Nate Oman thinks there’s something wrong with using religious reasons that one doesn’t believe to convince people who do believe them to change their political views. Here’s what Oman says:
Consider, for example gay marriage activists who quote the New Testament at opponents of same sex marriage. In other parts of the world, Christians are frequently aligned with left-wing causes, and secular conservatives will quote passages about rendering unto Ceasar what is Caesar’s and getting out of politics. For that matter, consider the attempts of westerners to persuade Muslims that Islam, properly understood, is not really inconsistent with modern liberal democracy.
I find all of these arguments slightly off putting. After thinking about, here is why I believe that I have this uneasiness. There is something manipulative about using religious arguments that you do not yourself to subscribe to. Rather than invoking the truth (as you understand it), you are simply grasping at whatever will get the other person to act the way that you want them to act. It is not quite the same as lying to get someone to do something, but it seems similar.
This thought has been developed at length by Robert Audi. He calls the practice of arguing from premises you don’t believe “leveraging by reasons,” since the non-believer is alledgedly using reasons as a form of leverage rather than as part of a rational argument.
I think Audi and Oman are both wrong about this. Take this stripped down example: A argues with B for the purpose of getting B to see that some political principle X is justified. Assume A believes X is justified because of belief P, and B believes X is not justified because of belief Q. Suppose, though, that all of B’s other (relevant?) beliefs should lead him to reject Q and accept P. Suppose further that A rejects B’s other beliefs. Why is it manipulative for A to say to B: “Look, I reject all your other beliefs. But, if you’re going to persist in holding them, you’re at least committed to P, and therefore to political principle X”? Provided that A makes public the nature of his or her argument, I don’t see anything manipulative about it at all.
In fact, you might think that a willingness to argue from what other people believe is a sign of respect. A says to B: “I don’t agree with your background views, but I can see how a reasonable person could hold them. Still, even if you think those things, your beliefs give you reasons to agree with me about X.”
What’s manipulative about that sort of argument? Oman says: “I can’t help but feeling that most invocations of religion by non-believers are shallow, manipulative, condecending, and in some sense dishonest.” I think that “shallow” and “condescending” are doing most of the work here. The problem isn’t the nature of the argument, or the fact that the speaker doesn’t believe the premises. The problem is with the way that such arguments are sometimes made, or with the crassness and duplicity of some of the people who make them.
In order to avoid deception, the nonbeliever would need to either disavow belief in the argument or make the argument condition[al], with clauses like if all persons were created equal, before delivering the punch line of the argument. On the other hand, though, respect for others requires that we give our fellow citizens reasons which are accessible to them. It would be awfully strange to begin an argument addressed at a believer, with something like, “My first premise is that religion is false.”
There is a way out of the dilemma. We can offer our fellow citizens what the philosopher John Rawls called “public reasons,” i.e. reasons that both believers and nonbelievers can endorse—albeit they may well have different deep foundations for these public reasons.
I agree that giving others sincere public reasons—that is, public reasons we believe—is one way of solving this problem. But it’s not the only way. Consider an example similar to the one above, where A believes X based on P. Confronted with other people B, C, D, E, and F who each disagree with X, A might try to give them reasons that match up with their respective viewpoints. So A might argue that B should believe X because he is committed to reason R, and C because of reason S, and D because of reason T, and so on. A might be able to accomplish this more easily if A engaged in this form of argument deceptively by claiming to believe in the various reasons given to others. But nothing in principle prevents A from saying to each person, “I don’t believe in the reasons I’ve given to you, or in the reasons I’ve given to C, D, E . . . but you believe these reasons, and that’s sufficient for the purpose of reaching agreement on X.”
There are probably good reasons to reject this model of generating convergence on X in favor of a consensus based on public reasons. But I’m not sure the values of sincerity and respect are sufficient to justify preferring the latter. We also need arguments about the stability of normative agreements, and the impossibility of reaching such agreements without shared reasons.