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Friday, 14 December 2007

The Body Snatchers and the Problem of Pluralism

As I was driving around Auckland this morning talkback was rife with people discussing the recent body snatchers case; an estranged father, against the wishes of both the deceased and her next of kin stole his daughters body and buried it in a family plot. Of course I remember the furor over the previous case, and my thoughts now are as they were then.

What people seem unaware of, or at least have not articulated clearly, is that the controversy over this case is symptomatic of a deep problem with the popular liberal response to pluralism. Let me elaborate.

The problem of Pluralism is this: we have in New Zealand people who hold to and live in accord with various differing “comprehensive views” as Rawls called them. A comprehensive doctrine can be theistic like Islam or Christianity or it can be secular like certain forms of Naturalism; Marxism, Liberal rationalism, humanism etc. However such views function as religions in that they answer fundamental questions such as who are we, what is the nature of good, what is real, etc. Now the problem such plurality creates is this: How does one maintain peace and order in a society characterized by radical disagreement over these fundamental questions? Each group believes (and cannot but believe) that their view is true and the others mistaken. Failure to find a solution to this problem can be deadly people can and have killed each other over these questions.

In New Zealand the answer popularly given is “tolerance”. One should allow each person to believe and act in accord with whatever view they think is correct and no one should be compelled to adopt some form of enforced orthodoxy. However there is one immediate problem with this response. Sometimes believers in different comprehensive doctrines will interact with one another. Hence, there needs to be rules or norms governing the relationships between believers of different “comprehensive doctrines” and the obvious difficulty is that these different groups frequently disagree over precisely what the correct norms or rules which constitute our duties are.

This is the case in the body snatchers incident. One group of people come from a community in which individual autonomy is an important value (this btw reflects certain religious and philosophical beliefs articulated in the late middle ages). Under this understanding of the world, when a person dies the individual who died can, prior to death decide ( within reason) how their body is to disposed of. Moreover certain relatives, become next of kin and aquire the responsibility to carry the deceased’s wishes out. The problem is that people from other cultures have quite different understandings of the world. I am not an expert on Maori culture and so will not try and elaborate. But the idea seems to be that individual autonomy is subordinated to the wider family and certain traditions which this family are required to uphold. Hence the wider community decides where one is buried in accord with their traditions regardless of the individual in questions wishes. Moreover there are different understandings of what constitutes membership in the relevant group. One group tends to think that if one is not brought up within a culture or does not conciously adopt it they are not part of a group that embodies this culture. Another however believes that mere biological lineage determines ones membership in the culture.

In this case a person dies. According to group A the deceased is not part of group B and the right thing do do is X. According to group B, she is a member of group B and the right thing to do is Y. Y however is incompatible with X only one of the two options is possible. I maintain that there is no *culturally or religiously neutral* way of adjudicaticating this dispute. At the end of the day we must decide which view of the world is correct and side with the solution they propose.

This case shows up the popular liberal response to the problem. The popular response is to suggest that the no group can impose the norms they believe in upon another group. Instead, norms governing relationships between practioners and believers of different comprehensive doctrines should be governed of norms that all reasonable people can accept regardless of their religious or quasi religious beliefs. This idea is often described as “public reason” the notion that there is a set of premises which are accepted implicitly by all reasonable people from which public policy regarding what rights everyone has can and coercive laws enacted can be decided.

The problem, which this case shows, is that public reason is something of a myth. If one defines a "reasonable person" broadly there is simply does not exist a set of principles which is both accepted by all reasonable people and also sufficiently “thick” and comprehensive to provide a basis for answers to public policy questions. On the other hand if one defines "a reasonable person" narrowly to exclude radical disagreement the very concept of a reasonable person will depend on the truth of a particular comprehensive perspective for its plausibility. The debate over Gods existence is a good example. Alvin Plantinga has argued, correctly I think, that if God exists and created men in his image and then revealed himself to them, much of what Christians believe is probably rational. If however God does not exist, its probably a delusion. However, its impossible to come to an answer on the rationality of theism without presupposing a stance on the ontological question of its truth. In fact it's difficult to see how one can come to an understanding of what constitutes a *reasonable person* if without appealing to premises specific to some comprehensive doctrine about what exists and what sort of beings people are.

That’s what’s seen in this case. We have two very different views of understanding the world. Each one if true entails that a certain course of action is mandated. If certain notions of individual autonomy then the body snatchers are wrong. If one does not they are not. The problem is according to a popular conception of liberal democracy the state has to be neutral with regard to differing faith or quasi faith positions. It should not privilege any group by writing its views into law and demanding that the others who don't accept the tradition live in accord with them. The state therefore can do nothing one way or the other. Interestingly that is precisely whats happend.

There is a solution to this. It’s an older view, and it’s far less palatable to many modern or post modern people, but it has the advantage of being correct. On this view the whole popular liberal idea of tolerance is a chimera. In his book Reason in the Balance Berkeley Law professor Philip Johnson argues that while liberal societies do not (and I would add should not) have established Churches they must always have a defacto “established religious philosophy.” By religious philosophy Johnson means “a way of about ultimate questions” and by saying its esthablished he means not that “dissenters are subject to legal punishment” but that “it provides the philosophical basis for law making and public education”. People who dissent will be tolerated within reasonable limits and what constitutes a "reasonable limit" will be determined by the esthablished religious philosophy.

In NZ the established religious philosophy ostensibly includes the proposition that killing non combatants in war is wrong hence Al Qaeda does not gain religious tolerance in NZ. In Saudi Arabia the established religious philosophy considers apostasy intolerable. In some "progressive" quarter’s today believing and teaching that homosexual conduct so violates the sensibilities of liberal orthodoxy that it cannot be tolerated. In each case we have a accepted orthodoxy and tolerance of dissenters limited by the values of the orthodoxy in question.
In his book Foreordained Failure, Steven Smith demonstrates that there is no such thing as a right to freedom of religion which is upheld by some traditions and opposed by others. Instead there is a spectrum of views about religious tolerance that comes in degrees; no state tolerates all religious sects and very few states tolerate none. He notes that Aquinas, Cromwell, Locke and Mill all advocated and defended forms of religious tolerance. However, each disagreed as to which religions such tolerance should apply to and the proper limits upon those they disagreed with. Smith argues further that these differing accounts of freedom of religion all depended upon comprehensive views to justify them and one cannot adjudicate between them without appeal to such views. Attempts to articulate a right to freedom of religion from a neutral or public stance are quite hopeless.
That’s what we have in this case. I think that those who stole the body should be prosecuted because I believe that the ideas about individual autonomy undergirding those who complain are correct and I think tolerance of diversity should not extend to allowing others to violate norms based on these ideas. Our political climate needs to stop hiding behind slogans of "tolerance" and "respect for diversity" and admit that it supports a particular religious orthodoxy and here are the limits on dissent. Then we can debate whether the orthodoxy is true. If we continue to hide behind the fa├žade of “tolerance” and “respecting and celebrating all diverse view points” it will not be able to do anything in these situations.


  1. I'm a regular reader of your blog and enjoy it but haven't commented before.

    This piece on the body snatchers and the previous one on Islam and the decadant West are both insightful and i appreciate them very much.

  2. I'm a regular reader of your blog and enjoy it but haven't commented before.

    This piece on the body snatchers and the previous one on Islam and the decadant West are both insightful and i appreciate them very much.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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