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Schouborg, Gary (2013). "How Human Values Dictate a Minimalist Government: Reducing Extreme Partisanship".

 

 

How Human Values Dictate a Minimalist Government: Reducing Extreme Partisanship

 

Gary Schouborg, PhD

gary@garynini.com

How Human Values Dictate a Minimalist Government: Reducing Extreme Partisanship

Gary Schouborg, PhD

gary@garynini.com

September 30, 2013

 

You may be surprised to learn that the ostensibly high-minded cry to “Vote your values!” inherently conflicts with the First Amendment. For it is an unacknowledged call to religious war, since our values—whether expressed in secular or explicitly religious language—are our religion.

 

Since public initiatives inherently establish some values over others, they inevitably infringe on the First Amendment. Since such breaches cannot be entirely eliminated, the only rational and Constitutional alternative is to minimize them.

 

Proponents of any initiative therefore have the burden of demonstrating that any infringement is for a critically important, not merely beneficial, public good.

 

Such severe restraints on creating public policy minimizes our getting in one another’s hair, which in turn reduces partisan rigidity and promotes constructive compromise.

 

Is this perspective far-fetched? Consider this. When proponents of a bill urge us to vote our values, they are usually not promoting aesthetic values, such as voting for the design for the new public library. Nor are they usually urging us to vote our pocketbook. Almost certainly they are appealing to our fundamental values, which are implicitly religious even when expressed in secular terms.

 

For whether voiced in secular or explicitly religious language, our fundamental values share two features:

 

     1) they express what is most deeply important to us;

     2) when they conflict, we have no commonly agreed-upon way to establish that one value is better than another.

 

Having no consensus on how to determine which values are objectively superior is at the root of the First Amendment’s protection against the establishment of a state religion.

 

True, our founding documents never mention values in this contemporary sense. The Declaration of Independence never mentions the word at all. The U.S. Constitution refers only twice to value—monetary—never in the sense of what we deem fundamentally important. The Federalist Papers mentions value 36 times, but only monetary or instrumental (having value as means to an end).

 

Nevertheless, the concept of “unalienable rights” leads us logically to fundamental values by way of the notions of oppression and rights.

 

The Federalist Papers mentions “oppression” or its variants 49 times. In no. 51, James Madison makes clear that the First Amendment is about protecting us from it. The Declaration of Independence ties it to the violation of our “unalienable rights,” which include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

 

It is no stretch for the contemporary mind to read those three rights as fundamental values, liberty being the most fundamental of all. True, we cannot pursue happiness if we are not alive; but Patrick Henry was neither rare nor irrational in wanting death if he did not have liberty. For if we are not free to decide what we value and then free to pursue it, we cannot be happy in a distinctively human way.

 

In protecting us from oppression, then, the First Amendment protects us from anyone—government or private parties—who would interfere with our ability to pursue what we decide is of fundamental value to us. To say that is simply to express freedom of religion in secular terms. In other words, fundamental values are religious even when expressed in secular language.

 

Fundamental values are not mere preferences, no matter how cherished. We do not usually risk our lives for them, deeming anyone who would irrational. Nor are fundamental values strategies, no matter how critical we may think they are for our happiness. We are not strongly inclined to take strategies personally. If one is made law, we are usually willing to see if it will work; if it does not, we are can revise or repeal it and move on.

 

However, it is quite another thing to yield to a fundamental value that is not our own. That cuts closer to home, because our fundamental values give us a stable sense of who we are. That is why it makes no practical difference whether we explain them as God’s will, an objective right grounded in reason, or simply a personal value for which we are willing to risk our lives. In practical terms, the latter is the bottom line. 

 

Besides expressing what is most important to us, the other distinctive feature of fundamental values is that millennia of human inquiry have come up with no commonly accepted way to determine which among conflicting values is objectively superior.

 

In contrast, when conflicting beliefs about fact occur, in many cases we can choose among various commonly accepted methods to determine the more plausible view. That is why, for example, no one seriously objects when public schools teach that the earth is round instead of flat. For we are not forced to believe the teaching against our better judgment. If we disagree with it, there are commonly accepted methods in geometry and physics that enable us to see our error for ourselves.

 

However, when our fundamental values conflict, there is no commonly accepted way to resolve the differences objectively. That is why, when forced to follow someone else’s explicitly expressed religion, it is blindingly clear to us that we are being oppressed. For the demand explicitly addresses fundamental values and makes no pretense of respecting our most intimate decision-making processes. The situation is no different when our values are expressed in secular terms.

 

Failure to appreciate this allows citizens of every stripe to violate the First Amendment by trying to establish their own values as the law of the land, even seeing their attempt as noble. We Americans are prickly when others try to impose their explicitly religious beliefs and practices on us. Yet we accept the imposition of others’ values with relatively good grace—as an acceptable rule of the majority—when they are cloaked in secular language.

 

Imagine the outcry if environmentalists fought for clean air only because the Pope pronounced pollution a mortal sin. Even most Catholics would object to so obvious a religious intrusion on public policy. Yet no such dissent arises when environmentalists express their concern as a personal value.

 

You may object that the lack of protest is due not to secular language but to shared value. Everyone values clean air, but only a minority value obedience to the Pope.

 

Values, however, often conflict. We are currently unable to promote clean air without reducing job growth. That means that we must favor one at the other’s expense to some extent. Yet there is no commonly agreed-upon way to establish that one value is objectively better than the other. Since public policy must decide, it cannot avoid favoring one side over the other.

 

The Constitutional problem is that public policy goals inherently express what we value, so that conflict among different values is inevitable. Consequently, we can only minimize how much others’ values intrude on our lives by minimizing the public policies that express them.

 

This minimalist goal contrasts with both liberal and conservative promotion of public policies that reflect their own values and therefore covertly establish their own religion over others’. The will of the majority is no excuse, since that too can be a source of oppression when it violates fundamental rights, as Madison noted in no. 51 of The Federalist Papers.

 

The American tradition provides three government-minimizing principles for guarding against any faction’s imposing its values on others:

 

     1)  the right to pursue one’s happiness (what one values)

     2)  the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing any state religion (determining what everyone should value)

     3)  the judicial principle to suppose innocence, not guilt (SING)

 

The first two principles are in effect the same. What the first expresses in terms of the individual’s happiness, the second expresses in terms of organized religion, which embodies what the individual most values. SING expresses the right to pursue what we value until government has sufficient reason to restrain us. It is not our burden to justify what we do. Though SING is best known within our judicial system, it is actually a broader principle implied in the first two: government is to keep its hands off individuals’ lives unless it has very good reason to restrain them.

 

The First Amendment, then, prohibits forcing others to live by one’s own values instead of their own. Failure to see this feeds the illusion that a secular government cannot oppress as long as it does not act in explicitly religious dress. As a result, partisans on both the Left and the Right misguidedly see themselves as noble when exhorting one another to "vote your values."

 

This means, for example, that conservatives against same-sex marriage must prove public harm in asking government to prohibit it. Proponents do not have to justify themselves.

 

On the other hand, the burden is on liberals for the redistribution of wealth to prove that income inequality is a public harm. The wealthy do not have to justify themselves.

 

There are at least three beneficial side-effects to recognizing that the First Amendment extends beyond traditional religion to fundamental values.

 

First, recognizing this role of fundamental value exposes the unconstitutionality of much activist public policy, whose oppressive character is cloaked in supposedly neutral secular language.

 

Second, recognizing this role of fundamental value helps minimize ideological conflict by cautioning against creating public policy unless there is strong reason to override the basic freedoms that it inevitably restricts.

 

Finally, recognizing this role of fundamental value can reduce intransigence and promote compromise by framing much of our political conflict in terms of personal values instead of dictates from God or Reason. It is hard to compromise with God or Reason, but easier to accept not getting what we personally value. In short, recognizing value’s religious character—whether expressed in explicitly religious or in secular terms—can bring sobriety and mutual consideration to creating public policy.

 

Gary Schouborg, PhD, formerly a Jesuit philosopher-theologian, is a Life Coach in Walnut Creek, California.