Are There Secular Reasons?
By STANLEY FISH
Stanley FishStanley Fish
education, law and society.
In the always-ongoing debate about the role of religion in public life,
the argument most often made on the liberal side (by which I mean the
side of Classical Liberalism, not the side of left politics) is that
policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons
that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any
religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted /as/ reasons by all
citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations. So
it's O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation will benefit the
economy, or improve the nation's health, or strengthen national
security; but it's not O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of
legislation should be passed because it comports with a verse from the
book of Genesis or corresponds to the will of God.
A somewhat less stringent version of the argument permits religious
reasons to be voiced in contexts of public decision-making so long as
they have a secular counterpart: thus, citing the prohibition against
stealing in the Ten Commandments is all right because there is a secular
version of the prohibition rooted in the law of property rights rather
than in a biblical command. In a more severe version of the argument, on
the other hand, you are not supposed even to have religious thoughts
when reflecting on the wisdom or folly of a piece of policy. Not only
should you act secularly when you enter the public sphere; you should
also think secularly.
Whether the argument appears in its softer or harder versions, behind it
is a form of intellectual/political apartheid known as the
private/public distinction: matters that pertain to the spirit and to
salvation are the province of religion and are to be settled by
religious reasons; matters that pertain to the good order and prosperity
of civil society are the province of democratically elected
representatives and are to be settled by secular reasons. As John Locke
put it in 1689 ("A Letter Concerning Toleration")
the "care of men's souls" is the responsibility of the church while to
the civil magistrate belongs the care of "outward things such as money,
land, houses, furniture and the like"; it is his responsibility to
secure for everyone, of whatever denomination or belief, "the just
possession of these things belonging to this life."
A neat division, to be sure, which has the effect (not, I think,
intended by Locke) of honoring religion by kicking it upstairs and out
of sight. If the business of everyday life --- commerce, science,
medicine, law, agriculture, education, foreign policy, etc. --- can be
assigned to secular institutions employing secular reasons to justify
actions, what is left to religious institutions and religious reasons is
a private area of contemplation and worship, an area that can be safely
and properly ignored when there are "real" decisions to be made. Let
those who remain captives of ancient superstitions and fairy tales have
their churches, chapels, synagogues, mosques, rituals and liturgical
mumbo-jumbo; just don't confuse the (pseudo)knowledge they traffic in
with the knowledge needed to solve the world's problems.
This picture is routinely challenged by those who contend that secular
reasons and secular discourse in general don't tell the whole story;
they leave out too much of what we know to be important to human life.
No they don't, is the reply; everything said to be left out can be
accounted for by the vocabularies of science, empiricism and naturalism;
secular reasons can do the whole job. And so the debate goes, as
polemicists on both sides hurl accusations in an exchange that has
become as predictable as it is over-heated.
But the debate takes another turn if one argues, as the professor of law
Steven Smith does in his new book, "The Disenchantment of Secular
are no secular reasons, at least not reasons of the kind that could
justify a decision to take one course of action rather than another.
It is not, Smith tells us, that secular reason can't do the job (of
identifying ultimate meanings and values) we need religion to do; it's
worse; secular reason can't do its own self-assigned job --- of
describing the world in ways that allow us to move forward in our
projects --- without importing, but not acknowledging, the very
perspectives it pushes away in disdain.
While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled
experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that
can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it
cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it. No matter how
much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical
operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the
moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or
imperative it points to; for it doesn't point anywhere; it just sits
there, inert and empty.
Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding
meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted
philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being
"composed of atomic particles randomly colliding and . . . sometimes
evolving into more and more complicated systems and entities including
ourselves" there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer
normative questions, questions like "what are we supposed to do?" and
"at the behest of who or what are we to do it?"
Smith is not in the business of denigrating science and rationalism or
minimizing their great achievements. Secular reason --- reason cut off
from any a priori stipulations of what is good and valuable --- can take
us a long way. We'll do fine as long as we only want to find out how
many X's or Y's there are or investigate their internal structure or
discover what happens when they are combined, and so forth.
But the next step, the step of going from observation to evaluation and
judgment, proves difficult, indeed impossible, says Smith, for the
"truncated discursive resources available within the downsized domain of
'public reason' are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a
difficult issue --- abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the
permissibility of torture . . . ." If public reason has "deprived" the
natural world of "its normative dimension" by conceiving of it as
free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself,
how, Smith asks, "could one squeeze moral values or judgments about
justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?" No way that is not a
sleight of hand. This is the cul de sac Enlightenment philosophy traps
itself in when it renounces metaphysical foundations in favor of the
"pure" investigation of "observable facts." It must somehow bootstrap or
engineer itself back up to meaning and the possibility of justified
judgment, but it has deliberately jettisoned the resources that would
enable it do so.
Nevertheless, Smith observes, the self-impoverished discourse of secular
reason does in fact produce judgments, formulate and defend agendas, and
speak in a normative vocabulary. How is this managed? By "smuggling,"
. . . the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is
constrained today is insufficient to convey our full set of
normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative
matters anyway --- but only by smuggling in notions that are
formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged
or adverted to.
The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include "notions
about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with
Aristotelian 'final causes' or a providential design," all banished from
secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance
rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational
calculation. But if secular discourse needs notions like these to have a
direction --- to even get started --- "we have little choice except to
smuggle [them] into the conversations --- to introduce them incognito
under some sort of secular disguise."
And how do we do that? Well, one way is to invoke secular concepts like
freedom and equality --- concepts sufficiently general to escape the
taint of partisan or religious affiliation --- and claim that your
argument follows from them. But, Smith points out (following Peter
Westen and others), freedom and equality --- and we might add justice,
fairness and impartiality --- are empty abstractions. Nothing follows
from them until we have answered questions like "fairness in relation to
what standard?" or "equality with respect to what measures?" --- for
only then will they have content enough to guide deliberation.
That content, however, will always come from the suspect realm of
contested substantive values. Is fairness to be extended to everyone or
only to those with certain credentials (of citizenship, education,
longevity, etc.)? Is it equality of opportunity or equality of results
(the distinction on which affirmative action debates turn)? Only when
these matters have been settled can the abstractions do any work, and
the abstractions, in and of themselves, cannot settle them. Indeed,
concepts like fairness and equality are normatively useless, except as
rhetorical ornaments, until they are filled in by some partisan or
ideological or theological perspective, precisely the perspectives
secular reason has forsworn. Therefore, Smith concludes, "conversations
in the secular cage could not proceed very far without smuggling."
Smith does not claim to be saying something wholly new. He cites David
itself "reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question," and
Alasdair MacIntyre's description in "After Virtue"
consisting "of the now incoherent fragments of a kind of reasoning that
made sense on older metaphysical assumptions."
And he might have added Augustine
Trinitate" that the entailments of reason cannot unfold in the absence
of a substantive proposition they did not and could not generate; or
Roberto Unger's insistence in "Knowledge and Politics"
that "as long as formal neutrality is strictly maintained, the standards
it produces will be . . . empty shells . . . incapable of determining
precisely what is commanded or prohibited in particular situations of
choice." (In "The Trouble With Principle"
"there are no neutral principles, only principles that are already
informed by the substantive content to which they are rhetorically
But no matter who delivers the lesson, its implication is clear. Insofar
as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that
emerge in the course of disinterested observation --- secular reasons
--- and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it
hasn't got a leg to stand on.