(Read: Do your job, and complain about it later!)
Religious freedom is often appealed to by opponents of legislative efforts to increase equality for members of the LGBT community, and it’s being invoked once again, not surprisingly, in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to protect same-sex marriage on the federal level. Two days after the ruling, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion to Lt. Governor Dan Patrick stating that clerks and judges with religious objections to same-sex marriage have the right to refuse performing ceremonies or issuing marriage licenses for such couples.
In “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Kant addressed the question of what restrictions on a person’s freedom to act on his own reason are acceptable. He stated that restrictions that inhibit the advancement of enlightenment are unacceptable, while those that don’t inhibit enlightenment may be acceptable, and even desirable. Kant defined enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” and immaturity as “the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another.” Enlightenment, then, is the ability to think for ourselves, and to source our actions from within.
This is, it seems, what Paxton and others who advocate for religious exemptions are trying to support: the ability of people—here, government employees specifically—to act on their conscience. Might Kant’s emphasis on self-reference support religious exemptions?
With his question of what facilitates enlightenment on the societal level at the forefront, Kant declares that what he calls the “private use of reason” is relatively unimportant. For Kant, “private” refers to what takes place in a person’s place of employment. If a clergy member acted in his office on his own reason, though it may conflict with the church’s dictates, he would be using his reason privately.
What is important for Kant is that people have the freedom to use their reason “publicly,” in writing and speaking to the public in general. In the public use of reason, the enlightened individual promotes the cultivation of the ability to challenge teachings and guidance—to think for ourselves. This is where the “Argue as much as you like” bit comes in.
But within one’s office, one is bound to obey the dictates of the institution by which he is employed: “in some affairs which affect the interest of the commonwealth, we require a certain mechanism whereby some members of the commonwealth must behave purely passively, so that they may… be employed by the government for public ends (or at least deterred from vitiating them). It is, of course, impermissible to argue in such cases.” This is where the “but obey!” comes in.
Marriage can be conceived of as a public end in many respects. It confers legal rights and economic benefits onto couples, and has been correlated with better physical, mental, and financial well-being. With this comes societal benefits, as greater financial security and better health correspond to less reliance on government assistance. In addition, the family unit, which is the most basic social unit, is often touted as the foundation of society. Far from being a religious institution, marriage is a legal and social institution. Government clerks and judges are entrusted with facilitating marriage—not as religious institution, but marriage as public end. So it seems that Kant would disagree with Paxton; objecting clerks and judges should act in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and argue against it on their own time.
But thinking about the religious exemption question through Kant’s emphasis on enlightenment can take us further. When we debate the relationship between religious freedom and LGBT rights, we tend to focus on which rights matter most—the rights of LGBT individuals to equal treatment and protection under the law, or the rights of individuals to act on their conscience. What happens when we shift the focus from the question of individual rights to that of societal enlightenment?
When we do so, we can go beyond the question of where a person has a right to practice his reason to the question of whether the practice is a use of reason at all. In “What is Enlightenment,” the individuals whose freedoms Kant was discussing were “learned” men—presumably, enlightened individuals whose ideas were likely more enlightened (read: right) than those espoused by the institutions they disagreed with. Even then, Kant states that they should either obey or quit their positions. Is our topic parallel? Is the conscience of religious objectors an example of reason? Is the religious objector Kant’s learned man?
Kant’s relationship with religion was tense; while he touted the merits of Christ as an example of a moral individual, and of Christian morality more generally, he was critical of organized religion in particular. For Kant, moral law is rooted within each of us and therefore accessible by reference to oneself, and true moral conduct must take its source not from a book or a pastor’s guidance, but from the self. Admonishing the unenlightened, he says: “If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all.” But enlightenment is precisely this expenditure of personal effort, the effort to understand for oneself.
A Pew Research Poll from 2012 asked respondents who opposed same-sex marriage the open-ended question of why, and 47 percent simply reported religious beliefs or interpretations of Biblical passages as their reason. I don’t think an appeal to religion—a religious objection—alone attains to the status of an enlightened position within the Kantian framework, where reason comes from reference to self, not words in a book. (If there is a deeper argument combining religious belief with some sort of reasoned stance, I haven’t seen it.) Now I ask: To what extent does protecting the private use of unreason inhibit enlightenment? Might catering to unenlightened objections to same-sex marriage harm the advancement of society, in the Kantian sense?
When the government protects the private use of unreason by government workers who get their morality from a book, it makes the claim that an unenlightened position is worthy of legal protection, even when it negatively impacts members of society. It implicitly legitimates unenlightened moral development instead of requiring enlightened reasons for disrupting public ends. If a progression toward thinking for ourselves is the mark of advancing societal enlightenment, and if that is the criterion by which we decide what freedoms to allow and what to restrict, then our government should actively prohibit the private use of unreason when it interferes with the public ends it is meant to serve. The advancement of society trumps unrestricted religious freedom.
Amée LaTour has a bachelor's degree in philosophy and works as a freelance writer. She is primarily interested in the concrete application of philosophy to everyday life.