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Thursday, April 10, 2008

 
The Secular Conscience

by tristero

I urge you to pick up a copy of The Secular Conscience by philosopher Austin Dacey (he serves as UN representative for the Center for Skeptical Inquiry, is an editor at Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer and a personal friend). It is a fascinating and provocative book that, among other things, fills in an important gap in the reasoning behind the resurgence of progressivism: a philosophical justification for a non-deist morality. We liberals act as if this is self-evident but it is not. Dacey argues from first principles for the primacy of a "secular conscience" - ie, that a secular moral sense underlies all moral systems, including religious ones. Furthermore, Dacey calls upon liberals to exercise this secular conscience by speaking out, in an unambiguously moral voice, on important issues of the day. Along the way, Dacey discusses notions of objectivity, relativism, and other philosophical conundrums (conundra?) in an original and elegant way. His book is quite readable and, as all books on important topics should be, both illuminating and provocative.

In order to introduce his book to readers of this blog, I asked Austin four questions about the ideas and opinions in his book and he kindly responded. As you will see, we often agree but in several important ways we also strongly disagree. Since both the questions, and Dacey's answers, are long, I'll spread them out over a few posts. I will add some comments and invite Austin to have the "last word." Except for your comments, of course. I think you will find much food for thought in what Dacey has to say...

My first question was intended provide an introduction to one main overarching idea in the book:
TRISTERO: Your book has, as I read it, two main themes. The first is an argument, from basic principles, of the centrality of a secular conscience in all moral discourse. Please summarize the logic by which a religious conscience presupposes a secular conscience and what you mean by terms like "open," "private," and, in particular, "objective" when used in this context.

DACEY: By conscience I mean our reflective judgment about what we have most reason to think or do, all things considered. As such, conscience cannot be based in a duty to God, for it is conscience that must tell us where our duty lies. This is the lesson of the great Platonic dialogue, the Euthyphro, which stands to Western ethical thought as the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac stands to the Abrahamic faiths.Interrogating Euthyphro's definition of the righteous or holy as "that which is loved by the gods," Socrates asks: Is it holy because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love it because it is holy? No matter which horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma one takes, the ox of religion-based morality gets gored: If holiness is just whatever the gods love, then the gods' evaluation appears arbitrary or subjective. If, on the other hand, holiness is loved because it is holy, then the gods' evaluation appears superfluous--any reasons for recognizing what's righteous must be god-independent.

Christopher Hitchens has challenged religious believers to name a single moral action performed by a believer that could not have been performed by a nonbeliever. I want to go further and say that if the religious have any good reasons for acting morally, then those reasons are equally open to the nonreligious. Unless there is such a thing as secular moral
conscience, there can be no such thing as religious moral conscience.

In The Secular Conscience I argue that questions of conscience are open and not private--contrary to the slogan of contemporary secular liberalism. By this I mean that the workings of my conscience necessarily are susceptible to examination by others in light of objective standards, where something is objective when it is settled by the way the world is, and not merely by our attitudes. In religion and ethics, conscience is also open to revision, thank goodness.
Austin and I agree about most of this, including the importance of defining a secular conscience, the basic logic by which a religious conscience presupposes a secular one, and the importance of addressing morally serious issues (say, abortion, the Bush/Iraq war, stem cell research, and censorship) in moral terms.

Where we disagree is whether privacy of conscience is "a slogan of contemporary secular liberalism." It is true that liberals often argue for privacy - the gender of a person's bedpartner is no employer's business when it comes to benefits, for example. It is also true that we often frame arguments operationally - it's common to hear not that the death penalty is intrinsically immoral, but rather that it fails to deter.

However, it is also true that liberals make many moral arguments. Among the objections voiced to the Bush/Iraq war was the moral one: the US simply has no right to invade a country that has never threatened us. But Dacey has a point. While Bush's violation of the international order was one of the most compelling arguments not to invade (if not the single most imposrtant), it was rarely articulated in a forceful manner, let alone defended when criticized. Liberals too often cede the ethical high ground by default, implicitly acknowledging that the moral position may be easily trumped by bogus utilitarian concerns. The argument "well, an invasion of Iraq doesn't have a chance in hell of succeeding" implicitly acknowledges that the
moral argument may not matter too much if the US did, in fact, have a chance to succeed. From there, it's an easy step to Kanan Makiya's infamous formulation that if there is a 10% chance of success, the US should put "hope before experience."

So yes, liberals can - and must - be much more aggressive in defining the ethical dimensions of (some) civil and governmental issues. And we need to be very aggressive in defending those moral principles when attacked, refusing to retreat to often less convincing arguments from utility. Neither Austin nor I are saying that Bush/Iraq could have been prevented had liberals better articulated the moral objections.* Rather the issue is to make the principles of the liberal conscience (what Dacey calls "secular") more a part of the mainstream culture - as they often were prior to the ascension of the neocons and the christianists. By doing so, truly deranged notions like "preventive war" will no longer seem as thinkable to mainstream leaders. By contrast, not doing so provides crackpot moral ideas a free reign to create havoc.

*[UPDATE: Anyone familiar with my blogging knows that I fault not only the Bush administration and its cronies for the Bush/Iraq catastrophe, but also their enablers among the mainstream media and the liberal hawks. ]