Friday, August 28, 2009

a healthy market is a fair market

Jürgen Habermas is residing on Long Island this autumn, hosting a seminar on political theology. I haven’t intended to get into Habermasian exchanges soon, let alone another round of exchanges on religion. But the domain is relevant to prospects for health care legislation in the U.S., so I forwarded to the Habermas group the link to an article in today’s New York Times that is pertinent, and I provided some commentay. But text turns up lousy at the Yahoo! Groups site (turns up better in the emails distributed) and isn’t revisable. So, here’s my commentary, subject to improvement.

Some Roman Catholic Bishops Assail Health Plan” reports that some Catholic bishops are urging parishoners to call their members of Congress to object to Obama-led health care reform, due to the likely provision that constitutionally-permitted “Choice” toward family planning and abortion would be supported by health care legislation.

“The bishops’ backlash reflects a struggle within the church over how heavily to weigh opposition to abortion against concerns about social justice. ’It is the great tension in Catholic thought right now,’ said M. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame.”

This news story appeals to my general interest in finding journalistic entrances into—excuse my prolix character—philosophical importances in institutional policies; in this case, not more runaround about the politicization of religion by the faithful, which is a citizen right (but which can’t be jurisprudentially recognized, given church-state separation).

President Obama (a Constitutional lawyer) appeals for prevalence of “moral convictions” among religious voters to warrant support for his legislation. But the entire organization of activities—from floor debates in Congress to pastoral letters—is designed (unwittingly or not) to not allow for dwelling with the character of moral convictions. On the one hand, a wager is proffered by Obama that the aggregate of moral convictions is such that its holding sway will favor his policy. On the other hand, questioning Catholic policy is not an official option—or it registers a schism in the Church that has to yield to Vatican policy.

The appeal to moral conviction, then, is the way that public dialogue promotes the schism, tacitly siding with liberal trends in the Church that support the Obama policy. The conservative Church would steer dialogue away from principled reflection through keeping focus on abortion rather than on the deliberative struggle with moral conviction that prevails in the lived event of choice (deciding whether or not to end a pregnancy), based on an individualized interplay of conscience, evaluation of one’s life situation, and policy toward “being” “human”. Many persons who are so focused on abortion are not able to carry this kind of reflection very far, and this suits the Church very well, as it’s premised on flock dependence on the shepherd (which has historically fought the dissemination of literacy that served Protestantism).

“In his conference call with religious voters last week, Mr. Obama denied that his plan would mean government financing for abortions, calling such assertions ’fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation.’”

What is that core obligation? The Obama plan provides for citizen choice in health care plans, such that persons opposed to financing abortion may choose a plan that prohibits financing for abortion; so, the sway of the aggregate moral conviction is taken into the market. The core obligation is evidently to respect others’ right of access to a fair market.

“Liberal Catholic groups argued that most bishops still strongly supported the broader goals of the health care proposals. ’There are certainly some strident voices out there that want to see health care reform abandoned on the back of this issue,’ said Victoria Kovari, acting director of the liberal Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, ’but I don’t think that is where the bishops are.’”

So, an alliance for the common good would have prevail the broader goals of health care, which might be framed as so many ways of ensuring human rights of access to comprehensive health care, and, presumably, Obama would advocate ensuring/creating a fair market as a core obligation of government’s duty of care.

Liberalism is at least about keeping the broader human interest prevalent in public policy. Bishops who support this would, with Bishop Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., “emphasiz[e] the priority the church place[s] on coverage for the poor, calling health care ’not a privilege but a right....It is a fundamental issue of human life and dignity.’”

So, the issues aren’t theological (as the conflict of interpretations belongs to theology itself and gains its motivations outside of theology in the first place). History has shown that theology can’t prevail in a fair market of ideas, so conservatism is about controlling access to the market, be it controlling literacy or controlling public options. The vaguely implied philosophical importances here aren’t about philosophical issues of theology, but very secular issues about the potential of open markets to affect cultural life.

So, I pose to professor Habermas: What is the real problem that urges a focus these days in the U.S. on political theology? Even in Iran, the intratheocratic struggles for power are not about theology, as all sides find theological justification. It’s “simply” about power to control the market of ideas (shown as well in the silliness about spies in Iran that has been recently reported: That’s all about threats arising from an enriched market of ideas).

What’s philosophically interesting is how the market of ideas works when it has its way. It causes increases in literacy, deliberativeness, diversity, and complexity of public understanding. We might better focus on how to promote that rather than finding critique of theology to be especially useful.

I have a fondness for what I call the school lunch room model of social change: Given lots of options for tables of others to sit with (as, say, a market of ideas), people are more likely to change tables (going for what’s more appealing) than to sit and argue about where they are (critique that depends on staying at a given table). The appeal of the market of ideas is incomparable to mere critique (which may succeed without guidance to better options, leaving one in a view from Nowhere), not to underestimate the importance of critique in a market of ideas. It’s the flourishing of the market of ideas that gives critique its telos.

I would argue that a “common good” of human flourishing is what makes rights appealing, and it’s the appeal of an argument, not the “force of the better argument” (Habermas) that makes an argument persuasively better.