[lit-ideas] Re: Reason and Politics

  • From: John Wager <john.wager1@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 01 Nov 2006 09:46:12 -0600

Phil Enns wrote:
. . . . What the state has the right to do is constrain the
freedoms of individuals who reject the mutual rights and obligations
operative within a society.  The state cannot take natural rights, such as
the right to life, away from anyone.  They are inalienable.  The state can
constrain freedoms, as when people are incarcerated, and can revoke rights
that are given by legislation.  Since individuals cannot legislate rights,
they cannot revoke them.  And individuals certainly cannot trump natural
rights.  If any individual, or group of individuals, were to make such a
claim, they would be acting against the good of the state, and the liberal
democracy that constitutes it.
There are two issues connected to this that need to be addressed:
1. The issue often (always?) is not whether anyone can privately abrogate natural rights; the issue is where those rights apply. Once everyone has agreed about "who" the rights apply to, the issue is settled. But whether a fetus is a "person" or not is another question that cannot be settled by mutually agreed upon views of "natural rights."

2. Making matters MUCH more complicated is the fact that some (but not all) religions believe in some kind of doctrine of "revelation." At its most crude formation, God has "revealed" moral duties or truths to some people, and those people who accept those duties or truths as revealed by God can properly be called followers of that particular religious tradition. Others who do not accept that revelation are not members of that religious tradition. The political and religious issue is that it would be logically inconsistent to require those who do not believe that a particular duty or truth was revealed by God to be bound by that revelation. A religious believer in that particular revelation might try to convert a non-believer into following that revelation, but coercion is not conversion; in a liberal democracy one can not logically or legally be compelled to follow a religion one has not voluntarily agreed to follow. (To require that non-believers follow revelations that they do not believe in would not even make religious sense, and would make the whole belief in revelation logically inconsistent.) When the grounds for political debate is NOT a revealed truth, then reasons can indeed (and should be) given. There may be good biological or social reasons for claiming that a fetus should be given the status of a person, and those reasons seem to be legitimate for a political debate. But when the reasons for believing that a fetus should be treated as a person come from some "revealed" source, they do not serve as the foundation for a political debate, only as the foundation for private moral practices. One cannot argue that God has revealed to Muslims that alcohol is to be prohibited, and that there should therefore be a law banning the sale of alcohol that is binding on everyone, including Muslims and non-Muslims. One cannot argue that God has revealed to Christians that a fetus is a person, and that there should therefore be a law banning abortions that is binding on everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike. To argue thusly would be to argue that revelation is not revealed, but commonly accessible to all.

The problem in the U.S. today is not that religious believers are too religious; the problem is that they are not religious enough! If a person DID believe in revealed religious truths, they would want to protect and encourage such and encourage others to join the tradition that followed those revealed truths; they would not require as a general binding law something that should properly be reserved as a revealed truth. Believers who want to REQUIRE non-believers to follow a revelation that non-believers have not accepted as revealed make a mockery of revelation, and therefore make a mockery of their own tradition.

Muslims should not be required to follow Christian revealed interpretations of the status of a person/fetus; Christians should not be required to follow Islamic laws regarding the sale of alcohol, when the ONLY grounds for such laws is a revelation to a particular religious group. If it WERE legitimate politically for a Christian to argue that there should be a law requiring ALL citizens to treat the fetus as a person based on a Biblical account, it would also be legitimate politically for a Muslim to argue that the sale of alcohol should be prohibited solely on the grounds of it being prohibited in the Qu'ran. Because neither religious group would consent to the religious (revealed) reasoning of the other group, the political process should be confined to those matters that are not dependent upon a particular religious revealed truth.

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