Ronald Dworkin Answers Three Questions

Ronald Dworkin answers Three Questions For America in the New York Review of Books.First he looks at teaching alternatives to evolution in the schools:

Nothing frightens liberals and moderates more, I think, than the vision of religious organizations and movements dictating what may be taught to children in public schools, either through formal legislation or school board rulings or informal intimidation of teachers. Many Americans are horrified by the prospect of a new dark age imposed by militant superstition; they fear a black, know-nothing night of ignorance in which America becomes an intellectually backward and stagnant theocracy

Dworkin refutes claims of proponents of intelligent design and finds teaching this as an alternative to evolution in science classes to be harmful. He does make an alternative recommendation:

If we are to protect dignity by protecting people’s responsibility for their own personal values, then we must build our compulsory education and our collective endorsements of truth around the distinction between faith and reason. We need a defensible conception of science not only for the intensely practical reason that we must prepare our children and youth to advance knowledge and to compete in the world’s economy but also in order to protect the personal responsibility of our citizens each for his own religious faith. We need an account of science, in our public philosophy of government, that does not make its authority depend on commitment to any set of religious or ethical values. So Senator Frist made a serious mistake when he said that describing intelligent design only as a scientific alternative to evolution doesn’t “force any particular theory on anyone.” In fact it damages young students, practically and politically, by using the state’s authority to force on them a false and disabling view of what science is.

When President Bush said that intelligent design should be taught in the schools, his science adviser, John Marburger, said that Darwinian theory is “the cornerstone of modern biology,” and that Bush meant only that “students should be taught that some people have suggested that Intelligent Design is a viable alternative theory.” If so, we should welcome Bush’s suggestion, but not for courses in science. Instead we urgently need to make a Contemporary Politics course in which such claims can be discussed part of every high school curriculum.

Dworkin next looks at the pledge of allegience, objecting to the addition of religion but not finding it a serious problem:

It acts to strengthen the association of religion and patriotism—presupposing that that association is desirable—in a way that makes it more difficult for someone who wishes to embrace patriotism free of religion to do so. It is plainly part of people’s responsibility for their own values to define for themselves the religious or metaphysical assumptions of political allegiance. The coercive impact of an officially endorsed ritual is no more acceptable than the open manipulation of compelled assertion.

That coercive impact, however, is in fact not very strong and so though the official Pledge is a violation of liberty it is not a practically serious one. Just as an atheist can fish in his pocket for a coin that bears a message of trust in God or stand at the opening ceremony of prayer in congressional or court sessions without any sense of self-betrayal, so he can mouth the words of the Pledge, or skip the words he finds objectionable, without loss of integrity. Few children treat the detailed wording of the Pledge they recite in school as having the authority even of the solemn vows they make in the playground. But that only means that the intended purpose of making the Pledge theological has failed, not that that purpose is in itself legitimate.

Dworkin concludes with a discussion of gay marriage. He compares this to the previous question:

The only genuine argument against gay marriage has the same form as the argument for a religious Pledge of Allegiance, but the stakes are of course very much higher. The case against gay marriage, put most sympathetically, begins with the premise that the institution of marriage is, as I said, a unique and immensely valuable cultural resource. Its meaning and hence its value have developed over centuries, and the assumption that marriage is the union of a man and a woman is so embedded in our common understanding that it would become a different institution were that assumption now challenged and lost. Just as we might struggle to maintain the meaning and value of any other great natural or artistic resource, so we should struggle to retain this uniquely valuable cultural resource.

After further discussion, Dworkin rejects the arguments for restrictions on individuals:

It becomes dramatically clear that the cultural argument against gay marriage contradicts our shared ideals of personal dignity when we substitute “religion” for “marriage” in the argument I constructed. Everything I said about the cultural heritage and value of marriage is equally true of the general institution of religion: religion is an irreplaceable cultural resource in which billions of people find immense and incomparable value. Its meaning, like that of marriage, has evolved over a great many centuries. But its meaning, again like that of marriage, is subject to quite dramatic change through organic processes as new religions and sects develop and as new threats to established doctrine and practice are generated by secular developments in science or politics or theories of social justice—in the feminist movement, for instance, that demands women priests—or by the rise and fall in popular imagination of various forms of mysticism, hallucinogenic experimentation, pantheism, Unitarianism, fundamentalist doctrines, radical liberation movements, and a thousand other shifts in religious impulse that begin in individual decision and end in seismic changes in what religion can and does mean. American religious conservatives, even those who regard themselves as evangelical, do not imagine that the cultural meaning of religion should be frozen by laws prohibiting people with new visions from access to the title, legal status, or tax and economic benefits of religious organization.

The cultural argument against gay marriage is therefore inconsistent with the instincts and insight captured in the shared idea of human dignity. The argument supposes that the culture that shapes our values is the property only of some of us—those who happen to enjoy political power for the moment —to sculpt and protect in the shape they admire. That is a deep mistake: in a genuinely free society the world of ideas and values belongs to no one and to everyone. Who will argue—not just declare—that I am wrong?

2 Comments

  1. 1
    kj says:

    Why not a basic course on comparative mythologies taught in the grade schools? Expose young children to the many more than “one” beliefs about origin, that in actuality, creation myths are integral to every society at every level of development. It is a uniquely HUMAN act of creation, to create a belief system about our creation.

  2. 2
    kj says:

    This country seriously needs to stretch its center and horizon. If we want to lead the world, let’s lead. That means stepping out of our comfort zone and allowing for the fact that we don’t have a lock on “the way” to see the world. We’re just one country. One lily in the garden.

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