Monday, July 11, 2011

Worldviews, Comprehensive Doctrines, and Public Reason


I want to recommend to readers Paul Horwitz’s book, The Agnostic Age: Law, Religion and the Constitution (2011). A succinct review by Marc O. DeGirolami in The New Republic is here. I especially like this, Rawlsian-like (and Habermasian) conclusion (at least so it seems to me) from the book:

“[A]lthough there is no constitutional rule disabling individuals from making religious arguments in public debate, as a practical matter we can still think about the best ways for people to engage in public debate. Citizens and public officials should not argue that particular kinds of reasons, such as religious reasons, are simply and absolutely out of bounds in public discourse. But they remain free to argue that particular kinds of reason are likely to be less persuasive in public discussion. One may even hope that citizens and public officials who have adopted the agnostic habit will, without abandoning their own conclusions on questions of religious truth, attempt to inhabit and appreciate the views of others [this could be said to represent the Smithian view of sympathy in happy conjunction with his notion of the ‘impartial spectator’]. If they do, their respect for this diversity of views will encourage them to offer a variety of arguments, some of which will appeal to citizens from diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds.” (p. 270)

As Amartya Sen points out in The Idea of Justice (2009), “Despite the differences between the distinct types of arguments presented by [Adam] Smith, Habermas and Rawls, there is an essential similarity in their respective approaches to objectivity to the extent that objectivity is linked, directly or indirectly, by each of them to the ability to survive challenges from informed scrutiny coming from diverse quarters.”

And both citizens and public officials need not, generally, worry about threats to their particular formulations of well-considered religious truth provided they keep in mind the following (Or something similar, say, Michael Lynch’s argument that metaphysical pluralism is in fact compatible with realism of a kind, as we need not be anti-realists in claiming that propositions and facts concerning the nature of reality are relative to conceptual schemes of worldviews, or Kurt Gödel’s demonstration that one cannot definitively prove the formal consistency of an axiomatic system from within the principles of that system.):

“To affirm that there can be several different systems all giving us, at the same time, varying and yet legitimate ‘true’ metaphysical descriptions of the world does not…necessarily entail that there are many realities, that nothing is absolutely real, or, put less dramatically, that there is no such thing as a single, context neutral description or account of the world, that is, as the world really is. It only means that no metaphysical description of it can be outside every possible conceptual framework, but Reality itself is. Nor does it follow that any assertions about this ‘real’ or ‘true’ world beyond all conceptual frameworks, are nonsense. [….] Serious examination of, reflection on, these explanatory and interpretive schemes, their differences and overlaps, are crucial to expanding and deepening our understanding of reality, even if these conceptual frameworks (any or all possible combinations and collections of them) cannot bring us the Absolute Truth. If nothing else, they enable us to understand the relativity of conceptual truths and structures, and make us see what Pascal meant when he said that the highest function of reason is to show us the limitations of reason.” (Nandini Iyer, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” in Knut A. Jacobsen, ed., Theory and Practice of Yoga: Essays in Honour of Gerald James Larson, 2005: 123)

I think human rights discourse has become entrenched because arguments in support of same have done just that, namely, proffered a variety of arguments (originating from motley worldviews or ‘comprehensive doctrines’) from which diverse individuals and groups have been able to reason from their “own” values and premises (or their normative conceptions of ‘the good’) to shared conclusions (about the fundamental importance of human ‘dignity’ and inherent worth for example). In Rawlsian terms, we could say—with Gerald Gaus—that “[given the fact] that a comprehensive view is a system of thought that is wide in scope and rich in content, ranging over many areas of life, a simple prohibition on appeal to comprehensive views is unable to exclude moral, religious or philosophical beliefs—as opposed to comprehensive views or general theories—from serving as the basis for an exercise of political power that meets the criterion of Liberal Legitimacy.”

The “political,” being those matters upon which human reason converges, can originate from a variety of worldviews or comprehensive doctrines but not qua doctrines or worldviews (as Hilary Putnam and my late teacher Ninian Smart argued, it makes no sense to judge or assess the truth of worldviews or ‘ways of life’ in toto). Hence, too, the appeal of Rawls’s notion of an “overlapping consensus,” which represents the emergence of a convergent public justification. As Nicholas Rescher reminds us, “For all practical purposes—and for all implementable theoretical purposes as well—a plurality of beliefs about the truth (a plurality of visions) is a plurality of formulations of the true (a plurality of versions). And this fact is something we must somehow come to terms with.” The likelihood of an “overlapping consensus” is perhaps enhanced by the fact that most of us, “when it comes to the crunch,” or if we are honest with ourselves, do not possess systematic (or even ‘coherentist’) comprehensive doctrines or worldviews, however much we find individual and group psychological solace in privately and publicly identifying with “official” descriptions of such doctrines and worldviews:

“We have an amalgam of beliefs, which we may publicly characterize in a certain way. I may say that I am an Episcopalian, but how much of my real worldview [or what may be called a ‘lifeworld’ insofar as it is an individual expression of a worldview] corresponds to the more or less ‘official’ worldview which tells me nothing directly about cricket, being Scottish, having a certain scepticism about nationalism, thinking there is life on other worlds, shelving the problem of evil, or other matters. Our values and beliefs are more like a collage than a Canaletto [cf. Lévi-Strauss’s use of the term ‘bricolage’]. They do not even have consistency of perspective.” (Ninian Smart)

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