fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

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.

Tags: philosophy, religion
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