Saturday, October 04, 2003


For an excellent discussion (and evisceration) of Rawlsian-style "public reason" philosophizing, read Steven D. Smith's piece "Recovering (from) Enlightenment?" (Link via Larry Solum.) He offers several trenchant observations, such as this:
Modern theorists enthusiastically embrace the vocabulary of "reason" -- indeed, one sometimes wonders whether their word processors have been infected with a virus that spreads the word "reason" and its cognates through their writings like an epidemic . . . .59

59 See, e.g., Rawls, Political Liberalism, supra note 58, at li (". . . we must give them reasons they can not only understand . . . but reasons we might reasonably expect that they as free and equal might reasonably also accept.").
And this:
By excluding any "comprehensive view of truth" from the domain of public reason, theorists like Rawls and Macedo deflect the suspicion that they are simply hostile to religion. But they also make it clear that "reason," for all of its prominence in their positions, is no longer serving the function of guiding people to live in accordance with Truth. That sort of Truth, rather, is beyond the purview of reason, or at least of "public reason"; it is something for people to pursue individually or in private associations. Public reason is now seen as serving other, more political and social values such as "cooperativeness," "reciprocity," and "a common citizenship."

Indeed, it would be at most a slight exaggeration to say that whereas in the classical Enlightenment the purpose of reason was to orient discourse toward Truth, under the modern ideal the purpose of "public reason" is precisely to prevent the introduction of questions and claims about Truth from entering into public discourse.
And this:
In an essay called "On Equal Human Worth: A Critique of Contemporary Egalitarianism," Louis Pojman notes that an assumption that all humans are of equal worth is central to virtually all modern political theorizing.

But what is the justification for this assumption? The notion of equal worth is hard to square with the empirical evidence: "Take any capacity or ability you like: reason, a good will, the capacity to suffer, the ability to deliberate and choose freely, the ability to make moral decisions and carry them out, self-control, sense of humor, health, athletic and artistic ability, and it seems that humans . . . differ in the degree to which they have those capacities and abilities."

Pojman reinforces the point with almost gruesome vividness. Referring to an essay in which Gregory Vlastos imagines humans explaining to a Martian visitor that “the human worth of all persons is equal,” Pojman proceeds to imagine the Martian’s response:
He invites Vlastos to consider Smith, a man of low morals and lower intelligence, who abuses his wife and children, who hates exercising or work, for whom novels are dull and art a waste of time, and whose joy it is to spend his days as a couch potato, drinking beer, while watching mud wrestling, violent sports, and soap operas on TV. He is an avid voyeur, devoted to child pornography. He is devoid of intellectual curiosity, eschews science, politics, and religion, and eats and drinks in a manner more befitting a pig than a person. Smith lacks wit, grace, humor, technical skill, ambition, courage, self-control, and wisdom. He is anti-social, morose, lazy, a freeloader who feels no guilt about living on welfare, when he is perfectly able to work, has no social conscience, and barely avoids getting caught for his petty thievery. He has no talents, makes no social contribution, lacks a moral sense . . . .

But Smith is proud of one thing: that he is "sacred," of "infinite worth," of equal intrinsic value as Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, the Dalai Lama, Jesus Christ, Gandhi, and Einstein. . . . From the egalitarian perspective, . . . Smith is of equal intrinsic worth as the best citizen in his community. We could excuse the Martian if he exhibited amazement at this incredible doctrine.
So then what is the justification for saying that all persons are in some important sense of equal worth? Pojman argues that as a historical matter, the idea of human equality descends from a religious tradition. Often the justification takes the form of a claim that all humans are made by, and in the image of, God. The justification is also expressed in the imagery of family: "The language of human dignity and worth implies a great family in which a benevolent and sovereign Father binds together all his children in love and justice." And that rationale can be given more analytical form: Pojman identifies two principal justifications in the religious tradition, which he calls "the Essentialist Argument" and "the Argument from Grace."

But these are precisely the sorts of rationales that an Enlightened "public reason" seeks to filter out of public discourse and public justification. "What distinguishes most contemporary egalitarianism from earlier natural law modes is its self-conscious secularism," Pojman observes. "There is no appeal to a God or a transcendent realm." So Pojman examines ten leading secular arguments advanced by theorists such as Dworkin, Rawls, Kai Nielsen, Joel Feinberg, Thomas Nagel, and Alan Gewirth; and he finds all of these arguments wanting. Sometimes the arguments turn on demonstrable fallacies or on flagrant and unsupported discursive leaps; more often they do not actually offer any justification for equality at all but instead simply assert or assume it, or else posit that in the absence of any persuasive justification one way or the other we should adopt a "presumption" of equal worth.

Pojman concludes that egalitarian commitments are "simply a leftover from a religious world view now rejected by all of the philosophers discussed in this essay." Secular egalitarians are free riders, living off an inheritance they view with disdain.
And finally this:
It is as if a group calling itself the "Astronomy Society" gradually lost all interest in the stars but continued, largely for social or solidarity purposes, to hold conventions to collect and admire old telescopes that they find aesthetically appealing; and the group excludes particular telescopes (and their owners) from these conferences not because the telescopes don’t work, but because they are aesthetically unappealing. In short, telescopes continue to serve a function, but it is nothing like the same function for which they were originally developed; consequently, the rationale and criteria for approving some telescopes and disapproving others are wholly different than those that initially guided the society. By the same token, consensus is prized in contemporary liberal thought for its political not its philosophical or epistemic value. In this context, to say that a person, or moral or philosophical view, will not be counted because she or it is “unreasonable” is tantamount to saying not that the person lacks some epistemic capacity or that the view is false -- False relative to what? What would that judgment even mean? -- but rather that the person or view is offensive to the group that is running the discussion. In this way, the modern Enlightenment lapses into a sort of high-toned neo-tribalism.


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