God, value, and “secular reasons”

Camassia and Eve Tushnet have been discussing this Stanley Fish column that takes aim at the idea of “secular reasons”–reasons which, according to Fish, “because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations.” This seems like a pretty tendentious definition to me since it equates “secular” (i.e., non-religious) reasons with non-moral ones, and I’m not sure how many secular people would accept that.

Here’s my view in a nutshell: values–truth, beauty, compassion, happiness, etc.–are part of our experience of the world and we experience them as “objective.” These are compelling to most people with even minimal sensitivity, and they often inform our thinking and debating about what public policies to pursue, what kind of lives we should lead, and so on. This is true of both religious and non-religious people.

As a religious person myself, I believe that these values reflect, or point to, God, but I don’t think you have to believe in God to apprehend them. It’s quite possible to perceive the goodness of compassion or happiness, or to apprecitate beauty or truth, without thinking that they require the existence of God. So I think Fish is wrong if he thinks that “secular reason” can’t appeal to moral values. Secular reason only has this problem if you define it to exclude values a priori.

It’s true, of course, that some hard-bitten materialists may want to deny that values are anything more than subjective, emotional responses, but (a) most people aren’t hard-bitten, reductionistic materialists and (b) even hard-bitten materialists, happily, don’t generally live their lives as though they believe this. Plus, it’s quite possible to be a non-reductionistic naturalist of some sort or the other who affirms the objectivity of values (say, J.S. Mill).

When people talk about “secular reasons,” what they’re generally talking about are reasons and arguments that don’t make explicit reference to theological claims, particularly confessional ones, and can be offered as potentially compelling to one’s fellow citizens who don’t share one’s theological commitments. I think there are good moral and pragmatic reasons for Christians and other religious folk to approach public debate in this way.

Certainly, much of our public discourse is constrained by a narrowly “utilitarian” or economistic set of assumptions. But, in my view, that has more to do with capitalism than secularism. We can supposedly do without public discussoins of value because everyone’s preferences or interests will be automatically taken into account by the functioning of the market, and the result will be the optimal outcome for society as a whole. Value-talk thus becomes extraneous. This is the dream of the fully self-regulating market society.

However, since values aren’t reducible to preferences or interests, this economic picture of society is radically incomplete. For example, we may argue for government provision of health insurance on the grounds that it is just or compassionate. Or we may argue for environmental preservation for aesthetic or spiritual reasons. These are the kinds of values that transcend mere preference and require a kind of public deliberation to put them into effect. That’s why we need democracy to frame, and constrain, the market. This public deliberation will necessary make reference to the language of values, but it’s a language that is available, in principle, to anyone, regardless of their relgious beliefs.

3 thoughts on “God, value, and “secular reasons”

  1. How odd.

    I just put up a post on what looks a lot like a related topic, so-called “public reasons.”


    I’m not sure, but it may all go back to John Rawls’ discovery that not eveybody is a liberal, and a lot of the non-liberals are religious believers with a religion-driven political agenda.

    Just what counts as a “public reason” is pretty vague, but I agree it has to include moral reasons though I think some specific moral beliefs may be tied so closely to a sponsoring religion or denomination that political advocacy appealing to them might as well be appealing to a specifically religious belief.

    You know.

    Like the specifically religious belief that God hates fags.

    Or that he hates slavery.

    Or that he approves of slavery (according to die-hard Confederates).

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