Reason, Experience and Religion in the Moral Basis of Liberal Democracy

Despite the title, this post is actually not a continuation of my debate with Dan about the rationality of elite institutions. I’m sure you’re devastated!

Two web articles that appeared on the same day last week offer two different answers to a very important question. Stipulate that the basis of liberal democracy is that every human individual has a claim to moral significance, and therefore a right to be treated in a certain way, that is not dependent upon anything other than his status as a human individual. The question: How do we know this?

The question matters for at least two major reasons. How we know we have rights will define the parameters of our rights. And it will also be critical to shaping our social strategies for upholding our rights – including how we build moral consensus.

In one article, Hadley Arkes argues that the concept of “freedom of religion” (a central concern of ours here at HT) has actually become something of a threat to our rights. The only sound basis for knowing our rights, Arkes argues, is reason; yet “religion” and “belief” are asserted as grounds of rights apart from any consideration of their reasonableness:

 If the bishops pronounce the law to be “unjust,” not merely counter to beliefsearnestly held by Catholics, but unjust according to reasons understandable to others across the religious divide—then the problem is transformed: The bishops are using the language that ordinary citizens will use as they deliberate and argue together in the public forum. And yet, if that is the case, the bishops would stand on no different plane from that of other citizens who have argued in public on serious questions of right and wrong—and lost.

Imagine, in that respect, the owner of a business who has no particular religious reflexes, and through the force of his own moral reasoning he has come to bear reservations about the sexual revolution and the contraceptive ethic. He does not wish to endorse that ethic by paying for the contraceptives used by his employees, especially when they can amply afford them already. If he raises a claim of “conscience” against the new mandates on Obamacare, would he complain that he was being denied his “religious freedom?” It is curious that this late in the seasons of our experience the point has not broken through that the two claims may be at odds: We cannot insist on the one hand that our judgments on law and public policy are formed of moral reasoning and the Natural Law, and yet claim on the other that when the law runs counter to our moral judgments we have suffered a denial of our “religious freedom.”

Arkes makes a good point that we must not give up the role of reason in justifying our rights, and that we are in danger of doing this if we absolutize “religion” simply as such as the basis of our rights claims. Rights of conscience only make sense within “the recognition that conscience is not directed inward to the self and one’s feelings, but outward to the natural law.” We must build upon a common moral ground available to all, both for philosophical reasons (because right and wrong cannot be what they are on any other terms) and sociological reasons (because without a common ground we can’t sustain society).

By the way, I take the final sentence of the passage I have quoted above to be somewhat ironic. I think Arkes is not really saying we must make an absolute choice between rights claims grounded in reason and rights claims grounded in religion in any sense; rather, he is saying we must make an absolute choice between rights claims grounded in reason and rights claims grounded in an absolutized deference to religious belief. Hence the scare quotes around “religious freedom” at the end.

I agree we need a common ground, and reason is important to that. But is reason the only element of that common ground, as Arkes (characteristically) presupposes?

On the same day Arkes’ article came out, Peter Berger offered a meditation on the advances of liberal democracy in the 20th century in which he argued for the primacy of experience over theoretical propositions.

The most memorable part of Berger’s article is actually not the argument for experience over reason, but his delightful way of summarizing the essence of liberal democracy:

Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who died in year 10 of the Common Era, was famously asked whether one could state the meaning of Torah while standing on one leg. He replied yes, then formulated the first version of the Golden Rule, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another”….Hillel added: “This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary”.  A couple of years ago I participated in a conference in Berlin on the question of “European values” – which of course are no longer just European, but are global values of liberal democracy. I referred to the Hillel anecdote, then suggested that one could also state the meaning of “European values” while standing on one leg. One could simply quote the first sentence of Article 1 of the constitution of the Federal Republic: “The dignity of man is inviolable” (“Die Wuerde des Menschen ist unantastbar”). The rest indeed is commentary, but this is what it is all about. [ea]

I love that! And who better to play the Hillel of our age than Berger?

Berger goes on to argue that the basis of our moral commitment to the dignity of man is experience, not theory:

It is also important to understand that these values are not just theoretical propositions, but the result of lived experience. Of course there are elaborate theories about the values of liberal democracy. But these theories are grounded in actual human experience, including the experience of people who are not theorists (the great majority) and perhaps have never read a book. At the core of this experience is a perceptionof man as, precisely, the bearer of an inviolable dignity. Put differently, anthropology precedes ethics.

One of my favorite examples of this is from American literature, in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: Huck is sailing on the Mississippi when an escaped slave climbs aboard his raft. Huck is a child of the Old South, socialized in its ethics, which tells him that he ought to return the slave to his rightful owner. He cannot bring himself to do this. Why? Huck has not been the target of abolitionist propaganda, has not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin let alone any philosophical treatise on the rights of man. Rather, he suddenly perceives his passenger as a human being with intrinsic dignity and the right to be free. This is what in classical Greek drama was called an anagnorisis, a “recognition scene”. This is not a theory, but an experience. It can be mediated by theory and legitimated by theory after the fact. But the experience is primal.

The article culminates in the claim that because our moral commitment to human dignity is ultimately grounded in experience, not theory, it is detachable from its historic “mediation” in Christian theology, Greco-Roman philosophy and other sources, and transferrable to those of other beliefs, including athiests. As Berger puts it, in Europe a unique confluence of factors surfaced the moral commitment to human dignity, but now, having been surfaced, that commitment is “universally available.”

In spite of their disagreement, it’s noteworthy that Arkes and Berger agree – and pretty strongly – on the importance of buiding on a moral common ground that is available to all humanity. Arkes calls it “reason” and Berger calls it “experience.” That disagreement embodies a large debate over anthropology. Are human beings more fundamentally rational or more fundamentally instinctual?

Do we need to make a choice? Not necessarily – it’s possible to avoid both the Kantian tendency to privilege reason and the sociologist’s tendency to privilege experience. This is part of what attracts me to Locke’s epistemology, in spite of its shortcomings on some important points. Despite what two generations of college professors have said, Locke doesn’t actually privilege experience over reason, but strives to take both seriously as grounds of knowledge. (As I said, he strives. On some points he doesn’t quite succeed.)

But here’s a deeper question. How can we take equally seriously the role of religion itself as a formative anthropological influence? I don’t mean to set up “religion” as something separate from either “reason” or “experience” because both reason and experience are part of the package we call “religion.” Yet the same can be said in reverse – to a large extent our reasoning and experience are mediated by religion rather than the other way around. (Notice how all the classic epistemologists spend so much time wrestling with the knowledge of God; there’s a reason.)

I think this acknowledgement is necessary to the deeper “freedom of religion” we’re striving for here on HT. There are limits to the extent to which the moral premises of social life can ever be shared, as long as we don’t share a religion. We must build on common ground, but the common ground itself can’t be too extensive. Otherwise we either fail to take seriously that the human being is a religious creature, or else fail to take seriously how deep our religious differences run.

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