THE ARISTOTELIAN BACKGROUND
At the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that all arts and inquiries, acts and choices, aim at some good. Indeed, they presume an ultimate good. For if they sought no good at all they would not be chosen, and without an ultimate intrinsic good their rationality would collapse. Aristotle’s title for that ultimate aim, a title meant to be uncontroversial, is eudaimonia, loosely translatable as happiness. Its nature is not a given: philosophy has its work cut out for it in clarifying just what this ultimate human goal must be. Some seek happiness in pleasure, wealth, or honor; others scramble for whatever sensation appeals at the moment or blindly pursue domination. Aristotle, however, maintains that (1) eudaimonia is something objective, not mere gratification, euphoria, or complacency; (2) it is not merely a passive state of well-being but an active life of doing well (euprattein); and (3) the virtues are dispositions that promote the good life that we seek. Aristotelian moral virtues such as courage, generosity, and self-control are dispositions, or habits of acting in accordance with a mean discerned by reason. Phronesis, strength in deliberation, is an intellectual virtue, but sophia, the queen of the intellectual virtues, finds our most godlike activity in contemplation. As Aristotle sees it, the virtues point the way to happiness, much as Plato sought the nature of reality through his conception of knowledge.
Time was when organizers of a public meeting were happy if people checked their weapons at the door. But in the charged atmosphere of the decades since Roe v. Wade, self-described liberals may expect those who deliberate on public policy matters to check their ideas too. As Gerald Mara writes, “A number have embraced pluralism not merely as a phenomenon to be recognized within any competent practical philosophy, but also as confirmation of a deeper suspicion that concern with virtue is somehow implausible or illegitimate within political theory.” Behind that concern lurks the idea that pluralism itself demands that the state stay silent regarding the character of its citizenry or, indeed, any areas that touch on conscience or fundamental values. But in a democracy all citizens are members of the state, whether active or passive. From that concept stems the thought that in a democracy everyone should not just refrain from doing harm to others but also keep out of others’ moral and intellectual space.
In recent years, the work of John Rawls has come to dominate much of the discourse of political theory and political philosophy for reasons not hard to understand. As Robert Nozick, a colleague and rival of Rawls's, writes,
A Theory of Justice is a powerful, deep, subtle, wide-ranging, systematic work in political and moral philosophy which has not seen its like since the writings of John Stuart Mill, if then. It is a fountain of illuminating ideas, integrated together into a lovely whole. Political philosophers now must either work within Rawls's theory or explain why not.
There are plenty of reasons for pursuing some form of pluralism as to religion, and even more ways in which pluralism is sought, each with its own advantages and costs. Governments and irenic individuals might seek an end to sectarian strife or hope to build alliances in the interest of some common cause. The spiritually inclined might seek a higher unity, backgrounding their differences for the sake of inner growth. Some see relativism as the high road to tolerance, the surest antidote to dogmatism and bigotry. Others assign that work to skepticism. The baldest response to religious diversity is to reject it – I’m right; the rest are wrong. But exclusion can cause trouble because many place what matters most to them in the shiny coffer reserved for their religious beliefs. Intercultural understanding gets little help from the notion that those who fail to share one's own beliefs and practices will roast forever in hellfire. Nor does it help when atheists say, “Safety demands that religions should be put in cages.”
Alvin Plantinga argues that it is neither arrogant nor arbitrary to hold onto one's own beliefs and reject others. He excuses himself from talk of practices and keeps to beliefs that have been considered carefully and prayerfully, in full awareness that others may dissent just as thoughtfully and with equal conviction. One's beliefs, he reasons, might rest on argument, as in Aquinas's case, or on religious experience, such as Calvin's Sensus Divinitatis. If there's good warrant and one has duly considered alternative views, Plantinga argues, it is not arbitrary to hold fast to the beliefs one has and to exclude others.
Some years ago I took part in an international meeting of philosophers. Of the 180 thinkers who attended, many took the occasion to showcase their values. Socialism was still much bruited in those days, and several speakers scrapped their prepared remarks to sing its praises. Many still imagined, despite Friedrich Hayek's cogent argument in The Road to Serfdom, that civil rights and human flourishing could be safe and well served under socialism – or only under socialism. Some thought basic liberties survivable even in a one-party state, where law and politics, the media and means of production, science, inquiry, and the arts, the councils of labor and sources of capital, the vehicles of distribution, stewardship of the land, and regulation of the marketplace were all gripped in a single set of hands. In that forum, I admired Hilary Putnam's courageous confession that socialist promises were “now universally discredited.”
Because this was an intercultural meeting, many of the philosophers celebrated relativism and its promised yield in tolerance and accommodation. Bimal Matilal, whom I remembered as a handsome young scholar at Oxford but who was now broken in health and pushed in a wheelchair by his wife, worked with spirit to distinguish relativism from pluralism. Keenly aware of the variance in the particularities of practice from one culture to the next, he scanned the traditions of India for norms worthy of universal adherence. He singled out respect for life, deference to truth, abhorrence of theft, and rejection of adultery. In each case he drew specific prescriptions from the broad norms he culled from India's rich religious and philosophical array. Although he cited Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and the spiritual wisdom of Gandhi, he strove not to rely on divine prescriptions.
Diversity of outlooks, practices, values, and ideas is inherent in the human condition. Cultures differ. So do personal histories, circumstances, and prospects. Differences between generations may widen as trade, travel, exile, migration, and communication speed our cultural interactions. The question of this book has been how we should cope, as individuals and communities, with the dazzling diversity we confront. The answer I have proposed is rooted in the ideal of openness. Openness does not mean relativism, and skepticism is not its nutriment, although it may be a byproduct or a motive. One can respect differences without abandoning one's commitments. One needs to know oneself if one is to engage in fruitful dialogue with others. A relativism that pretends all views are equally sound or welcomes all practices as equally wholesome or apposite is not generous or practical but patronizing. A skepticism that dismisses all thoughts but what seems self-evident is just the opposite of open-minded. And neither relativism nor skepticism affords stable ground for self-cultivation.
Groups, like individuals, are nourished by what they learn from others. So societies that favor intercommunal understanding are the richer for it. They make a resource of what too often seems a difficulty. The notion that diversity spells trouble may stem in part from the illusion that societies need a common ideology and uniform practices. I do not think either sort of unity has ever existed, unless as an artifact of lazy analysis or simple stereotyping. Just consider how different idiolects can be. Ways of living and thinking are far more varied. Neuroscientists find more synaptic connections in each human brain as it actively responds to experience than there are elementary particles in the universe. So efforts to impose lockstep ideas or behaviors belong not to any history of harmony but to the black record of oppression, be its idols and ideals secular or sacred. The carnage and wreckage left by attempts to cast humanity into a single mold still clutter the world in the broad wake of the Inquisition and Europe's religious wars. They scar living memory in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, and the Cambodian killing fields.
Love and war have mingled human populations for eons. Even seeming isolates are hardly homogeneous. No population remains untouched by the genetic markers of panmixia. So with all our ethnic diversity, we humans remain one race. The branches of our language tree attest to eons of migration, commerce, and congress that antedate our written records. We seem fated to live together, and the rapid pace and broad franchise in our travels and interactions today, complemented by the human penchant for settling down in new surroundings, only raise to new intensity the salient question of this book: how we can live together with integrity.
Cultural and intellectual diversity have long prompted claims in behalf of skepticism and relativism. But the claims are specious: The fact of differences does not steal the warrant from all commitments or confirm the equal soundness of just any. Still less does it make differences unreal – as to derive not-p from p. Yet powerful pragmatic worries urge us to deny deep differences with one another, or give up all claims to truth, or concede that no way of thinking or living is better or worse than the rest. Otherwise, we are told, we are doomed to endless conflict, to bootless bloodshed, and ultimate self-destruction.
When Rawls is credited with restoring normative discourse in politics, the praise might mean that his example freed theorists long afraid to buck the positivist tide that ran so strong in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Or it might mean that his work broke the hold of the machiavellian equation of realism with realpolitik so often attached to the idea of value-free social science in the study and teaching of politics, history, and law. There is some truth in those claims. Rawls did help make normative claims respectable where they had been shunned. He must share the credit, of course, with Watergate, which provoked widespread calls for a new infusion of moral concerns into public life and for the teaching of morality to future leaders and professionals. Such spirited calls seem innocent of the ancient recognition that virtue is learned more from practice and example than from precept and tuition. The fond hopes for moral education externalized the infamy, ducking the admission that Watergate, like many another scandal, was not just a violation of the ethos but also an ugly caricature of it – spit and image of the practices long modeled in the Lone Ranger's forays into villains’ safes and offices: Conscientious subterfuge was fine, so long as it stayed sub rosa. The jig was up when Nixon was caught sending men into the Watergate sniffing for evidence of Cuban ties to the Democratic Party. The same moralists who voiced shock at the burglary lionized Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers. Plato's lesson was hard to learn and easy to forget: It was not Socrates but Athens who formed the character of Alcibiades.
Morals, for much of the twentieth century, were readily and willfully confused with moralism. The Vienna Circle – their shadow grown tall by mid-century, silhouetted in the glow of scientistic optimism – shunned value talk. They had seen the rhetoric of idealism carried off by extremist ideologues to misty metaphysical heights and then restored, deflowered and led captive by dubious and dangerous causes. Positivism looked clearer and cleaner. Pragmatism felt more down to earth than overt metaphysics. And utilitarianism, at least, seemed naturalistic and forward looking. Or Marxism – if one could trust its promises and ignore the noises off from the dungeons and the Gulag – bruited itself as scientific and progressive, the wave of the future.
Determinism is the belief that things must be as they are. Three types of determinism are distinguishable: logical, theological, and causal. Logical determinism rests on the notion that a thing cannot be other than it is without somehow violating the universal rule that each thing must preserve its own identity. For a thing to depart from being as it is interpreted in one sense or another as a departure from its being what it is. Theological determinism is founded on the belief that God makes all things as they are. Causal determinism is the belief that things must be as they are because their causes make them so.
The three determinisms overlap not only because their advocacy may coexist in the same thinker, but because their terms of reference are often interpreted in one another's senses and their claims are often made dependent on one another's assertions. Thus God is treated as a cause or as a cause of causes in most varieties of theological determinism; in some, the work of causes or the fabric of causality is interpreted as an act of God. When the divine is assimilated to fate and fate to the underlying nature of things or character of reality, causal, theological, and logical determinism may coincide. Similarly, when efforts are made to analyze the necessity affirmed in any of the three versions of determinism, causality, via essentialism, can be made a matter of identity; and the metaphysical requirement of identity (that a thing be what it is) is readily interpreted as a requirement of logic.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this to your organisation's collection.