“Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!” –Kant
(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.
Alan Cook says
On the narrow issue at stake here—whether public officials should be able to claim a “religious exemption” from doing their jobs, I am 100% in agreement with Amée here: if you don’t like it, quit! (In fairness to Texas AG Paxton, it should be noted that his opinion relies entirely on something called the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_Freedom_Restoration_Act], which the Texas legislature passed after the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Act of the same name was unconstitutional—so from a legal point of view it sounds like a real quagmire.) I am also in agreement with Amée that this is Kant’s position exactly in “What is Enlightenment?”
But on many of the larger issues, I have substantial disagreements. To begin, let’s consider this:
First, I question the equivalence of “enlightened ideas” and “right ideas.” The processes of reason that constitute enlightenment are no guarantee against error—they just make it somewhat less likely. In fact, given that the process of public reason requires putting ideas out for discussion and debate, hence for possible refutation, it’s necessary that some of those ideas end up getting refuted. (In other words, enlightenment is a process, not a state.)
More important, though, we don’t need to make presumptions about what individuals Kant is discussing, because he tells us explicitly over and over again: They’re members of the clergy (Geistlicher):
It’s worth noting that, on Kant’s explicit view here, a Catholic priest would have an obligation to instruct his congregation that official Church doctrine regards homosexual activity as a sin, even if he personally disagrees:
While it’s true, as Amée points out, that Kant’s stance on religion is complex, and this brief piece (in effect, a newspaper op-ed) is by no means his complete word on the topic, I don’t see how this text can in any way be construed as disparaging or dismissive of religion in general. On the contrary, it’s his primary topic.
Consider, next, Amée’s claim that
First, Kant’s usage aside, labeling positions as “enlightened” and “unenlightened” strikes me as, at best, a very unfortunate choice of words. In contemporary English, to call a opinion one disagrees with “unenlightened” sounds (inevitably, I think) condescending and elitist; I’ve rarely if ever heard the term used nonironically. Second, I think that the claim that “reason comes from reference to self” is misleading as regards Kant’s position. Kant believes that reason is universal, in the sense that the proper use of reason will lead all rational beings to the same conclusions on fundamental moral issues. Most, if not all, of what makes us individuals falls for Kant under the category of inclination. Third, we don’t need to wonder what Kant would have thought of appeals to religion, since he tells us quite explicitly in his Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone (http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/rbbr/toc.html). To oversimplify greatly, the answer is: It depends on what kind of appeal to religion is made.
Amée goes on:
With all respect, I was astounded when I read this, because it entirely ignores 2500 years of reflection on religious matters in both Europe and Asia. Kant’s book that I just mentioned is just one example; more generally, this entire area of inquiry has traditionally been known in the West as natural religion or natural theology.
By assuming that “appeals to religion” are equivalent to appeals to the authority of “words in a book,” Amee is assuming that all religion is revealed religion, and moreover that the only form that revelation of religious truth takes is scriptural revelation.
In that regard, it’s worth noting that among Catholics, but not in some branches of Protestantism, moral principles, or most of them, fall under the category of natural theology—those things things human beings are capable of knowing through unaided reason alone. This is true, for example, of some of the most controversial of the Church’s positions, such as its opposition to abortion and homosexuality.
Furthermore, Kant’s own “reasoned” views on homosexuality show some affinity with the natural law tradition here. He begins the section of the Metaphysics of Morals entitled “On Defiling Oneself by Lust” as follows (as cited by Alan Soble in “Kant and Sexual Perversion” [http://philpapers.org/archive/SOBKAS.pdf]):
Lest we have any doubt about the conclusions that Kant drew about homosexuality, he writes later:
There are all kinds of lessons that might be taken from this; the one I would urge is that, contra Kant, what counts as a “use of reason” is highly dependent on the norms of a particular time and place.
But my strongest disagreements with Amée concern her final paragraph:
Exactly. That “unenlightened” positions are worthy of legal protection is one of the central principles of a pluralistic liberal democracy. Yes, even when doing so “negatively impacts members of society,” which is a pretty weak description of a harm. The case would be different if the unenlightened position violated the fundamental human rights of others, but that’s not what Amée said. Whether marriage, and marriage to whom, is a fundamental human right is one of the main questions at stake in the debate over gay marriage.
(For the record, philosophically I’m inclined to the position that the state should get out of the business of certifying personal relationships entirely, although I recognize that politically that was always a nonstarter, and the point is moot now anyway.)
Well, is that the criterion by which we decide? It may be Kant’s criterion, but it’s not a criterion found (or at least very prominent) in U.S. constitutional law and jurisprudence. (Of course, the political philosopher can always respond, “So much the worse for U.S. constitutional law.” I’m of that opinion about some aspects of U.S. constitutional jurisprudence, although not on this particular issue.) The point is that, while it’s a cliche to say that “the United States is an Enlightenment project,” Kant represents a distinctly later stage of the Enlightenment than the thinkers such as Locke, et al. who were a major influence on the founders. In other words, whatever “the American project” is, you’d have a very hard time making the case on historical or constitutional grounds that one of its goals is “to create a more enlightened public.”
To sum up: Amée and I have, I believe, genuine disagreements about some fundamental issues in political philosophy, which are worthy of further discussion. My more immediate point is that the terms of the discussion, as set up in this post, aren’t particularly helpful for addressing those larger issues, for two reasons:
(1)The immediate issue at stake, whether public officials should be able to claim an “exemption of conscience” from doing their jobs, is so cut-and-dried: If you don’t like it, quit!
(2)What exactly “the advancement of society” consists in is left very vague, and talking about it in terms of “enlightened” and “unenlightened” viewpoints is unhelpful, to say the least.
For a recent philosophical defense of a position that I believe is somewhat similar to what Amee’s saying here, it’s worth taking a look at Brian Leiter’s book Why Tolerate Religion?(http://www.amazon.com/Why-Tolerate-Religion-Brian-Leiter/dp/0691153612) which is reviewed here (http://www.yalelawjournal.org/review/why-protect-religious-freedom).) As I understand it, Leiter’s position is that there should be no special legal allowances for freedom of religion; everything that needs protecting is already covered under more general guarantees.
Amee LaTour says
Thanks for taking the time to respond at length. I wanted to reply to some of your comments:
“In fact, given that the process of public reason requires putting ideas out for discussion and debate, hence for possible refutation, it’s necessary that some of those ideas end up getting refuted.” – Good point! I agree.
“I don’t see how this text can in any way be construed as disparaging or dismissive of religion in general.” – I did get away from this text a bit on that one. And I didn’t discuss the clergy because my piece was focused on public officials and the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t mandate religious institutions to perform such marriages; I understand that it may seem like an odd choice not to discuss clergymen, since the piece dealt with religious matters.
“First, Kant’s usage aside, labeling positions as ‘enlightened’ and ‘unenlightened’ strikes me as, at best, a very unfortunate choice of words.” – These were the terms I was working with. I know they have an air of elitism, but I was sticking very closely with the “thinking for oneself” definition used by Kant. If that’s elitist, then perhaps Kant was elitist. But I wanted to apply his ideas to the religious exemption issue, so I used his terms.
I can see how “reference to self” is oversimplified. In the text I was working with, Kant discussed thinking for oneself. He didn’t go into the business of inclination. Sure, I could have drawn from other sources and expanded that part a bit.
I am by no means a Kant scholar. I haven’t read Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone. I have discussed it briefly with a Kant scholar and read a summary. The kind of appeal to religion that Kant would not support, in my understanding, is an unreflective one. I think that stance was supported even in his little op-ed.
“With all respect, I was astounded when I read this, because it entirely ignores 2500 years of reflection on religious matters in both Europe and Asia.” – When I wrote, “If there is a deeper argument combining religious belief with some sort of reasoned stance, I haven’t seen it,” I was referring very specifically to the religious objection to same-sex marriage. Even more specifically, I was referring to “arguments” the general public today advances (which is to say, I don’t hear actual arguments). I can’t prove that most people don’t have some naturalistic-religious argument against it. But I’m not hearing those. And proponents of the religious exemption aren’t requiring those. “It’s against my religion” is supposed to be enough.
It may seem odd, but I actually don’t think Kant’s views on homosexuality are relevant to the piece. I was trying to take some Kantian ideas (as advanced in “What is Enlightenment?”) and see what kinds of questions and conclusions they stirred up on this current affair, at least for me.
“The case would be different if the unenlightened position violated the fundamental human rights of others, but that’s not what Amée said.” Yes, that would have opened up a can of worms, and I was trying to avoid rights discourse and stick to the “public ends” thing. “Negatively impact members of society” was meant to correspond with “vitiation of public ends.” This rings weak compared to the powerful rights discourse we’re used to on the issue. But I was trying to think it through from a different perspective led by different questions and values.
“Well, is that the criterion by which we decide?” No, it is not. This piece did not claim that it was. I was taking a “What if?” approach. I thought it would be neat to look at the issue from a completely different angle. Y
You may question whether that’s helpful or useful, but I think it is. If the religious exemption is not allowed, then the question is: What about freedom of religion? Why is the right of same-sex couples to wed more important/worthy of protection than the right of the judge or clerk to practice his religion? Isn’t freedom of religion a fundamental right? I think we need to appeal to something else, some value, upon which to determine what rights merit protecting in what circumstances, and Kant’s little text shows one way of doing so. And I thought it was cool.
Matthew Brown says
I wonder what Gadamer or Polyani would say about Kants notion thinking for oneself. Is it truly possible to reason entirely independently? Are we not all influenced by people, books, traditions in which we find ourselves? I would question the Kantian application of self-reasoning in regards to the justification of county clerk’s rughts in abstaining from issue marriage licenses. Because some people use their reason worse than others cannot be a basis for whether the rights of religious exemption apply; and more so that the individuals rights depend on the so-called free use of reason purely independent of others. If they do not ground their objections and exercise of the right of religious exemption in a Kantian fashion they forfiet these rights seems dubius not only because the purely independent use of reason is questionable but also because it favors the ‘enlightened’ against those less so which itself raises the question of what political authority has the competency to judge such things. It seems to me that the question of defining public and private rights and obligations is the place to look for a resolution to this problem a problem not limited to SSM but applicable to all instances where ones private convictions and reasoned judgements conflict with the public’s.
Alan Cook says
As I understand it, this is exactly the issue at stake in Gadamer’s debate with Habermas.