Religious and Secular Morality

Eugene Volokh has written a good post about forcing religious morality on others. It’s similar to the argument he made here.

Eugene argues, correctly, that all lawmaking and moral line-drawing come from the desire to implement our morality, and that we all have moralities that are ultimately based on unprovable axioms. Therefore, there’s nothing procedurally improper about people with religion-influenced morality engaging in this activity.

I agree with Eugene about this. The separation of church and state doesn’t require the separation of churchmembers and state. I would go on to say that many religious moral ideas are superior to many secular moral ideas. Most religions are informed by centuries of moral debate and reasoning, and they continue to improve.

However, I think he might go a bit too far when he says things like:

Those of us (like me) who draw secular lines shouldn’t feel superior to those who draw religious lines here…

This seems to approach the idea that all paths to moral ideas are equivalent. I don’t think they are.

I do think that there are better ways to approach moral truths than to assume the truth of scripture. If you don’t want to spend much time thinking about morality yourself, then perhaps adopting the doctrine of a major religion or a well-respected moral philosopher might be a decent way to go. But, if you really care about understanding and acting upon moral truths (or at least the best moral ideas yet discovered), you should want to choose the best method available, and I think that’s a secular one.

I don’t think Eugene uses secular moral reasoning because he flipped a coin one day and Secular beat Religion. He does it, I’m guessing, because he made a conscious, informed, judgment that religious moral philosophy is sub-optimal in some important respects. It’s better to choose a method that is rational, open to criticism and improvements through argument. As I said, most religions today have some of this, but they are also burdened by lots of doctrine that doesn’t tolerate or stand up to argument very well, and is thus handicapped as a method of approaching the truth.

So, while it’s true that it’s not outrageous or procedurally inappropriate to want your moral views to inform policy even if they’re based on religious belief…that doesn’t imply that there isn’t a better way, or that we shouldn’t prefer that our president would use it.


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