Recently, we South Africans have been forced to confront the possibility that we will lose many liberal laws: abortion and gay-marriages have been the two touted as targets. The euphemism opted for, by those who are against such laws, would call them renewed “considerations” but it’s easy to see beneath the terms. The threats come from the usual sources of those with a divine backing for their reasoning; indeed, they are not even premises to begin arguments but final commands from a magical book. And even those who consult the magical book, as the conclusions to their non-existent arguments, differ in their appropriation of finality: does god really mean we should “kill” those who “blasphemeth” his name? Does god really mean we should stone our daughter to death on her wedding night, if she is not a virgin? Backwards and forwards the decision floats like a cloud across this scorched landscape, long abandoned by most modern people. Most act without due consideration to the intricacies and stupidity of Middle-Eastern tribal trivialities: Christians still eat pork, come into contact with menstruating women, have sex before marriage and so on. They find blasphemers all over their air-waves and in their favourite TV-shows. None are jerking to fetch the dusty Bible to prefigure judgement. But that scorched landscape of dead ideas occasionally releases noxious clouds of incoherence and always from the same source: those who are religious leaders, claim to know the mind of god and therefore know what’s better for you and me better than ourselves.
In this case, those with such deep insights are the members of the cumbersomely titled National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC). This council is led by Ray McCauley, head of the Rhema Church and comprised of an amalgam of Christian, traditional African and Muslim bodies. They entered into the political foray regarding the Judicial Services Commission’s (JSC) decision to drop the charges against Western Cape Judge President John Hlope. As the Mail & Guardian reports: “Nthabiseng Khunou, an ANC MP and member of the NILC secretariat, [said] the council would “play a role” in revisiting legislation legalising abortion and gay marriage.” Note Khunou’s two affiliations: ANC and the NILC.
The ANC is the ruling party, its leader is the country’s leader. McCauley has already been brought under scrutiny when he invited the President of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, during election, to give a sermon at his church. Zuma and McCauley, it seems, are drifting closer together. This has been further confirmed by NILC’s general secretary, John Lamola, who said the council was formed from Zuma’s appeal in November, to a gathering of many religious groups. Zuma’s appeal was for the active participation of religious groups “to achieve social cohesion, moral regeneration and ease poverty”. Thus, the NILC was apparently formed for just such a noble endeavour.
They have, due to traditional considerations of religions, taken it upon themselves to be the espousers of moral wisdom in our society. Fighting against homosexual marriage, abortion, prostitution, pornography is all part of being “active”, as Lamola later put it, within just such a moralising organisation. But morality is not so simple that asking religious leaders to “get it on” will resolve the dilemmas; at times, moral dilemmas need not even be moral dilemmas if people were not hankering to the tribal beliefs of goat-herders in the Middle-East.
The cataclysmic shibboleth is the subsequent reprisal of critical engagement in moral affairs. Appeals to authority, be it the Bible, the Quran or religious leaders, are all too easy a shrugging off of epistemic duty which each person should afford himself. As Peter Singer has highlighted in his Practical Ethics: “Ethics takes a universal point of view. This does not mean that a particular ethical judgement must be universally applicable. Circumstances alter causes … What it does mean is that in making ethical judgements we go beyond our own likes and dislikes. From an ethical point of view, the fact that it is I who benefit from, say, a more equal distribution of income than you who lose by it, is irrelevant. Ethics requires us to go beyond ‘I’ and ‘you’ to the universal law, the universalisable judgement, the standpoint of the impartial spectator or ideal observer, or whatever we choose to call it.”
It is simply for the highlighted reason above that laying ethical decisions at the feet of the dogmatists is to lay reasoned discourse in its tomb. This does not mean that religious people can not engage in ethical dilemmas. Indeed, many religious leaders are qualified from the standpoint of simply being a critical and self-reflective human being, sympathetic and good-natured. So the argument does not repudiate religious leader’s engagements, it simply states that they do not automatically have authority on the basis of religion. They ought to be part of an internecine discussion amongst other reflective and active people.
However, the problem remains that there is a need, as Singer highlights, to go beyond the mere trivialities of our own likes and dislikes. Thus, those who believe that life begins at a certain point because of dogma―in Christianity, this arose from confusions in early microscopes, not even the Bible in itself―can not realign themselves to the “impartial spectator” since their very religion dictates the final say in an ethical dilemma. This makes the situation of placing religious leaders in positions to decide upon moral dilemmas quite problematic: the pathway toward clarifying moral dilemmas is difficult and needs to be sought via reasonable discourse from an impartial standpoint, but religions often have an arbitrary answer and by definition can not be impartial. This leads to various bizarre priorities: for example, abortion doctors being murdered by people who claim to be “saving babies”; homosexual couples being attacked for being homosexual.
This is not a problem for those of us who are not chained to any dogma (and please do not reassert that boring maxim that “not being chained to dogma” is a dogma). This is why it is more important to have non-faith aligned members deciding on moral dilemmas and not immediately cave in to religious authority. Yes they may know their Bible but how does that expand to being impartial, since by definition non-believers like myself do not pay heed to any holy texts? Remember, it must go beyond what we each like or dislike. This can not happen for religious leaders because of their religions. The irony remains that this does not remove them from discussion but it does make many of their arguments hollow. If they simply use their holy book or religion as a justification, it immediately has left the arena of impartiality. We are then in the domain of bowing before a set of answers because one group favours it. This is no longer an ethical or moral dilemma being discussed; it is a command being followed because of a god.
Also it does not mean that those who are, for example, pro-life are wrong or have bad arguments. Rather it means that they can not simply use their Bible or religion as justification. In order to further the argument it must be assigned to the universal aspect, such that we can apply it to even those who are not part of one’s faith.
Another important point to notice is this: how many moral dilemmas need not be moral dilemmas in the first place? Imagine the Bible, as Sam Harris has suggested, explicitly said: “Life begins in the womb at 6 months. Abortion is the woman’s choice and may be performed before this time.” If there were such a passage, would we have the moral dilemmas of life’s conception? It seems unlikely (but I would not hedge my bets on it being completely nullified. Quotes from magic books have a tendency to become muddled and used to reassert one’s arguments regardless of their context). It seems that many moral dilemmas do not need the money, time and energy of gifted thinkers: for example, gay marriage is not a moral dilemma; racism is not a moral dilemma.
Those who propose that these are moral dilemmas have not provided any substantial argument, which is not rooted in dogma and thus repudiating its claim to be an ethical dilemma (remember it must proceed by a degree of impartiality).
So: McCauley and the NILC may of course set out premises for their arguments; they may certainly initiate a renewed debate with abortion and gay-marriage laws. But we must ask why they plan to do it? Is it to benefit the whole of society, or is it rooted in their holy book?
Some might say that Christianity is aimed at a universal ethic: love, redemption, and so on. But this is undermined by the simple fact that many choose not to be Christian or not to have Christian dogma shoved down their throats. So, whilst Christianity might say it is universal, it plainly is not by people’s choice. And in ethics, what remains important is a universal ethic. What can be agreed upon is that one aspect of a universal ethic is people’s personal choice―how far and what that constitutes are further dilemmas, but not many ethicists would argue that no choice is a good idea (perhaps Ẑiẑek). Thus if personal choice is an agreed upon trajectory toward a universal ethic, reached by an impartial consideration, any form of religious zealotry even if its speaks of itself as universal will not work. It must speak beyond religion and that means deal with the issues themselves: how will, for example, banning gay-marriage benefit us all?
If we gave in to these religious groups’ desires to see such decisions, like abortion and gay-marriage and prostitution, banned, they must tell us how we will all benefit, removing all religious talk whilst doing so.
When the NILC can answer this question, perhaps we can then begin an ethical discussion. But I doubt that they could answer from a purely non-denominational, non-dogmatic, non-religious perspective. They can not because they begin the discussion coached in religious thought, not ethical, and their answers will be religious, not universally moral.