Gregory Malloy

In discussions on the role of religion in politics and public life it is not uncommon to hear the idea that one ought not force one’s view on another person or groups of people. In fact, this view is at the heart of many politicians’ views on controversial issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. For example, it might be said that while one is personally opposed to a particular issue, it would nevertheless be problematic to force others to hold the same view or live by the same standard. On the popular level, it is simply said that no one should force his view on another. To evaluate this claim, two possible interpretations of this idea will be addressed. First, an epistemological interpretation will be considered, where what is meant is that one literally causes another to hold a new belief by force. Second, a more pragmatic interpretation will be evaluated, in which the notion of “forcing one’s view” is thought of in terms of demanding that another lives consistently with a view even if he does not hold to it. Both of these approaches will be found wanting, and a revised version of the second view will be suggested.

The notion that one can actually bring about a belief in another person by force is dependent on the idea that a person does in fact have direct control over his own beliefs. If the latter is not even possible, then the former is not something that needs to be considered. For example, if John demands that Steve come to believe that God exists by pointing a gun to his head, this would be futile if Steve does not have the ability to simply “believe” it by sheer will. He might say that he believes, or act as if God exists, but in neither of these cases is he actually coming to hold the belief himself. The type of epistemological control necessary to simply “will” oneself to believe something is sometimes known as voluntarism. If voluntarism is true, then we have the power to believe something is true simply by deciding to do so, but it should be clear upon reflection that this is not possible.

It should be an obvious existential impossibility to anyone who tries that one could not come to hold a belief simply by trying to do so. For example, if one is sitting in a dark room, it is not possible to believe that the lights are on, however much one desires to believe it. It is possible to indirectly bring this belief about by our actions, such as turning on the light switch, but this is not the kind of immediate control over beliefs necessary to qualify for voluntarism. Further, one can expose oneself to arguments that will result in a new belief, but this is also not the same thing as direct control. So, if someone does not have control over his beliefs in this immediate sense, then it would follow that no amount of “force” from another can bring about the belief. Therefore, the epistemological interpretation of forcing one’s beliefs is not even a possible consideration.

The second possibility meant by forcing one’s beliefs on another is to require someone else to live according to standards that he does not hold to. This is generally the more common way of understanding and using this idea. This view, however, is also wanting for several reasons. First, unless one is opposed to any civil law, we all agree to enforce moral points of view on other people. In fact, this is the nature of law itself. Laws restrict people from doing things that they would otherwise do, or conversely require people to act where they might not otherwise be inclined. If there were a morally ideal world, in which everyone always did the right thing, laws would become unnecessary. They serve as a restraint on society in cases where a people’s own moral standards do not adequately control behavior.

Second, because laws by their nature enforce a certain moral view, the question is not about whether we should enforce views on others, but rather which moral view ought to be enforced. Skeptical attitudes toward moral knowledge do not mitigate the need for law, so some standard will be used be default, whether consciously or unconsciously. The most common approach today appears to be a kind of corporate relativism, where the appropriate restraints through law are those that are generally accepted by those in power who are purported representatives of the people. Of course, this does not have to mean, and often does not appear to entail, that the actual majority view is enforced. Rather, at best, it often appears that the view of the majority is assumed, and at worst, ignored by those in charge who claim to know better.

Finally, there is a necessary connection between worldviews and politics. If one legislates that which one believes is right for humans, then those beliefs are going to come from one’s worldview or religion. This in itself is enough to show the necessary connection between law and worldview. It can be pressed further, however, when we consider what politics is by its nature. Politics is fundamentally about laws. We have a government to create, interpret, and uphold laws, which is necessary for societies to function well. So, if worldview is inseparable from law, and law is the primary function of government, then it follows that there can be no separation of one’s worldview from one’s political ideas. This would be contrary to the notion that religion should have no place in politics. Again, the question is not about if religion will influence political agendas, but simply which religion is going to be enforced, and on what basis.  

There does seem to be something correct, however, in the hesitancy to force one’s views on others. Rule by individual fiat or even majority is not the same thing as rational justification. So, if there is no way to avoid imposing a worldview onto others, the only question is about on what basis this is to be done.  

As rational beings, we need and desire sound arguments for our beliefs. This is especially true for those beliefs that directly impact our lives through civil law. It follows then, that any standard of morality that is used as a basis for law must have a rational basis supported by sound arguments. Of course, arguments can be more or less consistent depending on the presuppositions and assumptions they are built upon. Further, when building a foundation of ethics for humans, it is necessary to begin in the nature of humans. This is shared in common by all, and can serve as a source of unity for all.  

If there is to be rule of law, there must be a basis for that law. Notions that it is inappropriate to force one’s views on others are either based on an impossible concept of direct control over beliefs, or a failure to understand the connection between one’s worldview and law and politics. There is another way, however. Rational justification using sound arguments based on human nature can provide a basis for civil law that upholds the necessary connection between religion and politics.

1 Comment

  1. Paul Chen on April 28, 2021 at 4:40 am

    From an epistemological/ethical standpoint, this argument seems to be sound. But I would say that, from a practical/political standpoint, “rational justification using sound arguments based on human nature” may be (philosophically) necessary for civil law in a democratic society, such may not be sufficient by themselves. The reason is that, in addition to rationality, usually decision-making procedures (e.g, voting and majority-rule) are needed to settle differences/disagreements that cannot be resolved by reason alone.

    No matter the issue, it’s hard to imagine any single issue that will ever command 100% agreement among all persons, which means there will always be a minority of detractors from whatever position is taken in any issue. In such cases, decision-making procedures are needed, Further, even the question of which decision-making procedures should be adopted is open to debate/disagreement.

    Difference/disagreement is an inherent and inescapable element of human relations. If Adam and Eve were the only humans in the world, which they were for a while, they would have experienced differences and disagreements btwn. themselves—not because they had sinned, but simply because they they were different persons, not a single mind, and therefore saw and experienced the world differently from the other.

    Differences in perspective are neither evil/sinful nor avoidable. The fundamental question of politics is, how can we get along with each other despite our differences?

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