Religious Arguments, Non-Religious Arguments and Public Reason: the Special Case of Transitional Societies

Jul 06

My friend Andrew March recently published an interesting article on the use of religious arguments for public justification and their relationship to public reason.   The article is well-worth reading in its entirety for its interesting taxonomy of the different kinds of religious arguments that might be presented in political life, and crucially, how such arguments interact with different registers of political concern.  In short March argues that a much more sophisticated approach to religious argument and its relationship to a civic life in a politically liberal state is required that goes beyond the binary choice of either never admitting the legitimacy of religious arguments or always admitting them.

The article is well-worth reading in its entirety for anyone with interest in the use of religious arguments in the public sphere in liberal democracies.  March also makes an interesting observation, however, about the use of religious arguments in the particular circumstances of transitional societies, societies which are struggling to expand the coverage of the social contract to include others not previously included in its terms.  It is in those circumstances where religious arguments may be most forcefully needed for the advancement of justice.  He writes the following:

“There are powerful reasons why those attracted to the ideal of public justification should not regard religious interventions in disputes about what we owe those outside the social contract as a priori uncivil. First, the terms of public reason are best suited to routine, nonexceptional problems of collective self- governance in already well-ordered societies. In societies with strong commitments to civil and human rights, including rights to personal expression and privacy, those capable of representing themselves within the social contract will likely not have to establish themselves as subjects of rights. Religious and other metaphysical arguments, or appeals to affect, to extend considerations of justice to them will thus be superfluous, and religious attempts to export sectarian ethical standards into the common system of rights will be unwelcome.”

“However, political communities never expand their sphere of moral concern without a struggle. Even domestically, contrary to Rawls’s view that the constraints of public reason apply only, or with particular force, when communities seek to justify constitutional essentials and the basic principles of justice (Rawls 1996; in response: Quong 2004), it seems that it is precisely at these moments of founding and refounding within a polity, when obligations of justice are extended to previously excluded groups, that religious, philosophical, and extrarational modes of persuasion are most urgently needed [emphasis added]. The challenge of extending moral concern to outsiders, who are not only excluded from official political institutions but are unable even to engage in extraconstitutional political struggles within the public sphere of the polity in question, is that much greater. Political particularism (i.e., nationalism) has a morally constraining quality. Outsiders are easily seen as enemies, competitors, or strangers and their interests are easily dismissed or disdained. . . .  How to bridge this gap between the fact of moral obligation to others and the morally cramping powers of nationalism? This is not a question for political philosophy, but for political psychology. Our moral concern, defined as an uncoerced willingness to sacrifice any of our own interests for the interests of others, is contracted and expanded in a variety of ways, most of them nonrational. Religious argument and persuasion include both rational and nonrational processes of moral growth.”

Many observers of Egypt, both within and without, have concluded that the lesson of June 30 is that religion must be categorically excluded from political life in order for Egypt to progress.  But March here points to a paradox: in societies such as Egypt, which are very far from being well-ordered in a liberal sense, and much of even the nominal citizenry are not regarded, much less effectively treated, as free and equal persons, what moral resources are available for the effective expansion of the social contract other than religion?  For those Egyptians who claim to desire a liberal democracy, yet wish to exclude religion as a source of political morality, my question to them is what moral resources will they draw upon so that that Egyptian state does not feel entitled to violate the rights of Egyptians systematically, all in the name of its own preservation, which is really nothing other than a euphemism for the protection of the networks of patronage that benefit from that state?

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