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A Good Word for Bad Faith

June 15th, 2006 · No Comments

Yglesias registers one of his favorite complaints in reply to a recent Jonah Goldberg column: That the political liberal ideal of “bracketing” religious arguments, or arguments otherwise linked to a particular comprehensive doctrine, is misguided because it just pushes people to offer “bad faith” arguments for their views. Which is funny, because over the course of having some exchanges over abortion in the last few days, I remember telling my girlfriend that I actually found it hugely heartening that where despite the obvious role religion does play in that issue, people on both sides have mostly agreed to conduct it on secular terms. Anyway, first, let me just deal with something Goldberg says:

But once religious views are declared illegitimate — a stance that would have surprised Martin Luther King Jr. — any unwelcome position can be branded “religious” and therefore out of bounds.

MLK invariably comes up in these religion-in-politics arguments, and it seems like an especially inapt example, unless you believe that there are no decent non-religious arguments for recognizing the civil rights of black people. The PL idea isn’t that you’re supposed to eschew any kind of religious language or allegories, or that it’s inappropriate to mobilize people to action in their roles as members of religious communities, or any of that. It’s that you’ve got to be prepared to offer a public justification for your position that someone who doesn’t share your particular religious views could accept. If you also want to note that your position comports with this or that religious injunction, great; it just can’t be your core public argument. And the idea that “any unwelcome position” can be cast as religious is just silly. People disagree about a lot of issues; it’s only a relative few where you find people saying that the justification for some position can only be religious. (I assume that when lefties disparage “free market fundamentalists,” they are not literally making a church-state argument.) In particular, it’s the issues where the purported secular arguments either seem to have a God-shaped hole in them (being secular in virtue only of having had the theological premises removed, with the unfortunate side-effect of rendering them incoherent) or just plain opaque (as with the confidence that gay matrimony will wreck marriage, with the mechanism by which this is supposed to occur left rather vague). Still, so long as the person is making an effort ot offer a secular argument, their underlying motivations ought to be irrelevant. If the public argument is so weak that only a religious commitment can explain why someone’s offering it, pointing out the weakness should do well enough, without taking that next step.

Anyway, as for Matt’s point: Is this really so bad? People make arguments all the time for policies that they have their own private reasons for supporting. The drug war is horrifically expensive, ineffective, disastrous for the inner city populations whose members it disproportionately incarcerates, promotes (as victimless crimes tend to) the erosion of Fourth Amendment safeguards, maintains a source of funding for violent criminal groups and terrorists—and so on, and so on. Now, I’d oppose prohibition even if none of those things were true, because I think it’s morally wrong to dictate what people choose to put in their bodies, even when the choice is a dumb one. And I’m probably more opposed to paternalism than most folk. Am I arguing in “bad faith” when I make those other arguments, which I believe also, just because they’re not the most central or decisive ones for me personally? The people who are most engaged on either side of any public policy dispute are apt to have deep personal reasons to be specially interested in the issue. If that leads them to produce dishonest arguments based on false factual premises (e.g. that whole “abortion causes breast cancer” thing), that’s obviously bad. To the extent that it acts as an impetus to develop the best public arguments and find real evidence for their position, though, we all potentially learn something useful. (Think of markets more generally: We channel my private desire for an X-Box into some kind of publically beneficial work. Well, we would if my career were something more useful than punditry. anyway.)

Anyway, I’m curious what Matt imagines as the more salutary alternative. Would it be better if policy debate turned into an exercise in Biblical exegesis, or if every political dispute came down to an argument over whether God exists and, if so, which set of text represents His policy views? I doubt that would be a system more apt to produce the outcomes Matt likes. And in any event, the whole reason we had developed a norm of bracketing those sorts of arguments is that debates like that proved unwieldy and counterproductive. “Bad faith” sounds like an undesirable thing in itself, but here it’s the tribute vice pays to virtue (or maybe the tribute Virtue pays John Rawls, whatever). Every time someone offers even a disingenuous argument for a position held from religious conviction, they’re tacitly affirming their commitment to a liberal, pluralist order in which we all accept the burden of coexisting with and justifying ourselves to people who don’t share some of our convictions—heathens, even! That is, when you think about it, a pretty stupendous achievement. A little bad faith seems like a small price to pay for it.

Tags: Moral Philosophy