Competing goods, sympathy, and democracy

The Obama administration’s decision, as part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, to require religiously affiliated institutions to provide contraception coverage in employee health plans has, not surprisingly, caused quite a stir. Personally, I’ve had a hard time forming a strong opinion on the issue, despite the fact that both conservatives and liberals have deployed near-apocalyptic rhetoric in arguing about it.

I think part of why I find it hard to come down clearly on one side or the other is that we seem to be dealing with incommensurable goods here. On one hand, the Catholic Church–or at least its leadership–is claiming that this requirement is a violation of the freedom of religion and of the church’s conscience. If a Catholic hospital or university, say, is required to pay for coverage that includes birth control, the church is subsidizing behavior it believes to be immoral. On the other hand, supporters of the administration’s position say that providing universal access to contraception enhances people’s–particularly women’s–health, autonomy, and well-being. Further, they argue that the church shouldn’t be able to impose its views on its employees who don’t happen to be Catholic, which is a significant number of them. (The ruling doesn’t apply to organizations with more explicitly “religious” purposes like the local parish church, only to organizations that provide a public service.)

For my part at least, I think both the freedom and relative autonomy of religious organizations to function according to their own convictions and ensuring widespread access to birth control are good things. But I have no clear sense of which should trump the other when they conflict. And it doesn’t help to put this in terms of rights (e.g., the right to religious freedom vs. the right to contraception) for the simple reason that there’s no clear or universally agreed-upon way of adjudicating between such competing rights-claims.

Conservatives have argued that the ruling is a clear violation of religious liberty. But we accept circumscriptions of rights all the time in the name of the common good. There is no “absolute” right to property or free speech. And we don’t permit discrimination based on race or gender in most cases, even if it’s rooted in some deeply held and sincere religious conviction.

By contrast, some liberals have argued that the case is clear-cut because anyone who takes the state’s money (whether in the forms of tax breaks or subsidies, or direct payments such as Medicare or Medicaid patients or federal student aid) has to play by the state’s rules. But this begs the question because, in a democratic society at least, the state’s rules are supposed to be contestable and subject to debate. What the opponents of the policy are claiming in this case is that the rule in question is wrong.

I’m not usually one to wring my hands about a lack of charity and civility in public debate, partly because I think “civility-policing” can and often is used to suppress strongly expressed, unpopular, or non-mainstream positions. But in this case I can’t shake the impression that neither side is particularly interested in trying to sympathetically understand the view of the other. I’ve seen conservatives say that this represents nothing less than a “war on religion.” On the other hand, I’ve seen liberals say that this shows that religion just needs to up and die already. Whatever you think of the case on its merits, I don’t think you can argue that this is a healthy attitude for citizens in a pluralistic, democratic society to take.

I guess for me what this comes back to is the simple fact that politics always involves trade-offs among competing goods. Unmixed progress is rare; more often, gaining one good comes only by giving up another. In this case, both sides seem unwilling to admit that the other is defending a legitimate good. But my hunch is that the ability to recognize that our political opponents are often trying to defend legitimate goods and to sympathetically enter into their perspective is essential to the well-being of a democratic society. It also seems like the right thing to do.

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5 thoughts on “Competing goods, sympathy, and democracy

  1. Yeah, and since under the ACA people will be able to buy insurance on “exchanges” that are to be created, they should have better options for doing so. Moving away from an employer-based model for getting health insurance would probably be an improvement in a lot of ways.

  2. “In this case, both sides seem unwilling to admit that the other is defending a legitimate good.”

    Well, of course the Catholic Church won’t “admit” this, because they think the Obama administration is forwarding a genuine bad!

  3. Yeah, that objection did occur to me after I wrote this. Maybe I should have said instead that the church should admit that the goals of increased women’s health, autonomy, etc. are goods, even if being pursued by (in their view) bad means. In other words–the *point* of the policy is not to oppress Catholics, even if that’s one of its effects (again, in the view of the RCC; I’m personally somewhat unsure if this is legitimately an unjust infringement of religious liberty).

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