The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse

This is an academic book, written by an academic to criticize the opinions of other academics. There's a reason it's published by Harvard University Press, and not by, say, Baen Book (which publishes most of the sci-fi I've reading lately).

Author Steven D Smith is a law professor. If you removed all the quotations from books by other law professors, (and all the end notes with their citations) you'd have a 99-page pamphlet that said repetitiously what could be stated concisely in 15 or 20 pages. But academic authors are not rewarded for brevity or conciseness, but rather for the adulation (even if negative) they give to each other.

Smith does have some very good ideas, the most original of which is the theme of the book. In fact, if he'd had a popular fiction editor, the title of the book would have included the word "Smuggling" (and probably not much else). But academics seem to prefer obscure titles that play on the even more obscure titles of other academic books.

Smuggling is the unlawful transportation of contraban products across national borders. Smith is concerned with the illicit transport of allegedly forbidden ideas into the supposed religion-free public discourse of the last half century. Everybody, it seems, does it -- especially those people most vocally opposed to the importation.

The border is the so-called "iron cage" invented by Max Weber. Smith and the academics he quotes understand the function of this iron cage is to keep religious ideas out of public discussion. Another name for it is the "wall of separation between church and state." One interesting insight is that while it is the anti-religionists who most vocally seem to want such a wall, they themselves find it stifling and can't live with it. Thus they surreptitiously "smuggle" religious-like values into the discussion without acknowledging the source of those values.

The four chapters in the middle of this book look at four different topics, and take apart the proponents of secularism in those four topical areas. In each case, Smith shows their thinking to be circular. In order to justify (or condemn) laws restricting particular behavior, the legal theorists under Smith's microscope come up with some abstract secular value to be promoted by laws (or else to reject laws restricting such a value). But this value turns out to be empty, so they smuggle in outside "liberal" values to justify their thinking. Of course it is only the anti-religious left-wing bigots (that's my term, not Smith's) who are trying to keep religion out. They all have some preconceived "liberal" (Smith's term for the same thing) values, which they use to qualify the criteria they then use to justify coming up with -- surprise, surprise! -- the same liberal values they started with.

Take chapter 3, on John Stuart Mill's "harm principle." It sounds intuitive: "Do no harm." We all understand that one person's freedom to swing his arm should end where the next person's nose begins. But what about laws against recreational drugs or pornography? Smith skilfully shows that even in these cases, "private" usage affects other people in ways that those other people might reasonably consider "harm". So who decides what is harm and what is not? Smith deftly shows that the scholars themselves cannot make a non-circular case for drawing the line anywhere at all.

Chapter 4 is explicitly about the "wall of separation" and Smith spends most of this the longest chapter in his book explaining the historical evolution between "separation" as Jefferson and the other American founders understood it -- which is something like the border wall between the USA and Mexico: we cannot make laws to tell Mexicans what to do in their own country -- and the modern idea of disallowing religious ideas in public law. The modern idea is based on the assumption that secular is all there is (there is no religious "state" with its own sovereignty), that religion is nothing more than a feeling or preference, which deserves as much (and no more) protection as a preference for classical music or pornography. The result is, as Smith points out, it is the secularists who are tearing down the wall of separation, not those people who most need the protection Jefferson and his contemporaries foresaw.

Chapter 6 is a little different, and this chapter alone would be worth the price of the book. Instead of demolishing the arguments of the authors being cited, he approvingly analyzes the thinking of Joseph Vining (like most of Smith's citations, apparently another law professor) who argues devastatingly against atheistic scientism. He quotes the C.S.Lewis argument I first read 6 years ago, that "It would be impossible to accept naturalism itself if we really and consistently believed naturalism," then goes on to demolish the usual critic's response (p.200-202):

The confirmed naturalist might respond, "Okay, you've identified a difficulty in my argument -- a sort of paradox. I commend you for your cleverness. But you haven't shown -- or even purported to show -- that the naturalist position is false. Nor have you said anything that compels me to abandon my belief in naturalism. And in fact, I still believe it."

It is precisely at this point, I think, that Vining's reflections become relevant. His goal is not so much to demonstrate that totalistic science is self-refuting on a merely analytical level, but rather to show that even the scientists themselves who make totalistic claims do not and cannot fully believe in those claims. So in response to the defiant assertion that "I still believe it," Vining's message seems to be: "No, actually you don't. You believe in science and the natural world, of course. We all do. But if you reflect candidly on your actions and commitments as a whole, even including your commitments to science, you will see that you do not and never did believe in naturalism -- not as the whole story."

Vining thinks that, by and large, people who devote themselves to science are admirable, moral beings. In their most truly scientific work they are "driven by love and awe," by a "passion for truth," and by the "fascination," "beauty," and aspiration to "unclouded thought" that science can give us. And both their work itself and their writings about their work reflect admirable, and deeply moral, commitments -- to each other, to humanity and future generations, to the pursuit of truth.

But now comes the troubling question: How do the partisans of science explain and justify these moral values and commitments? Or more precisely, how do they explain and justify them within the framework and on the impersonal assumptions of totalistic science? For example, commenting on Lewis Thomas's profound concern that deforestation or nuclear holocaust might produce a world that would not "see fit" to permit the continued existence of creatures "like us," Vining asks:

Why should we care at all ... ? If we are the random product of a billion years of evolution, and the system does not "see fit" (though those would be forbidden words) to bring forth a product "like us" in another billion years, what concern is that of ours? The dice roll six, the dice roll two. The six does not care whether a two or a six is rolled next. The dice themselves do not care. Only if there is some identification with future creatures, creatures after our individual death, creatures after the passing of every body that is in material existence at the time of our own death, identification, real, through a connection other than near succession in time in the products of the processes of the material world, can there be any claim of the distant future on our present desires.

As I commented in my God in the Dock review, the atheists are fighting a lost cause. The mathematician Goedel already proved that a closed system (such as the secularists propose and assume) necessarily contains true propositions that cannot be proved within the system. Smith does not seem to be aware of the Goedel Theorem (I cannot imagine him failing to mention that insight, had he known); the atheists solve the problem by what Smith calls smuggling.

Theists acknowledge that there are hard philosophical problems, which we cannot solve without help, but we have revelation from outside the system to give us direction in those cases. The "harm principle" makes a lot of sense when it is guided by the Commandments -- indeed, it is not all that different from The Second Great Commandment (what I have been calling 2C) -- and thus guided, it forms a robust basis for law. Smith doesn't say any of this. Indeed he cannot, if he wants the secularists to read his book. The most he can do is demolish his opponents' inconsistencies.

Smith does end with a positive and useful suggestion: decriminalize the smuggling. He seems to think the critics overstate their case:

Richard Rorty thought that the often expressed concern that religious expression will cause division and argument misperceives the problem. In fact, the invocation of God's will in public debate "is far more likely to end a conversation than to start an argument."

For now, what ought to emerge from this book's earlier chapters is the overwhelming irony in the "conversation-stopping" objection, After all, who is it that is trying to stifle or regulate conversation? Rorty's opponents are not telling him: "Stop talking secular." Rather it is Rorty and like-minded thinkers who issue the injunction: "Don't talk religion."

... The fact is that discussion has its point, and its value, precisely when it involves people who, see things differently, at least initially and perhaps continuously... Consequently, it is always possible that, however much we may disagree with another person's worldview, something in that view will connect with something in our own that will result in constructive engagement.

... And so, in the end, it seems that the only general prescription that can be offered is, once again, the seemingly bland recommendation of... openness. It may turn out that in our pluralistic society, the sort of thin, desiccated public discourse we have today -- a discourse haphazardly policed in politics and more rigorously regimented in the academy by the constraints of secularism -- is the best we can do. But we will only know if we open up the cage and see what happens.

I might offer the opinion that the secularists will not and cannot allow that to happen. Despite their protestations and claims, they do not really care about the truth nearly so much as they care about that wall of separation preventing their exposure to the Truth. Once we allow religious ideas in the marketplace, they will be forced to confront those ideas, which runs the risk that they might discover that there really is a God who makes moral claims on us all. The very idea terrifies them. It's not that bad, guys. God is Good.

It's obvious to me that, despite his best effort to play the game by secularist rules, Smith is doomed to failure. I think he intended his book to be a suitable text for a class in Constitutional law, but I suspect it will only get used in religious schools like University of San Diego (where Smith teaches). More's the pity.

Tom Pittman
2011 April 27


Aditional Selected Quotes...

In short, in the eighteenth century, a commitment to reason denoted a willingness to pursue the truth and to follow the argument wherever it leads, with the confidence that reason will ultimately lead people to converge on the truth. In contemporary political liberalism, in stark contrast, "reasonableness" denotes a willingness not to pursue or invoke for vital public purposes what one believes to be the ultimate truth -- a willingness based on the judgment that reason will not lead to convergence but will instead subvert a civic peace that can be maintained only if people agree not to make important public decisions on the basis of arguing about what is ultimately true.


Max Weber [Essays in Sociology 1946, p.155] famously described the change as the "disenchantment of the world"; he sometimes spoke of modernity as an "iron cage," in which life is lived and discourse is conducted according to the stern constraints of secular rationalism.[citation: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism 1958, p.181-2] It is that cage -- the cage of secular discourse -- within which public conversation and especially judicial and academic discourse occurs today.


For present purposes, though, there is a short and simple explanation for how things continue to work. And that explanation is ... smuggling. Our modern secular vocabulary purports to render inadmissible notions such as those that animated premodern moral discourse -- notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian "final causes," or a providential design. But if our deepest convictions rely on such notions, and if these convictions lose their sense and substance when divorced from such notions, then perhaps we have little choice except to smuggle such notions into the conversation -- to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise.

p.30 [quoting Westin]

Equality is entirely "circular." It tells us to treat like people alike; but when we ask who "like people" are, we are told they are "people who should be treated alike." Equality is an empty vessel with no substantive moral content of its own. Without moral standards, equality remains meaningless, a formula that can have nothing to say about how we should act. With such standards, equality becomes superfluous, a formula that can do nothing but repeat what we already know.


The term "smuggling" seems to fit only if what you assume but do not explicitly disclose is somehow "illicit." But illicit in what sense?

Here, I believe, there are various possibilities. An undisclosed premise might be illicit because if it were made explicit it would be controversial: you would have to defend the premise, and you don't want to do that. Or your premise might be illicit because you yourself do not believe it: you like your conclusion, maybe, but you don't actually believe what would be necessary to support this particular argument for that conclusion. Perhaps, if you were to make your unstated premise explicit, you could be convicted of inconsistency, because you have contradicted that premise on other occasions.

Or your premise might be illicit because the conventions of the discourse you are engaging in purport to exclude it. You are involved with some matter -- a hiring decision, perhaps, or a criminal trial -- that isn't supposed to turn on race, but you manage obliquely to insinuate race into the discussion. So you tacitly do what you would not be allowed to do forthrightly.

An idea or belief or premise might be "illicit" in any of these senses. And if someone nonetheless makes an argument that implicitly depends on such illicit material and in that way manages to sneak this material into the conversation without open acknowledgment, it seems fair to describe this practice as "smuggling."

The term can be used, I think, without implying that a person who smuggles is necessarily in "bad faith" or even conscious of what she is committing...


My suggestion is simply that the sort of discursive failing that can be described as "smuggling" is especially characteristic of our times, and of conversations carried on within the secular cage.

Which is not so surprising, since conversations in the secular cage could not proceed very far without smuggling. That at least is my claim.


[My] criticism, once again, is that the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained to operate today is sufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway -- but only by smuggling in notions that are officially inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to. The pervasiveness of smuggling allows our conversations to be less pointless or ineffectual than they might be. But the fact that we must smuggle in, and hence cannot fully own up to, our real commitments -- often cannot articulate them even to ourselves -- ensures that our discourse will often be barren, unsatisfying, and shallow in the ways that critics like Jacoby and Dworkin say it is.


Michael Seidler explains that "[t]o answer the general question of legitimation facing the potential suicide, some Stoics turned occasionally to the idea of divine calling which Socrates had already used as a justification...: it is wrong to leave life, to forsake our post in the world, unless God calls us." ["Kant and the Stoics on Suicide" 1983] In a similar vein, John Locke maintained that "men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker,... they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure." From this premise, Locke inferred, it followed that "[e]very one ... is bound to preserve bimself, and not to quit his station wilfully." [John Locke, Second Treatise on Government 1980]


Bertrand Russell waxed rhapsodic on the theme of ultimate cosmic meaninglessness:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built. ["A Free Man's Worship" in Why I Am Not a Christian 1957, p.104,107]


My argument will be that the harm principle is not so much misguided as empty. It is a hollow vessel, alluring and even irresistible but (or because) without any intrinsic content, into which adept advocates can pour whatever substantive views and values they happen to favor. The principle is attractive and useful -- useful, that is, for smuggling purposes -- precisely because at its core it means pretty much whatever you want it to mean.


Over time, in short, what we do in private will almost certainly have a gradual and subtle, but very real, influence on the sort of community all of us experience. And even citizens with no independent desire to be officious or to interfere in the lives of others will often have a strong personal interest in the kind of community in which they (and their children) live. Robert George thus compares public morality to a kind of "community's 'moral ecology' -- an ecology as vital to the community's well-being, and, as such, as integral to the public interest, as the physical ecology which is protected by environmental laws." Consequently, conduct that is likely over time to make a community incongruent with the values of many of its residents, or even just less to their liking, causes these residents pain and frustrates their preferences. Such conduct undeniably harms them, at least in the familiar utilitarian senses.


Even so, by limiting harms to injuries to "rights," [John Stuart] Mill drastically undermines the ostensible simplicity of the harm principle. He also severs "harm" from what it would mean in ordinary understanding, in which in many contexts it would seem a kind of double-talk to distinguish "harming" from "hurting." And, as we will see, he arguably renders the whole concept of "harm" question-begging and circular.


In attempting to salvage the harm principle for liberal purposes, Joel Feinberg remodels the concept of "harm" in ways that directly parallel Mill's qualifications. More forthrightly than Mill, Feinberg disavows standard or Benthamite utilitarianism, noting (as Mill could not bring himself to do) that within a utilitarian framework the distinction between "harms" and "moral evil" would disappear. Feinberg also explicitly acknowledges that "harm" as he uses the term will not correspond closely to ordinary usage, and that there will accordingly be "clear examples of harm as the term is used in ordinary language" that will not count as harms within his own theoretical framework.


Without great care, discussants are likely to use the term "harm" sometimes in the complex and technical senses elaborated by thinkers like Mill and Feinberg and at other times in the more generic senses of the term.


...some larger theory or doctrine of "moral rights": only by first ascertaining what moral rights we have can we then determine what interests are protected by such rights, and hence what injuries count as "harms." But Feinberg eschews any such approach. Instead, he tries to explicate the notion of "moral rights" by asserting that "any indefensible invasion of another's interest (excepting of course the sick and wicked ones) is a wrong," and hence an infringement of a "moral right."


Far from resolving the circularity, however, this response merely complicates the problem with additional normative questions. Which among the interests people think they have are genuine and valid, as opposed to "sick and wicked"? Traditional moralists, after all, have typically claimed that ostensible interests in viewing pornography or engaging in homosexual conduct are sick, wicked, or disordered. And how do we know which invasions of interests are "indefensible"? It had seemed that these were exactly the sorts of questions that the harm principle was supposed to help us answer. But it turns out that we cannot even use the principle unless we already know the answers to these questions.


Such "free riding" is possible because, as we have seen, in its ordinary sense the harm principle states what seems to be almost a selfevident normative truth-one that resonates both with familiar intuitions and popular adages and with more developed theories of legitimate government. If I want to do something, and if what I want to do doesn't harm anyone, what justification could the government have to stop me? Once "harm" has been redefined in a more technical and much narrower sense, however, proponents of the harm principle forfeit their claim to rely on these familiar intuitions. If what I am doing "hurts" and "offends" others, and if it causes them pain and frustrates their preferences, then perhaps as a prudential matter I should still be allowed to do it; but I can hardly claim in good faith that the reason I should be allowed to do it is that my conduct doeset "affect" them.


If, instead of Mill's "progressive" view, for example, you hold the sort of "perfectionist" view that teaches that moral character is essential to the good life and that government has a role in "making men moral" then you will naturally and logically want to recognize 'moral harm." Different visions or political theories will produce different inventories of harms. But there is no reason why anyone needs to quarrel with the harm principle itself.


The cage purports and attempts to keep out the resources we need to articulate and ground and defend our views on the issues we must address. The exclusion leaves us little choice but to resort to smuggling operations: we must somehow smuggle into the cage, and the conversation, the resources we need to carry on the discussions we need to have. Not surprisingly, modern political-moral discourse has developed a number of devices for carrying out: those smuggling operations. The harm principle is hardly the only such device, but for many it has been the instrument of choice.


The concern is most often put in terms of incoherence: the courts' doctrines and decisions are said to exhibit no intelligible or coherent pattern. Steven Gey observes that "[o]ne of the few things constitutional scholars of every stripe seem to agree about is the proposition that the Court's Establishment Clause jurisprudence is an incoherent mess." But this incoherence is not merely a product of judicial ineptitude. It reflects a deeper difficulty -- a difficulty in justification. Both the constitutional text and the American political tradition appear to prescribe that "religion" is a matter requiring special legal treatment of some sort. But why? justices have occasionally tried to suggest rationales for giving religion a special place at the constitutional table, and theorists have devoted even greater thought and energy to the task." But the rationales that have been put forth often seem, upon inspection, contrived and unconvincing. And if you are unsure about why you are doing something, it should come as no surprise that you are also confused about how to do it, and dumbfounded when it comes to explaining and justifying what you have done.


Bernard Lewis explains, for example, that "[c]lassical Islam recognized a distinction between things of this world and things of the next, between pious and worldly considerations." But "[t]he dichotomy of regnum and sacerdotium, so crucial in the history of Western Christendom, had no equivalent in Islam."

"In pagan Rome, Caesar was God. For Christians, there is a choice between God and Caesar, and endless generations of Christians have been ensnared in that choice. In Islam there was no such painful choice. In the universal Islamic policy as coinceived by Muslims, there is no Caesar but only God, who is the sole sovereign and the sole source of law."


The result of this sort of revision may be that the commitment is effectively converted into something different -- something more cognizable and acceptable in contemporary terms -- but the conversion is largely concealed because the new commitment still goes under the traditional title.


Thus, in a provocative article called "Who Needs Freedom of Religion?" philosopher and law professor James Nickel offers a list of nine "basic liberties" that deserve legal protection; these include such liberties as "freedom of belief, thought, and inquiry," "freedorn of association," and "freedom to follow an ethic, plan of life, lifestyle, or traditional way of living." "Freedom of religion" does not appear on the list; however, Nickel argues that whatever is valuable about the traditional commitment to freedom of religion will be protected by the other "basic liberties." It is better to dissolve religious freedom into other liberties, Nickel contends, among other reasons because this approach "can gain widespread acceptance in a religiously and ethnically diverse society that includes many nonreligious individuals."


Thus, the most acute philosopher of the period, David Hume, demonstrated that "[r]eason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question about God, or morality, or the meaning oflife." [quoted from Becker The Heavenly City 1932, p.82] And the perio's leading philosophical poet, Alexander Pope, expressed what seemed the natural conclusion in poetic (if slippery, and contestable) terms: "One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right."


How is the theorist to know which "ideas, customs, and institutions" should be classified as essential and universal, and hence good, as opposed to those that are merely lamentable corruptions? In all times and places that the historian or anthropologist might study, she will likely discern features that we would applaud -- but also features that we would regard as unfortunate or unjust or downright evil: there will be altruism, charity, and humane sympathies, yes, but also self-interest, cruelty, and exploitation. The philosophes "wished to get rid of the bad ideas and customs inherited from the past; quite as obviously they wished to hold fast to the good ones, if good ones there were"; but mere empirical observation would be incapable of making this sort of discrimination.


Becker revels in the irony. The partisans of Enlightenment -- of holding the world up to the critical examination of "reason" -- were blissfully oblivious, it seems, to the workings of their own minds. "[A]t every turn [they] betray their debt to medieval thought without being aware of it." Their very sophistication makes them seem almost comic -- "at once too credulous and too skeptical."
... Their grand moral and political aspirations were grounded in presuppositions of which they were unconscious, and which indeed they took pride in having repudiated. The Enlightenment -- that "bright springtime of the modern world" -- was constituted at its core by a practice of pervasive deception and self-deception.


An initial, fundamental doubt can be stated succinctly: Why should the fact that humanbeings are capable of doing something, or of being something, mean that the capability is morally valuable? Humans are capable of doing and being all sorts of things. They are capable of altruistic service or artistic creation, to be sure -- but also of cruelty, violence, exploitation, masochism, and indifference. Humans are capable of being benefactors, artists, occasionally even saints; and they are capable of being cheats, thieves, rapists, and pederasts. Some capabilities seem admirable or praiseworthy -- not surprisingly, these are the ones Nussbaum selects for her list -- while others encompass behaviors or personal attributes that we deplore. So how can capability itself supply a governing normative criterion?

In response to this challenge, Nussbaum relies pervasively and at more than one level on an appeal to "intuition." "The argument in each case," she explains, "is based on imagining a form of life; it is intuitive and discursive."


Indeed, Nussbaum herself quickly qualifies her initial, more sweeping contention. Noting that "the capacity for cruelty... does not figure on the list," she explains that "[n]ot all human abilities exert a moral claim, only the ones that have been evaluated as valuable from an ethical viewpoint."

...The qualification is offered in passing and in an "of course" tone. Nussbaum seems not to notice that her caveat renders her position circular: it is morally valuable, the amended claim now asserts, to protect and cultivate morally valuable capabilities.


Yet this seems to be the logical consequence of Nussbaum's contention that a "really human" life is unavailable without protection for the capabilities she identifies coupled with the fact that few if any societies have afforded anything approaching the level of support for these capabilities that Nussbaum views as "a basic social minimum."Particularly with respect to women, Nussbaum asserts that even today "almost all world societies are very far from providing the basic minimum of truly human functioning, where many or even most women are concerned ." Women in such circumstances have surely been living lives less free and full than might be desirable. But is it cogent, or helpful, to suggest that these women's lives have not been "really human"?


Some of the more aggressive defenders of a naturalistic, secular framework insist that it cannot: notions like "dignity" and "intrinsic moral worth" are no longer meaningful, and they should be abandoned. As noted, Becker himself thought that in the modern worldview, human beings must be viewed as "little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn." Stephen Hawking, explaining the implications of the prevailing scientific view for human beings, observes that "[t]he human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet." Nobel Prize-winning biologist Jacques Monod includes "belief in the natural rights of man" among those "disgusting" archaic beliefs that "afflict[] and rend[] the conscience of anyone provided with... a little intelligence." ohn Gray excoriates what he views as the hypocrisy and self-deception of those who purport to embrace both science and the pieties of liberal humanism. We ought to give up such sentimental nonsense, Gray contends, and admit that on modem assumptions we, are "straw dog." Steven Pinker recently published an essay revealingly entitled "The Stupidity of Dignity."

In this climate, we are left wondering. What is "dignity," exactly, and how (on secular assumptions) do we come to have it?

The claim that all humans have "dignity" is closely related to the claim that all humans have "equal moral worth" -- a point on which Nussbaum likewise insists. At least to all appearances, however, humans differ vastly in their virtues and abilities. So what is it that gives us "equal moral worth"? Louis Pojman argues that as a historical matter, the idea of human equality descends from religious rationales.But those rationales are excluded from the cage of modern secular discourse. How, then, can the claim be understood, and justified?


Secular egalitarians are free riders, living off an inheritance they view with disdain. And he [Pojman] wonders whether "perhaps we should abandon egalitarianism and devise political philosophies that reflect naturalistic assumptions, theories which are forthright in viewing humans as differentially talented animals who must get on together."


In sum, Martha Nussbaum purports to have offered a philosophical basis, or at least "philosophical underpinnings," for "universal values" and for rights of the liberal sort. But the key components in her account -- capabilities, the "really human" life, present or potential consensuses -- combine to supply not a cogent justification for universal values, but rather a rhetorical framework for artful question-begging, and thus for smuggling. Human "capabilities" are not a standard of moral evaluation, but rather a part of human life in need of moral evaluation.


"Jokes," Vining observes sadly, "being the freedom of the oppressed." [Joseph Vining, The Song sparrow and the Child 2004, p.31]


Most of us probably think of our beliefs as being at our beck and call -- as being immediately transparent to us. Asked what you believe about something, you can simply look inside yourself, so to speak, and then report whatever belief you find there. The belief might be false, of course. But your sincere statement that it is your belief (at least as of the time of the report) seems unassailable. If you say you believe X and someone says, "No, you don't," the objector will seem merely boorish and obtuse.

Vining has a different conception. In his view, a belief is not simply a readily observable propositional piece on our cognitive chessboard: it is something less on the surface and instead more rooted in the depths of our being. Discovering what we believe -- what we really, genuinely believe -- involves not a simple introspection and report but a more serious and searching investigation of... well, of what we think we believe, yes, but also of how we live, what we desire, what we would and would not be willing to do. It may turn out upon close examination, that people do not really believe some of what they casually thought they believed -- and vice versa. "We may think we believe something here, or do not believe something there, but we do not have the last word on what we believe unless we read ourselves as a whole, in the same way we read others to determine what it is they are really saying and what it is they actually believe."


Shouldn't the question be what the truth is, not what we believe? Shouldn't the latter question be wholly subordinated to the former one?
Perhaps. But Vining would reply, I suspect, that we deceive ourselves with this distinction. There is no escaping the fact that it is we -- we finite, fallible, alternately credulous and skeptical human beings -- who are posing the questions, and we are posing them for ourselves and for our purposes. Separated from the question of what we believe, the question of what the truth is can mean nothing to us.


Science is a cooperative enterprise. No single scientist can personally verify or vouch for more than an infinitesimal fraction of the sum of scientific knowledge; each must rely on the work and reports of others, and in order to do that each scientist must be able to assume that other scientists are working in good faith. These qualities -- "assent," "good faith" -- are irreducibly personal in nature.

p.200 [quoting C.S.Lewis against Elizabeth Anscombe (God in the Dock)]

Therefore, naturalism is worthless. If it is true, then we can know no truths. It cuts its own throat.


Theorists may say they believe in a merely naturalistic universe. But their genuine beliefs are better than their theory-driven professions.
And on these issues, the secular cage works to close out meaningful and authentic discussion.

Even with respect to these issues, discussion and debate stagger along anyway, as they must, and somehow stumble their way to conclusions. We manage to argue for conclusions by, among other things, smuggling. Under the benign auspices of more respectable notions like liberty and equality, we sneak in normative values and premises that are suspect or officially inadmissible. The practice of smuggling enables our deliberations to function in semirational fashion; the fact that our most fundamental commitments have to be smuggled, and hence are not fully and forthrightly acknowledged and interrogated, ensures that our discourse will be thin, unsatisfying, and often unseemly.


We might picture the issue in terms of a Venn diagram, with circles representing the various families of belief and conversation that flourish to differing degrees in contemporary society. The basic recommendation of secular liberalism as articulated by theorists like Rawls is that "public reason" would confine itself to a small area of overlap -- the famous though perhaps illusory "overlapping consensus" -- where these circles intersect. By contrast, the burden of this book has been that the area of overlapping consensus (if there even is such an area) is too cramped. The secular liberal recommendation leaves our discourse with resources too meager to function effectively, and as a consequence conversations depend on smuggling in normative contraband from the outside -- from the larger, denser circles. Which suggests the possibility that we might expand the circle of acceptable public discourse beyond the area of overlap -- to decriminalize smuggling, so to speak -- so that participants in public discourse might openly draw upon the beliefs and resources of the thicker conversations and families of belief that some but not all participants accept.


Richard Rorty thought that the often expressed concern that religious expression will cause division and argument misperceives the problem. In fact, the invocation of God's will in public debate "is far more likely to end a conversation than to start an argument."


In this vein, in a short essay called "Religion as conversation-starter," Andrew Koppelman notes that under "the norms of civility that developed in the United States during the twentieth century," it is now "well settled that it is impolite to challenge someone else's religious beliefs. Religion is private!"' This norm has been affirmed and elaborated, Koppelman notes, by a host of leading political philosophers, including John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, Stephen Macedo, David Richards, Charles Larmore, Samuel Freeman, Richard Rorty, and Robert Audi.

But the strategy has been "a disaster." So Koppelman concludes that "the norm of politeness needs to be revisited."


"As soon as A invokes religious reasons for his political position, then it has to be OK for B to challenge those reasons. It may be acrimonious, but at least we'll be talking about what really divides us (and we'll avoid the strange theoretical pathologies that have plagued modern liberal theory, though that seems to be a disease mainly confined to the academy). It's more respectful to just tell each other what we think and talk about it."

Koppelman accurately describes the stakes. There is a risk that a more open conversation may be, acrimonious. Even so, that sort of conversation is ultimately more. respectful of the participants. More respectful and also, potentially, more productive and substantial: that is because we will be talking about what we really believe.