Moral arguments and the political process

I have believed for quite some time, as have many others, that one of the biggest problems with public discourse in this country is the insistence by folks on the left that religious and moral arguments are illegitimate in the public square; there are voices on the left who have sought to challenge this idea in a constructive way (as Sen. Obama did two years ago) but they’ve been few and far between. (There have been rather more who have followed the invidious lead of Jim Wallis in arguing that such arguments are permissible if they support liberal conclusions.) The idea that liberals should take the moral and religious arguments that undergird conservative positions seriously and engage them accordingly has mostly been anathema to folks on the left.

That’s why it was so encouraging to see Austin Dacey’s book The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life, which came out two months ago from Prometheus Books. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus commented quite positively on the book at the time, writing,

On almost all the hot-button issues—abortion, embryo-destructive research, same-sex marriage, Darwinism as a comprehensive philosophy, etc.—Dacey is, in my judgment, on the wrong side. But he is right about one very big thing. These contests are not between people who, on the one side, are trying to impose their morality on others, and people who, on the other side, subscribe to a purely procedural and amoral rationality. Over the years, some of us have been trying to elicit from our opponents the recognition that they, too, are making moral arguments and hoping that their moral vision will prevail. But in the world of secular liberalism, morality is the motive that dare not speak its name. Austin Dacey strongly agrees. I expect he would not agree that the secularist moral vision entails a quasi-religious understanding of reality, but one step at a time, and The Secular Conscience is a critically important first step. . . .

Dacey recognizes the gravely flawed view of John Rawls that public decisions must be advanced by public reasons recognized by all reasonable parties. That is not the case with most questions requiring political decisions. He writes:

“A policy can be justified when it is favored by a convergence of citizens’ varying reasons, without there being any consensus on those reasons themselves. And there is no reason why the claims of conscience can’t be a part of such convergence. . . . So long as our reasons converge, the decision is justified to each of us and the ideal of legitimacy is preserved. There is nothing necessarily illegitimate about conscience.” . . .

On many questions of great public moment, most of us will disagree with Austin Dacey. At the same time, he should be recognized as an ally in his contention that these are moral questions that must be addressed by moral argument.

Two months later, the New York Times’ Peter Steinfels has taken note of the book (and also, incidentally, of Fr. Neuhaus’ comments on it); and though it seems clear that his main concern is whether Dacey’s approach will in fact benefit the liberal agenda, he lets Dr. Dacey have his say. This is important, because while Dr. Dacey, too, seeks to strengthen secular liberalism, he believes that having “a fundamental conversation” is important enough to risk the possibility that it might not produce the results he wants.

The most interesting part of Steinfels’ article, at least to my way of thinking, is the last paragraph:

“The Secular Conscience” glows with Mr. Dacey’s confidence in John Stuart Mill’s principle that every idea should be “fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed,” lest it “be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

The thing that interests me about that is the implicit admission that secular ideas can be dead dogmas just as easily as religious ones can; which is a truth that points to the big admission that secularists need to make, that secularism is in fact a faith like any other, and no more rational than other types of faith commitments (though there are certainly forms of both religious and secular faith which are less rational). That way lies the recognition, which we all need, that we should regard those with whom we disagree as equals with whom we should argue with respect and from whom we have much to learn, rather than as inferiors whom we may freely mock, berate, or dismiss. If Dr. Dacey’s argument leads eventually to secularists abandoning their self-assumed (and self-congratulatory) assurance of superiority to argue with their opponents humbly rather than dogmatically, he will have done our culture a great service indeed.

HT for the NYT article: Presbyweb

Posted in Culture and society, Faith and politics.


  1. This post caught my attention because I feel at least that I shamelessly make liberal moral and religious arguments all the time. Rather than claiming I am being amoral, I claim that I am trying to be as moral as possible, and also lay out my definition of “moral” as well as I can.

    When the assumption is that liberals/progressives/whatever who value secular society have the positions they do in spite of morality and religion, rather than because of them (as I feel is my case), I have a hard time seeing where I fit into the picture being presented.

    I personally think the culprit is economics (and this is a personal soapbox). Economics is the realm in which *all* modern people of every ideological stripe make moral decisions while pretending they are not.

    I’m pretty leery of any science that pretends it does not have a moral component. To me, everything has a moral component, because morality is just the system of ideas that tell us the kinds of people we should be. How can that possibly not apply?

    I can definitely see how it would be frustrating to deal with liberals who present their ideas as if they were amoral, as if pure rationality existed. Frankly, its because conservatives have conquered the language of morality to such a degree that to talk about morality in the public sphere is to have everyone assume you are a conservative. Of course, from my point of view, liberals are at least as much to blame by letting this happen.

    I have a much more nuanced view of what ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ is, for better or worse, so I can’t agree that secularism is a faith just as a religion is a faith, but it is true that there is significant overlap. I just think that we should try to be a lot more precise. Whose secularism? In what area of human life? To what degree? For what purpose? That’s what I would need to know in that case.

  2. Huh . . . I thought I’d responded to your comment, but something ate it. Not sure what happened there. I did want to say, I basically agree with you; I hope it didn’t sound like I share the assumption that “liberals/progressives/whatever who value secular society have the positions they do in spite of morality and religion, rather than because of them,” because I don’t. I’ve thought for a while that as frustrating as it can be for me to deal with this issue, it has to be worse in a lot of ways for folks in your shoes. I don’t know what effect Dacey’s book will ultimately have, but I would think it should at least help reverse the marginalization (in the larger public square) of thoughtful liberal Christians, which I’d be glad to see.

    I will say, w/r/t your comment that “to talk about morality in the public sphere is to have everyone assume you are a conservative,” that I think liberals are much more at fault for that–secular liberals specifically–because they’re the ones who pushed the abandonment of public moral discourse. I’ll certainly grant you that many conservatives have taken advantage of that, and exacerbated the situation–but we didn’t start it, and many of us (most, I think) would like to see an end to it. Certainly, while I’ve heard liberals deny the right of conservatives to make moral arguments, I’ve never heard a conservative argue the same about liberals.

    Interesting thought on economics, btw; I’ll have to take some time to think about that. That makes a lot of sense, and I think it might explain some things I’ve wondered about; and I absolutely agree with you that everything has a moral component.

    As for secularism, I don’t think it’s a faith in quite the same way as religion is a faith, and certainly not that secularism is a religion as such; it’s a somewhat different type of faith commitment, I think. I do believe it’s fair to say, though, that it’s every bit as much a faith commitment as religion is. I agree your questions are important for purposes of classification–there’s no one monolithic “secularism” any more than there’s any one monolithic “religion”–but broadly speaking, I think it holds; given that it’s a sweeping generalization, I think it’s fair as generalizations go.

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