Notes From Babel

Divorcing Morals from Religion

with 25 comments

Though again mired in 14 hour days with little time for reading let alone writing blogs, I came across this post by D.A. Ridgley Ridgely on abortion.  The post seems interesting in that Ridgley Ridgely, a libertarian, takes on a defense of laws limiting abortion.  However, in the preamble to his argument, he includes this ghastly disclaimer:

My third point is that purely religious beliefs and arguments by themselves are insufficient to determine public policy. Which is to say that even if there were a majority or even a supermajority who were convinced on purely religious grounds that abortion was morally wrong (or, for that matter, morally right), imposing that position on those who do not share those underlying religious believes would be immoral. If by some bizarre quirk of fate Pastafarians should someday become the religious majority in American, their belief that the Flying Spaghetti Monster says that abortions are okey-dokey is no more a sufficient ground to make (or keep) abortions legal than a majority of Festivus celebrators’, um, beliefs would suffice to erect an aluminum pole on public property for the ritual airing of grievances.

This brand of profound nonsense is becoming more and more prevalent among contemporary hyper-secularists.  Ridgely assumes here that some morals may be used as a basis for legislation, just not religion-based morals.  What is the implication here?  That morals based on well-established, deeply ingrained belief systems are not permissible, while morals based on “moods” or shallow, fleeting, loose-knit, pseudo-intellectual models are?  Why should religion be disqualified as a source of “legitimate” morality?  Because its adherents take their belief systems seriously?  Because it is part of their culture?  Because they believe morals are tightly knit with their view of man’s relationship to the world and those who share it with him?  Can this possibly form the basis for barring their views from the political system?

Enough.  Here’s Richard Weaver on the matter:

That it does not matter what a man believes is a statement heard on every side today.  The statement carries a fearful implication.  If a man is a philosopher in the sense with which we started, what he believes tells him what the world is for.  How can men who disagree about what the world is for agree about any of the minutiae of daily conduct?  The statement really means that it does not matter what a man believes so long as he does not take his beliefs seriously.  Anyone can observe that this is the status to which religious belief has been reduced for many years.  But suppose he does take his beliefs seriously?  Then what he believes places a stamp upon his experience, and he belongs to a culture, which is a league founded on exclusive principles. To become eligible, one must be able to say the right words about the right things, which signifies in turn that one must be a man of correct sentiments.  This phrase, so dear to the eighteenth century, carries us back to the last age that saw sentiment and reason in a proper partnership.

Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences 23 (Univ. Chicago Press 1948).


Written by Tim Kowal

October 13, 2010 at 9:27 pm

25 Responses

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  1. I don’t so much mind that you misunderstand the point as that you spelled my name incorrectly at least twice.

    D.A. Ridgely

    October 13, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    • Indeed I did. Should have noticed there were too many consonants in a row there. It has been remedied.

      Tim Kowal

      October 13, 2010 at 9:44 pm

  2. Is any religion OK in determining morality, and then enacting it into law, Mr. Kowal?

    Mark Boggs

    October 14, 2010 at 7:05 am

    • Morals reflecting my own views and those of my religion are preferable, of course. But one must be neutral toward religion in permitting others’ their own views, so long as they can achieve political traction. If a religious group obtains the majority, then the minority could not deny it the right to promulgate its views simply on the basis that the majority’s views have a religious origin.

      Tim Kowal

      October 14, 2010 at 7:10 am

  3. So you’re comfortable with a Muslim majority enacting laws based on their religious morality?

    Mark Boggs

    October 14, 2010 at 8:31 am

    • I’m certainly not comfortable with the thought of a Muslim majority. But once it’s come to that, there is only so much the minority can rightfully insist upon. I touch on this a bit more in this post.

      Tim Kowal

      October 14, 2010 at 8:38 am

  4. My, my. I don’t think I’ve read anything in a long time which left me as undecided as I am about these two articles. I feel as though they’re both strong arguments. As a result, I must admit that I agree with both of them, as well as with your personal indignation, which I feel is appropriate.

    I feel Mr. Ridgely’s indignation is appropriate, likewise, and more than somewhat amusing, ha-ha!



    October 14, 2010 at 10:26 am

  5. And you aren’t comfortable, I assume, because you don’t care to have laws passed based solely(and this is what I think DA Ridgely meant) on religious grounds that you do not yourself believe?

    Mark Boggs

    October 14, 2010 at 10:38 am

    • I’m happy to talk about what does or does not make me “comfortable,” but this has no bearing on what is permissible in the context of legal or political theory. And I assumed Ridgely was talking in this kind of broader sense rather than the merely personal.

      Tim Kowal

      October 14, 2010 at 10:43 am

  6. And my only point was that I find people extremely willing to allow religion and its morality to dictate policy so long as it is their own. The rub always comes when it is someone else’s differing and often conflicting religious ideals and sensibilities that dictate policy and law. This is why I take DA Ridgely to mean that these sensibilities should not be the sole basis by which laws or policy are set, regardless the majority position.

    Mark Boggs

    October 14, 2010 at 11:13 am

    • I can never tell when libertarians are expressing a personal ideology, or a political ideology. So, are you saying that your personal habit is not to espouse moral views when it comes to the law? Or that the law should forbid such views? Or, that the law does already forbid such views?

      Tim Kowal

      October 14, 2010 at 11:16 am

  7. The expressions of moral views is not what concerns me. The idea that we might find it acceptable to make laws based solely on religious ideals is what concerns me. That’s what I took D.A.’s point to be in his belief that these cannot be the SOLE basis for policy. For instance, you may be morally opposed to eating pork based on your religious ideals. Should we legislate against it if it happens to be the majority position?

    Mark Boggs

    October 14, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    • I still see no reason why morals divorced from religion are better than morals deriving from religion. So, to answer your question, I would at least be no more opposed to a prohibition on pork enacted by a majority composed of Jews than a majority composed of the international-nondenominational-coalition-for-pig-rights.

      Tim Kowal

      October 14, 2010 at 5:18 pm

  8. Greetings, Tim! Great to see you back at One Best Way–nice to not be the lone conservative sacrificial lamb. It was my understanding that partial birth abortion was no longer legal as of 2003–later to be upheld by SCOTUS in 2007. Now I’ve read that the ban if a fraud because of a provision slipped in that gives the mother an exemption based on her general health, mental health included. HUH? And guess what–not once has it ever been enforced! So thousands of partial birth abortions are still being performed. Nuts.
    Wondering if you have info on this. Thanks. H


    October 14, 2010 at 5:36 pm

  9. Forgot to mention, Tim—your comment has veen deleted from One Best Way. Would you mind if I posted again?


    October 14, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    • Please feel free. I was hoping to join the conversation there, but have been just taken over with other things. Though, if they engage in comment pruning there, that’s a bit of a chilling effect on participation.

      Tim Kowal

      October 14, 2010 at 5:47 pm

      • Shall do. So, this is definitely not a case of you accidentally deleting your own comments. Just outrageous–comment pruning at a libertarian blog! It could only be DAR or maybe JHanley, though I doubt he would do it.


        October 14, 2010 at 5:53 pm

      • Please do not be chilled out of participation at OBW, Tim—we NEED you! If they keep deleting any of your comments, I’ll keep reposting them-promise.


        October 14, 2010 at 6:09 pm

        • I’m sure it was nothing invidious. In fact, I think the only “comment” I know of to the abortion post was probably just a link to this post that automatically generated at their site in the first place.

          Tim Kowal

          October 14, 2010 at 6:12 pm

  10. I never claimed that morals must be divorced from religion. I do contend that laws enacted solely on the basis of a majority’s religious sentiment seem to conflict with the idea of everyone else’s (religious or non-religious) freedom. For instance laws that ban liquor sales on Sunday. Why? Or laws that say car dealerships can’t be open on Sundays. Why? For what practical reason would we ban these things on Sunday but not the other six days of the week?

    Mark Boggs

    October 14, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    • Yes, they do inhibit others’ freedom, in a manner of speaking. My question is, what of it? Should we enact a constitutional amendment? Draw new rights from the unwritten constitution? To libertarians’ chagrin, we do not have a libertarian constitution. and I say, nor should we. We ought to be able to enact laws that reflect our values.

      Tim Kowal

      October 14, 2010 at 5:54 pm

  11. To the detriment or infringement of liberty for the minority, I suppose. Or at least until it’s your ox being gored.

    Mark Boggs

    October 14, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    • Yet, it cannot be seriously doubted that even the minority believes the majority has a right to effect certain choices and values upon them. Those are the spoils of being the majority, after all, and even a minority can imagine that, on those issues in which he is with the majority, he desires his choices and values to have effect. The only question is, have we sufficiently safeguarded those certain rights that are so sensitive and inviolable that the continued survival of the state would be threatened were the majority to disrupt them? If we have, as I largely believe we have (with the exception of economic and property rights), libertarianism seems like quite a lot of noise.

      By the way, Mark, thank you for your comments. They have been interesting.

      Tim Kowal

      October 14, 2010 at 8:00 pm

  12. And this sort of devolves back into the back and forth that we all had on one of Hanley’s gay marriage threads in that you seem to use as your threshold of allowance of a right those things which, if denied, might threaten survival of the State, which someone (I can’t recall exactly who now) argued was not necessarily applicable given the duration of slavery and then the Jim Crow remnants of Reconstruction all the way to the mid-60’s. The State survived quite well during all that, despite the writhing of the oppressed minority. So to say that, unless the denial of some right threatens the survival of the State, it should be fair game to deny rights to others based on majority whims seems to be almost whimsical in it’s arbitrariness (if that’s a word). I would argue that the only time you can deny a right is if it threatens the survival of the State. And at that point it would have to be a demonstrable harm that is being done, not just some offense to one’s sensibilities.

    And help me out here because I know I use sentences and terms in ways I understand but might leave others thinking I’m absolutely batty, but it sounds like you’re saying that a denial of certain rights that are unessential to the survival of the State is allowable if the majority deems it to be of value to them, while I’m arguing that no right should be denied no matter the majority unless it can be absolutely shown to be destructive to the survival of the State (and this obviously includes the maxim that the rights to swing fists ends at everybody else’s noses).

    Am I close or do I misrepresent your position?

    And to me, this why I have a hard time hearing folks, especially people like Gingrich or Tony Perkins, wax rhapsodic about freedom and liberty when they see the limiting of certain people’s rights as not just appropriate but essential in the quest for Freedom and Liberty. They don’t use those words with the same meanings I guess I think they have.

    Mark Boggs

    October 14, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    • I think you’ve got the basic idea of the difference between originalist conservatives and libertarians. The words “freedom” and “liberty” are used more like symbols than anything else. But it must be remembered that, in the so-called “state of nature,” we all would have perfect freedom. We give up some freedom to have the benefits of a state. I simply believe that the amount of the freedom that we must necessarily give up to create a workable, sustainable state is more than just the freedom to pick pockets and break legs.

      Tim Kowal

      October 14, 2010 at 9:01 pm

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