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Peter Singer and religious liberty

This week, Peter Singer made me do something that I won't soon forgive him for: he caused me to defend the Roman Catholic Church. On more than one occasion, actually.

I wrote several months back about the RCC's response to the contraception mandate. (Quick recap for non-Americans: Obamacare requires that all insurance plans cover "preventive care" like contraception, and only makes exceptions for clergy and other people employed by houses of worship – but not for people at religion-affiliated groups like Catholic hospitals and universities. The RCC hierarchy and several other religious institutions have resisted this aspect of the law because they think it interferes with religious liberty, since it would force religious groups other than churches to pay for things they considered deeply immoral.) I haven't really changed my mind on that whole issue, and I still think employers shouldn't be allowed to impose their morality on their employers through things like health care policies. It's perfectly legitimate to say that I am only allowed to be reimbursed up to a certain cap, or that procedures need to be proven effective at accomplishing their goal; but it's not up to the employer to decide whether that goal is a good one or not. I still think that whether the employer is religious or not is irrelevant here.

But I'm not going to press that issue any more just now. There are bigger fish to fry. Last week the ethicist Peter Singer published an editorial talking about religious liberty. If you aren't familiar with his work, he actually has a good FAQ available at his website outlining his views. Basically, Singer is a utilitarian (meaning actions are judged based on their consequences, how much pleasure and pain they create – for us and for anything else including non-human animals). Because of this, Singer's become a favorite son of the animal rights movement. In particular, he's very much against slaughter-houses where animals suffer greatly to provide meat, milk, and eggs more cheaply to us humans. As you can imagine, he's all for doing anything that will keep those animals from suffering, up to and including becoming a vegetarian (he is one) if the joy of eating meat is outweighed by the slaughtered animal's suffering.

Hence, the editorial: The Use and Abuse of Religious Freedom

See, some countries around the world have banned certain kinds of animal slaughter. Religious groups often have a problem here because unlike modern slaughtering practices where the animal is often stunned so it's unconscious when it's actually killed, kosher and halal laws require the animal to be conscious when it's killed. Those same laws also require that the butcher use a smooth blade so the animal wouldn't feel pain, and they restrict the situations under which meat can be eaten at all. In my opinion this gives the animal a dignity and a moral status you don't see in the slaughterhouses (frankly, I struggle to imagine anything less ethical than knocking anyone unconscious, human or no, and then hacking them up while they're unable to defend themselves), but I guess if we're looking just at the avoidance of pain, the stunning method is probably best.

Singer argued that these laws don't really violate religious liberty because there's nothing requiring Jews and Muslims to eat meat slaughtered in the wrong way. They could simply become vegetarians. According to Singer, we don't need to worry about religious liberty unless a law actually contradicts a religious requirement. They can just go vegetarian if they don't want to break their religion's requirements.

Singer also applies this definition of religious liberty to the contraception mandate, and here's where I really start disagreeing with him. I'm no expert on vegetarianism and the arguments for and against it, so this question of whether Jews and Muslims should have to go vegetarianism only affects me in a vague sort of way. I simply don't feel all that strongly about it either way, although it does strike me as basically unjust. On the other hand, I study and teach at a Catholic school. Catholic higher education is something I do know and care about, so when Singer took aim at that, I couldn't help but take notice.

Here's Singer's take on the contraception mandate:

Likewise, the Obama administration's requirement to provide health insurance that covers contraception does not prevent Catholics from practicing their religion. Catholicism does not oblige its adherents to run hospitals and universities. […]

Of course, the Catholic Church would be understandably reluctant to give up its extensive networks of hospitals and universities. My guess is that, before doing so, they would come to see the provision of health-insurance coverage for contraception as compatible with their religious teachings. But, if the Church made the opposite decision, and handed over its hospitals and universities to bodies that were willing to provide the coverage, Catholics would still be free to worship and follow their religion's teachings.

So again we have this idea that nothing is forcing Catholics to open hospitals and universities and other institutions whose employees are entitled to contraception coverage under the health care law. I don't actually agree with him there. Whatever we might say about vegetarianism (and I'll leave that question to those better informed than me), Christianity does command that we heal the sick and teach people both about Christianity's specific revelation and about the world more generally. In the modern world, the best way to do this is to set up hospitals and schools, including universities. Are we really prepared to say there are no religious liberty issues when you tell Catholics they can't heal the sick, when the Bible probably gives us more explicit commands to do that than it does to worship God? That just seems perverse to me.

Of course, the contraception mandate doesn't keep Catholics from healing the sick. You don't actually have to set up a hospital to treat the sick (individual Catholics could work at non-Catholic hospitals, for instance). And if you had a hospital where everyone was a completely faithful Catholic, the issue just wouldn't come up; I have a hard time imagining most of the Catholics upset about religious liberty violations being so against the mandate if Catholic hospitals and universities weren't actually paying for contraception because no one working there was putting claims in for it. Also, Catholics aren't necessarily faced with a choice between paying for contraception and closing down their hospitals and universities; they could just pay the fines for noncompliance, for example. Still, there are religious liberty issues here. The reason these workarounds are necessary is Catholic does condemn contraception use (even the non-abortifacient kind). Catholicism requires more than just a certain kind of worship.

The tricky part here is that Catholic institutions regularly hire non-Catholics. I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea that my employer gets to impose his morality on areas of my life having nothing to do with my job. (To be fair, I'm also deeply uncomfortable with the idea that our currently society forces this decision on the RCC and other religious groups; in my ideal world health insurance wouldn't be tied to the employers at all.) Catholic hospitals just about have to hire non-Catholics because there simply aren't always enough Catholic cardiologists and medical billing specialists available in a certain geographical area to completely staff a hospital with people willing to accept the Church's teaching on contraception. This is doubly difficult for universities, where you probably are looking for a person with a very specific expertise. If a Catholic university could only hire Catholic professors that would seriously undermine its ability to attract the best people. I'm not saying Catholics don't make good academics (far from it!), but in academia you usually want someone with a very narrow specialty. That means you really want the widest applicant pool you can get.

In our society, we typically provide health insurance through companies. To my mind, it's part of the compensation you get for working there. It's also the price companies and institutions pay because we don't subsidize health care (or health insurance) through our taxes. That means less of a tax burden for companies and individuals, but it also means more responsibilities fall to those companies and individuals (and non-profit institutions like the RCC) to provide the care society needs. A government without tax $$$ sure can't do it. If I could afford health care without my employer's help (either independently or through government programs) I wouldn't need its approval to get the health care I needed. And so it strikes me as seriously unfair that my employer should be able to decide what health care is available to me, simply because I'm not poor enough to qualify for government assistance or rich enough to afford it all on my own.

I know lots of people will disagree with me on this. I can just see Brendan Palla shaking his head, because this is precisely the argument we've had in the past. My point isn't so much that I'm right and those who think the contraception mandate is an assault on religious liberty are wrong. What I am trying to say is, this is an issue where religious liberty comes into play. It may not win the argument, either because the RCC gave up its claim to religious liberty here by hiring non-Catholics or because religious liberty is somehow outweighed by other concerns. But even I don't buy the argument that there's no religious liberty concern here. It's just that that's not the end of the story.

The thing is, I'd actually feel this way even if Christianity didn't explicitly command us to care for the sick and educate people. Dr. Singer's definition of religious liberty is pretty restrictive, and I'd actually like to impose another one. Religious liberty means not being forced by the law to choose between what your religion requires and the kinds of thing most people in your society consider naturally good – things like eating meat and using public transportation, for example. Religious liberty shouldn't force people to choose between their religion and being a full member of society. (That includes taking full advantage of the kind of thing people in your society naturally value.) You can freely give up those things, but if the law forces you to give that up or otherwise violate your religion, there are religious liberty issues involved.

That doesn't mean those religious freedom concerns win out every time, of course. But just discounting them full-stop isn't the way to go about figuring out where justice lies. Religious liberty means more than just the freedom to worship.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 21st, 2012 04:06 pm (UTC)
Religious liberty means more than just the freedom to worship.

Okay, yes, it means the freedom to practice whatever it is your religion requires as part of its beliefs - but NOT the freedom to impose them on others. Can we agree on this?

And frankly, I think that if there ever were universal coverage, an individual mandate, whatever you want to call it, such that everyone in the country paid into the pool (through taxes [although they might not be called taxes, given the abhorrence of that term for some weird reason]), the RCC and certain others would still object because oh woes, there would be coverage for things they do not approve of, like contraception and abortion and IVF. (Gee, how... surprising... that almost all of the things objected to are related to women, and the keeping down thereof.)

So I have NO TRUCK with that attitude, because that would be imposing their beliefs on the whole damn rest of the country, and I surely do hope that the claims that having to pay for contraception infringes religious liberty get thrown out so hard they bounce.

No, discounting religious liberty isn't a reasonable solution, but we'd better be VERY careful that one person's liberty isn't another person's suppression. Not to mention that institutions DO NOT have religious liberty, IMO. Only people. SCOTUS was out of their minds to say that corporations are people, and when it comes to health care that goes double.

*irritated and slightly incoherent*
Jun. 21st, 2012 04:26 pm (UTC)
it means the freedom to practice whatever it is your religion requires as part of its beliefs - but NOT the freedom to impose them on others. Can we agree on this?

Actually, yes we can. I'm all on board with that. That's what I was trying to say. The RCC sets up institutions that have to rely on non-Catholics. They know this will be the case, and so that means IMO they can't try to impose their morality on other people. But Singer is going about this issue the wrong way. For one thing it's too extreme and focuses the discussion on the wrong issue.

For another thing: what do you say to people whose religion actually requires them to violate the law? Say NAMBLA was a religion rather than a non-religious organization; should they be able to claim pedophilia laws violate their first amendment right to freedom of religion? By Singer's logic, it seems like they would be able to; after all, those laws force them to violate their group's precepts.

I get frustrated by people saying the contraception mandate is all about religious liberty, or all about freedom of choice - like many debatable issues, there's more than one freedom to consider here. IMO freedom of choice trumps freedom of religion in this case, but it's not helpful to anyone to discount the other concern. (As for the taxation issue - I actually think you're right, people would make that argument and they'd be wrong. But we can't get on to explaining why they're wrong until that's the conversation we're having...)
Jun. 21st, 2012 04:47 pm (UTC)
I don't think ANY group ought to get to violate the law, regardless of their claimed beliefs, whether religious or not. Or you could get someone reviving the worship of Moloch and claiming that their religion mandated the sacrifice of children.

What I'm getting at is that I do not think that religion should ever, ever, get a free pass. Its beliefs and practices ought to be as carefully examined, and held to the same standards, as any non-religious beliefs and practices. If we don't think molesting children is okay, it's not okay, whether it's done by a priest, a layman, or an atheist, and regardless of the purported reason why it was done.
Jun. 21st, 2012 10:50 pm (UTC)
Cel, what do you think is meant by the phrase "freedom of religion"? Reading this, I'm not sure what role that concept would play in your ideal world. As I read what you're saying in the first paragraph, it seems like once something's the law no group (religious or otherwise) should be excused from obeying it - even if it's an unjust (or stupid) law. My understanding of the Constitution is that religions do have a special protection: Congress can't pass a law that's specifically trying to outlaw or control specific religious actions. (This is different from passing a general law that has the effect of making certain religious actions illegal, of course.)

Interestingly, I don't think Singer's position is anywhere near this reasonable. He says that if a law makes a specifically religious practice illegal, that's a situation where there are freedom of religion concerns. So if a religion required pedophilia and and the government outlawed all pedophilia, that would violate religious liberty as he's defined it. Of course that's a bizarre implication, and would be horribly wrong IMO.
Jun. 22nd, 2012 01:43 pm (UTC)
People can choose to disobey a law, always, but they have to accept the consequences of that. And they can work to change a law that is unjust or stupid. I would agree that no level of government in this country can pass laws trying to outlaw specific religious actions, but e.g. a law against murder would apply to worshipers of Moloch who wanted to kill children, and that would NOT violate religious liberty as it would be applicable to all citizens. (I would then expect Moloch-worshipers to come up with a workaround such as using effigies in lieu.)

Freedom of religion to me means that you can *believe* anything you want, however nutty anyone else might think it. You can, further, *practice* what you believe, BUT only up to the point where it interferes with someone else's equivalent freedom.

So promoting laws that restrict others' rights based on your religious beliefs that others should not have those rights is NOT acceptable. Refusing to exercise your own rights because of your beliefs is perfectly okay. Examples: if you believe abortion is wrong, and refuse to have one even if it means you're risking your own life, that's fine. But trying to prevent anyone else from having an abortion is not okay. If you think gay people are doomed to hell and should not have the same rights to marry as straight people, you can think that, but it's not okay to try to prevent them from getting married because their marriage rights do NOT impact your own freedom to marry.

My attitude is that I want maximum freedom for EVERYONE, and that means freedom so long as it does not negatively affect others in tangible ways. (Well, of course, I would really hope that people would shed their superstitions, but I'm not deluded enough to think that will happen.) There's a church, for instance, that has an enormous (like, I'm guessing 100-150 feet) cross, visible from the highway; I think it is ugly and kind of offensive, but it doesn't actually harm me so I have no right to sue to get them to take it down. I loathe proselytizing, but I only have the right to tell those people that I do not want to hear them and to leave my own property, not to prevent them from speaking in public spaces, and certainly not in someone else's private space who is willing to listen.

Does that make sense?
Jun. 21st, 2012 04:26 pm (UTC)
But, but Marta - the issue is NOT healing the sick or teaching in and of itself. It's doing it with *public* funds! If the RCC wants to keep open its hospitals and universities, they can always do so and reject the money that comes with the mandate to provide all health care options.

I agree with Singer here: My guess is that, before doing so, they would come to see the provision of health-insurance coverage for contraception as compatible with their religious teachings. because that's *exactly* what the church did in states like Illinois where the provision to provide birth control for the employees of religious institutions has been in place for years and years. IMO, the morals will always take a back seat to the money when push comes to shove. Their current pearl-clutching, fainting-couch worthy moral sensitivities are the *excuse* to limit everyone else's freedom to NOT follow the church's teachings. They can't do it with reason - heck, even the RCC's OWN members overwhelmingly use contraception - so they have to resort to coercion before they become completely irrelevant.

Yes, of course it's a religious freedom issue but religious freedom does not mean what they think it does. It is a lot closer to what you suggest as a definition, but it STILL does not give any church coercive powers over their employees' consciences, especially if they hired them knowing full well that they did not profess the same faith or even had no religion and they pay their salaries by accepting government funding.

Religious liberty means more than just the freedom to worship.

Exactly! Religious liberty also means *no* church, or any other group, has the right to impose or legislate *their* standards of morality on any American in preference to any other moral standards that American may hold.

I may not *like* having MY insurance dollars go to paying for some Quiverful's medical complications when they have a child their doctor recommended against them having, but that's kind of the point of a shared-risk insurance pool. I would far rather have paid for her contraception, but I'm not trying to legislate HER choices away, even though her choices make my insurance premiums more expensive and go against my moral standards. I just want the same courtesy in return,

Jun. 21st, 2012 11:22 pm (UTC)
Gwynnyd, I think you and I are talking about different things. This doesn't have anything to do with the fact that a certain hospital or school took public funds. As I understand it, the ACA requires all healthcare plans to cover preventative medicine (including contraception) without costing the insured person. I also am fairly sure that the law (either the ACA or previously-existing law) requires people employing over a certain number of people to offer healthcare plans, or else pay a pay a penalty. That requires groups like Catholic universities and hospitals to offer healthcare plans to their employers that pay for something Catholicism considers immoral. It's irrelevant whether they've taken govt. money or not; this applies to every company of a certain size.

I also agree with the Singer quote you offered. Religious groups in practice would probably do just that. But that still leaves the question, should they have to?

To be clear: I do not agree with the RCC that this mandate violates their religious liberty. If you hire non-Catholics you have no business telling those non-Catholics that they have to use their health care plan in a way the Vatican would approve of. But the enemy of my enemy is not my friend here; I can disagree adamantly with the RCC's claim here and still think Singer is criticizing them in a bad way. I think Singer's definition of religious liberty is a bad one since it focuses on the wrong issues (meaning we'll end up debating what religious claims are actually central to a certain religion, as opposed to whether a certain law has some larger purpose than beating up on a particular religion).

Incidentally, I also disagree with Singer here because I don't think it could handle the NAMBLA example. That was my point - if you're saying "Church A requires B, so any law forbidding B has religious liberty problems" then you're going to run into problems even if B is the kind of thing that really should be illegal.

Btw, I totally agree with you about automatic tax-exemption for churches and religious organizations. I actually think both the govt and the church would be better off if we cut that particular tie...
Jun. 22nd, 2012 12:20 am (UTC)
But that still leaves the question, should they have to?

They DO NOT "have to." They *could* decide that their moral principals are more important and decide to cease from doing the corporate things that trigger the law. What IS more important to them, their morals or their money? They seem to want to have their cake and eat it too.

Any religious organization *could* shut down their non-religious activities to the point where they can stop hiring people from without their faith. Religious institutions that engage in strictly religious activities ARE exempt from the provisions they object to. That that might cause them to lose money or prestige should not matter, *if* the moral issue was the overwhelming priority. But it's obviously not, since they are not willing to do that and are clinging to the material things and worldly power with tooth and claw.

I think I am more "Singerian" in my views. It doesn't even have to be a hypothetical NAMBLA religion. I don't think it's peachy-keen that a baby can contact herpes from a mohel sucking the blood off a newly circumcised penis. I don't CARE if God supposedly mandated the procedure - and you'd think an omnipotent God could have said something about sanitary procedures, even if he wants the foreskin eliminated - since we now know what causes disease, even the contagious mohel should follow sound medical practices. No religion should be given a pass to infect babies with a deadly virus. More than one baby has died. Right now, there's little that can be done because that procedure has the protection of religion. (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/baby-dies-herpes-virus-ritual-circumcision-nyc-orthodox/story?id=15888618#.T-O2lY5NzS8)

My view is that circumcision for religious reasons is a probably a protected activity as long as it is done to modern medical standards. Do you think a mohel should get a pass and do the bris in a way that we know endangers the health of the baby?
Jun. 21st, 2012 04:35 pm (UTC)
For another thing: what do you say to people whose religion actually requires them to violate the law? Say NAMBLA was a religion rather than a non-religious organization; should they be able to claim pedophilia laws violate their first amendment right to freedom of religion? By Singer's logic, it seems like they would be able to; after all, those laws force them to violate their group's precepts.

Yay. Yet another reason for removing special protections from religious organizations.

Religious organizations need to follow the law. Period. End of discussion. They should also not be automatically tax-exempt nor exempt from the regulations that govern the financial disclosures of other nonprofit organizations.

Edited to add 'automatically' - of course, if they meet the standards for other kinds of tex-exempt nonprofit organizations, they should be allowed the same exemptions.

Edited at 2012-06-21 04:38 pm (UTC)
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )



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