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.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Recently I’ve had a Twitter “discussion” with my friend Michael DeDora (I know, the meaning of the term here is a bit stretched: think of having discussions on Twitter as analogous to being forced to write Haiku poetry. You will never get the Iliad out of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s all garbage). The topic of the discussion was the morality of lobbying, and it was sparked by my posting a link to this article in the New York Times, reporting that — entirely unsurprisingly, and just as entirely objectionably — lobbyists for large banks are “helping” US legislators write laws about bank regulation... [If I have to explain to you why this is a problem, you may as well not bother reading the rest of this post.]
Michael, who is a lobbyist for the Center for Inquiry, retweeted my tweet, adding a “Hey!” in front of it, in clear protest. [To complicate things, I should disclose that I actually helped Michael find his job at CFI, and am very proud of his career there!] An interesting exchange ensued, during which Michael tried to convince me that lobbying is not just a necessary evil (as I readily admitted, in the specific case of non-profit / non-corporate lobbying), but a positive good for our democracy. Here is why I think he is wrong.
[In what follows I will quote Michael’s objections verbatim, followed by my off-Twitter commentary.]
Michael: I think lobbyists/advocates are necessary no matter how “good” the democracy is, unless it is a form of direct democracy.
Well, no. Democracies have existed for a long time without lobbying, and have worked very well, thank you very much. Indeed, institutionalized lobbying is a recent phenomenon, pretty much exported by the United States, and still relatively young in other Western countries. I’m sure it will spread, but I regard this as yet another case of unfortunate American influence on the rest of the planet, not as something that is necessary for a functional democracy. Michael seems to be assuming that without lobbying organizations the American people would have no way of communicating their priorities and choices to their elected representatives. But this is clearly not the case: not only are said representatives elected (ideally, I know) precisely on the basis of what they explicitly say they will do on behalf of their constituents, but the constituents themselves can (and do) pick up phones, computer keyboards and the like and actually let their representatives know what they want or don’t want. Moreover, it is standard practice for elected officials to go back and visit their districts, and even to periodically conduct polls to assess the priorities of their fellow citizens. So, no, lobbying is not the only alternative to direct democracy. [And by the way, I think direct democracy is a horrible idea, just ask Plato.]
Michael: Elected representatives need to be reminded on daily basis what constituents care about, and to hear from experts on those issues.
I have already taken care of the first part of this argument, but the second part seems to me to mischaracterize what a lobbyist is: lobbyists are not just “experts,” they are advocates of a particular point of view. Yes, they may have expertise on a given subject matter, but that expertise is channeled specifically in the service of a pre-determined agenda. Representatives have other ways to get impartial expert advice (to the extent that impartiality is possible on political matters, of course). First off, they have paid staff whose purpose is precisely to provide them with background research on whatever issue they are suppose to be legislating. They can also ask their staff to contact, say, academic experts or organizations (like the National Academy of Sciences) to provide them with the needed perspective. Going to a lobbyist for education is like going to your bank for financial advice. Wanna bet they’ll tell you that their products are the best on the market?
Michael: Ideally citizens would be educated and engaged — your “good” democracy — but they still need guidance, support, representation.
Right, which is why we have, ahem, representatives who are supposed to also lead our country in better directions (whether they do it or not is, of course, another matter). Of course, Michael is thinking largely of his own type of activity with CFI, which I do think is — unfortunately — necessary. But recall that the exchange began with an article about corporate lobbying on behalf of banks. Do banks (or any other corporation or industry) really need “guidance, support, representation”? I think not.
Michael: American democracy is enormous; there are many groups which are underrepresented in the political process for whatever reasons.
This is a good point, though again, hard to imagine banks as qualifying here. More broadly, my objection to lobbying is based on the reality that groups who can pay for it get privileged access to legislators. The groups Michael is concerned about, ironically, are the least likely to get such access, because they typically have the smallest budgets. Wanna compare what CFI spends on his activities in Washington with what, say, the oil industry does? Besides, let’s think about exactly what it means for groups to be underrepresented in the political process. People of different genders, ethnicities, religious affiliations, political ideologies, and so forth, all get precisely one vote when it comes to electing representatives. Of course this does not automatically translate into equal representation, but that’s because of problems with the electoral process (e.g., disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor), lack of education, and so forth. Those are certainly problems worth addressing, as they are structural and truly fundamental to a viable democracy, but they have little to do with lobbying per se.
Michael: Special group = constituents. How do you view efforts of Secular Coalition, CFI-OPP, NSCE, Americans United? Necessary evil?
That’s right, that is precisely how I see them. And no, groups do not equate to constituents, but to particular types of constituents, usually with deep pockets and a resulting unbalanced access to Congress (see above).
Michael: Citizens have always formed groups based on shared social/political goals, partially in order to attain better democracy.
Indeed, as they should. But my objection isn’t to social advocacy in general, or organizing in support of social causes, and so on. It is specifically about lobbying, as defined above.
Michael: Define “the rest of the world.” There are activists/lobbyists all over Europe.
Yes, there are. But first off, there is a difference — again — between activists and lobbyists. Second, even a document [download] that Michael himself shared during the course of our Twitter conversation makes my point. The report in question essentially says that the only countries were there are registered (meaning: officially recognized as part of the way the government operates) lobbyists in the Western world are the US, Canada, and Germany. In all other countries, of course, there are people and organizations that try to influence the legislative process, but do not have regulated privileged access to the legislators. Indeed, the report mentions the case of the UK, which I think is one from which the US could learn: “The UK, on the other hand, has opted to regulate the lobbied rather than the lobbyists.” In other words, the focus should be on regulating the legislators and prevent privileged access to them by any group, an approach that hardly diminishes people’s rights to organize in support of their causes.
Michael: I think we need to differentiate between corporate-focused lobbyists (e.g., banks) and issue-focused lobbyists (e.g., church-state).
Indeed we do. Which is why I support CFI but not JPMorgan Chase. Still, it is far too easy for bank (or any other corporation / industry) lobbyists to make the argument that they too are concerned with issues. And being non-profit is hardly a guarantee, as it is all too easy to set up front organizations, like so many Washington “think tanks,” that end up doing the same sort of job that corporate lobbyists do. Once we buy into the idea of legalized privileged access, all bets are off, as far as I’m concerned, and democracy suffers. (I don’t think anyone can reasonably argue that current American democracy is not one of the worst in history, with an unprecedented degree of decoupling between what constituents want and what their alleged representatives actually do. And yes, lobbying is a major factor in this abysmal state of affairs — that and the legalized bribery that is the system of private contributions to re-election campaigns.)
Michael: If anything, it makes the situation worse. By not recognizing and regulating, there is more corruption happening.
Here Michael was responding to my observation that most other Western countries do not recognize lobbyists (see above). Well, this is of course an empirical question, and I’ll await pertinent empirical evidence to settle it. But note one thing: in Italy (for instance) corporations do not have special access nor can they give money to politicians to help elect them. This doesn’t mean that the Italian political system is free from corruption (far from it!). But it does mean that if you are caught engaging in that sort of activity you end up in jail. In the US, by contrast, not only is that sort of blatant bribery legal, but the Supreme Court has even magnified the problem recently under the Constitutional right of freedom of speech! (Yes, I know, strictly speaking campaign contributions are a separate issue from lobbying, though in reality the two are highly connected.)
My exchange with Michael ended up on the positive note that we’ll both look into empirical evidence for specific claims and revisit the topic. As one of my followers, Josh Bunting, ironically put it: “I was hoping this would end with ‘USA! USA! USA!’ instead of ‘I'll do some research and get back to you.’” How disappointing indeed.
[Note: I have invited Michael to respond to this post, if he feels so inclined. I hope he will, it’s an important conversation to have, particularly with someone like him, who has actual experience of lobbying from the inside.]
Thursday, December 27, 2012
by Michael De Dora
Saturday, December 22, 2012
by Michael De Dora
Friday, November 16, 2012
- Are you so rabid about your atheism that you would be offended attending a religious ceremony?
- Are you saying parents shouldn’t make decisions for their kids?
- Isn’t baptism just one small, meaningless ceremony?
- Why would you sit out a family event? What do you think you’re accomplishing? Isn’t that being intolerant?
Thursday, October 18, 2012
When Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan were asked about how their religious beliefs influence their views on abortion during last week’s debate, Americans were given more than just the chance to hear two vice presidential candidates discuss their faith and how it relates to a controversial political issue. They were given the chance to observe the candidates address a much broader subject: the relationship between religion and politics.
As could be expected, the two candidates outlined two very different approaches to this relationship. In order to discuss the broader points, let’s first take a look at what Biden and Ryan said.
I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.
Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course. But it’s also because of reason and science.
You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born, for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. A little baby was in the shape of a bean. And to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child Liza, “Bean.” Now I believe that life begins at conception.
That’s why — those are the reasons why I’m pro-life. Now I understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don’t agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.
... with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a — what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.
But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the — the congressman. I — I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that — women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and the Supreme Court, I’m not going to interfere with that.
All I’m saying is, if you believe that life begins at conception, that, therefore, doesn’t change the definition of life. That’s a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.
(You can find a full transcript here).
According to Ryan, there is no way (or no reason to try) to separate one’s beliefs regarding the veracity of religious claims from one’s approach to specific policies. For example, if you believe an embryo is a person made in the image of God, and deserving of certain rights, that will undoubtedly influence your approach to abortion. But, according to Biden, there is a way to separate these two. In his view, an elected official must realize that not everyone he or she represents practices his or her religion, and therefore should not have to live according to its dogmas. I think they each make an important point. Allow me to explain.
Ryan’s point cannot be easily dismissed. When Ryan says that he does not see “how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith,” he is stating what counts as a fact for many people. Ryan — like many devoutly religious people — honestly and ardently believes that embryos are people, and that abortion is murder. Though I consider that position incoherent and unsupportable, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a person to believe that, yet sit idly by while thousands of abortions are happening every year. That is simply how belief works: once you accept some proposition as true, you are bound to act on it.
As for Biden, I have a hard time believing that he truly agrees with the Catholic Church on abortion, at least as fervently as Ryan. But that’s not necessarily what matters here. Biden has a compelling point in regard to making laws in a pluralistic society. While he readily admits that he has religious beliefs, he also realizes that public policy influences the lives of millions of different Americans. As such, he thinks public policy should not be based on his (or anyone’s) religious beliefs, which require a personal leap of faith, but on reasons that are accessible by all Americans.
You’ve probably noticed that Biden’s position does not employ the separation of church and state argument; he uses the pluralistic society argument. I suspect some secularists found Biden’s answer incomplete, but I think the pluralistic society argument could actually be more effective at convincing religious believers to adopt secular policies than a purely church-state argument (though I would note that pluralism is indirectly an argument in favor of church-state separation).
To be clear, I interpret the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as mandating government neutrality on religion. Government should not favor religion over non-religion, non-religion over religion, or one religion over another. But there is nothing in the Constitution that states that religious lawmakers are required to leave their consciences at home when they arrive at their respective statehouses. In my view, secularists should realize this, and consider directly rebutting arguments for religiously based laws when they come to the surface, instead of asking politicians to dismiss them as personal or as outright absurd (even if they are). These beliefs are clearly influencing our political system, and should be exposed to critical reasoning.
While we cannot control the reasons people give for their beliefs, we can work to prevent religious-based reasons from entering the debate in the first place, steering political discourse towards secular reasoning. How? I think Biden’s pluralistic society argument is instructive here.
As it happens, this argument has been detailed before by a familiar figure: President Barack Obama. As Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.”  An example he uses is (oddly enough!) abortion:
If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
People cannot hear the divine voice others claim to hear, nor can they rely on others’ assertions that they have heard God’s voice. Furthermore, most people do not believe in the same holy book. In fact, even adherents to the same religious traditions often disagree over central tenets. And, of course, many people (reasonably, I might add) deny that the supernatural realm exists to begin with.
What does the pluralistic society argument mean for religious lawmakers? It doesn’t mean that they cannot hold or even speak about their religious beliefs in political debates. The fact that we live in a highly religious open democracy means that such reasons are bound to appear often. A person’s religious views naturally influence his or her views in politics, and we cannot bar these from entering the discourse. But politicians should also hold to certain practices regarding how to best make public policy. Since laws influence millions of different people who have different values, they cannot be defended by mere reference to a holy book or faith. Public policy must be based on natural world reasons that everyone can grasp and understand. Believe in religion if you like, but also believe that “I can’t make other people live according to my religion; I need to base laws on values that apply to everyone.”
At the least, this approach pushes religiously devout lawmakers to consider how they can defend their views on clearer grounds to all of their constituents. At its best, it will help foster a more reasonable public policy.
For Rep. Ryan, this means that it is not enough to simply tell the story of your wife’s childbirth and of the nicknaming of a seven-week-old embryo. If you think beans deserve equal or even more moral and legal consideration than women, you need a better argument than “I looked at an ultrasound and nicknamed what I saw; you should too.”
If you want to restrict abortion, you need to answer questions such as: what does it really mean to say that life begins at conception? Why do you think embryos are persons worthy of moral consideration and legal protection? Why shouldn’t a woman have the right to largely control her body and make reproductive decisions with her doctor? If you can’t answer these questions without reference to some religious principle, you should think deeply about whether you are fit for public office.
Note: a shorter version of this article first appeared on The Moral Perspective.
 Editorial Note: this is essentially John Rawls’ argument, as articulated in his A Theory of Justice.