Friday, July 27, 2007

BAT - A Second Swing

Some questions in the comments section of my Blog Against Theocracy post prompted me to respond at some length, expanding and clarifying my intended meaning. I ended up feeling that some of the responses I wrote were at least as good as, if not better than, the material contained in my original essay. Here, I'll reproduce a somewhat heavily edited and expanded version of some of the comments I wrote during that discussion (with most of it from rebuttal #11), streamlining them to read more like an essay. I'll finish up in a third post.

Sometimes, and perhaps often, when discussing ethical behavior or social norms or the rule of law with a particularly conservative Christian, you may find that suddenly something magical happens. It is as if the common ground of rational thought and mutual, consistently self-validating uniform experience....disappears. Poof, and all of the rigors of a decent public high school education seemingly vanish. You may state your observation that just as we've "figured out" sound principles of structural engineering, so have we as a society "figured out" what we do and don't want people to be doing, only to be responded to with an incredulous "how?!?"

Now, it's normally true that regular conversation, and a Xanga blog post devoted to describing the shortcomings of the theocratic mindset of a disturbingly large part of our country's voters, probably isn't the appropriate place to delve into the long history of law. But a quick answer might be: just like we've figured other stuff out. There's a lot of trial and error involved, and lots of investigating, experimenting, and discussion. You know, the normal ways of figuring stuff out. "We" (in the collective sense) figure it out, as well as "we" in an individual sense. We each figure out as children that we enjoy the benefits of sharing, and we wail and thrash in response to theft. We figure out, rather handily, that we enjoy being treated kindly while we dislike being punched by our red-faced toddler cohorts.

As to why things are wrong, in the context of my original essay this has to do with an individual's right to pursue freedom and happiness (right up to where such would infringe or eliminate the same right in another individual). A read through all of the Founding Documents would demonstrate similar reasoning. It also makes good plain common sense: if two (or more) people can agree that they each want to be free to pursue their desires, they can only truly agree insofar as they also agree to not exercise their own pursuit of freedom at the expense of the other(s). Or to rephrase, I can't agree with you that we both have the right to exercise our freedom, only to turn around and then suppress (or completely destroy) your freedom. In doing so I would actively demonstrate that I actually disagree with the proposition of our individual rights and freedoms. Furthermore, were I to proclaim a right to both my freedom and to the removal of yours, I would become an irrational hypocrite the second I complained about you suppressing or destroying my freedom.

Not only is such reasoning reflected in such documents as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but a survey of the history of civilization yields even more clarity.

One may be challenged as to how one would explain that stealing is wrong to a hypothetical jungle tribesman whose society "values" stealing as a means of survival, strength, and honor (or further, why one thinks right and wrong exist). But for my part, I'm pretty skeptical that such a tribesman exists. Second, even if one did, while it may be quite important to explain to him why stealing is wrong (at least in our society and culture), it will not be nearly as imperative to outline to him why right and wrong exist. If I can't get past the first task of discussion ? explaining to him that he cannot steal here ? he will end up arrested and jailed or deported, almost immediately.

However, the question to ask such a tribesman would be this: "What do you do when someone tries to steal from you?" It would prove impossible to remain consistent with his claim that stealing is a valued behavior and also tell me that he defends his belongings. His behavior ? defending belongings from theft ? would actually speak loudly about whether or not he really thinks stealing is wrong. It would also show his moral precept "stealing is good" to be irrational.

You may find that during conversations along these lines, the conservative or theocratic-sympathizer may react to your stance against religious legislating and bigoted political moralizing by demanding that you explain how right and wrong exist from a non-religious viewpoint. They might even be ready to toss out dozens of examples that they think you must grapple with.

But again, normal (i.e. somewhat short) conversation and blog discussions aren't always the best place to get into an interminably long discussion about ethics (or big long hypothetical lists of the situational application thereof). Suffice it to say that there are many ways to argue towards a system of right and wrong, and even moral absolutism if you so desire, both with and without recourse to religion.

During the comments discussion of my OP, questions were raised as to the applicability of my position, with cigarette smoking standing in as a test case of sorts. Using cigarettes as an example is salient, in that we see such discussions going on in public life today, in several places in the country (right here in Louisville, even). As such, it seems that answers aren't very difficult to determine (even if good application isn't always the case in different locations).

The "anti" group (in the example, a religious anti-smoking group) will almost certainly fail to outlaw smoking. But they will almost certainly succeed in limiting smoking in such ways as to end up with smokers keeping their own rights, and non-smokers keeping their right to breathe clean air. And, lucky enough, here in reality land we find this to be most often true. Virtually all public buildings in the country, including most private business buildings, are smoke-free. A large percentage of restaurants in the country are also smoke-free, with some cities banning almost all indoor smoking, except for individual's homes. We also find that under-age smoking is illegal, and that it is also illegal to sell (and to a certain extent, advertise) cigarettes to minors. Thus, we've preserved the freedom of both the smokers and the anti-smokers, and nobody is oppressed.

Perhaps a tad more interesting, it was then asked, "...So let's take the same religious group and have them say, "Our holy book says that inhaling smoke is wrong, it is a sin." They are being forced to "sin" by any smokers that walk by or light up in the same building as them..."

They might be forced to "sin" if somebody walks by them outside somewhere with a cigarette, but such will be the consequences of such a completely ridiculous holy book-based belief. They would also be "sinning" any time they were in the presence of running automobiles, campfires, incense, or bee keepers. Such an irrational belief will render it their responsibility to avoid such things.

We may imagine that such a religious person might claim to feel "oppressed" any time they find themselves out in public where smokers may be. We may further imagine that they would ask whose freedom is "more important," and who gets to make such a decision. However, I don't think they'd be being oppressed at all. So long as nobody forces them to enter a bar that allows smoking, or strong-arms them into standing right next to the public ash tray outside of the mall, no oppression is occurring. Their religious freedom is no more violated than a person who religiously disapproves of beverage alcohol has his faith violated by a liquor store. If he does not go into the store and he avoids imbibing, his religious belief is not oppressed.

You see, in these cases there is no problem of "whose freedom is more important." The freedom of both is important, and in both cases can be reasonably preserved by rational means.

It can be observed that "different groups of people...reason what is right and wrong based on different things. Things they observe, things they believe, things they read, or things they just "feel"." To this I say: Yes! This is why people are expected to give their reasoning. One group of people, based on observation, belief, literature, faith, or any combination of the four, may somehow "reason" that it is not wrong to rape. But is it really a matter of mystery that their reasons for approving of rape will be failures? Historically, our country has been occupied by startling amounts of people who agreed that slavery was okay and that women should not have been allowed to vote. There are probably still a surprising number of people who feel this way. When such ideas were met with other people with different ideas, we can easily see which side had the better reasons.

If you argue as I have here, you may be accused (as I was) of elevating reason as the means of determining what is right and wrong, or legal and illegal. My response then was that, yes, I have. Would a person really suggest that I use something other than my brain to make decisions, moral or otherwise? Certainly, it is correct to suggest that our ability to reason is influenced by outside factors, such as what we read or are entertained by. However, none of that changes that a person (regardless of whatever their influences are) must think in order to make a decision. If you don't bring reason to bear on a choice in front of you, then you won't be making a decision.

In the comments of the OP, I was challenged on my stance regarding the validity of certain theocratic ways of thinking and the resultant legislative efforts. To clarify, what I dismissed as worthless, or what became invalid, were the proposed theocratic rules themselves. The potential law, absent any good reasons behind it and which would openly discriminate based on religiosity alone, was what I dismissed.

So my question for the conservative Christian and straight-ticket Republican voter would be: do you think theocratic laws supported by religious adherence to certain exclusionary holy books would be a good idea in our society? When such proposed rules necessarily reflect a view of the world not shared by all religious people, let alone all people, in the country?

Because, after all, if one agrees with me that theocracy is a bad idea, yet finds fault with the reasons I've given for my opposition to it, that would tend to make me curious as to their reasons for opposing theocracy.

My OP was inaccurately characterized as having reasoned that reason is supreme because I said so. However, what I talked about was the insufficiency of solely religious reasons for proposing laws, the imperative to find good reasons for our laws, and I touched on religious discrimination being a (sometimes? often?) particularly nasty expression of certain beliefs. But I never said anything like "reason is supreme, because I say so!"

Though, it is instructive to note that one would be hard pressed to disagree that sound reasoning is the tool to use in making decisions, without recourse to one's own ability to reason and give reasons for such a stance. In other words, to use one's ability to reason to try and declare reason as insufficient or invalid would be clearly self-defeating.

"To argue with a man who has renounced the use
and authority of reason, is like administering
medicine to the dead.
" - Thomas Paine

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