Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life - Part 05

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.

Today: Proposition 5:

We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.

Great! We're going to fight for legalized incest and fights to the death in Madison Square Garden (for consenting adults only, of course).

Of course, the gladiator events will be televised, and there will be youth gladiator leagues - that do not quite involve killing people, but which gets the point across and helps to train kids to become professional gladiators.

Then we will have to ask - what if the endorsement of professional gladiator events and youth gladiator leagues have the effect of making it psychologically easier to commit murder? What if legalized incest and having open and casual acceptance of incestuous couples makes it psychologically easier - and thus more common - for adult parents or step-parents to pressure their children or step-children into having sex?

One of the questions that we need to ask ourselves regarding the legislation of private conduct is, "What type of people would we have to be to react to that type of private conduct with indifference?" Then, we have to ask the follow-up question, "What type society would people like that have to live in?"

There is good reason to create a society that promotes such an aversion to the killing of other citizens for entertainment that we simply will not tolerate "fights to the death" as a form of entertainment. Nor do we allow our children to join "gladiator leagues" as children so that they can grow up to be well-trained adult gladiators. We have good reason not to live in a society that shuns and condemns those attitudes. Doing so promotes a respect for life that makes all of us safer - and the safety we acquire from a society so averse to killing are reasons for action to promote such a society.

One could argue that there is something intrinsically wrong with limiting purely private actions. However, intrinsic wrongness does not exist. When somebody finds evidence of intrinsic wrongness, invents an intrinsic-wrongness detector, shines his detector on the act of prohibiting gladiator events, then I will change my views on this matter.

However, I suspect that no such intrinsic value detector will ever be invented. What we have, in place of an intrinsic value detector, are reasons for action that are grounded on desires.

These reasons for action argue in defense of indivisible liberty, particularly in private actions that do not directly affect others. To the degree that we lack freedom, we lack the capacity to act so as to fulfill our desires. When other people act to restrict our freedom, they are inevitably putting the fulfillment of their desires above that of the people whose freedoms are being restricted.

So, we should have an aversion to restricting freedom. However, an aversion is simply a reluctance to do something that can be overwhelmed by other concerns. My aversion to public speaking prevents me from getting up in front of audiences and speaking publicly. However, I have given interviews and speeches in the past and may do so again, when the concerns addressed by giving the speech outweigh my interests in avoiding this.

So, while we have good reason to argue in favor of a reluctance to allow legal sanction and government concern with private actions, we must allow that there are some cases - such as the casual and celebratory killings associated with gladiator events - where the hazards of "being the type of person who would tolerate such things" are such that they argue in favor of legal sanction and government concern.

The same analysis applies to the problem of incest. A substantial portion of incestuous relationships are abusive. In order to prevent abusive incest, one of our best tools may well be to have a society that condemns incest generally, without exceptions.

In some cases, this general aversion to incest might be the one think that is stopping somebody from having sex with his daughter or step-daughter - the one psychological hurdle that tilts the psychological balance in favor of keeping his hands to himself. If, instead, we socially remove this barrier and tell people that they should feel comfortable with incest, then in some cases the psychological barrier to abuse may well be lowered enough that a "hands off" relationship becomes "hands on."

The reasons for action that people have for preventing the incestuous rape of children and murder generally may well be strong enough and common enough to argue that, in these instances, society had good reason to command legal government and government involvement in condemning and prohibiting these activities.

Of course, this same argument can then be used to condemn such things as prostitution, pornography, violent video games, violence on television, and similar private conduct that has the effect of lowering our aversion to things people have good reason to promote aversions to.

Promiscuous sex leads to sexually transmitted disease and, when condoned in the community at large, makes it more difficult for a parent to create aversions in a child that would otherwise protect the child's health and even her life.

Violent video games and violent programs on television may well lower our aversion to violence generally to such an extent that people generally find it easier to inflict violence on others - violence that others have many and good reason to promote aversions to inflicting.

I am not saying that it is the case that these private actions have these social costs. What I am saying is that the question of whether the sentiments associated with private actions has social costs is a relevant question to ask and answer. If the effect of having gladiatorial fight-to-the-death entertainment is that we make it easier for some people to commit murder, these facts matter. These facts may well give people many and strong reason to condemn violence until death even among consenting adults in private.

If violent video games and television shows make it more likely that my niece will be a victim of violence, then my interest in protecting her from violence gives me legitimate reason to condemn and to get the government involved in reducing exposure to violent video games and television shows.

If song lyrics or other performances encourage impressionable children to engage in behaviors that expose them to long-term health risks, then a legitimate concern for the well-being of those children justifies calling on the state to take action to reduce those risks.

On the other hand, we also cannot ignore the fact that a great many people motived by religious dogma, massively distort and sometimes invent social costs to try to justify the use of state violence to force their religious prescriptions on others. Their claims about the social consequences of permitting homosexual marriage or removing prayer from the classroom have no factual basis. They embrace these claims because not because the evidence supports them, but because it feeds (and is feed by) their religious bigotries.

For example, because of bigotries and prejudices that they have picked up from their religious community, they are likely to embrace any and all claims that would suggest that permitting homosexuality has huge social costs, regardless of how well backed up those claims are. They relate permitting homosexuality with permitting child molestation when the inference from permitting homosexual acts among consenting adults and child molestation is exactly the same as the inference from permitting heterosexual acts among consent adults to permitting child molestation.

They may even go so far as to claim that allowing homosexual parades makes a city vulnerable to hurricanes that would destroy levies and flood the city, or that removing prayer from the school will help a group of religious fanatics hijack airplanes and fly them into sky scrapers by removing God's protective hand.

Outside of the realm of religion, they embrace and exaggerate every scientific claim that suggests that what is religiously prohibited might have social costs, while dismissing out of hand any claim that the prohibition itself comes with huge social costs - for example, that it promotes suicide and self-destructive behavior such as drug use among the targeted group.

The worst form of this prejudice are those who take scripture as being literally true. From this, they argue that any evidence that the allowing the target behavior has social costs must be true because it is in agreement with scripture, and any evidence to the contrary must be rejected as false because it disagrees with scripture. These people are taking the prejudices and bigotries of people dead for centuries and using them to judge the validity of contemporary scientific discoveries. They have put the target group in a position where they refuse to listen to new evidence concerning the target group merely because ignorant people long dead were prejudiced against them.

So, in summary, private conduct that respects the rights of others may still be the legitimate subject of legal sanction or government concern when the attitudes behind that conduct risks dire social consequences. However, this does not change the fact that it is a too common and contemptible practice among many who are religious to invent or exaggerate social costs in order to "justify" their call for state violence to be used to impose ancient bigotries and prejudices on others.

Previous Episodes:

Proposition 01: We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.

Proposition 02: We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.

Proposition 3: We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.

Proposition 4: We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.

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