Thursday, May 05, 2005

*A Pseudo-Response to AP Tan Seow Hon's article in ST*

Seems like AP Tan and AP Thio have been very vigourously advocating a greater space for religious views to be heard in public discourse. Personally I think they ought to make clear what form of morality and religion they are advocating in the interest of intellectual honestly.

AP Tan's article comes hot on the heels of Dr Vivian Balakrisnan's comment yesterday in Today which advocated a strict secularist approach i.e. that religion and politics should be kept separate. Oddly enough this is more akin to the French Humanist Secularist position then the American one of the Separation of Church and State.

As an aside, I disagree with the statement that not taking a moral position is a moral position per se. It always smacks to me of semantics. It's like saying a void contract is still a contract, technically correct but devoid of meaning.

Historically, the position has always been summed up in the line, "The Church can call down blessings and curses but not call out the police. The State can call out the police but not blessings and curses." However, there is a huge grey area even within that statement on the appropriateness of the role religion ought to play within the state. For example, faith-based charitable organisations, should they get state support on top of the one already given by their faith community?

There is no easy answer to the basis on which we make public policy. The real question is: how are we going to determine on the most objective basis the rationale for making such policy. Morality doesn't bring you very far especially when you have two opposing groups making the same fundamental assertions but nevertheless differ in their conclusions. Murder is wrong (one of the major anthropological forms of morality that we see replicated all around the word, the other being a prohibition on incest) but we still have valid debate on the role of capital punishment, abortion and stem-cell research.

Sharia (Islamic Law) claims to BE morality but I think you're going to be hard pressed to find a majority that supports stoning of adulterers or its evidentiary requirement of four male witnesses to a rape (or the woman raped becomes in turn charged for adultary). In turn we have Natural Law, in particular the traditional notions linked with Christianity which is often linked to arguments against inhumane treatment e.g. torture. Even in the secular world, this idea (influences and) is seen within documents such as UN declaration of Human Rights and the EU Convenant of Civil and Political Rights and is enshrined within our Singapore Constitution. So given a clash between Natural Law and Sharia Law, what then?

The point I hope I'm making is that what we term morality is very often what is called positive morality, the kind of views and norms that a society holds and which varies in time and space, e.g. the correctness of slavery or polygamy. Contrast to that is what is called critical morality, the morality which we use to criticise social institutions including that of positive morality. Often they are what is called first principle arguments, they are 'self evident' and they are derived from nothing precedent but in turn derive all else.

At its heart, it is personal and subjective. I think the liberal notion of harm been said and reiterated too many times so I want to try something different today, let's examine this notion of morality instead.

Problem is how do we identify them? Very often we don't. In turn we mistake positive morality (whether found in religious texts or what everyone else says) for critical morality.

Or put another way, why does X (God or various deity constructs, your preference) condemn a particular act? Is it because that act is 'bad' per se e.g rape is destructive to the society and the victim? In which case, the religious nature of why rape is bad is irrelevant because an atheist can also derive those same reasons to determine why rape is bad.

But what if in other instances, it is condemned because X SAYS it's bad? Assuming that we can trust whatever sutras or scriptures that can personally testify to that, we're left with a situation where essentially X has made an arbitrary choice in which case Y (another deity construct) is perfectly justified in saying otherwise (especially if both claim omni-benevolence). Case in point, pre-marital sex or the use of hallucinogens in religious activity (or even daily use) or the Sharia-Natural Law clash above.

But allow me to submit an alternative thesis which I cribbed from jurisprudence; let's drop what is ultimately a very academic debate. Whatever the scenario, morality and politcs (and law) will always mix and influence each other. Instead, whether an argument is grounded in utilitarianism or Morality or morality, all still need to be subjected to critical evaluation. Ultimately, it's the content not the vessel that really counts. Yes this means religious voices are simply that a voice and do not carry any automatic moral stamp.



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