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Stanley Fish, writing in the New York Times, describes the way various traditions understand the “role of religion and public life.” He begins by pointing out that “Classical Liberalism,” not to be confused with a leftist political philosophy, “is that policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations.” Their reasoning goes like this:
“[I]t’s O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation will benefit the economy, or improve the nation’s health, or strengthen national security; but it’s not O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation should be passed because it comports with a verse from the book of Genesis or corresponds to the will of God.”
So what is the basis for law? What constitutes “all citizens”? There is no way that “all citizens” are ever going to agree on anything. Ultimately, where does morality find its justification, its jurisdictional legitimacy? Every person approaches an ethical norm with a prior commitment to some fundamental interpretive principle. No one is commitmentless. No one approaches anything in a neutral way. There is no agreed upon definition of reason or what’s reasonable. Even the Enlightenment skeptics acknowledged that “reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question about God, morality, or the meaning of life.”
Fish offers what he describes as a “more severe version of the argument”:
[O]n the other hand, you are not supposed even to have religious thoughts when reflecting on the wisdom or folly of a piece of policy. Not only should you act secularly when you enter the public sphere; you should also think secularly.
So if a person believes that abortion is wrong because God has created us in His image, and killing a human being at any stage of life is an affront to His character, then just to have these thoughts disqualifies that person from entering the debate. Such a position would have disqualified those who signed the Declaration of Independence because they believed that God is the “Judge of the World” and the Creator who endowed us with “life.” What is the basis for morality given material-only assumptions about reality? This approach is a dead-end. R.C. Sproul writes that “God’s existence is the chief element in constructing any worldview. To deny this chief premise is to set one’s sails for the island of nihilism. This is the darkest continent of the darkened mind—the ultimate paradise of the fool.”
A third “somewhat less stringent version of the argument permits religious reasons to be voiced in contexts of public decision-making so long as they have a secular counterpart: thus, citing the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments is all right because there is a secular version of the prohibition rooted in the law of property rights rather than in a biblical command.” But what is the source of this “secular counterpart”? Where is “the law of property rights” found? Political systems like Communism don’t recognize a “law of property rights.” Even Classical Liberals, many of whom are atheists, can’t account for the ultimate legitimacy for property rights.
The more honest secularists are coming to realize that their reason-only, matter oriented worldview cannot account for what they claim is natural and reasonable. Steven Smith attempts to offer a solution in his book The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. “It is not, Smith tells us, that secular reason can’t do the job (of identifying ultimate meanings and values) we need religion to do; it’s worse; secular reason can’t do its own self-assigned job—of describing the world in ways that allow us to move forward in our projects—without importing, but not acknowledging, the very perspectives it pushes away in disdain.” Smith’s solution is “by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to.” What are some of these notions? “[N]otions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or a providential design.” The reason these principles must be smuggled in is because they have been “banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation.”
Fish’s conclusion is fitting: “Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation—secular reasons—and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.” Arthur Leff argued in a similar way when he concluded his article “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law” with these words: “All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. . . . As things now stand, everything is up for grabs. . . . There is in the world such a thing as evil. [All together now:] Sez who? God help us.”
Stanley Fish, “Are There Secular Reasons?,” The New York Times (February 22, 2010).
Quoted in Aubrey Neal, How Skeptics do Ethics: A Brief History of the Late Modern Linguistic Turn” (Calgary, Alberta, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2007), 157
R. C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts That Shaped Our World
See the following articles by Bojidar Marinov: “Classical Liberalism has no Place to Stand” and “The Only Possible Defense of Private Property.”
Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal, 1979:6 [December 1979], 1229–1249. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), 171.