The Many and the One: Religious and Secular Perspectives on Ethical Pluralism in the Modern Worldby Richard Madsen (Editor), Tracy B. Strong (Editor)
The war on terrorism, say America's leaders, is a war of Good versus Evil. But in the minds of the perpetrators, the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington were presumably justified as ethically good acts against American evil. Is such polarization leading to a violent "clash of civilizations" or can differences between ethical systems be reconciled
The war on terrorism, say America's leaders, is a war of Good versus Evil. But in the minds of the perpetrators, the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington were presumably justified as ethically good acts against American evil. Is such polarization leading to a violent "clash of civilizations" or can differences between ethical systems be reconciled through rational dialogue? This book provides an extraordinary resource for thinking clearly about the diverse ways in which humans see good and evil. In nine essays and responses, leading thinkers ask how ethical pluralism can be understood by classical liberalism, liberal-egalitarianism, critical theory, feminism, natural law, Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
Each essay addresses five questions: Is the ideal society ethically uniform or diverse? Should the state protect, ban, or otherwise intervene in ethically based differences? How should disagreements on the rights and duties of citizens be dealt with? Should the state regulate life-and-death decisions such as euthanasia? To what extent should conflicting views on sexual relationships be accommodated? This book shows that contentious questions can be discussed with both incisiveness and civility. The editors provide the introduction and Donald Moon, the conclusion. The contributors are Brian Barry, Joseph Boyle, Simone Chambers, Joseph Chan, Christine Di Stefano, Dale F. Eickelman, Menachem Fisch, William Galston, John Haldane, Chandran Kukathas, David Little, Muhammad Khalid Masud, Carole Pateman, William F. Scheuerman, Adam B. Seligman, James W. Skillen, James Tully, and Lee H. Yearley.
"The overall product is a collection of viewpoints that, thanks to each writer's care in defining their terms and steering clear of jargon, is accessible to the beginning scholar. . . . [T]he choice of controversies that are both enduring and ethically troubling means that the interest of all readers will be held throughout the book."--Bruce F. Nesmith, Perspectives on Political Science
"Contributors include well-known, top-notch scholars like William A. Galston, Brian Barry, and James Tully. An extraordinarily well organized collection, its chapters cover nine nonsecular and secular ethical perspectives."--Choice
Bruce F. Nesmith
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The Many and the OneReligious and Secular Perspectives on Ethical Pluralism in the Modern World
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
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IntroductionTHREE FORMS OF ETHICAL PLURALISM
Richard Madsen and Tracy B. Strong
We are placed into various life-spheres, each of which is governed by different laws. -Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation
The war on terrorism, say America's leaders, is a war of good versus evil. But in the minds of the perpetrators, the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon appear to have been justified as ethically good acts required by Islam against American evil. How can different ethical systems become so polarized that, to paraphrase the great German sociologist Max Weber, one person's God is another person's devil? In the world today, is such polarization leading inevitably to a violent "clash of civilizations"? Or can differences between ethical systems be reconciled through rational dialogue rather than political struggle? When this book was begun, the issues posed by ethical pluralism in the modern world were of considerable academic interest. Since the 11 September attacks, they have become matters of the most urgent public interest.
Taken as a whole, this book provides resources for thinking more clearly about the range of different ways in which humans understandthe difference between good and bad, right and wrong, the universal and the parochial, as well as the tension between ecumenical and flexible versus fundamentalist and rigid responses to such difference. It contains nine major essays about how the problem of ethical pluralism can be understood by different philosophical and religious traditions: classical liberalism, liberal egalitarianism, critical theory, feminism, natural law, Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Each of the principal essays is paired with a shorter "response essay" that helps to highlight the range of understandings possible within each tradition. Unlike most works in ethical theory, this book juxtaposes modern secular philosophical traditions with older religious traditions. A concluding chapter summarizes the themes that emerge from these juxtapositions. In this introduction, we explore some of the philosophical considerations that can bring these juxtaposed traditions into genuine dialogue with one another.
The problems of ethical pluralism present themselves in the modern world on three different levels-what we might call the existential level, the cultural level, and the civilizational level.
THE EXISTENTIAL LEVEL
The epigraph from Max Weber reflects a common modern understanding. Human beings find themselves, whether they will it or not, in a world of incommensurable values. In our individual lives, we are pulled in incompatible directions. It is the lot of the modern person, in this understanding, to have to make choices between values-to choose this, such that this choice excludes that one. As Isaiah Berlin wrote in "Two Concepts of Liberty": "The world we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of the other."
Although, as Donald Moon notes in his conclusion, some of the chapters in this book use the term "ethical pluralism" to refer to such a situation, we in this introduction call it "existential pluralism," to highlight the ways in which it confronts us with incommensurable choices, with our identities as particular persons. By "incommensurable" we mean here that there is no common standard by which the choices may be evaluated. The classical paradigm for this is Antigone who chooses to bury her brother in full consciousness that in doing so she is rejecting the authority of the laws of the city of which she is a member. In the modern world, however, the conflict between different values has become even more intense than in the age of Sophocles, because, as Max Weber observed, the various spheres of life-that is, religion, kinship, economics, politics, the realms of the aesthetic, the erotic, and the intellectual-have become increasingly differentiated. Thus, the values required to succeed in business are sharply separate from those required to be a loyal family member or a dedicated artist or devout believer.
The religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and classical philosophical traditions (natural law and Confucianism) represented in this book are all, as Joseph Chan puts it in his essay on Confucianism, "perfectionist," that is, they assume that it is good to live a coherent ethical life, they have a substantive vision of such a life, and they hold that both state and society should help people to achieve this. One way to achieve such coherence would be to limit the development of diverse value spheres. The Taliban, for instance, banned television, restricted the content of education, and strictly confined women to the domestic sphere. Within most perfectionist ethical traditions one can find "fundamentalist" arguments for limiting value spheres and thus saving society from the burdens of existential pluralism.
But each of the perfectionist traditions represented in this book also contains resources for accepting a wide range of values. They can be quite generous in their recognition that different persons can and should be able to pursue the good in different ways, and deserve the benefit of the doubt when their ways differ from conventional ways. All of the authors of the chapters on perfectionist traditions in this book emphasize the adaptability of their traditions to existential pluralism. (Fundamentalists would probably not have wanted to contribute to such a book.) Still, they all hold that a plurality of ethical practices is legitimate only insofar as it contributes to a transcendent substantive good. By comparing the main chapters and the response essays, the reader can get a sense of the arguments between more liberal and conservative positions within each tradition.
On the other hand, the modern secular philosophies represented here (classical liberalism, egalitarian liberalism, critical theory, and feminist theory) are resigned to the impossibility of integrating the diverse value spheres into a commonly accepted, ethically coherent order. They are procedural rather than perfectionist. Eschewing any final substantive understanding of the good, they focus on procedures that would allow individuals freely to pursue their versions of the good without interfering with the liberty of others. In theory at least, the painful, existential struggles that individuals must undergo when confronting incommensurable values are relegated to the private realm, where they cannot undermine the universally accepted public procedures that ensure an overall social order. Especially for liberalism, even though the boundaries between the two realms may not be always in the same place, this entails making a sharp separation between the public realm (the realm of universal legal procedures) and the private realm (the realm of particular versions of the substantive good).
It is important to recognize that such secular, procedural moral philosophical traditions have their own forms of fundamentalism that restrict the existential pluralism of a morally complex society. For instance, the supposedly neutral legal procedures prescribed by classical liberalism can be so constructed as to support the hegemony of a market economy that turns all values into mere commodities; and the distinction between public and private may be so defined as to shield the values of the market economy or the bureaucratic state from challenge by other values. The debates among the secular philosophies represented here are partly debates about how to accommodate the full polyvalence of human ethical existence.
THE CULTURAL LEVEL
Different religious and philosophical traditions have different ways of accommodating the existential pluralism that is endemic to human social experience. Those intellectual traditions are rooted in the assemblages of lived practices that we call "cultures." Global migration, communication, and commerce, of course, bring about an intermingling of cultures that can confuse and torment as well as immeasurably enrich. If the circumstances under which an individual makes choices between opposing and incommensurable values can resound of the "tragic," as Berlin puts it in his essay, the situation seems even more intractable when it comes to the conflict between different cultural traditions. Antigone chooses between two alternatives that are both recognizably hers. I may have to choose, as a citizen of a Western country, between the demands of self-interest and the requirements of charity, but both of those choices are recognizable parts of a world that I recognize as my own. It is quite a different matter when the choice appears to be between two systems of value, one of which is acknowledged as mine, whereas the other is-other. In this introduction, we focus most of our attention on this level and we call this form of pluralism, manifested at the level of tension between rather than within cultures, "ethical pluralism."
Ethical pluralism, in this sense, is the recognition that there are in the world different ethical traditions, that these distinguish themselves at least in name one from the other, and differ not only in matters of practical judgment on moral issues (for instance, citizenship, euthanasia, relationships between the sexes) but in modes of reasoning used to reach such judgments. How can such traditions be brought into a mutually fruitful dialogue?
The Problem of Objectivity
First of all, we must confront the basic epistemological issues. Is it possible to attain any objective knowledge that transcends the broad historical, cultural, and political contexts within which one is embedded? Even philosophers of natural science are no longer certain that this is possible. Consider the discontinuity between Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics. From the framework of Newtonian mechanics, motion can be understood in deterministic terms. The relation from cause to effect is singular and in principle predictable. When, however, one looks at very small scale phenomena (the movement of electrons or protons), neither Newtonian mechanics nor, for that matter, Einsteinian relativity any longer "works." Instead, depending on the measurement, protons sometimes behave like particles and sometimes like waves and the relation of "cause" to "effect" is one of probability rather than determination. Is the universe a discontinuous "quantized" reality or a smoothly curved space-time continuum? Is it lawlike or not? What you see, it might appear, depends on where you sit.
The apparent irresolvability of such issues has raised questions in other branches of science. Might not all claims about physical reality be in some sense relative to the particular frameworks within which the scientist works, a framework so general and all-encompassing that to step outside of it would be in a real sense "revolutionary"? Thomas Kuhn gave the name "paradigm" to such frameworks and claimed, or at least appeared to claim, that basic terms (such as "length," "time," "velocity") had different meanings in each paradigm.
In philosophy, this situation came to be known as the "theory-ladenness of observations," and it has been a topic of violent debate in the philosophy of science. At stake was, or seemed to be, the very possibility of objective knowledge. Was it really true that scientific judgments were relative to the theoretical framework of the scientist? If so, it would seem that the framework itself was subject to social and historical factors. There was, to recall Hegel, to be no jumping over Rhodes, no escape from the circumstances of one's knowledge.
Similar developments can be found in the human sciences. And here the matter is much more intense than in the physical sciences, for in the humanities "paradigms" claim more than simple epistemological actuality-they have histories, of greater or lesser length, and have, demonstrably, "worked" for those who have grown up "in" each system. Hence one may understand the world as a Christian, as a proponent of natural law, as a Muslim, as a Confucian, and so forth: what is important is that when one does so, one actually is a Christian, a Muslim, and so forth. In the ethical realm one does not so much adopt a particular perspective as manifest it. Whereas in the natural sciences quantum mechanics might have a pragmatic justification (i.e., it explains a lot even if not gravitation), in the ethical and moral realms, all systems not only seem to work but they rarely if ever offer themselves as choices. Generally one is born and brought up as a Muslim or a Christian or a Buddhist, or without religious belief. Even if one changes one's beliefs, to the degree that one chooses an ethical framework that choice is less likely to be the results of pragmatic considerations than of some kind of conversion experience. Furthermore, by and large people do not live and die over the question of quantum versus relativistic physics, but various peoples have slaughtered others over differences in religious and ethical beliefs. In human relations, what appears to be at stake when one set of ethics confronts another is often personal identity.
Faced with such fundamental epistemological problems, is there any way we can transcend the differences between ethical traditions? It is important to note that in practice the encounter of different traditions has often provided the basis for a genuine mutual enrichment. There is, for instance, a line of social criticism that goes from Diderot to Margaret Mead that looked-with greater or lesser accuracy-to the South Seas as paradigms of enlightened sexual morality when compared with straiter-laced Anglo-European practices. Here the encounter with others can serve as the foundation for a critique of practices in one's own society. But the encounter can also be violent, as we have recently seen in the confrontation between Western cultural traditions and militantly fundamentalist understandings of Islam.
What are the philosophical bases for harmonious rather than conflictual encounters? One basis might be a principled acceptance of moral relativism-but this is undermined by the fear that power will then determine what counts as morally and ethically true.
Generally speaking, moral relativism is the doctrine that in matters of morality there are no universals. By universals one means here the actuality of standards by which to judge moral action, standards that are themselves independent of historical and individual contingencies.
Historically, the experience of moral relativism did initially provoke a move toward toleration. Precisely because there were no universal standards divorced from particular practices, one could not claim a privileged status for any practice, including one's own. The foundations for contemporary moral relativism were laid in Europe in the reactions to the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. David Hume can perhaps stand in for the others. When Hume argued that "it was not irrational for me to prefer the destruction of the entire world to the merest scratching of my little finger," he was specifically denying that rationality could settle moral quandaries. Thus, the purpose of Hume's social thought was to replace contingency with practice. An accumulated set of practices defined a people (call it a moral tradition) and thus an identity. Hume was struck by this power of historical identity and did all he could to foster that power. "Nothing," he proclaimed, "is more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few." The surprise, however, was due to the "philosophical eye," that is, to the desire to want from moral practices something that one could not have, namely a universal standard. He continues: "It is ... on opinion only that government is founded, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments as well as to the most free and most popular." He concludes this essay with a ringing endorsement to "cherish and encourage our ancient government as much as possible." The opinions that the English have are to be encouraged and each of the six volumes that Hume wrote on the History of England was designed to further that aim. A modern version of this is the "value pluralism" that Donald Moon associates in this in this volume with the thought of Isaiah Berlin: once societies meet a certain minimal standard for decency (itself perhaps harder to define than Berlin thought), ranking different forms of life is in principle impossible.
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