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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I heard my good friend Fay's brother Austin Dacey speak tonight about his new book, The Secular Conscience, at the Regulator. (You can see an excerpt at his site.) I wanted to put in a plug for the book because I think it tackles some really central questions about the stability and desirability of the Rawlsian truce that governs the liberal public sphere. Here's Austin:

Where did secular liberalism go wrong?

It has been undone by its own ideas. The first idea is that matters of conscience—religion, ethics, and values—are private matters. The privatizing of conscience started with two important principles: religion should be separated from the state and people should not be forced to believe one way or the other. But it went further to say that belief has no place in the public sphere. Conscience belongs in homes and houses of worship, not in the marketplace. By making conscience private, secular liberals had hoped to prevent believers from introducing sectarian beliefs into politics. But of course they couldn't, since freedom of belief means believers are free to speak their minds in public.

Instead, secularism imposed a gag order on itself. Because “private” is equated with “personal” and “subjective,” questions of conscience were placed out of bounds of serious critical evaluation. Subjective phenomena—like the thrill of skydiving or the taste for spicy food—are just those that are determined by the attitudes and thoughts of the subject experiencing them. How can I evaluate your experiences? It seems I must simply accept them for what they are. If conscience is beyond criticism, however, liberals cannot subject religion to due public scrutiny when it encroaches on society. The result: in public discourse it is acceptable to say that addicts should give up heroin for Jesus, but not to ask obvious policy questions such as whether faith-based social programs are actually proven more effective than secular alternatives (it turns out there's no good empirical evidence that they are). Worse still, since secularists want belief to be left at home and not “imposed” on others, they are unable to unabashedly defend their own positive moral vision in politics. No wonder they are accused of having lost their moral moorings.

Call this liberal confusion the Privacy Fallacy. The Privacy Fallacy consists in assuming that because conscience is private in the sense of non-governmental it is private in the sense of personal preference. A related confusion comes from the idea of freedom of conscience. This confusion begins in the core liberal principle that conscience must be left free from coercion. The mistake lies in thinking that because conscience is free from coercion, it must be free from criticism, reason, truth, or independent, objective standards of right and wrong. The indispensable principle of freedom of belief has mutated into an unthinking assumption that matters of belief are immune to critical public inquiry and shared evaluative norms. This is the Liberty Fallacy.
I haven't read it yet, but it looks worth reading. Check it out.