Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Carnival on Modern Liberty: Taboo One Religion

John Stuart Mill in On Liberty went to some length about Self Regarding Actions (SRA) and Other Regarding Actions (ORA). Basically the former is self-regarding and subject only to personal persuasion and inducement. Such an action becomes other-regarding and open to public sanction if, and only if, it either harms an interest, violates a right, or neglects a duty owed to another person or persons.

One of the things laid out in that definition of liberty that I wrote about the other day was the right to believe or express oneself in a manner of one's own choosing. Which brings us up against one one in our envelope of modern liberty. The religious believes of someone may be largely malign and a SRA but what is something from those of other faith or none becomes and ORA.

A lot has been made recently of the bus driver who refused to drive the bus carrying the agnostic slogan "There Probably is no god. Get on with enjoying yourself." Or the Christian registrar who refused to marry same sex couples. The actions of both these people of faith in these instances were SRAs there was provision for the driver to drive another bus, and for the registrar others were able to swap assignments with her. However, many on the liberal flanks were up in arms about their actions. Therefore there are two sides to the coin.

People were able to get a bus, driven by that driver. Same sex couples were able to be civil partnered in that London Borough. So therefore no rights or interests were actually denied. You can and many do that the duty to others would have been neglected in the case of the registrar. But looking at it from the other side of the glass if liberty is to allow individuals in society to believe what they want to believe and express themselves as they see fit, does that not mean that in essence the ORAs of others were impinging on these two.

In the past few days somebody did raise with the issue that three of the members of the Disaster Emergency Committee were very much of a Christian ethos and that their aid came hand in hand with a bible and the distribution thereof. The argument being that by supporting the DEC's appeal I was also condoning an added religious tension into the mix. Therefore where does one draw the line. The economist in me said to them there is a cost benefit analysis to be taken into consideration, especially as they along with myself largely wanted to get aid to those in need as quickly as possible.

Which is the greater ORA, the benefit or the cost? With the example of the two individual mentioned earlier there were ORAs in operation on both sides, but which had the greater infringement on liberty?

If we are truly aiming for a modern liberty we have to allow room for those who disagree with us. But as Mill said the line gets drawn where that freedom harms an interest, violates a right, or neglects a duty owed to another person or persons. Indeed Mill himself, in his posthumous essays, saw a "social utility of religion " based on it having a moral code and leading to a benevolence of those who believed. He of course said that the strictures of dogma often impinged on others.

So while our liberty has increased in many areas since Mill's time increasingly humanistic society has started to look down on those of faith; trying to limit the way they express themselves even if it causes no harm to others. Now in some cases that is warrented but in others those with faith are often or are actually agents for social change or justice.


  1. A bit heavy for this time of the morning, but I suppose real life has too many conflicting interests to be amenable to JSM's theory.

    Thus I suppose that most people - like myself - decide these things on an intuitive basis rather than thinking in terms of detailed philisophical arguments. This will encompass a variety of considerations, most obviously individual liberty in this case, not to mention how this impinges on others, and a more utilitarian-style argument to weigh up competing interests. Indeed, your argument in the latter part of your post seems a bit utilitarian.

  2. "somebody did raise with the issue that three of the members of the Disaster Emergency Committee were very much of a Christian ethos and that their aid came hand in hand with a bible and the distribution thereof"

    I wonder if that person actually knows of the work of those organisations or is just jumping to assumptions. My understanding is that although they use religious networks both to collect aid and to distribute it, they do not function as "missionary" organisations, that is, it is not part of their function to spread religious beliefs or to give aid which is conditional on religious beliefs. In many parts of the world, the religious network is the only effective social network that exists, and the religious practice is there anyway - it doesn't need "missionaries" to spread it. In fact it is becoming the other way round - the Catholic Church in England is becoming increasingly reliant on priests imported from Africa and Asia. One might also note there is a certain ignorance in the phrase "Bible in hand", suggesting a stereotype of "Christian" which is of the evangelical fundamentalist type, which none of the organisations in DEC are.

    Regarding the atheist campaign on buses, I think it a fair point that those involved were sparked by some religious advertising on buses and wanted to show Christians what it felt like from the other side. Fair enough, and I'd certainly support any atheist bus driver who objected to, in effect, part of his job being a Christian missionary if he was made to drive a bus around with such advertising. We should also consider how we would feel if political advertising were allowed on buses and any of us were a bus driver made to drive a bus which advertised a political party to which we were opposed.

    I think there is a difference here between advertising which is static, and advertising on the side of a bus which does turn the driver into a campaigner for it all day. The atheist bus campaign point has been made - I wouldn't want to see a ban on all advertising of views, but I can accept it's not appropriate, whatever those views are, on buses.