Sunday, April 5, 2009

Secularism and Political Justification

This Newsweek piece caught my eye:

The End of Christian America

The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 points in the past two decades...the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.
Interestingly, the drop in religious affiliation is spread across the U.S. to some degree. While the northwest has always been less religious, the northeast has become "the new stronghold of the religiously unidentified."

That's an odd phrase: how can you have a stronghold of the unidentified? It's kind of like imagining a cabal of people unaffiliated with any other cabal.

Anyway, this is a philosophical blog, so I'm not going to try to explain why the number of self-identified Christians is dropping in the United States. Rather, I want to focus on the significance, especially the significance to liberalism.

John Rawls, some may recall, set out to meet what he saw as one of the most important challenges contemporary liberal democracies now face: liberal societies guarantee freedom of thought and expression. These freedoms lead to great diversity in moral and religious doctrines. How do you keep a society politically unified amidst an ever-expanding, irreconcilable diversity?

Rawls problem, I've become to believe, is quite similar to the same problem Madison tackles in Federalist 10. Madison saw that freedom leads to factionalism. When factions gain political power, they tend to use it to suppress other factions and to advance their own, narrow interests, which quickly becomes destructive to a political community.

It's impossible or at least undesirable to remove the causes of faction and diversity: the very freedoms we want to protect. The only solution is to mitigate their impact. For Madison, this meant setting up institutions that were, by design, highly resistant to the will of the people. For Rawls, this means articulating a freestanding, political conception of justice that everyone can support, despite their deeper disagreements about religion and morality.

I think both solutions are compatible. In the short run, we should support the institutions that tend to thwart the majority, like courts. In the long run, as political philosophers, we should try to find what I've called fixed points in the public culture, and build our ideas upon the edifice they provide. A fixed point is nothing more than some aspect of morality around which one can rally a consensus. Such fixed points are always fixed relative to some public culture, and are rooted in the history of the community.

For example, in the United States, the wrongness of discrimination against blacks is a highly potent fixed point. It would not have that standing if not for the American experience with slavery, the Civil War, and its aftermath. This is not to say that this point is accepted by everyone; rather, it is a point around which we can rally a consensus. Those who accept the fixed point -- and there are many of them -- find racism so evil that they are motivated to set aside class and racial privilege to support policies justified on the basis of that point.

So we should be careful: I am not claiming that there are no racists in the United States. I am claiming that (a) There are many, many people who do find racism evil, and (b) Those who see racism this way genuinely see racial discrimination as an injustice, so they are motivated to act against the evil even when their own interests are not directly implicated by it.

By this definition, fixed points get around the factionalism problem Madison envisages. They do so by providing enough people with enough motivation to set aside the interests of their relevant faction to do the right thing, or some facsimile of it.

Nothing I've said necessitates that everyone who accepts a fixed point does so for the same reason. Some people have rejected racism because they see it as contrary to the Christian idea that all are equal in the eyes of God. Some reject it because they see it as contrary to a certain version of Kant's categorical imperative, as I do. Some undoubtedly reject it for other reasons.

Fixed points do not require a consensus all the way down. That's the point.

Now, back to the collapse of Christianity in America: we might say, this is the inevitable outcome of the freedom liberal democracies guarantee to their citizens. Monolithic religious groups will splinter into sects and sub-sects. One might think this could lead to the abandonment of fixed points: after all, if those in group X accept that racism is evil because the doctrine of group X says it is evil, what happens when people leave group X? Are we destined to lose all our fixed points, and to stumble into the factionalism that so concerned Madison?

My answer at this time is: no. The funny thing about fixed points is that, by their nature, they can be justified in several different ways. Arguably, even to become a fixed point, a belief has to be broadly compatible with the diversity from which it arises. What will happen as people leave group X is that the things group X condemns that are not fixed points in the wider culture will likely be abandoned. What kind of things do I have in mind?

Well, the condemnation of same-sex marriage is such an issue. No, I'm not claiming that there is a shortage of religious groups now condemning same-sex marriage. Nor am I claiming that same-sex marriage is a fixed point in the sense I've used the term. It's not, although I think its permissibility can be derived from principles of equal protection that are fixed points.

Rather, what I'm claiming is this: same-sex marriage has only recently become a controversial issue. Of course, it would have been controversial, prior to the 20th century. But since the issue wasn't even raised, it never became controversial -- unlike slavery, which was controversial in the United States from the very beginning. The absence of controversy meant no consensus emerged with regard to same-sex marriage one way or the other, and with no consensus there can be no fixed points.

If the absence of fixed points leads to factionalism, then -- with regard to same-sex marriage -- what we have is factionalism. I happen to believe one faction has the better side of the argument. But the religious groups that condemn same-sex marriage are also factions. Their condemnation does not represent a fixed point; it is not justified on the basis of a fixed point. Thus, those who abandon those factions will not likely retain this belief, because it is justified solely in terms of doctrines endogenous to the factions.

Thus, I see the situation like this: if people abandon Christianity, they will retain a belief in issues clustering around certain fixed points. People will not start believing in the permissibility of slavery because their version of Christianity condemned it. They will continue to believe it is impermissible, because the wrongness of slavery is a fixed point. However, they will either stop believing in the wrongness of same-sex marriage, or else be far less motivated to impose this belief on others through law.

Actually, I think something is even more likely than this: same-sex marriage, while not a fixed point itself, is closely aligned with a belief that all are entitled to equal protection of the law. This belief is a fixed point, or close to it. Thus, history really is on the side of same-sex marriage advocates. The war between the factions will be resolved in favor of the side that can best call upon these fixed cultural points to justify itself.

That will be the side in favor of marriage equality. Count on it.


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