Last week I argued leaders should make decisions based on objective, transcendent moral principles. But not everyone agrees. If we are going to do so we must be ready to respond to three objections others will have.
OBJECTION 1: TRANSCENDENT PRINCIPLES ARE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND SO SHOULD BE EXCLUDED FROM PUBLIC DECISIONS
The first objection is that transcendent principles are actually religious convictions, and one should never bring religious convictions into the “public square.”
Sometimes this objection is raised more specifically in relation to Christian beliefs being inappropriate in the public square, because this would lead to a Christian” nation where those of other faiths are no longer welcome. So we must reject appealing to transcendent principles.
Four more things can be said in response:
(1) Unfortunately we Christians are guilty of providing support for this objection by how we often engage our culture. We have failed to follow the biblical model described in Jeremiah 29:5-7 to “Seek the shalom (flourishing) of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” In other words, “seek the flourishing and well-being of those around you who believe and value the exact opposite of what you believe and value.” This is reflected in the command to “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves;” (Philippians 2:3) and Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
This posture is ultimately grounded in the biblical doctrine of the “Imago Dei”—that each person is created in God’s image and therefore of infinite worth, regardless of whether or not they are “like” us or agree with us. So Christians have a biblical duty to seek to apply transcendent principles in ways that lead to human flourishing and the common good, not that make ours a "Christian" company, a "Christian" neighborhood or a “Christian” nation. If we do this well, others will “see our good works, and glorify our Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
(2) Logically, this objection rests on a false dichotomy between “religious” and “non-religious” convictions. Religion is essentially what a person takes to be ultimate, and therefore of the greatest value. The fact is that everyone takessomething to be ultimate and of supreme value. Christians believe this to be the Triune God. Others believe it to be Matter, or Humanity, or the Environment, and so on. So “religious convictions” are simply convictions based on what one takes to be ultimate and of greatest value.
Decisions are made every day based on taking one of these things to be ultimate and thus of the highest worth. Therefore, to exclude some views just because they don’t agree with what one takes to be ultimate is arbitrary. Furthermore, this objection discriminates against those who hold certain views (“viewpoint discrimination”) and so is intolerant of those who disagree with the status quo. For this reason transcendent principles should not be excluded from moral reasoning and decision-making.
(3) Two of the three types of Deontology (ethical systems assuming transcendent principles) can be held without appeal to God or Christianity. If transcendent principles can be discovered in the world around us, a Pragmatist can argue this is enough reason to employ these transcendent principles. The person following Kant and grounding these transcendent principles in reason alone does not appeal to God either. Nor does the Platonist, who grounds these transcendent principles in eternal Platonic Forms. So, belief in transcendent principles is not essentially or necessarily “religious.” Appealing to these principles in public decision-making would no more make us a “Christian” nation than it would make us a Platonic nation or a Kantian nation.
(4) In fact, the application of these transcendent principles leads to a just society, not a Christian society. It is only by applying these transcendent principles that we can ensure “justice for all.” On the other hand, applying a relativistic ethic will result in “justice only for loudest voices,” or “justice only for the most ‘valuable’ to society” (value being defined by those in power), or “justice only for those with the most money” (or “justice only for those with the least money”), etc. So only by applying these transcendent principles in public decision-making will we achieve what everyone desires—the common good.
For at least these four reasons this first objection fails.
In my next post I’ll tackle the other two objections to leaders making decisions based on transcendent principles.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics by Scott Rae