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Saving Souls Vs Not Offending God

One common argument offered to believers in defense of a strong separation of church and state runs something like this: true adherence to religion can come only from persuasion, or from the believer's decision to take a leap of faith. Thus a state-imposed religion would be useless at best, since an atheist going through the motions of going to church would still not go to heaven. Indeed, it may be counterproductive by creating cynicism about religion. I'll call this the sincerity argument.

The sincerity argument is powerful, because it's able to concede both that there is One True Faith, and that we can trust that the religion imposed by the state is the OTF, and yet still conclude that separation of church and state is correct. (Contrast this with the skeptical argument, which is based on a measure of doubt about the existence or identification of the OTF, or the political argument, which is based on a lack of trust that the state will pick the OTF to impose.) However, the sincerity argument relies on two important, and questionable, assumptions about the nature of the religion that the hearer believes is the OTF. Commonly noted is the fact that not all religions believe that only sincere faith counts or that coercion is unable to produce sincere faith. Less noted is the sincerity argument's assumption that the point of government imposition of religion is to save citizens' souls.

The soul-saving assumption flies easily under our radar because we tend to believe, in the modern era, that the only justification for (domestic) policy is the benefit of the citizens, protecting them against each other and (more controversially) against themselves. The corresponding point of religion is to secure the wellbeing of individual believers and potential believers. Thus religion policy should be judged, from the point of view of a believer, by how well it saves souls. However, the eternal fate of the believer is not the only possible goal of religion.

An alternate view is that the government should impose religion in order to avoid offending God. Imposition of religion is thus for God's benefit, not for the imposed-upon person's. It is far more plausible that forced, insincere religious observance is adequate, or at least useful, for avoiding offense to God, than that such observance is useful for saving souls. Sincere belief may still be the highest good, but God would rather have a chaste and church-attending atheist than one who indulges in sodomy on Sunday mornings (assuming that conservative Christians are right about which particular behaviors offend God). Saving souls is consistent with the modern-liberal idea of human society as an arrangement among members of Homo economicus (a Market Pricing view of religion, to use Alan Fiske's terminology). Not offending God draws on a model of society as looking up to an external authority (what Fiske would call Authority Ranking).

The believer in an offendable god would see offense-avoidance as having two rationales. On the one hand, there is a basic moral imperative -- it is simply wrong to do, or allow, things that offend God. The exact nature of the imperative can be conceptualized several ways -- it may be that God's "thou shalt not" intrinsically creates a moral obligation, or it may be that showing the love and respect that is due to God entails not offending him. On the other hand, God is unlikely to let moral offenses slide, so there is a practical rationale -- don't offend God, or he'll punish you. Hence the claims that 9/11 or Katrina were divine retribution for those cities' acceptance of homosexuality. If we grant that explanation for the sake of argument, it becomes plausible that enforced closeting of unrepentant gays could have avoided God's wrath.

Thus, insofar as a religious person accepts "don't offend God" as a legitimate goal, the sincerity argument for the separation of church and state is likely to fail to persuade him. Note on the other hand that the sincerity argument remains valid for the special case of imposing nonreligion, since getting someone to be an atheist can only be for his or her own good, as there is by definition no higher power to be potentially offended by outward religious behavior.

Stentor Danielson, 22:45, |


Everyone Loves Leftist Thanksgiving Cartoons

This is apparently my most popular cartoon ever, since nearly half my hits for the past week seem to be coming from Google image searches that land on that cartoon. Unfortunately the way Google image search works, I can't find out what search term they were using.

Stentor Danielson, 19:13, |

Voting Yourself Money

Ampersand asks what one piece of legislation we'd most like to see passed. I'm not sure I can answer that, since (in this age of riders) it's unclear to me what constitutes a single piece of legislation. I completely support by Ezra Klein's suggestion (that Amp quotes) of a strong pro-union law. And I think Amp has the right idea in looking for something that will help combat global warming, although his specific suggestion -- throwing more money into alternative energy research -- is quite weak. Our energy system needs structural changes, not just better technology.

In the comments, Robert raises a favorite conservative suggestion: take the vote away from anyone whose income comes from the government. And he's consistent enough to argue that this includes not just welfare recipients and retirees on Social Security, but also teachers, police, and military personnel (and later, he properly extends it to employees and stockholders of companies with government contracts)*. The idea here is that recipients of government money have a selfish incentive to vote themselves more money. Taking the franchise away would correct that distortion.

Robert's suggestion makes sense only if you conceptualize government spending as charity. The important point about charity is that, while it may be morally right to give charity, the recipient cannot claim charity. Scrooge may not be a very nice person, but he wasn't violating Tiny Tim's rights under the charity model.

However, the plausibility of conceptualizing all government spending as charity collapses when you consider that we're talking not just about welfare recipients, but also fundamental services like teachers, soldiers, and police. Hiring police is not an act of charity toward the officers, it's a moral imperative for the maintenance of society. So we can all agree that there's some level of spending that's morally required (of course, some of us would argue that the moral benchmark is set much higher and includes some degree of welfare)**.

But once we agree that there's some morally required level of spending, a symmetry appears between the recipients and the payers, between the disenfranchised government employees and the mostly-still-enfranchised taxpayers. Those taxpayers have a selfish incentive to cut spending, meaning that leaving spending decisions only in their hands will lead to lowballing the amount of spending -- which will be a distortion so long as, as we've agreed, the morally mandatory level of spending is greater than zero. Thus taxpayers are just as able to "vote themselves money" through supporting lower taxes as welfare recipients are to vote themselves money through increased taxes.

*It's interesting to note how this conflicts with another old conservative favorite, also mentioned in the comments, of allowing only military personnel and veterans (and people who do alternative service) to vote. Comparing those two suggestions to the popular liberal ideas of Instant Runoff Voting and strengthening unions, it becomes clear which side sees democracy as a moral imperative to be expanded, and which sees the franchise as a privilege to be given or withdrawn in the service of other ends.

**And if the morally required level is zero, then why not skip the awkward hack of taking away the franchise, and skip straight to direct abolition of taxation, relying on private sector charities to distribute any largesse the rich may feel like giving?

Stentor Danielson, 01:35, |

Why White Liberals Get So Defensive

Read the blogosphere for any length of time, and you'll quickly observe that white liberals, while they claim to be wholeheartedly on board with the anti-racist cause, don't handle it well when they are accused of perpetuating racism. I think a big part of the explanation for this comes from the way that white liberals conceptualize racism, through a lens of moral identity*.

White liberals hold two major premises: the abstract proposition that racism is wrong, and the empirical observation that racism by whites against other races remains a serious problem in contemporary society. To apply these premises, white liberals tend to implicitly draw on a model of racism-as-character-flaw. That is, there are basically two kinds of people -- racists and non-racists. While not necessarily immutable, it requires something akin to a conversion experience to move from racist to non-racist. Racism is conceptualized as a feature of the person, not an effect of the person's behavior (including thought and speech behaviors) in the environment. In the racism-as-character-flaw conceptualization, moral importance is attached to "not being a racist," i.e. not being one of the bad people, rather than "not doing racist things."

Racism-as-character-flaw is a useful conceptualization for white liberals**. It allows us to define ourselves as part of the "good guys," the non-racists, while directing our energies to fight the bad racist other. Self-righteousness is more fun than self-criticism, after all.

This becomes a problem when a white liberal does something that helps to perpetuate racism, and gets called on it. The racism-as-character-flaw concept escalates an accusation of committing a racist act into an accusation of being a racist. After all, racist acts are committed by racists. The white liberal responds by trying to establish that they fall on the correct side of the racist-nonracist divide.

On the one hand, there's the external component to the accusation -- calling someone a racist, implying that racism is a fundamental part of their character, is a pretty severe charge. Once the criticism is misframed in this way, it's not surprising that the accused would become defensive, particularly if they have invested a lot in fighting those other racists. Thus a common response to being called out on one action is to list all the other non-racist or anti-racist actions one has done, seeking to show that the action in question can be dismissed as an outlier.

Perhaps more important, though, is the internal componenet. Seeing racism or nonracism as a part of one's fundamental identity leads to an ongoing sort of existential angst -- "might I really, deep down, be a racist after all?" So long as racism is seen as a character trait, this is a potent fear. A percieved accusation that one is a racist brings this fear to the surface. This is especially so since the racist act in question is inadvertant or thoughtless rather than a deliberate and conscious attempt to enforce white supremacy. We generally assume (with good reason) that unintentional acts are better guides to what someone is really like. To battle our own internal conscience, we direct defensiveness outward against the messenger.

*The analysis here I think applies to some extent to some other forms of oppression -- certainly sexism and somewhat to homophobia, but not really to class or fat-phobia, for example.

**It seems almost inevitable that whenever one group is the target of criticism (justified or unjustified), some members of the target group will respond "I agree that there are bad Xs and we need to crush them, but I'm one of the good Xs."

Stentor Danielson, 01:32, |


Outsourcing Emissions

Dave Roberts scoffs at a response from a Bush administration spokeswoman on the topic of climate change:

"He is opposed to any program which shifts jobs and emissions overseas," Hellmer said.

You'll pry our emissions from our cold, dead hands!


I certainly support taking anything this administration says about the environment with a whole shakerfull of salt, since they're constantly on the lookout for ways to stall while still looking slightly green. But regardless of whether she actually means it, Hellmer's comment about shifting emissions overseas is smart. We live in a globally integrated economy. That means that anything we do to our economy (including withdrawing from global trade) is going to have ramifications for the economies, and hence the emissions, of other nations. Nothing but self-righteousness would be gained by cleaning up American emissions in a way that caused increased emissions elsewhere in the world. (Simplistic applications by enviro-skeptics of the environmental Kuznets curve -- the tendency for environmental damage to peak then decline as a country gets richer -- tend to ignore the interconnectedness issue as well.)

Stentor Danielson, 23:25, |