Governance of a City-State
Two Martians, a Korean and implications for religion in public policy

Two Martians and a Korean are tasked to team up for an important project. Although all three are fluent in English, the Martians insist on having all team conversations in their native Martian language. The Korean is furious as she cannot speak Martian, nor is she interested to learn it. She complains that it is unfair to privilege some people’s native language, much as they each love their own. They should all be using English to converse for their task, she adds. However, the Martians remain resolute. “Our demand is perfectly fair,” they say.

Let us assume there are no additional complications, such as the project requiring them to speak only in Martian. Do you agree with the Martians?

I believe you would disagree. Surely the fair arrangement is for all to speak in English within the team, making the Martians’ demand unreasonable.

This is a good starting point to explore how conflicting views could be fairly treated in a diverse society. Let us zoom in on a pressing example: Should religious convictions determine secular public policy?

Lawrence Khong, the pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church, thinks so (Khong, 2014). He argues:

Whether homosexuality should be normative is an issue of public morality. It is not merely a religious issue. People get morality from both secular and sacred sources. All are free to speak on public issues, drawing from their moral convictions, be they secular or sacred. What matters is whether the argument is sound. Why should atheistic views be touted at the expense of theistic views? Both are privileged to speak. Both are free to persuade in the public square.

Law professor Thio Li-Ann seems to agree (Thio, 2007):

As all law has a moral basis, we must consider which morality to legislate… Religious views are part of our common morality. We separate ‘religion’ from ‘politics’, but not ‘religion’ from ‘public policy’. That would be undemocratic.

In our story, it is undemocratic (in the unfettered sense of democracy) to reject the wishes of the Martian majority. Nonetheless, would Khong and Thio consider the Martians’ demand fair? Presumably not. What then is the difference between the Martians and religious people who demand that public policies follow their religious convictions?

No neutral ground?

Some people contest the above analogy by arguing there is no equivalent of a neutral language in secular society. Indeed, we would think very differently about the issue if neither the Korean nor Martians can speak English. Still, we should be clear that if there is such a language, then fairness demands that we use it.

Is there neutral ground for debating public policy among people of diverse and often conflicting worldviews? We could answer that once we know what that ground would look like — and our Martians story gives us a clue.

Each of the trio has her own overarching cultural and personal preferences. However, it is unreasonable to decide the team language simply on the basis of those subjective elements. The equitable way is to use only the reasons that ought to appeal to all team members.

The same applies to public matters in secular Singapore. The Christian should not assess public issues simply on the basis of her Christian worldview, just as the Martian should not merely appeal to her Martian culture. It follows as well that the atheist ought not justify public policy views by arguing from the assumption that atheism is true. All claims have to pass the test of impartiality, i.e., is this claim acceptable to all reasonable persons in the community?

Applying the impartiality test

The claim that “homosexual sex should be outlawed because the Bible says so” does not pass this test, since non-Christians (and arguably Christians) can reasonably reject this claim. Such views should be considered only if it is proven that Bible teachings, interpreted in that particular way, are rationally binding on everyone. While we cannot assume in advance that this is impossible to accomplish, we can be certain that such an accomplishment means the claim would no longer be based on religious convictions per se, but on objective reason.

At this point, it is fair to ask: Does any claim survive this test? Plenty. “The average temperature in Singapore on 28 February 2014 is above 20 degree celsius” passes. Likewise, the claim that “The Earth is not flat.” What about moral claims? All reasonable people would agree that it is immoral to torture an unwilling person simply for fun. They can do so without having to first believe in Islam, Christianity, atheism, or some other comprehensive worldview. We can appreciate many truths without having to infer them from our worldviews.

Admittedly, there are difficult issues on which reasonable disagreement exists — and public policy must not arbitrarily take sides there. However, the possibility of reasonable disagreement does not make all disagreements reasonable. Just consider the examples above.

But what if someone thinks the God of her religion is required for morality to exist at all? Even then, she could agree that many moral truths are evident whether one believes in her religion or not. What matters here is if we can see that a claim is true, not what the metaphysical foundation of that truth is. Christians, for instance, surely believe others can see that the Earth exists, even if they think it would not exist without creative act of the Christian God.

We should note that non-religious people could also make unreasonable demands. Some have called for science teachers to teach evolution as an “unsupervised, impersonal” process (Kloehn, 1997). Evolution would be so only if God, or some such supervisory entity, does not exist. There are atheists who think that can be taken as a background assumption in public science education, akin to the basic truths of logic and mathematics. But is that claim acceptable to all reasonable people in the community? I do not think so.

In conclusion, it is worth highlighting that the impartiality test is not a test of actual consensus. It is extremely unlikely that people of diverse worldviews would all agree on important issues. The test is not concerned with what people would agree to, but on what they should agree to. It builds on our intuition that minority rights ought not be hostage to unreasonable majority demands.

Some might reject this test in favour of some alternative. Yet in doing so, they would presumably be employing reasons that they think would appeal to all reasonable people. Otherwise, why should we consider their claims? If so, why not stick with the language of impartial reason that we all understand?

Jason Phan is a philosophy lecturer at the Singapore Institute of Management.



Khong, L. (2014, February 15). A Response to “FAQ an educational tool that should remain in its original form” by Braema Mathi. Retrieved from:

Kloehn, S. (1997, October 17). On Second Thought, Biology Teachers Leave Room For God, in Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from:

Thio, L. (2007, October 23). Two Tribes Go to (Cultural) War. Retrieved from:

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