Monday, April 06, 2009

Secular Arguments for Religious Morality

My comments that morality does not allow claims that others are to be deprived of life, health, or liberty to be grounded on faith produced the following response from the studio audience.

Of course the whole post presupposes that people who oppose homosexual marriage or the use of human embryos in stem cell research neither have, nor offer, any reasons besides faith for their positions. Which is patently false.

Actually, it makes no such assumption.

To make my point, I compared the use of faith in order to justify policies that cost others their life, health, and liberty to the use of faith in a criminal trial. I used the principle that it would be wrong to allow a witness to declare in a courtroom, "I have a faith-based conviction that the accused is guilty." Proof of guilt requires more than the faith of the accuser.

Now, please note that my argument does not require any assumptions at all about the ability to convict the accused based on solid scientific reasoning. No matter how solid the prosecutor’s hard scientific evidence happens to be, it would never be appropriate for him to call somebody to the stand to say, "I think that the accused is innocent," based on faith.

Similarly, the ability to ground opposition to homosexual marriage or stem cell research on solid evidence does not change the fact that faith is not a fit ground for moral claims such as these. It is still a claim that only hard evidence is a fit ground for claims that others are to suffer policies that will take their life, health, and liberty.

If the accused can be proved guilty based on the evidence, then this is how it should be done. If the accused cannot be proved guilty based on the evidence, then the only morally responsible conclusion to draw is that the case for doing harm has not been made – that causing harm is not justified.

In neither case is it legitimate to make accusations grounded only on the faith of the accuser – whether independent evidence for a conviction exists or not.

Yet, there is another issue related to this. This is the fact that while people who base their conclusions on religious premises often claim to have secular arguments for their position, those are secular arguments that themselves are so poor they would never be accepted in a court. They are examples of poor arguments embraced, not because reason gives the person cause to embrace them, but because they give an illusion of support to conclusions that the person wants to see supported.

We can see this in the past with absurd beliefs that were held by those who favored black slavery. Their desire to embrace conclusions that allowed them to profit from the institution of slavery encouraged them to clutch a number of secular straw arguments that gave the illusion of support to slavery. For example, it was argued that blacks were not mentally developed enough to be treated like adults. They needed to be thought of as, at best, children (though no good parent would treat the child the way slave masters treated their slaves).

Whenever we see people embrace poor arguments we get a window into their desires – and, thus, into their moral character. If it is not reason that is driving them to accept these conclusions, we have cause to look for another reason. Commonly, when people embrace an argument and support it with poor reasoning it is because they want the conclusion to be true. They want it so badly that anything that looks like it might support the desired conclusion is accepted.

However, in the case of promoting policies that deprive others of life, health, and liberty, this means that we are dealing with people who have learned to embrace these harms. They have so much affection for the idea that others can be made to lose their life, health, or liberty that they will grab onto any argument that appeals to justify their conclusion.

Whereas somebody not so eager to see the harm to the life, health, and liberty of others as legitimate would be able to see the holes on those arguments. Their aversion to seeing others harmed will drive them to say, "I'm not going to accept that argument unless and until reason leaves me no alternative."

By giving us a window into the desires of people, a willingness gives us a window into the moral character of those people. It gives us reason to ask, "What type of person is it who is so eager to believe that others are deserving of this loss to their life, health, and liberty?"

1 comment:

Martin Freedman said...


Some great writing and great posts. You are on fire!