Truth, academic freedom, and religious freedom

I am currently reading Robert George’s book Conscience and Its Enemies. In it he expresses his thoughts on many topics which include rights of conscience, religious freedom and academic freedom. I have found something in his thoughts that resonates with what I was trying to say in my blog post last week. I wrote about the importance of the existence of objective moral truth to a clear understanding of ethics and my concern that not only our society, but also the church is losing the concept of moral truth.

In his discussion of academic freedom George says that in the classical liberal arts education there was an understanding that from reading great books and entering into an open rational search for truth we could gain a better understanding of what is true which can help ground how we live as rational educated human beings. He expressed concern that in many of the major universities in America (and elsewhere) that open search for truth is being replaced by indoctrination in what is considered to be the correct way to think by those in power in the academic world and academic freedom is being lost.

He also discusses the ways in which rights of conscience and religious freedom are being limited in our society using as an example the current ACOG position on its members either providing or referring for abortion. In that situation those who are in power in a medical specialty organization have chosen to impose their ethical and political views on the members of the organization without any provision for a rational discussion of the ethical issues involved. They have simply assumed that they are correct in their concept of medicine being the meeting of patients’ desires regardless of whether those desires actually involve the health of the patient or may involve ending the life of an unborn child.

It seems to me that both of these issues involve our understanding of truth. When there is a foundational understanding that there are things that are ultimately true and the goal of academic pursuits is the discovery of truth, academic freedom allows us each to pursue that goal in our own unique way with the expectation that rational intercourse will lead us to our goal. We can have civil discussion of our different ideas of what is true because we have the common goal of discovering what is true and recognize that we can always learn from each other. If there is no ultimate truth, then reason will not be able to lead us to a common goal and the direction we will go will be left up to who is more powerful and is able to coerce others to follow the way they desire to go.

If we understand that ultimate moral and spiritual truth exists and we have the ability to discover those truths, then we would expect open rational discussion to be helpful in finding those moral and spiritual truths. We would also expect that people would desire to live their lives based on their best understanding of that moral truth and we would encourage them to do so. We can have rational discussion of why we think that certain moral or spiritual concepts are true or false with the hope that those discussions would help each of us draw closer to the truth. This means that a statement that a particular moral belief is not true is not an attack on the one who holds that belief, but is a part of the discussion leading to a better understanding of moral truth. If, however, there is no moral truth and our moral values are a matter of personal intuition or feelings with nothing by which to evaluate them, then disagreeing with what a person believes to be moral can be seen as an attack on that person. The strident nature of moral discourse in our culture results from a rejection of the existence of objective moral and spiritual truth that is the goal that moral discourse is seeking to find. If there is no moral truth then it would be unloving to say that someone was morally wrong, but if there is moral truth then we have reason to help each other find it.

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