Monday, April 16, 2012

Secularism and the Question of Values

The task that I adopted for April is the defense of secularism.

I have defined secularism as a prohibition on religious arguments in matters of public policy.

I began by referring to the wholly secular institution of the trial. In the courtroom, there is a total prohibition on religious arguments on matters involving the guilt or innocence of the accused. Only secular arguments are permitted.

This is a policy that has almost universal assent - even among those who believe in a God. When it comes to determining the facts of the case, only secular arguments are permitted. Nobody is permitted to take the stand and say, "I talked to God and He said the accused us guilty," or confront the possibility that divine intervention resulted in the defendant being seen on a surveillance camera miles from the scene of a crime at the time the crime occurred.

Allowing religious testimony in trials would allow defendants and accusers to fill the court with unfounded beliefs asserted on both sides of the case with no foundation other than, "I have faith that this proposition is true". It would corrupt the churches who would make their money by offering faith-based testimony in favor of those with the money to pay (which substantially explains the close relationship between religious factions and "the too 1%" in politics today - and through much of history). Furthermore, "God said I could get what i want in spite of the fact that these others are harmed" is, in reality, often a rationalization for skirting the wrongness of behavior harmful to others.

However, there is still a problem with this defense of secularism.

The anti-secularist can concede to secularism all matters of fact in policy debates. (Note: secularism has no objection to make with respect to religious reasons for private actions such as what to eat, what to wear, the use of birth control, and when to pray.)

However, at the same time, the law itself is provided by an outside lawgiver. Even the instructions to the jury as to what it takes for the (secular) facts to establish guilt or innocence is negotiated outside of the Jury's presence. With its limitation to secular arguments, juries are not allowed to determine what the law says. They only get to decide how the material facts relate to the law.

If we apply this same set of principles to matters of policy debate, we may limit the dispute over the facts of the matter to secular arguments only. However, those secular matters of fact have to be applied to a law provided by an external law-giver, which is God - where religious leaders play the role of attorneys arguing among themselves, independent of the jury, on questions of what the law actually says.

Another way of describing this problem is to say that secular arguments are great when the matter under dispute is a question of fact. However, they are worthless when the matter under dispute is a question of value. Furthermore, questions of value have no answers without a reference to God. At least, secularists have not provided a sensible alternative.

In short, you cannot have secular-only arguments on matters of value, only on matters of fact. And there is a sharp distinction between values and fact.

I have witnessed a number of situations where this distinction has bitten a secularist.

In one case, Michael Newdow was discussing his lawsuit against, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance on C-Span. His argument was that reciting a pledge with this phrase was unconstitutional - it was wrong because it violated the First Amendment. The priest that squared up against him on this discussion then asked why it was wrong to violate the First Amendment.

Of course, the priest was no saying that it is okay to violate the First Amendment. He was arguing that the rights written into the Constitution came from God, and it was absurd to interpret the amendment in such a way that it would forbid us from acknowledging that God is the author of the rights it contains. "One nation under God" acknowledges the fact that our rights - including those rights that bring peace among the different religions - come from God.

Sam Harris' book provides another example. After protesting the moral failings we find in many parts of scripture, he presents a secular morality. That secular morality is, basically, act-utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism was presented 200 years ago and, since then, has confronted a great many problems that Harris simply ignores.

In fact, Harris' act utilitarianism can be used to justify just about any evil we can find in scripture. In each of the cases, we can make the argument that the biblical act is the act that produced the best outcome for the most people, even if we cannot see or understand how this is the case.

Many secularists with an eye towards evolution want to ground value on our evolved dispositions. They tell us that we do not need to worry about evil in the absence of a God, because we evolved dispositions of empathy and concern for others that will motivate us to be kind even if we give up our beliefs in God.

However, this evolutionary argument ignores the fact that our evolutionary history explains evil as well as good. It did not prevent the Holocaust, it does not end racism, and it has not prevented theft or rape or murder. Against the evolutionary argument, sectarian morality is not concerned with the evils we cannot commit because of our evolved disposition. It is concerned with the evils that humans are quite capable of committing - as evidenced by the acts going on around us. The claim that we evolved a disposition to be moral utterly ignores the evil that is going on today. It isn't even discussing the same topic as that which concerns the question of grounding moral value on God.

A third form of secularist simply treats values as intrinsic properties. This type of secularist assigns value intrinsically to something like happiness, preference satisfaction, life, health, autonomy, liberty, self-realization, well-being (which, itself, is circular since the "well" part of "well-being" needs some sort of foundation). Yet, they are utterly unable to answer the question of how it is their particular entity acquired this intrinsic property and how we can demonstrate its existence in the laboratory.

Social contract theories ultimately fail because the premise that there is a social contract is as fictional as the premise that there is a God. We can add to this the problem with how a hypothetical fictional social contract can generate real-world duties and obligations.

The same fault can be found with impartial observer theories. There is no impartial observer. If there were, and he was truly impartial, he would not CARE what we did. If he did care, where would that caring come from and how is it the case that his caring generates obligations for us?

Rawls' theory of justice binds people to principles we would adopt behind a "veil of ignorance" has similar problems. How is it the case that the principles we adopt in a fictional situation apply to the real world? If it were the case that the fire alarm were going off, I would leave the building and move a safe distance away. However, that does not imply that in the real world, where there is no fire alarm going off, I should also be leaving the building and moving a safe distance away.

Besides, what type of theory draws its conclusions from an ignorance of various premises anyway?

I would like to add that none of these problems negates the problem of claiming that there is some God that is the source of all value. The "faith" component of religion means that people can say whatever pleases them while denying any obligation to actually back up what they say. As a result, people who appeal to God as a source of value are often (always?) merely telling us their own likes and dislikes and adding, "Oh, but I am not demanding that you obey ME. I am demanding that you obey GOD. I am merely his humble servant. Now, God wants you to kneel before me and kiss my ring." Furthermore, many religious "values" actually come to us through religious leaders who have sold the gullibility of their followers to the highest bidder - the "top 1%".

These define some of the many ways in which secularists have addressed the question of value.

Still, at this point, we are working with a premise that concedes to secularism (and secular arguments - where religious arguments are prohibited) all matters of fact (as argued for in last week's posts).

Before we go further into the question of value, let us look at how far we can go with that concession.

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