Thursday, December 23, 2004

Voting One's Values

I've gotten more comments on my last post than any previous post, which isn't saying much, but still, it's made me hesitant to move it down. However, one of the comments did get me thinking, so I figure if I post on a related topic, maybe the discussion will continue. Of course, I still haven't quite figured out the dynamics of the blog world, so who knows what will happen.

In his comment, Jeremy Pierce, aka Parableman, used a phrase that I've heard often from evangelicals: "vote their conscience." You could substitute this with "vote according to their values," and mean pretty much the same thing, so that's how I'm going to talk about it from this point on. More often than not, this sort of phrase is used in a fashion similar to the following:
Evangelicals should vote according to their values, and should not be faulted for doing so.
The first time I heard a statement like this one, my initial reaction was one of complete agreement. Obviously, in a democracy, people should vote how they want to, and more often than not, they will want to vote according to their values. But then I started to think about it. Can people always vote according to their values? Might their be some circumstances in which doing so will lead to contradictions? In particular, are there not some groups of values that, as guides of personal behavior, are perfectly consistent, but, when they determine public policy decisions, can contradict each other? If this is the case, then people should not always vote according to their all of their values, and when they vote according to some values, they should be faulted for doing so.

To make this all more clear, consider an example of a value that is shared by many, if not most Americans, regardless of religion. I think it is safe to say that most of us place a great deal of value on our religious freedom. Furthermore, I think the concept of religious freedom that most Americans hold contains two components, either explicitly or implicitly. The first component, call it the positive component, holds that we should have the freedom to practice the religion that we choose, in the way that we choose (within reason, of course). The second component, call it the negative component, holds that we should not be forced by law to practice any part of other peoples' religions. The positive component simply says that if I want to be a Southern Baptist, I can be, and I should be able to perform the behaviors that my Southern Baptist faith prescribes. The negative component says that if I'm a Southern Baptist, I shouldn't be forced by law to go to confession, or pray to Mecca 5 times a day, or eat only kosher foods.

Assuming that most Americans value both of these components of their religious freedom, and value them highly, it stands to reason that there are some religious values that individual Americans have, but which should not guide their voting. For instance, Muslim Americans who share this value should not vote to force all women to wear Burkhas in public (or vote for politicians because they support laws of that sort), because it is inconsistent with the negative component of religious freedom. On the other hand, there are values that are primarily or entirely religious (e.g., anti-abortion values) which, though they are religiously-motivated values, can reasonably be said to trump the value of religious freedom. I suspect that most Americans who believe that abortion is murder feel that life is more sacred than absolute religious freedom*. So, in the case of burkhas, one probably should not vote according to one's specific religious value, but according to one's broader belief in religious freedom, while in the case of abortion, one should probably vote according to the specific religious value even if it conflicts with one's concept of religious freedom.

The question individuals have to ask themselves, then, is which religious values should and should not guide voting, given their belief in the the two components of religious freedom above? Which are more like the burkha issue, and which are more like abortion? There just happens to be an excellent example in contemporary American politics that can illustrate the difficulty in answering this problem: gay marriage. I, and many other secularists or liberal Christians are likely to feel that opposition to gay marriage, which is almost always motivated by religious beliefs, should not guide voting. When it does, it violates the negative aspect of religious freedom in a way that is more like the burkha example than the abortion one. Many conservative Christians may think otherwise. They may believe that the case of gay marriage is more similar to abortion than to burkhas.

The long of the short of all this is that the statement, "people should vote according to their values" is too broad, and in each case, we should look at the particular set of relevant values before determining which ones should guide our votes. The second lesson is that people can, and sometimes should be criticized for voting according to certain values, but it's likely that many of us will disagree about which cases deserve criticism, and which do not. Thus, the real lesson is that justifying one's vote by saying ,"I am just voting my conscience," or, "I'm just voting according to values," is just another way of saying, "You and I disagree." Furthermore, such appeals carry no more weight against criticism than mere disagreement, which is to say, none at all.

* Before anyone starts to wonder, I am vehemently pro-choice, and in this paragraph, I am simply trying to articulate what many anti-choice Christians may believe.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry I missed the first installment and the discussion, but I will jump in here to say that I have no interest in how people justify their vote. That is a purely private issue and anyway they probably don't really know why they voted the way they did--more automatic behavior.

What does concern me is one manifestation of religion in the public square, namely that a religious justification of policy is supposed to be sufficient. If someone has personal religious reasons for proposing a policy, but they can make an argument for it on non-religious grounds, then I'll be happy to listen and decide. On the other hand, if their only argument is based on religion, then it's a waste of my time to even listen.

This is not bigotry. As far as I am concerned, such an argument would be equivalent to an argument based on astrology. I already know I'm not going to be convinced. 

Posted by wmr

Anonymous said...

Personally I find problematic the view that voting ought to be so private that discussion regarding justification is inappropriate. Ideally informed decision is always better than ill informed and discussions of "why" are often very appropriate. What scares me a great deal, regardless of party or ideological affiliation, is how many people don't have much by way of reason for their vote. Yes, their "instictive" reactions may reflect some underlying unconscious judgment. But, by and large, and from many discussions, I'm just not sure people vote the way they do for good reasons - conscious or unconscious.

In a fairly divided electorate like our current one, that leads to an appeal to what I see as the worst in us - our emotionalism and confusion.

Regarding the whole issue of voting values, especially religious values, the real issue is the value of free will and the right to be wrong. When are we right to allow people to be wrong? Since the mid-19th century utilitarianism has been appealed to a lot. Bentham and Mill are still major figures. However I'm just not sure that helps us too much.

Take a controversial subject like pornography or related industries like strip clubs. Do we allow them or do we ban them? While my inclination is to allow, but strictly regulate and zone them, I fully understand those who disagree with me and think they ought vote their conscience. Yet, when the discussion turns to burkas or women's rights, I'm far less willing to agree. Why is that? Not because of some general rule regarding freedom but simply because my values clearly think forcing a woman to do something she might not wish to is wrong. I don't see the social benefit. With strip clubs, while one could say one is still limiting what a woman can do (prance around naked) it seems that a stronger appeal to social good can be made.

Logically, there is no difference. Yet in one case I buy the value of social good while in the other I don't.

So how does this apply to the Evangelicals? Well, I suppose the real problem is making it seem like the problem is freedom and allowing people the right to be wrong. However in practice i think it is just a disagreement about what social goods we accept. Sectarian humanists and Evangelicals simply have very, very different ideas of social goods. So different that the epithet of "fascist theocrat" gets thrown around. However what really is at the basis is a chasm of the social. 

Posted by Clark

Anonymous said...

Clark, the last part of your comment is exactly what I was getting it, though you said it better than I did. When people get upset about secularists criticizing Evangelicals for "voting their conscience," it's like getting upset for criticizing people for voting based on any other area of disagreement. Evangelicals and I will almost certainly draw the lines of liberty and social goods in different places. I will criticize them for voting the way they do, they will criticize me for voting the way I do, and if we say, "We should be allowed to vote our conscience" in response to the others' criticisms, we're not saying much of anything. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

Interesting guest blog post up at Leiter's blog on a fairly similar topic

Posted by Clark

Anonymous said...

Clark, I saw that. I've been out of town, so I haven't really had the time to post much of anything, but after I post the Carnival, I'm going to say something about Postner's post. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

I don't think you understand the pro-life position if you think it's merely religious. There are philosophical reasons for the pro-life view. I admit that not all the arguments people accept are good philosophy, though I do happen to think there are convincing philosophical arguments that abortion is nearly always morally wrong. Judging by my teaching experience and interaction with philosophers on these issues, I don't think the average pro-choicer even understands those arguments, and most philosophers who are pro-choice get around them by accepting (in an ad hoc manner) premises that I find philosophically unmotivated. I've tried to explain why I don't think the primary pro-life arguments need be religious in any way here

Posted by Jeremy Pierce

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, a couple things. First, I think it would be hard to argue that the abortion debate does not take place on primarily religious grounds in this country (and everywhere else). Non-religiously motivated concepts of personhood, moral agency, and the like, have trouble starting at clumps of undifferentiated cells. There are two primary ways to impute personhood onto these: give them a soul, or make some claim about potentiality. I think philosophers have done a very good job of countering the second type of argument, and the first type is impossible to counter, without reference to additional theological beliefs.

In your post, you make one point that might lead to problems for philosophers, and that is that the anti-choicer need not attribute some moral status to the embryo/fetus, but only note that it is a possibility. This argument is not religious, but it would require some formulation of what reasons could possibly given for its moral status, and I imagine you would have trouble finding non-religious ones. In addition, hypotheticals will have trouble trumping the very real and definite moral status of a woman to control her own body. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

Also, more generally, it seems to me that there's lots of room for "voting values" or "voting one's conscience" that doesn't at all fall victim to the problem you're imposing on it. For instance, many conservatives oppose pornography for two reasons that aren't merely moralistic. One reason is that they believe it's a bad idea to desensitive people to sex by making it a public thing. It should be kept private and not flaunted, which takes the sacredness from it. That's somewhat religious, but I can think of non-religious arguments for it. The second reason is one many feminists agree with, that pornography tends to portray women as mere sexual objects for men to use as a means to an end. That's a moral view that many people share and counts as a reason to oppose it that's not at all religious and doesn't involve legislating some private and unargued moral view. It's actually consistent with Mill's harm principle. Pornography sends a message that women are to be used as a means to an end, whether for sex or for other purposes, and that has a detrimental effect on the moral development of boys as they learn to interact with girls, which in turn affects male-female relations between adults and perpetuates the narrative that women are morally subordinate to men. Conservatives who oppose pornography agree with this line of reasoning, and that includes people like James Dobson of Focus on the Family. I know because my dad used to listen to him every day in the car, and I was often with him, and when I saw feminists giving this line of reasoning as something new I couldn't believe it. Evangelicals have been saying this as long as I can remember. What strikes me as even stranger is that Catherine MacKinnon has claimed that evangelicals have not agreed with her reasoning on why pornography is bad (which just shows her ignorance).

So it just seems false to me that opposition to pornography is merely based on a religious view about sexual morality, as many people have thought. I believe that there are similar arguments behind many people's views on other issues that secularists have claimed to be merely religious.

Gay marriage is a good case in point. Those who oppose gay marriage do give arguments, and they're not religious arguments. Maybe they're bad arguments, but they're philosophical arguments nonetheless. In case you're unfamiliar with them, I'll mention a few. Some think allowing gay marriage will undermine the value of heterosexual marriage and appeal to the value of tradition, recognizing that the institution of marriage has a very long tradition and has been successful, and expanding it is a bad idea because we should stand with the weight of tradition. Another is that any justification for gay marriage will of necessity require also allowing other things we would not want (which is not the same argument as saying that being more permissive here will lead to more permissiveness elsewhere but that the reason for allowing it here will require allowing it elsewhere, which I could list as a separate argument if I felt like adding to the list). A third line of reasoning has to do with the libertarian idea that the government shouldn't regulate marriage at all, since it's a religious concept, but that leaves open the possibility of civil unions and requires removing marriage language from heterosexual unions (this is my own view, by the way). A fourth argument is that you could so easily get abuse of marriage benefits. College students living together could claim to be married to get health insurance and tax benefits, and so on. I thought I had another one, but I can't remember it. The point is that these arguments, even if they're bad arguments, are philosopical and not religious. 

Posted by Jeremy Pierce

Anonymous said...

My point is that philosophers have revised the definition of person so as to exclude something that's a human organism but doesn't have whatever features something they want to be able to kill does not have. I have seen no argument for this definition of personhood. The earliest literature I've seen it in is the abortion literature, from such people as Mary Anne Warren and Judith Jarvis Thomson. It seems circular to me, and yet philosophers have by and large accepted that definition over the more commonsense definition that a human being is a person. Since pregnant mothers commonly refer to their unborn children in person-language, with the fact that many don't know the sex of their child as the only thing sometimes preventing this, it just seems much more reasonable not to accept the philosophical orthodoxy on this, especially because it requires degrees of personhood that mean a mentally retarded or autistic person is less of a person than someone else. I just can't accept that sort of thing, but it has nothing to do with souls (which is itself a philosophical issue, not necessarily a religious one) or any religious beliefs.

A woman does not have the absolute right to control her own body if it means taking a knife and plunging it into my heart. Any claim to that sort of right is just false. If you have a more limited right in mind, then that's worth talking about. The primary issue here is not about that, though, but about what sort of organism it's ok to kill and in what circumstances. If it's not permissible to kill the violinist in Thomson's paper, as I and many others think, then the primary argument from a woman's right to control her body is undermined significantly. 

Posted by Jeremy Pierce

Anonymous said...

On abortion: I don't think philosophers have to revise definitions of personhood. I imagine very few folk conceptions of personhood would encompass clumps of cells, and our conceptions of death tend to fit very nicely with pro-choice conceptions of personhood. They are only revising them if revision involves excluding souls.

On values more generally: you're right, there are arguments against pornography and gay rights, but these make one's position on the issue more than simply "voting one's conscience." They become reasoned judgements. I can criticize you for those all I want, because I think your judgements are wrong, and you probably won't take offense. For instance, I may argue that you should not vote based on an ignorance of history (as in anti-gay marriage arguments that appeal to the history of marriage), or vague prognostications (e.g., about the effects of legalized gay marriage on heterosexual marriage), and you may disagree, but you wouldn't fault me for the type of criticisms, even if you would fault me for the contents of them. The point I was trying to make here is that the belief that people should be able to vote their conscience, whatever their concscience may be, is simply false, and that attempts to deflect criticism by appeal to one's conscience is to fail to deflect any criticisms. Liberal religious arguments would suffer the same fate. We shouldn't always vote in accordance with all our values in all circumstances, and simply appealing to our values is an empty appeal. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

We could keep going on abortion and the other side issues, so I won't keep pressing the point even though I have more to say. I think my main worry with what you're saying is over the moral/legal disctinction. It's wrong to do some things, even if your conscience tells you to do them. That's a statement about the immorality of an action. When it comes to voting, though, or laws, we're not necessarily talking about the same thing. It might be morally wrong to vote for a certain policy, but it might legally be what I should do. The law is that I should vote for what I agree with. It might be morally wrong to vote for a KKK-type or someone advocating giving tax money to reward men for beating their wives, but isn't there some sense in which someone believing such things should vote for such things? It's not a moral sense, since it's morally wrong to vote for such things. Those things are morally wrong, and voting for them is morally wrong. Still, it just seems to me to be true in some other sense of 'should' that you should vote for things you agree with, even if those things are bad policies. I'm not sure what that sense is, but it's the same sense in which you should act according to your convictions for moral consistency, even if you're wrong in your moral beliefs. It can't be a moral 'should', but I'm not sure what it is. 

Posted by Jeremy Pierce

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