Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life - Part 01

A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life, a product of the World Atheist Conference: God and Politics.

I'm a bit interested to see your take on this Copenhagen Declaration thing that came out of a Denmark atheistic meeting recently. I know you wrote a whole series on the Manhattan Declaration, so I'm intrigued to see how you think its godless counterpart stacks up.

The first thing I notice in looking to make comments is that the Manhattan Declaration actually sought to provide arguments for the positions that they took. They were not good arguments, as I indicated in my response. However, at least the authors of the declaration sought to appeal to my sense of reason in trying to reason me into adopting their views.

The Copenhagen Declaration, on the other hand, is delivered as if it is some set of commandments carved in stone lacking any explanation or defense. This leaves me no option to but simply examine the conclusions and to determine if they have any merit.

Let me take the first of these declarations.

We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief [1], and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.

A Right to Do What Is Not Prohibited

The first problem I want to address in this first principle is that the second half of it is empty.

It is like the biblical commandment "thou shalt not murder".

Murder is unjust killing. So, "Thou shalt not murder" is "Thou shalt not kill those people that thou shalt not kill."

Okay . . . fine . . . could you be a little more specific?

The first principle of the Copenhagen Declaration effectively says that you have a right to practice your religion up to the point where you do not have a right to practice your religion."

Okay . . . fine.

These types of statements are quite popular in political games precisely because they say absolutely nothing. They invite every reader to adopt an interpretation that agrees with their prejudices. Their lack of substance means that there is nothing to grab onto that somebody might try to criticize. However, the fact that it is politically expedient to use profound words to say absolutely nothing does not change the fact that the principle says absolutely nothing.

Unlimited Right

The second problem is that there is no such thing as an unlimited right. To make such a claim is effectively saying that no other rights exist - which is an odd position to take in a declaration that then goes on to enumerate other rights.

Note: Desirism holds that rights exist. To have a right to X means that there is good reason to provide people generally with an aversion to depriving one of X. A right to freedom of speech means that there are many and good reasons to promote an overall aversion to depriving people of the liberty to speak. However, any aversion has to be weighed against the other desires and aversions that a good person would have.

No matter what right we are talking about, it is possible to imagine a case where the exercise of that right has such horrendous consequences that a good person could not permit its exercise.

Consider the right of a child not to be tortured, and imagine a case in which some powerful race comes to earth and says, "Either you torture this child, or we will subject every creature on the planet to a slow and painful death."

We cannot honestly say that the person who refuses to torture the child is a good person. The person who refuses to torture the child has no compassion. He is a fanatic who has locked himself into a principle to such a degree that he refuses to violate it even under conditions where the reason for the principle would go out the window.

This does not mean that the good person would enjoy torturing the child. He would hate it. This aversion would motivate him to find any way he can to accomplish the same ends without torturing the child. Even where no alternative can be found, he would seek a way to inflict as little suffering and harm as possible and see to the child's well-being afterward. But the aversion is not absolute. It does not override all other possible concerns.

A Right to Belief

The third problem I want to discuss arises from the fact that a belief is a disposition to act. It is completely incoherent to argue that an act is immoral but a disposition to perform the immoral act is legitimate.

Having a belief that there is a dragon outside your house means being disposed to act as if the proposition, "there is a dragon outside my house" is true. A person cannot, at the same time, have a belief that there is a dragon outside of his house and not be disposed to act as he would if there were a dragon outside of his house.

Similarly, a belief that 10-year-old red-heads should be burned alive means being disposed to act as if the proposition, "10-year-olds should be burned alive" is true. A person cannot, at the same time, have a belief that 10-year-olds should be burned alive and not be disposed to act as he would if it were not the case that 10-year-olds should be burned alive.

Every prohibition on any act, from the rape of a child to the burning of a witch, is a prohibition on those mental states that would cause one to perform the action.

Here is a useful test: What if the thing that I believe is that the freedom to practice one's religion is NOT limited by any alleged rights that others may have. Do I have a right to that belief? If I do, then why do the authors of the Copenhagen Declaration criticize that belief? Is it not the case that the Copenhagen Declaration itself morally prohibits the belief that the freedom to practice one's religion is unlimited?

Besides, what is it that we look for in determining if a person is guilty of a crime. Did he take the suitcase by accident, or did he try to steal it? The question is answered by looking at what the person believed at the time he took the suitcase. It is the belief that determines whether the person made an innocent mistake or is guilty of theft. It is the belief that is the determining factor in determining if a person is to be let go or punished.

If you believed that the bag belonged to somebody else, we send you to prison. If you believed that the bag was yours, we let you go free. But, you have an unlimited right to your beliefs.

Again, it is a popular moral myth that people have an unlimited right to believe whatever they want. However, if we are going to go for popular moral myth, we might as well go for the moral myth that we get our rights from God.


So, with respect to this first principle, the second half of it is empty, effectively saying that our rights end where our rights end.

The first half makes the false claim that there can be an unlimited right.

IT also makes the false claim that people are free to believe what they wish but are simply prohibited from performing certain actions, ignoring the real-world fact that a belief is a disposition to act.

These faults are added to the fact that the authors of the declaration made no attempt to defend their commandments by giving explanations as to what they mean or arguments as to why they should be adopted.

In future posts, I will look at the other declarations.


Anonymous said...

Alonzo, your texts in general are great and make me reflect and learn. Great analysis. Congrats not just on this article but on the blog in general. Being a blogger myself (though far less prolific) I think you'd like to know that what you write is appreciated. Keep it up. Regards from São Paulo, Brazil.

Martin Freedman said...

You say no argument was given for this proposition. However there was an end note provided, sothis assertion is purportedly based on the conclusions of arguments made elsewhere:

"[1] Article 18 of the Universal declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

To expand these respectively:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."


After identical wording International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says "...No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others..."

(It finishes with "...The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions."
which is of relevance to later propositions so it does not look like they fully accept this references?)

Now either this compacted proposition misrepresented these two references or it did not, in the first and/or the second part. (Further it could be possible that either or both of these two references are problematic themselves...)

It is certainly the case that neither references asserted any "unlimited" rights. That clearly is an error attributable to the authors of this declaration and not to these references?

Now as for the second "empty" part (as you argue) this refers to the second reference emphasized above. This and the proposition all make a distinction between holding beliefs and acting (or being disposed to act) upon them, a distinction that you regard as problematic. I agree but the question is how does one legislate over holding beliefs without affecting the spirit of these references?

Presumably the authors were too brief in writing this clauses, I will be interested to see your rewrite.