Sunday, September 16, 2007

Francis Beckwith on Secular Reason

Francis Beckwith, professor and Right Reason blogger, lectured at CU-Boulder to a surprisingly large Friday night audience. His speech, "Bioethics and the Pluralist Game," examined the failings of some of the commonplace arguments used to shut down ethical and legal objections to secular liberal policies. Though his inaugurating speech was more academic than the typical undergradate could handle, it bodes well for the new lecture series sponsored by the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute.

Beckwith's arguments were solid, and I particularly enjoyed his analysis of the oft-claimed need for political reasoning to be secular:

[Robert] Audi offers another principle that may be employed, the "secular reason requirement." It goes like this: one has a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts conduct unless one has and is willing to offer adequate secular reasons for advocacy or support.

...this principle requires, without argument, that the citizen's reason be secular. But "secular" is not a relevant property of a reason that is offered in support of a conclusion that an advocate is advancing. For instance, the terms "true, false, plausible, implausible" are adjectives that we apply to reasons to test the property relevant to its purpose as part of an argument. A property is characteristic had by something. So for example one can say "the dog is brown," which means the dog has the property of brownness. However, if one were to say "the set of all even numbers is brown," one would be saying nonsense. Numerical sense cannot have the property of color.

But reasons, like dogs or numerical sets, are things that can only have certain types of properties. Just as a dog cannot have the property of a rational number, and a numerical set cannot have the property of "blue," "valid," or "tall," a reason cannot be secular. For "secular," like "tall," "fast," "stinky," or "sexy," has no bearing on the quality of the reason one may offer in an argument to advance a particular public policy or point of view.

Suppose one believes the conclusion that unjust killing is morally wrong, and offers two reasons for it. The first reason is "the Bible prohibits unjust killing," and the second reason is "the philosopher Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative prohibits unjust killing." Most people would call the first a religious reason and the second a secular reason, because the first contains the name of a religious book, the Bible, and the second contains a non-religious principle, the Categorical Imperative. But how do the terms religious and secular add or subtract to our assessment of the quality of the reasoning?

If one, for example, has good reason to reject the authority of the Bible, then that good reason about the nature of the Bible is the good reason for rejecting that reason. On the other hand, if one has good reasons to believe the Bible is a better guide to moral philosophy than Kant's Categorical Imperative, in that case one ought to conclude that the first is a better reason than the second.

But again, how do the properties of "religious" and "secular" affect such a judgement? At the end of the day, reasons are weak, strong, true, or false, but "religious" and "secular" are not relevant properties when assessing the qualities of reasons a person may offer as part of her argument.

In practice, this requirement of secular reason functions as a hindrance for properly understanding the bioethical issues addressed and the positions held by Christian citizens.


To label an argument "religious" or "secular" is not to speak the language of logic but the language of anthropology or sociology. This tactic, widespread and often unconscious in use, tries to change the topic of the discussion from the argument itself to the category of person who is making the argument.

When this rhetorical shift takes place in jurisprudence, it suggests an implicit assumption that a certain type of people is in charge. Arguments are judged not on their merits but on whether they cater to this ruling type. The need to justify the rule of the secular tribe doubtless partially motivates the fervid insistence that the United States is a secular state.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This just makes me yawn. It doesn't address the real issue. Philosophers who want to distinguish between the acceptability of secular and religious reasons are in fact trying to distinguish between properties of reasons that are relevant to their admissability in public discourse. Most would want to say that purely religious reasons can be good reasons for certain people, but never for all people (except perhaps contingently). In particular, they can be good reasons for people who hold certain religious convictions. It is a commonplace of theological conversation that religious belief (monotheistic, at least) involves faith and religious experience that sustains that faith. Supporters of the distinction between secular and religious reasons want to say that this sort of belief can be the basis for legitimate reasons of a sort, but not the sort that can command purely rational assent. If that is so, then there seem to be good grounds for holding that religious reasons should not figure in political policies.

My point is not that these distinctions are obvious or beyond serious question. I'm inclined to reject them myself. But what is the price of rejecting them? The religious believer who rejects them and holds that all reasons must be evaluated on the same standard must, it seems, say one of three things: a) reasons of the sort classified above as 'religious' must be defended on a purely rational level without recourse to faith and the experiences that produce and sustain it; b) all reasons ultimately rest on the same sort of foundation as those reasons classified above as 'religious'; i.e., no reasons command purely rational consent; c) reasons formerly classified as 'religious' are not reasons at all because religious belief is simply irrational.

Frankly, I'm not sure how any of these alternatives looks good for the religious believer. All have had their defenders; a) seems by now to have been decisively refuted, especially once we remember that we are talking here about religious belief, not simply belief in the existence of God or some such natural theological minimum. c) seems like throwing up one's hands. b) is probably the best option, but I'm not sure that it will succeed or get the politically-motivated religious believer into a comfortable position.

Timothy Shaw-Zak said...

Kevin Jones,

I would advise you (and I know this is preaching to the choir) not to rely on the "you are too" approach which is so often misused. What must be pointed out -in the interests both of secularists and the common peace- is that the ossification of rational rhetoric is as good as no rationality at all

Do not under-estimate this point. I think you will find that many secularists, pride themselves on overcoming of the prejudical tribalism of their religion.

A significant subset of these, when they realize it, will be humbled and appalled to discover they have overlooked the eternal vigilance demanded by intellectual honesty.