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Posted on July 23, 2015 at 2:52 PM

From time to time, conservative positions on bioethical issues—e.g., opposition to physician-assisted suicide—are met with a charge that religious “dogma” is asserting itself, sometimes successfully, against the dictates of reason.   This charge merits response, although I find it pretty weak.  I personally find it necessary to resist the temptation to be nothing more than a haughty moralist in responding.  Perhaps I am not alone in that.  But I will l try to do better.

To this charge, I would say the following:

  • Just what does the person making the charge mean by “dogma?”
  • If what is meant is a commitment to a position against all evidence:
    • The issue may not be one of faith vs reason, but a clash of assumptions.  If one starts from a position favoring radical individual autonomy, one reaches different conclusions from an anthropology that assumes limits on said autonomy.
    • The evidence may not be conclusive, and in the absence of evidence, people can and do give good reasons for staking out a starting point based on assumptions.  We all make basic worldview commitments which must by nature be starting points rather than conclusions, and which must be made in the absence of complete evidence.
  • If what is meant is an attempt to coerce on religious grounds:
    • If that is in fact what is happening, it should be opposed and rejected.
    • More often, what is really going on is an appeal to the conscience of the listener.  To wit: in the recent case of the failure of SB 128 in committee of the California Assembly, it was reported that Catholic clergy had contacted assemblymen and –women, some of whom represent heavily Catholic districts and may themselves have been Catholic.  For a citizen to make a reasoned appeal based on the tenets of a church is an acceptable way to petition someone based on reasoning from principle and conscience.  It is not coercive on its face.  (Remember that “coercion” by definition includes a threat.)
    • It is neither coercive nor incivil to challenge leaders on moral grounds.
  • Principles such as limits on human autonomy may be set on grounds other than supernaturalist metaphysics (i.e., faith in God).
  • An appeal to reject something on principle often is accompanied by an argument that there are better alternatives.  This should be done if at all possible.
  • Finally, maybe the supposed “dogma” is true.

So, no, I do not agree that “Catholic dogma and pressure” were decisive in the recent discussions of SB 128. 

And yes, I am willing to debate the ethics and philosophy of PAS for as long as it takes or as long as I am able.

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