A little analysis is a dangerous thing

**Vacation is upon us, so this will be the last post until sometime after August 5th.**

That said, let’s have some fun with some academic style strawmanning. What’s that? Well, that’s when you are purposely obtuse in reconstructing someone’s argument. I found this, by the way, when I directed to the National Review Online. Kids, if you want to see grown persons reason like children, go there.

But this argument appears in First Things. Here goes. First, the author cites a comment on Bush’s stem cell veto:

>In vetoing the bill that would have funded stem-cell research, President Bush invoked what he termed a “conflict between science and ethics.” But what, exactly, is the “ethical” side of this conflict? … What the president describes neutrally as “ethics” is simply his own, sectarian religious belief. … [I]n what sense is it “ethical” for Mr. Bush—acting as president of the United States—to place his own sectarian, religious belief above the convictions of a majority of the American people and a substantial majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate? In my judgment, this is no different from the president vetoing a law providing a subsidy to pork producers because eating pork offends his religious faith. Such a veto is an unethical and illegitimate usurpation of state authority designed to impose on all of society a particular religious faith.

That’s Geoffrey Stone, professor of law at the University of Chicago. Read the rest here. Before we look at the comment, it’s fairly obvious that Stone is puzzled over Bush’s assertion that there’s a conflict between science and ethics. Stone does not claim that no such conflict exists, he just wonders what *Bush* means by “ethics” in this particular circumstance. The burden is on Bush to specify, he made the claim. If he did so somewhere in his veto statement, then Stone ought to find out. But that’s not the claim of the commenter.

He writes:

>There are a different ways to make this argument work logically, and Stone doesn’t specify the one on which he relies. One version might look like this:

>(1) There can exist no purely rational basis for rejecting the federal financing of embryonic stem-cell research, and

>(2) Ethics is by its nature a rational process. Therefore,

>(3) When the president used the word ethics, he was either ignorant of the word’s meaning or disingenuous, since

>(4) Lacking any ethical—which is to say, rational—grounds for rejecting the federal funding of this research, the president must have been relying on nonrational motives. Perhaps not all nonrational motives are constitutionally impermissible for a public official, but

>(5) Religious motives are an explicitly prohibited form of nonrationality, and

>(6) President Bush is known to be a strong believer in a religion that rejects the destruction of embryos for scientific research, which leads to the reasonable inference that his particular nonrational motives were, in this case, at least “unethical and illegitimate,” and probably unconstitutional.

It’s obvious that Stone doesn’t assert (1), he puzzles over Bush’s “rational basis” as he has offered none (that Stone has noticed). But it only gets worse: (2) isn’t claimed at all, and then it just gets snide. What we have here is obtuse reconstruction. Sure it looks nice–all layed out analytic style with numbers–but in its pseudo rigor it completely misses Stone’s point.

Stone asks the President to assert a justification beyond simple assertion of his own particular religious ethical prejudice for his veto. The principle of charity would tell you that Stone isn’t asserting bald majority rule in ethics (and besides, he clearly isn’t). He is asserting that one’s own religious feelings *alone* do not constitute sufficient grounds for exercising legal force over a majority in democracy.

So, Stone is not arguing for the following:

>Either way, Stone’s argument demands that religious believers prove, far beyond any other public actors, that their public acts derive from rational motives—and when their actions match the result that their faith seems to require, the result is, on its face, constitutionally suspect.

>The various pieces of this argument are odd, but it seems to me that one runs across them more and more: the assumption, for instance, that religion is inherently irrational, and the assertion that religious reasoning is incapable of arriving at an extra-religious result, and the postulate that a sectarian motive is inherently illegitimate in a democracy.

Stone’s argument asks that religious believers *who are public officials* not inflict without argument their beliefs on others without an argument. He is not claiming that religious belief is irrational. Or the extreme case that anything sectarian have no place in a democracy. It’s just not *sufficiently* rational to say “do this because I believe it’s right.”

One thought on “A little analysis is a dangerous thing”

  1. i totally agree with your analysis of TNR. pedantic drivel at its worst. however, my issue is with mr. stone. i would challenge him to show me in the constitution where it mandates the president is to speak for the people. it is the congress, not the prsident who is appointed to voice the will of the people. the congres could not obtain the mandatory 2/3 vote needed to override the preseident’s veto, therefore, mr. stone’s bone should be picked with congress, not with the president. should the president wish to veto a bill on the grounds of his fervent love for hedgehogs, if the congress should obtain the constitutionally required vote, it matters not. democracy works. if mr. stone has a problem with the manner in which it was exercised in this instance, he should strive to attack the responsible target–congress–not the easy target, our linguistically inept and constituioanlly challenged president.

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