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The tension between individual and democratic rights

May 23, 2014


There are two groups. Group 1 practices a lifestyle that is a core part of their self-identity. This lifestyle adds meaning and purpose to their lives, and makes them happy. There is no evidence that this lifestyle causes anyone harm–either the group-members or anyone else. Group 1 counts some of America’s leading citizens—doctors, lawyers, scientists, politicians—among its members. Group 2 finds that lifestyle disgusting. They portray Group 1 as dangerous, and do everything they can to make them feel ashamed of who they are. Group 2 writes reports and lobbies the government to support their beliefs. They even create organizations dedicated to convincing Group 1 that their lifestyle is a problem to be solved.

What did this thought experiment describe: a) How some Christians treat homosexuals; b) How social conservatives respond to people who sleep around; or c) How scientists treat creationists?

Pluralism demands we have as much freedom as possible to live according to what gives us meaning. But it’s more than that. We also have the right to try to create a shared culture. Social conservatives want to live in a country that values sexual chastity and where marriage is between men and women only. Scientists want a country where everyone accepts the authority of science and believes in evolution.

Basic democratic rights gives both groups the freedom to fight for their beliefs. But in both cases exercising these rights means attacking what others find meaningful. Living according to your own values sometimes means you have to criticize others’ values. Some Christians  feel they must publicly disapprove of gay marriage, just as some scientists do the same with respect to creationists. So there’s a tension between individual and democratic rights.

However we resolve this tension, it’s important for the same rules to apply to everyone at all times. We’re sorely failing at that right now. I’m fine with embracing individualism and the harm principle as long as we go all the way. If evangelicals and social conservatives are attacked for their attitudes, the same should happen to scientists. But since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, we should just admit we support individual rights as long as they’re the individuals and rights we happen to like in the first place.

Ross Douthat described this hypocrisy in his column a few weeks ago:

I am (or try to be) a partisan of pluralism, which requires respecting Mozilla’s right to have a C.E.O. whose politics fit the climate of Silicon Valley, and Brandeis’s right to rescind degrees as it sees fit, and Harvard’s freedom to be essentially a two-worldview community, with a campus shared uneasily by progressives and corporate neoliberals, and a small corner reserved for token reactionary cranks.

But this respect is difficult to maintain when these institutions will not admit that this is what is going on. Instead, we have the pretense of universality — the insistence that the post-Eich Mozilla is open to all ideas, the invocations of the “spirit of free expression” from a school that’s kicking a controversial speaker off the stage.

It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.

The only problem with Douthat’s analysis is that it’s a bit too abstract. He needs a concrete example. Showing that the arguments used to advance gay rights must also lead to creationist rights is one place to start.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    May 23, 2014 4:06 am

    Now you’re column is getting really interesting. So it seems you found his Harvard, Brandeis, and Mozilla examples as abstract. That’s probably true given that there may be a considerable portion of people who don’t know what events or conditions he’s referencing.

    • May 27, 2014 6:34 pm

      Hmm…good point. I need to clarify what I mean as “abstract”. You’re right that Douthat et al. do bring up Harvard and Mozilla because they view it as concrete. Will work on clarifying my point!

  2. May 25, 2014 2:41 am

    I don’t know of any scientists who “want a country where everyone accepts the authority of science and believes in evolution”. I’d really like you to back that statement up with direct quotes from, say, any evolutionary biologist or scientist in general. Some vocal scientists, like Dawkins or Krauss for example, have made strong statements about the dangers of teaching creationism. But I can’t think of any one of them saying that they’re in favor of unthinking robots or would like to force everyone to ‘believe’ (as if that’s relevant) in evolution.

    Beyond that, you’re making a rather sweeping and offensive statement of equivalence here. Scientists, as a whole, defending the teaching of science and funding for research from creationist interference (e.g. the Wedge document from the DI that set out an explicit plan to redefine science and force research along religious lines) is not the same thing as Christians or anyone else disapproving of gay marriage. The latter group doesn’t just express disapproval. They discriminate. They try to pass laws banning marriage between people who love each other. In countries like Uganda, they make it an offence punishable by life in prison, a merciful step *down* from the death penalty. Nearly eighty countries don’t recognize LGBT people as fully equal *people* ( Do you have a list of laws put forth by the Royal Society or the AAAS decrying religion and trying to make its practice illegal, perhaps punishable by imprisonment?

    Scientists critiquing creationist attacks on science is also not the same thing as ‘social conservatives respond[ing] to people who sleep around’. The latter goes on national radio shows to call women ‘sluts’ and ‘prostitutes’. They try – and sometimes succeed – to shove through laws restricting womens’ reproductive rights. Are you really comparing a debate about science education to sexism and discrimination against women?

    I honestly don’t know what you were thinking when you wrote this.

    • May 25, 2014 9:35 am

      Hi Steven. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it. Sorry you were offended. Will respond ASAP.

    • June 3, 2014 8:49 am

      Hi Steven. Thanks for your comment. As usual, I appreciate your pushback! I responded to the bulk of your comment in my follow-up post. But, also as usual, my day job has consumed my time and I haven’t been able to respond to the rest. I’ll do so briefly now.

      I also don’t know any scientists who favor “unthinking robots” or want to “force” anyone to do anything. But I didn’t say that! I do think, however, that we do want people to believe in evolution, and we do view their religious views as a problem to be solved. Heck, the NSF carefully tracks data on belief in evolution. This is the language from the NSF’s website: “A survey experiment showed that 48% of respondents said they thought it was true that “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,”…”

      I humbly submit we’re being a bit too semantic when we start parsing the difference between “thought” and “believe.”

      Anyway…thanks again.

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