Respect, Coercion and Religious Belief

Respect, Coercion and Religious Belief

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Respect, Coercion and Religious Belief

In this paper, I articulate and evaluate an important argument in support of the claim that citizens of a liberal democracy should not support coercive policies on the basis of a rationale they know other citizens reasonably reject. I conclude that that argument is unsuccessful. In particular, I argue that religious believers who support coercive public policies on the basis of religious convictions do not disrespect citizens who reasonably regard such religious convictions as false.


Somewhere near the heart of much contemporary liberal political theory is the claim that if the state restricts an agent's liberty, its restrictions should have some rationale that is defensible to each of those whose liberty is constrained. Liberals are committed to the "requirement that all aspects of the social order should either be made acceptable or be capable of being made acceptable to every last individual." But there are many kinds of claim which are particularly controversial, many about which we expect reasonable disagreement. Coercive policies should not be justified on the basis of such controversial grounds; rather, they should enjoy public justification. That coercive policy should enjoy public justification implies that political actors are subject to various principles of restraint, that is, that they should restrain themselves from supporting policies solely on the basis of excessively controversial grounds. The point of advocating restraint is to achieve a minimal moral conception, a core morality, which is rationally acceptable to all and which provides the ground rules for political association.

In what follows, I evaluate what I take to be the most compelling argument in support of restraint. For ease of exposition, I shall refer to this argument as the argument from respect. What is that argument?

First an informal formulation. Suppose that John supports some policy which has important consequences for the welfare of a certain type of animal, say, the spotted owl. Since spotted owls can suffer, and since they are conscious of their suffering, John should take into consideration the interests of the spotted owl; when determining whether or not to support logging in old growth forests, John should include in his moral calculus the suffering generated by the devastation of the spotted owl's natural habitat.

John's position regarding the propriety of logging in old growth forests doesn't just affect owls, of course; it also affects loggers like Mary. Mary, like John, must come to grips with the issues raised by the destruction of old growth forests.

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If John has respect for Mary, he will not ignore Mary's concerns. Respecting Mary as a person, in distinction merely to paying attention to Mary's interests, requires that John should be willing to explain to Mary why he thinks that the effects of the policy's implementation on Mary are warranted. That will involve presenting some rationale for the policy. But if John presents a rationale which John reasonably believes Mary reasonably rejects, he may as well not have articulated his rationale in the first place. If John explains his support for some policy by some rationale Mary reasonably rejects, he may have informed Mary of his intentions, he may have paid attention to Mary, but he has not respected her need to accept the coercive policies to which she is subject.

Now a somewhat more explicit rendition of the argument from respect.

(1) John ought to respect Mary's person.

(2) In order for John to respect Mary's person, John must respect Mary's autonomy.

(3) In order for John to respect Mary's autonomy, John ought to justify his actions to Mary.

(4) There is no relevant difference between being unwilling to provide those affected by some coercive policy with reasons to accept that policy and being unwilling to provide those affected by some coercive policy with a rationale that they can reasonably be expected to accept.

(5) Hence, John ought to be willing to provide those affected by some coercive policy with a rationale those affected can reasonably be expected to accept.

Ad (1): I assume that every good citizen in a liberal democracy is committed to respecting her fellow citizens. An argument premised on the claim the we ought to respect others is not an alien imposition on citizens of liberal democracies, but assumes a commitment we can expect citizens to make without argument. Note that (1) requires that citizens respect people, not necessarily beliefs. Although John is free to believe that Mary's beliefs are wrongheaded, superficial, trivial, false, etc., John must recognize that Mary is capable of making use of the information available to her in order to construct some perceptive on the world, and thus should treat her accordingly.

Ad (2): By 'autonomy,' I mean only an agent's capacity to decide for herself which course of action is appropriate, not her capacity to decide independently of outside authorities and the like. That John should respect Mary's autonomy does not require that John regard as particularly important Mary's deciding what to believe independently of external sources of authority or Mary's experimental attitude toward different lifestyles, or Mary's critical detachment from substantive conceptions of the good. Rather, respect for Mary's person, that is, Mary's capacity to form a perspective on the world, requires respect for her capacity to form a perspective on the world on the basis of considerations she finds convincing.

Ad (3): How ought we treat autonomous agents who are affected by our actions? The idea is that there is an internal relation between respecting an agent's autonomy and being willing to provide reasons if I should allow you to make decisions on the basis of considerations you find convincing, then, when my actions affect you, I should explain the reasons for my actions so that you may accept them as I do. Thus, because young children are not autonomous, parents do not have an obligation to provide their children with reasons for coercive commands. When, however, children reach an 'age of accountability,' it is no longer appropriate for parents merely to command their children; commands must be supported by reasons. If we respect our children's capacity to decide how they will live, and not just recognize that they have that capacity, we will explain to them why we coerce them as we do.

Ad (4): (4) is crucial. If (4) were true, then the advocate of restraint would have what she is looking for: respect for autonomy would require John to provide Mary with reasons he reasonably believes Mary reasonably accepts. If, for example, there is no relevant difference between (a) refusing to justify political policies and (b) providing a rationale one knows that others reasonably reject, and if many citizens in modern liberal democracies reasonably reject religious belief, then religious believers disrespect their fellow citizens by supporting public policies on the basis of religious convictions. But why accept the claim that there is no relevant difference?

Note that reasonable belief is agent-relative: it is not uncommon that, in virtue of their differential access to information, training, respected authorities, etc., John will reasonably adhere to p and Mary to not p. Given this, suppose that (a) John supports some coercive policy, (b) p is an essential element in John's rationale for that policy, and (c) John reasonably assents to p and Mary to not p. If John has access to no evidence which he can use to leverage Mary into accepting p, then the only rationale John can offer in support of his policy is one he knows that Mary will reject and reject reasonably. But in that case, John's providing Mary with his rationale is no better than refusing to provide Mary with a rationale at all, at least, in the respect that after having provided his rationale, John knows that Mary is no closer to seeing things John's way than before. Since convincing our interlocutors is the point of providing them with a rationale, there is no relevant difference between providing a rationale we know our interlocutors rationally reject and providing no rationale at all.


This seems to me a powerful argument. But I think that it fails. I show why in two steps. First, I articulate a counter-example to the claim that John's failure to provide reasons for coercive policies convincing to Mary constitutes disrespect for Mary. The counter-example indicates that something is wrong with the argument from autonomy, but does not indicate exactly why the argument fails. In the second step, then, I show why the argument fails. Suppose that a small colony of alien beings is unceremoniously and enduringly dumped on planet earth, so that we must somehow integrate them into our way of life, and in particular, live peaceably with them under common laws of the land. Suppose that those beings don't form beliefs about the physical environment on the basis of sense perception; rather, they acquire information about the physical environment by employing cognitive capacities which, in some important circumstances, provide them with information which conflicts with that accessible via sense perception. Suppose, further, that they are vulnerable to gases which emanate from certain culinary delicacies to which citizens of the USA are greatly attached. Thus, assume that cooking the burgers and fries generates gases which affect the neurophysiological condition of our alien guests, damaging their capacity to engage in reflective thought. Assume finally, that, given our crude and nominally reliable sense perceptual faculties, we are incapable of detecting those gases or of verifying that those gases cause the damage our alien visitors claim that they cause.

No doubt the alien correlate of sense perception is in the same epistemic state in which we find sense perception: they are incapable of providing any non-circular justification of the reliability of their practice. In essential epistemic respects, their perceptual practice mirrors ours precisely: they are committed to the claim that their perceptual practice is reliable, but they cannot provide any non-circular justification of that claim. The question is, would our alien guests disrespect their hosts if, attempting to participate in the political process as good liberal citizens, they advocated restricting when and where humans prepare their burgers and fries thus forcing significant modification of the American institution of the 'cookout.' Supposing that our culinary delicacy is particularly toxic for them, would they disrespect us if they advocated the outright prohibition of our favored food, given that they can provide us with no rationale for that prohibition that we have the slightest reason to accept? (Except, of course, on their say so.) Its hard to believe that they do. That we don't find ourselves in this situation is, of course, beside the moral point: we don't believe that we violate the autonomy of agents to whom the only justification we can provide for some policy is a justification we know that they reasonably reject.

The case of the alien visitors show that something is wrong with the argument from respect. But where, exactly, is the fly in the ointment? It will be helpful to distinguish between the state of being justified and the activity of justifying. To justify a belief, an agent must show that that belief's grounds are adequate, i.e., adduce evidence in support of the claim that that belief's grounds are adequate. To be justified in assenting to some proposition an agent need not show anything: merely seeing a tree, or recalling a past event, or feeling depressed, may reliably indicate the truth of, and thus suffice prima facie to justify, the beliefs to which those mental states gives rise. An agent need be neither able nor willing explicitly to articulate grounds for believing that a justified belief B's grounds are adequate in order for B to be justified; much less need she actually do so.

Now, if I am justified in believing that p, but I can not show that p, do I disrespect you if I nevertheless support coercive legislation on the basis of p? I do not see why. I disrespect you only if it is possible for me to show that p is true but I refuse to go about doing that-say because I'm afraid that under critical scrutiny my argument won't hold up, or because I don't think that you are worthy of my attention. The reason why our alien visitors do not disrespect us is that they are incapable of justifying beliefs which are nevertheless justified-they, like we, reach a certain point when their ability to justify their convictions stops short.

If respect for others does not require that we provide them with a rationale we may reasonably expect them to accept, what does it require? In order to answer that question, consider that there is no inconsistency between (1) an agent's being justified in adhering to some belief B without being able to justify B and (2) B's being amenable of critical scrutiny. Although Mary may not be able to show, to John's satisfaction, that B is true, John may be able to show, to Mary's satisfaction, that B is false. In light of that possibility, I think that John evinces no disrespect for Mary if he has an adequate justification for some policy, if he is willing to identify the grounds for his policy, and if he is willing to subject those grounds to critique. So long as John does his level best to insure that the policy he supports has an adequate rationale, so long as John is willing to explain to why he supports her favored policies, and so long as he is willing to allow Mary to change his mind on the matter, then the fact that he supports some coercive policy on the basis of a rationale Mary reasonably rejects does not constitute disrespect.


I would like now to indicate the implications of this discussion for the role of religious belief in political discourse and deliberation. Many religious believers regard themselves as 'strangers in a strange land,' as aliens subject for a moment to the laws of the land but also beholden to norms they do not share with their fellow citizens. They find themselves in a situation similar in crucial respects to the alien beings mentioned earlier; part and parcel of their alien citizenship is that they rely on non-standard sources of information in determining how they ought to act, sources of information which they are unable to show are reliable, and which yield directives that conflict with firmly held normative convictions to which many of their fellow citizens adhere. Consider in this regard the Christian whose only grounds for believing that abortion is morally wrong is some reading of the Bible, who does not believe that she can show that the Bible is reliable, and who lives in a society the members of which are, by and large, committed to fairly liberal abortion laws. I think that there are more than a few such folks active in politics in our country.

Consistency requires that we expect of religious folks with their non-standard sources of information no more than we expect of the alien visitors discussed above. Thus, we may expect her to do her level best to insure that has read her Bible responsibly, to explain the basis of her support for a ban on abortion, and be open to criticism from those with whom she disagrees. We should not require that she justify her claims to our satisfaction and we should not urge restraint on her when she cannot.

I'm trading heavily on the claim that religious believers are importantly very much like aliens deposited in our midst. But perhaps there are important differences between non-standard religious sources of belief and non-standard secular sources of belief such that we should expect citizens to exercise restraint with respect to the former but not the latter. One might argue that there is a 'dark side' to religion: religious folks are prone to intolerance, dogmatism and bigotry; religious belief is inherently ideological; religious institutions stultify the independent thought necessary for an educated public; appeal to religious sources of truth is divisive and polarizing; etc. In short, religion is too dangerous to allow religious grounds to stand on their own a liberal polity is better off if citizens possess an adequate secular rationale for coercion.

The problem with that argument is that it is guilty of a massive over generalization. I have no doubt that in certain circumstances, reliance on religious grounds is so dangerous to the stability of a liberal political order that all concerned would be better off were religious citizens to exercise restraint. But there is no good reason to deny that, in other circumstances, appeal to religious belief, unaccompanied and unmotivated by a secular rationale, is conducive to the generation or maintenance of a such a social order. If appeal to religious belief generates division, it can also facilitate compassion; if religious folks are dogmatic, they can also be sympathetic; if religion legitimates unjust social orders, it delegitimates them as well; if religious stultifies, it also stimulates. Religion is neither invariably conducive nor diabolically inimical to a just polity. It is, rather, ambiguous: sometimes religious belief improves matters and sometimes it doesn't. But that religious belief is sometimes dangerous doesn't provide us with warrant for concluding that it is invariably dangerous and thus for encoding restraint into the structure of liberalism. In fact, if the issue is, Does the morally conscientious citizen exercise restraint with respect to religious belief?, then it seems clear to me that the answer is that she should exercise 'restraint' with respect to the vices contingently related to religious belief dogmatism, credulity, divisiveness, ideology but not with respect to religious belief itself.


(1) Jeremy Waldron, "Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism," in The Philosophical Quarterly 37 (1987): 128. See also Thomas Nagel, Equality and Partiality, (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 8, 33-40; Gerald Gaus, Value and Justification, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 17 and Justificatory Liberalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 209. Not all liberals require unanimity (or possible unanimity). Stephen Macedo, while indicating that public justifications convincing to all affected is a desirable ideal, recognizes that such consensus is not always achievable in the actual world. "The Politics of Justification," in Political Theory, 18/2 (May 1990): 281, 295f. Not surprisingly, he also forthrightly encourages liberals to assert the superiority of their liberal comprehensive vision when such consensus is not in the offing, e.g., when dealing with advocates of illiberal visions. "The Politics of Justification," p. 289. See also Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, "Moral Conflict and Political Consensus," in Liberalism and the Good, R. Bruce Douglass, Gerald M. Mara, and Henry S. Richardson, eds., (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 1990).

(2) See Charles Larmore, Patterns of Moral Complexity, p. 63.

(3) See Charles Larmore, The Morals of Modernity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 139.

(4) William Alston, A Realist Conception of Truth, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 192.

(5) See William Alston, The Reliability of Sense Perception, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993).

(6) See William Alston, Perceiving God, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 71-2, 85; "Concepts of Epistemic Justification," in Epistemic Justification, p. 154, 166; "Justification and Knowledge," in Epistemic Justification, p. 180; "An Internalist Externalism," in Epistemic Justification, p. 235.

(7) This response to the instrumental argument works only if religious belief is not inextricably entwined with such vices; William Marshall, in "The Other Side of Religion," in Hastings Law Journal, 44 (1993): 854, argues for restraint on some such grounds. I find the case in support of the claim that religious belief in internally connected to anti-liberal vices unconvincing. There just isn't reliable data on the matter, given that the scope of such claims ranges over the subjective states of literally billions of human beings. Such matters can't reasonably be settled by armchair speculation fueled by the theorist's personal experiences with religion and religious folks, particularly when there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary.
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