be supported. This allows us to rule out support based on bigotry, delusions, fundamentalism, and the like. If we did not have this principle there would be no basis for dismissing unjustified laws, which would be extremely undesirable. Eberle argues that in the case of the theist this principle asks them to go against their morals. Even if true, Eberle doesn't make a case for why religious views deserve an exemption over and above, for example, idealogical views.

The case being made is that if something cannot be reasonably be justified, then it can still be supported even when it coerces other people if strong beliefs are held. I believe the correct response in such a situation is that if something cannot be reasonably publicly justified then the person in question should correct their views, or maintain them but accept that others have a different world view and should not be coerced.

Eberle provides the following example (p295) in support of his argument:

"...we may assume that, given the evidence available in his epistemic environment, Socrates rationally believed that the sun revolves around the earth; that, given the evidence available in our epistemic environment, we moderns rationally deny the sun revolves around the earth; and that, given the relevant differences between our respective epistemic environments, Socrates would have been unable to articulate a rational for his geocentric convictions that we moderns regard as even remotely convincing. In that hypothetical case, Socrates would enjoy a rational, but not a public, justification for his geocentric convictions. [The upshot being that we cannot expect Socrates to withdraw his support for his geocentric convictions]."
There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, Socrates is wrong. Secondly, we can understand Socrates position and his reasoning, and we can appreciate that Socrates is attempting to provide public justification, and given his current epistemic environment he may (perhaps should) succeed. That his view is wrong and will lose out does not diminish the key point that Socrates is successfully engaged in public reasoning. He is currently not adequately informed in comparison to moderns. Thirdly, we can engage with Socrates in public deliberation, we can attempt to convince him of our position based on our more expansive epistemic foundation, and we can reasonably expect Socrates to weigh the evidence and arguments and side with the heliocentric model due to its more compelling account of the solar system. Socrates is wrong. He should either change his views to heliocentrism because it is a superior view, or he should accept that his geocentric view is no longer sufficient as a public reason and he should not use it as a basis to coerce others.

A difference between the case that Eberle is making for a religious exemption and his example of Socrates is that Socrates is engaged in public reason, whilst the solely-religious justification is not. Eberle, in presenting the position of justificatory liberals put forwards the following conception:

"(5) rationale R counts as a public justification for coercive law L only if each cognitively adept, reasonable and adequately informed citizens affected by L can accept R as a sufficient basis for L."
I don't follow why only citizens affected by a coercive law can reject it, but leaving that aside this is an interesting case. Eberle's response to this is religious people consider their sacred texts to be relevant source of information for their reasons, and if non-believers do not accept these reasons then that is because they are not adequately informed about the sacred texts, that the religious could claim "...that non-believers think otherwise because they are inadequately informed: to be unaware of an omniscient being's express judgements is to be desperately ignorant." This argument fails because the non-believer is, or can be, informed as to the content of the sacred texts (indeed a Pew survey in 2010 found that generally atheists knew more about religion than believers), they simply do not accept the content as valid. This is an inevitable situation in a pluralistic world. Religions present absolutist world views that are incompatible with each other as well as with atheists, with no fair and just way to arbitrate between them (as they are absolute). If we cannot deliberate reasonably in a democracy then we give way to mob rule. Hence why we have secularism; religion A cannot be reconciled with religion B,  therefore they cannot be used to justify state coercion (e.g. establishing primacy of one religion over the other). The secular response is to protect people's freedom to choose and follow their religion, as part of a broader move to protect the liberty of all.

Reasonable public justification needs to be just that. Where such justification is lacking coercion cannot be supported. Solely religious motivations inherently cannot provide reasonable public justification in a pluralistic world. But religion is a subset of a broader case, not a specific case. What cannot be justified should not be supported. This does not remove religion from the public sphere, nor should it. What it does is remove it as a deliberative basis, but it can still be a motivational force and a subject of debate. Deeply held beliefs can be supported even if a reasonable public justification cannot be made, providing there is not an undue impact on others, out of prudence, generosity, or respect.

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