About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Religious belief and budget debates

by Michael De Dora

Recently there has been a prominent public debate between Congressional Republicans and religious figures over the new federal budget authored by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan. In case you haven’t heard about this, or you’ve only given it slight attention, here’s a short rundown.

On March 20, Rep. Ryan proposed a budget that would drastically cut government spending by slashing social programs and lowering tax rates on corporations and the wealthy. Several faculty members at the Georgetown University soon condemned Ryan’s budget as immoral – inconsistent with Catholic teachings on ethics:

“We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. … In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was also critical of Ryan’s budget, arguing that it conflicted with the tenets of his (Ryan is a Catholic) supposed religion.*

Ryan responded that, on the contrary, his plan would create the necessary economic growth to lift people out of poverty, as well as manage the government’s crippling debt:

“The Holy Father himself, Pope Benedict, has charged governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations, and living in untruth.’ … Our budget offers a better path consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith. … We put faith in people, not in government.”

Now that we’re up to date, let’s take a step back.

This is a familiar debate for anyone who pays attention to American politics. Politicians — along with other public officials and social figures — often use their religious beliefs to justify legislative action. Yet, once again, few people are stating the obvious: that it is completely inappropriate for a public policy debate to center on the religious reasons for or against a proposed law.

Before moving any further, let me state that I’m rather sick of hearing Jesus’ name mentioned in policy debates, if only because it is impossible to know what a person who lived several thousands years ago, and about whom very little is known, would have thought about specific political issues in the year 2012.

I fully admit here that the Catholic Church has, for once, taken a decent moral stance. But that’s not the point. While religiously based political efforts sometimes turn out well, and secular liberals ought to at least consider working with such groups on these issues, the religious method is susceptible to awful consequences (think: marriage equality, reproductive rights, stem cell research; the list goes on). The method is as important, if not more so, as the consequences.

Contrary to what many people think, secularism is not the atheistic position that religious belief has no place in society whatsoever. Secularism is the idea that you can believe what you would like, but your religious beliefs have no place in public policy debates. It asks that laws be based not on faith, which is private and accessible only to believers, but on reason and scientific evidence, which are public and accessible to all. This helps to ensure that our laws are as rational as possible and don’t harm people who practice a different faith, or no faith at all.

Some will counter here that religious views cannot be prevented from entering political discourse and lawmaking.** This is a point based on the simple observation that religious belief, as a matter of fact, is often used in policy debates. Yet that doesn’t mean we should encourage religious views in policy debates, or that we do not have any other option available to us.

I submit that it is simply unnecessary to call on one’s religious view, as there are plenty of secular moral reasons for (e.g., Rand-style argumentation) and against Ryan’s budget proposal.

As you might recall, I have previously argued on this blog that economic debates should include a strong ethical component:

“Economic thinking cannot be divorced from morality because one’s values determine which economic structure he or she prefers. There are no such things as purely economic ends divorced from all other ends because economic decisions are made based on moral values. They also have a moral impact on other people.”

My views on how this works in method mirror those of Massimo here at Rationally Speaking. First we figure out our foundational assumptions. For instance, what is the nature of human behavior and desires? How do humans act and interact? What should we value? How should we influence our culture so that it fosters those values? What are — or should be — our shared moral goals?

Then we assess which economic ideas and systems to employ so that our assumptions can be taken into account and that our goals can be realized. Economics is not just about studying and applying knowledge of trends, numbers, math, and business practices. It is also about taking into account the reality of human behavior and our moral concerns before making economic decisions — and then considering the moral consequences of those decisions.

So, is there a good moral (non religious) response to a specific situation such as Rep. Ryan’s budget?

As I’ve written before, I believe in a multi-faceted approach to morality. I believe we ought not harm other creatures capable of experience and agency. I believe people deserve certain rights and respect because of their existence, and that humans ought to help each other, where and when possible, to have a decent living situation. And I believe we ought to hold tight our duties, practice our obligations, and cultivate a virtuous moral character.

Unfortunately, Rep. Ryan's proposal severely slashes or essentially eliminates programs that help children, the poor, and the elderly. This is both unethical and ineffective. Ryan could have lifted tax breaks on corporations and the ultra-rich — both of which are making record profits — or cut the bloated defense budget. Instead, Paul is seeking to shrink governmental programs that have positive moral value and impact. If you want to solve our problems, do you really think it best to focus on privatizing and cutting health care and other social safety nets for the worst off in this country? Would it not be better to stop giving breaks to the wealthiest and most secure in order to improve programs that help many people lead a decent life?

That is why Ryan’s budget proposal is immoral. And my argument did not require reference to any religious figure or holy book.

One can reasonably argue that public policy ought not to be based on religious belief in any way, as it would necessarily favor religious views over non-religious views, or specific religious views over others. That clearly violates the Constitution and over sixty years of Supreme Court jurisprudence. But one can also reasonably argue that we need not consider religious beliefs because there are plenty of available secular arguments at hand to deploy for and against these policy debates.

Public policy should center on the secular, not the religious. And while that certainly won’t guarantee unfailingly rational government, it might bring us a little step closer to that lofty goal.

* On another note, this is an interesting intersection to ponder: when one’s religious or moral views conflict with one’s views on government, and vice versa. It’s an example of tension between conflicting values.

** Obviously many would argue that religious belief is a wonderful thing, and that Christianity is or should be the national religion, but I do not take up that argument here.


  1. Hi Michael,

    Excellent post. I find that it reflects a lot of my thoughts about how our government works and the current state of Congress.

    Do you also think that Republicans' tendency to view government as something often alien and harmful contributes to their crusade to weaken it as much as possible? I agree that government must have its limits, but I think it's more than a little crazy to strip away programs people need on account of paranoia and Randian ideology.

  2. Mark,

    Republicans espouse ideas based on Objectivist political theories about as frequently as Democrats, which is to say hardly at all.

    Moreover, I see no reason to label limited government ideals as being based "paranoia" or "Randian ideology". In my assessment, Republicans do not want a limited government per se but rather they want a government to limit itself to actualizing certain overly religious and, in general, social conservative ideals, like regulating private sexual relationships, maintaining ethical communal standards, etc. The average republican has far more in common with Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley than with Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mieses, or David Kelley.

  3. Ryan responded that, on the contrary, his plan would create the necessary economic growth to lift people out of poverty, as well as manage the government’s crippling debt...

    I don't believe that the Ryan budget proposal would achieve either of these effects, but that feels more like a factual disagreement than a moral judgment.

    On the other hand, the thought that Ryan is perhaps being disingenuous in his claims and the thought that following his proposal would harm the nation's well-being (at least as I conceive of it), those do indeed spark moral judgments.

  4. Ryan and his ilk are essentially rightist ideologues. He and they believe people are in poverty because, yes, they lack work, BUT also will remain in poverty as long as they can get assistance in lieu of work.
    He believes in fact that it's immoral to take assistance when you might otherwise be raising yourselves by your bootstraps. He also believes there will be losers in the game, but by some odd paradox, the losers will be such by their own choice.
    This is an incredibly simplistic view of the American worker's world, but for the Ryans, these forms of half truths sustain them in their political fervor. Just as their fundamentalist religious doctrines preach to them - that their God helps those most who help themselves.

  5. I'd love to hear the ethical argument of forcing people to help others. Just exactly how does that work? I've always believed in helping my fellow man. I volunteer once-a-month at a shelter, donate to several charitable organizations that assisted me when I was growing up and have provided more than the recommended pro bono legal hours each year. I struggle, however, with the notion, from am ethical viewpoint, that a group of people can physically take property from a group of people and straight-out give it to a another group. I'd like to hear how a progressive justifies this transfer payment/welfare state system, not on political or policy grounds, but on purely ethical grounds.

    1. On 'ethical' grounds, moral decisions depend a lot on the situation. Which in turn will depend on the cultural standards for one's expected duties. And also on whether there's a majority rule at hand. For the rich to keep their earnings free of taxes, the majority then would have to agree to let them. Or be persuaded to agree in any case.
      And if all prospered according to the estimated value of their efforts, as promised, then ethics would seem to have prevailed.
      Except of course we had just tried that, and it didn't work. So now we're told it's because we didn't try hard enough. But if we'll give the old system another shot at success, everyone will now try harder, and the sun will shine on all accordingly.
      Which would be an ethical approach as well if it weren't for the lying.

    2. I can only wish that progressives would use your language to express how they truley feel about society, taxes, property and wealth. The professed notion that the majority can ethically confiscate the "earings" of the rich (of course, in reality, it isn't the rich who wind up having their earnings confiscated through higher taxes, but rather the working middle-class and small business men, who, unlike the rich, cannot afford high-priced attorneys and accountants who are able to hide their true earnings from the taxman) would most certainly increase the ranks of classic- liberal adherents. A more nuanced, yet less truthful progressive might use terms such as "fair share," "contribution to society," or "balanced approach," before sticking the gun to one's head and demanding the money.

    3. The wealthy would have you believe that their riches were somehow God given and protected as His holy offerings. The fact is, however, that if the poor were able to decide en masse that riches would no longer be protected in their culture, they would vanish. The bartering of usable goods and skills would, for a time, prevail.
      The rich, of course, know that all too well. It represents their worst fear and their best kept secret.

    4. One further comment on what you seem to see as "ethical grounds" for our culturally determined behaviors:
      At bottom, our ethics are not fashioned as commandments to encapsulate the recommended forms of honesty. They are there in actuality to put some limits on chicanery, since promoting honesty and integrity for their own sake has never worked. Limiting dishonesty to a workable extent has always been the necessarily alternative strategy.

  6. Hell, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

    1. Ryan ignores the "Judeo" figleaf of Judeo-Christian ideas.
    2. This "Jesus" contradicts himself (Good Samaritan vs. I came for the children of Israel only, on ingroup vs. outgroup, for example)
    3. This "Jesus" may even have never existed (throwing a little bomb out there for everybody).

  7. Apparently Jim Wallis didn't get the memo:



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.