Posted 10/23/00

"Reasonable Sanctions for Reasonable Doctrines", by David Meeler (Auburn University)
Journal of Social Philosophy, Summer 2000, vol. 31 no. 2, pp. 153-159.

Reviewed by Shaun P. Young (University of South Africa)

i-drop.gif - 1.3 Kn a recent article, David Meeler questions whether it is possible for the punishments commanded by comprehensive doctrines to violate unacceptably the "basic rights and liberties" of the followers of said doctrines, and thereby render these doctrines "unreasonable." Using Rawls's conception of political liberalism as his point of reference, Meeler examines the notion of "reasonable sanctions" in the context of comprehensive religious doctrines operating in contemporary liberal democracies.

Meeler interprets Rawlsian political liberalism as suggesting that a doctrine can correctly be considered reasonable provided that it "offer[s] … its followers a system of beliefs that is coherent, that provides practical guidance, and that is open to evolutionary change," and so long as it " 'support[s] a reasonable balance of political values' " (153). Meeler contends that this last criterion has important implications for our understanding of what constitutes a "reasonable" religious doctrine: specifically, if, as Rawls acknowledges, " 'members of a religious association may regard themselves as having submitted in conscience to religious authority,' " then such individuals would "seem to fall under the jurisdiction of two distinct authorities," and this means that "the values of these two authorities must be appropriately balanced" (153) if the doctrine in question is to be considered reasonable.

Meeler argues that an "appropriate" balance is one in which a follower's rights and liberties as an individual qua citizen are "reasonably" respected by her religion. He notes that Rawlsian political liberalism accepts as reasonable the right of a comprehensive doctrine to restrict its followers' freedoms and to sanction its followers for exercising certain rights and/or liberties granted to them as citizens (154). What must be determined, then, is what type of sanctions (if any) "unreasonably" disrespect followers' rights and/or liberties as citizens, and thereby render a doctrine unreasonable?

Meeler observes that without some agreed upon basis for making such determinations, the (un)reasonableness of each sanction remains a matter of subjective interpretation (154). Having identified this problem, he then argues that, given the concerns and requirements of Rawlsian political liberalism, the "most natural suggestion" (156) for such a consensual standard is the following "general criterion": "In administering punishments to its followers, a comprehensive doctrine [if it is to be considered reasonable] may not impose disciplinary measures that violate the basic rights and liberties of citizens" (154).

After presenting it for consideration, Meeler immediately declares that the proposed criterion must be rejected as unacceptable because it would establish a standard that would, in effect, render all sanctions and doctrines "reasonable" (155), and thus it could offer no protection against the involuntary violation of followers' basic rights and liberties as citizens. This conclusion is based upon Meeler's belief that as all followers are always free to renounce their religion and thereby avoid any associated violation of their rights and liberties as citizens, said rights and liberties can never be unwillingly transgressed (excepting, of course, when one is physically forced to submit to a punishment). In turn, Meeler reasons that so long as a doctrine accepts the right of its followers to renounce their faith at any time, then the doctrine is - at least, according to Rawlsian political liberalism - reasonable, regardless of the character of its punishments (156).

For Meeler, however, "there is more to be said" (157). Specifically, Meeler argues that while the imposition of a particular punishment may not be sufficient grounds for labeling its parent doctrine "unreasonable," this fact does not mean that the punishment in question is not unduly severe or otherwise unacceptable, and thus something from which individuals should be protected. The question, then, is: How (if at all) can followers be protected without imposing "unreasonable" limits on the autonomy of comprehensive doctrines? Meeler suggests that there is means by which we can secure such protection without violating the principles of Rawlsian political liberalism (157): namely, via the use of "acceptable paternalistic legislation"- laws, such as Motorcycle helmet laws and car safety belt laws, designed to protect individuals qua citizens "from willfully engaging in practices that are potentially lethal" (157).

In light of these new considerations, Meeler proposes the following alternative general criterion: a doctrine can justifiably be considered "reasonable" only if it refrains from imposing punishments that involve activities that violate any statutory laws derived from public reason and acknowledges the right of its followers to renounce it at any time (157-58). Meeler contends that the above criterion represents an effective mechanism for identifying unreasonable sanctions/doctrines and publicly protecting individuals from the forced imposition of "unreasonable" punishments. The viability of Meeler's criterion is, however, premised upon a deficient depiction of, among other things, the prominent character of religious devotion. Meeler drastically underestimates the unquestioning obedience and psychosocial dependence often ingrained in and exhibited by many followers, and in so doing grossly overestimates the ease with which such individuals could abandon their faith, even when given the (apparent) reason and "opportunity" to do so. Surely, there can be no doubt that for many devoutly religious people, the adage that "there is no salvation outside of the church," is a non-negotiable moral truth: it represents a fundamental belief that is not open to compromise, transgression or abandonment. Such individuals' understanding of the "good life" is inextricably intertwined with their religious beliefs: only by remaining "faithful" to their beliefs can they hope to achieve their worldly and heavenly ends, and this fact both virtually eliminates any likelihood of abandoning one's faith merely because one may suspect that a proposed sanction is in some manner "unreasonable," and makes it neither "reasonable" nor rational for one to do so.

To suggest, as does Meeler, that such individuals are, in effect, willingly submitting to the imposition of "unreasonable" punishments, is to dismiss the very real possibility that such individuals, through no fault of their own, often possess neither the perspective to appreciate fully what is "unreasonable," nor the psychological "freedom" to abandon their religion. The reality is, that, contra Meeler, abandoning one's faith "is [not] a ready option for a follower of any religion" (155), and, thus, the opportunity to do so does not always or necessarily offer the protection that Meeler suggests. Unfortunately, this oversight effectively precludes the possibility of Meeler's criterion fulfilling its intended function.

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