Thursday, December 6, 2007

Romney, faith and "moral conviction"

I was completely unaware of Mitt Romney's impending speech this morning when I had the idea to write this post. (Most of my awareness that morning was focused on the fact that the bus driver who didn't stop for me though I chased after the bus for 3 stops, shouting and waving my arms, was an asshole.) The idea came from my earlier post about the Sacks and co. was (and still is) intended to lead into a discussion about how "because it's the right thing to do" is never enough justification.

Then I saw Melissa McEwen's take on Romney's speech, specifically this paragraph:

It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter – on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

As Melissa points out, it's totally false.

This post was originally going to be about how we don't have a vibrant national dialogue about morality in America, the way we have dialogues about public policy. But Mr. Romney provided such a fine opening, I can't not take it.

We *don't* share a "common creed of moral convictions" precisely because the majority religion in America, Christianity, co-opts and preempts moral convictions. We never get to talk about morality; instead we just talk about what the Bible or a particular authority figure says and pretend that's the same thing - but it's much, much closer to the opposite. Or if we don't want to involve religion, we eschew questions of morality as well in order to dwell on legalism and consequentialism.

Here's how an exploration of moral conviction can work. Method #1 (let's call it the Axiomatic Method) is to start with an ethical axiom, and explore all the ramifications of that axiom, rejecting it or conditionally accepting it based on the conclusions drawn. This method seems to me to be the more common form of non-religious moral reasoning, but it's one that's relatively inaccessible. Though you find this a lot among philosophers, divinity students and libertarians, I suspect the average person doesn't really employ this form of moral reasoning in his or her life.

Method #2 is what I'll call the Mindy Method. Start with a moral observation - "X is good." Then ask "Why?" Now you've got a new moral principle. Again, ask "why?" and now you've got another. The goal of this version is *not* necessarily to arrive at a moral axiom and then to build back up from there. Rather, it's to reach an understanding with other moral agents, and to see where we differ. This serves two purposes: (i) we can find common understanding with people who might disagree on particulars; and (ii) we won't get duped into alliances with those whose goals are superficially similar but fundamentally opposed.

It's precisely because Christianity has so completely co-opted morality that "no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people." Christianity, at least as it's practiced throughout this country, explicity rejects the Mindy Method - you generally can't ask "Why?" more than once or twice before bottoming out at "God said so," at which point most inquiry ceases. "Why should we do something just because God said to?" is a question that's reserved for theologians whose general faith is deemed beyond question; the folks in the pews don't typically get that luxury. Even when the question is asked, the answer tends to be consequentialist - either referring to personal consequences for the moral agent in this world, or the next.

Because Christianity avoids the question of "Is this the right thing?", substituting the question of "Is this what God wants?", the domination by Christianity of the moral sphere results in no real discourse about morality. And because the question of why the Christian God's purported wants should be obeyed is answered with an appeal to personal consequences, our discussions of policy tend to follow suit.

Of course, Romney's speech isn't really about moral convictions; it's an appeal to power. It's about defusing concerns among the Religious Right that electing a Mormon president would reduce their influence.

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