Responding to the “Dogma” charge

From time to time, conservative positions on bioethical issues—e.g., opposition to physician-assisted suicide—are met with a charge that religious “dogma” is asserting itself, sometimes successfully, against the dictates of reason.   This charge merits response, although I find it pretty weak.  I personally find it necessary to resist the temptation to be nothing more than a haughty moralist in responding.  Perhaps I am not alone in that.  But I will l try to do better.

To this charge, I would say the following:

  • Just what does the person making the charge mean by “dogma?”
  • If what is meant is a commitment to a position against all evidence:
    • The issue may not be one of faith vs reason, but a clash of assumptions.  If one starts from a position favoring radical individual autonomy, one reaches different conclusions from an anthropology that assumes limits on said autonomy.
    • The evidence may not be conclusive, and in the absence of evidence, people can and do give good reasons for staking out a starting point based on assumptions.  We all make basic worldview commitments which must by nature be starting points rather than conclusions, and which must be made in the absence of complete evidence.
  • If what is meant is an attempt to coerce on religious grounds:
    • If that is in fact what is happening, it should be opposed and rejected.
    • More often, what is really going on is an appeal to the conscience of the listener.  To wit: in the recent case of the failure of SB 128 in committee of the California Assembly, it was reported that Catholic clergy had contacted assemblymen and –women, some of whom represent heavily Catholic districts and may themselves have been Catholic.  For a citizen to make a reasoned appeal based on the tenets of a church is an acceptable way to petition someone based on reasoning from principle and conscience.  It is not coercive on its face.  (Remember that “coercion” by definition includes a threat.)
    • It is neither coercive nor incivil to challenge leaders on moral grounds.
  • Principles such as limits on human autonomy may be set on grounds other than supernaturalist metaphysics (i.e., faith in God).
  • An appeal to reject something on principle often is accompanied by an argument that there are better alternatives.  This should be done if at all possible.
  • Finally, maybe the supposed “dogma” is true.

So, no, I do not agree that “Catholic dogma and pressure” were decisive in the recent discussions of SB 128. 

And yes, I am willing to debate the ethics and philosophy of PAS for as long as it takes or as long as I am able.

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Barry Orvell, MD
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Barry Orvell, MD

Dogma : assumption that morality has an authority originating in a God. Thus morality has the quality of certainty. And most irksome, dogmatic truths are unalterable. Now I am being dogmatic, and pedanticas well. So much has been said about the conservative vs. the liberal viewpoint. I see a world of uncertainty, through which I move slowly. The path is delicate and easily blocked. I think that the letter from the Archbishop, is not a statement like a casual FYI. He said this bill should not pass, it endorses killing among other sins. That is profound use of coercion from… Read more »

Jon Holmlund
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Jon Holmlund

If you believe in God and the soul you might well be concerned about sin and judgment, and you would welcome warnings from the clergy to be mindful of God’s revealed will, which I would say includes holding human life precious and refusing to cross the line between healing and killing. Such warnings are NOT coercion, “the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.” Coercion is Henry VIII threatening Thomas More if he won’t grant a divorce. I remind you that a “right to die” WILL likely lead to coercion of physicians to participate despite… Read more »