Austin Dacey’s The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life, published this month, is a welcome contribution to the way we think and argue about the right orderingwhich inescapably means the moral ordering of the society of which we are all part. He notes that, when I published The Naked Public Square more than twenty years ago, liberal secularists had to a very large extent excluded from public discourse explicitly moral argumentsand especially arguments associated with a recognizable religious tradition. Now secularists are alarmed and appalled by the inundation of moral and religious language in the public square, but they have learned nothing. They are still, against their own interests, pursuing the same policy of exclusion.
Here is Dacey’s thesis: “Secularists have the moral high ground, if they will only claim it, and in so doing break the religious monopoly on the language of ethics and values. . . . Secular liberalism is in disarray. Abroad, the confrontation with Islamic totalitarianism shakes the complacency of the open society. At home, liberals are soul searching. This book attempts to show how they can reclaim the language of meaning, morality, and values in the culture wars at home and in the struggle for toleration abroad. They must remove the gag order on ethics, values, and religion in public debate; hold religious claims accountable to public criticism; rediscover the secular moral conscience; and advance a moral case for their values of personal autonomy, equality, toleration, self-criticism, and well-being.”
On almost all the hot-button issuesabortion, embryo-destructive research, same-sex marriage, Darwinism as a comprehensive philosophy, etc.Dacey is, in my judgment, on the wrong side. But he is right about one very big thing. These contests are not between people who, on the one side, are trying to impose their morality on others, and people who, on the other side, subscribe to a purely procedural and amoral rationality. Over the years, some of us have been trying to elicit from our opponents the recognition that they, too, are making moral arguments and hoping that their moral vision will prevail. But in the world of secular liberalism, morality is the motive that dare not speak its name. Austin Dacey strongly agrees. I expect he would not agree that the secularist moral vision entails a quasi-religious understanding of reality, but one step at a time, and The Secular Conscience is a critically important first step.
Dacey has quibbles with Pope Benedict’s analysis of moral “relativism,” but he admits that “secular liberals find it hard to shake the lingering feeling that there is something to the pope’s diagnosis. Something disquieting has been happening to the Western mind over the last half century.” He writes about a philosophy professor who reports that none of his students are Holocaust deniers, but an increasing number are even worse: “They acknowledge the fact, even deplore it, but cannot bring themselves to condemn it morally.” Who are they to say that the Nazis were morally wrong? And so it is also with apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. For these students, passing moral judgment “is to be a moral ‘absolutist,’ and having been taught that there are no absolutes, they now see any judgment as arbitrary, intolerant, and authoritarian.”
Secularists, says Dacey, need to recover the courage to make frankly moral arguments. “The conventional view that genuine conscience requires religion has it precisely wrong; genuine religion requires conscience.” To which one might respond that the likelihood of having a well-informed conscience is greatly enhanced by religion that is attentive to truth, but Christians should have no problem with the second part of his assertion, that genuine religion requires conscience. And it is certainly true that the religious have no monopoly on conscience. The moral truths that we cannot not know are universal and, as St. Paul says, are written on the human heart.
Secular liberalism “has been undone by its own ideas,” Dacey writes. “The first idea is that matters of consciencereligion, ethics, and valuesare private matters. . . . By making conscience private, secular liberals had hoped to prevent believers from introducing sectarian beliefs into politics. But of course they couldn’t, since freedom of belief means believers are free to speak their minds in public.” Dacey recognizes the gravely flawed view of John Rawls that public decisions must be advanced by public reasons recognized by all reasonable parties. That is not the case with most questions requiring political decisions. He writes:
“A policy can be justified when it is favored by a convergence of citizens’ varying reasons, without there being any consensus on those reasons themselves. And there is no reason why the claims of conscience can’t be a part of such convergence. For example, you might favor the creation of a federal wildlife preserve because you believe it will be good for the tourist economy, while I might favor it because I believe God made people stewards of the environment. So long as our reasons converge, the decision is justified to each of us and the ideal of legitimacy is preserved. There is nothing necessarily illegitimate about conscience.”
Precisely. At the same time, most of the decisions pertinent to the right ordering of the public square can be deliberated and decided on the basis of reasons derived from what Christians variously describe as natural law, the left-hand kingdom of God (Lutherans), or general revelation (Calvinists). In each of these instances, as also with the secularist, conscience is the capacity to discern and act on the truth. At several points, Dacey observes that “a serious, earnest claim of conscience should be held to the same standards as any other: honesty, rationality, consistency, evidence, feasibility, legality, morality, and revisability.” Christians might want to phrase that somewhat differently but, in principle, should have no disagreement.
Dacey offers a vigorous critique of the limitations in the theories of such secular icons as Hobbes, Kant, and Mill, and is strikingly on target in calling fellow liberals to account for their pusillanimity in the face of the radically illiberal challenge of Islamic Jihadism. The book opens with the splendid poem by Czeslaw Milosz “Incantations.”
Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it . . .
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good . . .
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit,
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.
Of course, as Jeremy Driscoll explained in “The Witness of Czeslaw Milosz” in First Things, the poet’s confidence in the unity of reason and beauty was deeply grounded in his Christian faith. We should not be hesitant, however, indeed we should be eager, to acknowledge that non-Christians, too, participate in the wisdom to which Milosz bears witness. This is at the heart of what is meant by saying that all truth is one because the origin and sustaining dynamic of truth is one, with all things cohering in the logosthe word and reason who is Christ.
The Secular Conscience was written in order to advance the fortunes of liberal secularism in the public square. On many questions of great public moment, most of us will disagree with Austin Dacey. At the same time, he should be recognized as an ally in his contention that these are moral questions that must be addressed by moral argument. As Father John Courtney Murray understood, democracy is an open-ended project in which we are “locked in civil argument.” Until, that is, the right ordering of our life together is definitively achieved when Jesus returns in glory. Meanwhile, we may hope that Austin Dacey will persuade many other liberal secularists to join the civil, and unabashedly moral, argument about the right ordering of our life together.
The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life by Austin Dacey
The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus
"The Witness of Czeslaw Milosz" by Jeremy Driscoll