Tony Coady on Religion in the Political Sphere: Part 2, Deliberative Restraint

In his second Leverhulme Lecture on November 22nd, Professor Tony Coady focused on the issues underlying the common assertion that we ought to exclude religious arguments from deliberations in the political sphere of liberal democratic societies. Coady traces this idea to arguments by Audi and Rawls on ‘secular reasons’ and ‘public reasons’ respectively, which suggest that the sorts of reasons and arguments made in public policy decision-making ought to be secular or neutral, in the sense of being accessible to all reasonable citizens, on the basis of mutual respect.

However, Coady raises a number of questions that demonstrate the problematic nature of this concept of ‘deliberative restraint.’ Perhaps most fundamentally, how can we in practice distinguish between religious reasons and non-religious reasons? Must an argument cite God in order to be considered a ‘religious argument’ or merely appear to be influenced by religious concepts? The later would probably exclude arguments from the natural law tradition or those based on human dignity, which in fact look quite similar to non-religious arguments. Furthermore, how can we know whether an individual accepts a given reason because it comes from a religious source or because it appeals to him independently? Finally, why do we think that mutual respect requires the articulation of only non-religious reasons in the public sphere? It seems religious individuals can demonstrate mutual respect for fellow citizens in many other ways, through respect for procedural and constitutional practices for instance, without excluding religious arguments.

Due to a personal interest in the ethical deliberation of novel assisted reproductive technologies (ART), I found Coady’s most interesting example to be the instances in which non-religious individuals make arguments that look and sound a lot like religious arguments. For example, people frequently disapprove of advances in ART on the grounds that we are “playing God,” and many environmentalists raise concerns that humans have begun to “dominate Nature” in a problematic way. While Coady mentioned these types of pseudo-religious arguments only briefly, the proper place of such arguments in public deliberation seems to be a particularly topical issue.

A recording of the lecture is available here. Coady’s final lecture, which will focus on the mediation of religious arguments in political deliberation in practice, will be held tomorrow at the Oxford Martin School.

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