As host to Carnival, I do not intend to do much blogging this week.
However, I do want to remark on an argument advanced by Prof. Volokh. (Here and here.) The gist is that it is a confusion (at best) to argue tha it is wrong for the religious to attempt to impose their religious values through legislation, because moral values all end up as assumptions and there is no reaonsable basis for sorting them. Volokh lays it out in more detail and with a bit more care, but the central argument is there. It is wrong, and pretty clearly wrong. Volokh trades on ambiguity in the notion of reasonable. His line requires that in the absence of proof to certainty, assumptions are on par with each other. There are a host of things wrong with this sort of thinking. First of all, there is no need to insist on certainty, and no reason to think of certainty in this context as a standard of deductive proof. Second, there is no genuine distinction on the sort of standard Volokh is using. Deductive proofs are based on asumptions of various kinds, which cannot themselves be proven within the same system. Third, there is a great difference between a value argument founded on publicly shared values and one founded on revelation. The complaint within the poltiical sphere turns on the nature or the political association. Volokh seems to presume that the political association is bare majoritarianism. That is a mistake. It is doubtfula political community could survive on such a basis, and it is reaosnably clear that the US is not such a polity even if one were possible (or should I say practicable?). Fourth, the notion that values are indistinguishable, which is what V's position ends up, is very hard to make sense of, for a variety of reaosns related to the nature of the expressions used and the nature of the values. (He could, however, simply deny that anyting was going on, but then his libertarianism would be pointless) . I will try to develop this in reasonable detail later in the week.
Here is the key to Volokh’s argument:
There's no purely reasonable answer to that; at some point, it comes to down to a moral axiom, such as "people shouldn't be allowed to pointlessly inflict pain, even on animals" or "people should be free to do whatever they please with their property." And if you think this claim isn't an axiom, but can be defended reasonably through some other principle, that just means there's some other moral axiom lurking in the background.
Let’s take it in pieces. What this paragraph responds to is the claim that public morality should be based on reasonable argument, i.e., values reasonably defensible. Volokh answers that there is no ‘reasonable answer’ because every answer in the end, ultimately, ends up at a moral axiom. I think by ‘axiom’ what is meant is that there is some basis not itself subject to proof, but I am not sure. Axiom is an odd choice of terminology here. It is not an axiom in the normal sense to believe that pain is disfavored and presumptively wrong. For one thing, there is a vast amount of evidence supporting this idea, so it is not unsupported. For another thing, there is no proper deduction at issue. I am not trying to present a (logically) valid argument to a conclusion. (Spinoza’s Ethics is not the usual model of moral philosophy or of political argument.) Note also that there has been a shift in argument standard with the introduction of axioms. The original problem called for consideration of reasonable belief. That is not a call for deductive proof or derivation. Calling for reasonable argument is rather different, and asks for such things as considered evidence, relevant within the context, for values or beliefs which can be connected in a relatively straightforward fashion to the available evidence, etc. There is no doubt that the category ‘reasonable” is vague, but it is not for that unworkable.
Volokh also suggests that the criticism of religious beliefs fails because there must come an end to inquiry in moral and political discourse at some point. Well, certainly there must come an end, but in everything. There is no ineluctable epistemology laying around, applicable to human endeavor other than value theory. The standard is unworkable – it fails science, it fails mathematics. The whole line of argument ends up in emotivism.
“Of course, these assertions [re values] may be supportable, though not provable -- one can come up with plausible arguments that might influence people to accept one or another (for instance, "dogs can feel pain and emotions just like humans do, it's bad to needlessly inflict pain on humans, and it's therefore bad to needlessly inflict pain on dogs"). But these are appeals to intuition, aesthetics, and emotion. They aren't reasoned proof.”
This does not work either. If reasoned proof is deductive argument, then it is relatively easy to get to the conclusions once premises are set. If the idea is that the premises are subject to revision or subject to argument, the proper response is: So what? That is always true. It may be that there is nothing but emotions and aesthetics (how did aesthetics show up in this list? Isn’t it just a version of emotions here? And, while we have paused, what is meant by emotions in this context? Does Volokh really mean just affect/disaffect? Emotions, after all, entail cognitive content.), but this is not the road to showing that.
“So we are certainly free to say that certain arguments, whether arguments from the text of the Bible, arguments from the perceived will of God as expressed in the way the world works, arguments from church teachings, or what have you, are unpersuasive. And then if someone uses those arguments to support a law that we think is immoral, we can criticize him on the grounds that the arguments are unpersuasive and yield immoral results.”
This is incoherent given the preceding arguments Volokh has advanced. There can’t be immoral results in any robust sense of ‘immoral’, any more than there is any sense to ‘persuasive’ here. On Volokh’s account, persuasive can’t really exist. Instead, there is only ‘looks nice to me or not.’ Alternatively, the argument concedes exactly what is at issue, namely that there are terms or conditions on political argument, and hence some standards. That is, if ‘persuasive’ has content, then it is not just ‘strikes a pleasant feeling in me’ and so there are good and bad arguments.
The entire line of argument seems not to get off the ground. I think this is because Volokh is not really understanding what the complaint about religion in politics is. The point is not, at least as I understand it, that there I something wrong with people acting on moral beliefs, whether based in religion or not. The complaint is about whether it is appropriate to consider political action based on exclusively religious reasons. If the objection to X is that it is condemned by God, that is not an appropriate argument for political action because it is not a reason at all for those outside the religion. That the Bible says, is of no importance unless one thinks the Bible is a Bible. But the political community is not founded on acceptance of the Bible. It is founded on other, essentially secular, grounds. When the religious have nothing to offer but the revelation, they are not engaged in legitimate political conduct. But that hardly bars from political action, or legitimate political action. It merely requires (or counsels) that the political argument be couched in terms of values that part of the public political community. This is not a disadvantage to the religious because those terms of debate are fully open to them.
So, in terms of M.L. King, he is of political significance because he did not argue solely in terms of his religion. Abolition may have been grounded in religious beliefs, but the arguments we need to consider go beyond (in the limited sense of addressing other value sources), and do not rest with some purported revelation. Thus, the underlying complaint is that the religious arguing from their religious beliefs alone is disrespectful to the rest of the political community. The debate should not be about the nature of value theory or about moral epistemology.