Thursday, December 31, 2009

Eastern APA (Part II)

On Monday night at the smoker, I finally did get a chance to get into it with Colin a bit about dialetheism, and, coming out of that discussion, a half-formed thought about Curry & contraction should be up on the blog next week.

On Tuesday, I went to see an "Author Meets Critics" session on Paul Redding's book "Analytic Philosophy and the Return of Hegelian Thought." Although I have read a good bit of Hegel in the distant past, the session mostly convinced me that I didn't remember as much about all that as I thought I did. I have flipped through the book a bit, though, and it does contain some interesting material on Hegel's attitude toward contradictions, picking up nuances rolled over both by some latter-day Hegel defenders who don't want to associate him with advocating inconsistencies on the one hand and by Graham Priest, who has made a big deal in a few places of claiming Hegel as one of his predecessors in affirming true contradictions on the other hand.

On Wednesday, I went to Brian Leiter's very interesting and entertaining talk on the foundations of religious liberty. Nussbaum argues in Liberty of Conscience that mere toleration is an insufficient moral basis on which to justify the legal tradition of singling out religion for particular constitutional protection in pretty much every western society. She thinks that we need something more, which is respect. Leiter argues against this on all the obvious grounds, given the epistemic and moral failings that religion tends to be associated with, and as far as that goes, it's hard to find fault with his argument. Where Leiter's argument went wrong in my view came in the last part of the talk where he (a) granted that even toleration is morally culpable given some utilitarian considerations, and sufficient harm caused by the thing being tolerated makes the toleration unhelpful, but (b) there's insufficient evidence that religion does more harm than good, so we don't really need to worry about (a).

Now, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU and have been for a long time. (The EFF, too.) I'm emphatically in favor of religious freedom and other basic civil liberties. I am, however, pretty skeptical about (b). The problem, after all, about serious religious belief, is that when prophets and mystics think they're receiving direct communication about the nature and wishes of transcendent entities, the very nature of the process, insulated as it is from certain sorts of rational reflection (one doesn't second-guess the will of God), is such that it's inherently unpredictable. When you go up to the top of the mountain and fast and pray until you get a vision, by the time you come back down, you might end up telling your followers that all living things have a profound sense of connection and that we should all be peaceful and loving and compassionate, or you might end up telling them to go forth and kill all the unbelievers. Even if as a contingent fact of the matter, more of the former happens than the latter, the utilitarian calculations involved in continuing to play that particular game of societal russian roulette are deeply unclear to me.

None of which, from my perspective, means that we shouldn't tolerate religion, any more than the increased risk of street crime from respecting the 4th Amendment means that we should set up cameras on every street corner and frisk people coming onto and off of the city bus every day. It does, however, make me think that we should re-examine (a). Utilitarian considerations are probably insufficient to ground religious liberty. We need something a bit more robust and deontological.

Here endeth the sermon.

Next week, expect to see posts on Curry and on the classical re-capture.

Meanwhile, on the subject of religion, you should probably watch this video, which contains important public safety information about the dangers involved in mocking prophets.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

I think what Leiter should have said is that religion doesn't NECESSARILY do more harm than good.

You know what my position has been with regard to respecting and tolerating various religious perspectives. At one point I would have agreed with Nussbaum. But I think it's becoming more apparent than ever that extremely conservative, fundamentalist religious groups are a threat, in the US and abroad. We notice that the social structure of these groups tend to be totalitarian, concentrating the group's power in the hands of a few leaders or even one. Such groups also tend to be intolerant of differences in others. These sort of groups, whether they are primarily religious or non-religious, ought not to be tolerated, but rather have social, legal and economic pressures applied to keep them gaining any further influence.

Moreover, in this country we find that the religious base tends to support such conservative (and in my opinion destructive) policies such as opposition to legislation to curb global warming and the pillaging of the eco-system, deregulation of industries, opposition to protection of workers' rights, opposition to goverment funding of scientific research, and so on.

Now, we need to be careful not to make sweeping generalizations and not to categorize all forms of religious belief and practice as being of the same species. But it seems to me that many religious groups would prefer to take us back to the medieval period, where innocent people, at the very hint of dissent, and stoned or burned alive.

Freedom of speech has certain limitations. Why not freedom of religion also?