Re: MD secular humanism and dynamic quality

From: Sam Norton (
Date: Fri Mar 26 2004 - 04:28:29 GMT

  • Next message: Wim Nusselder: "Re: MD quality religion"

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the reply. Let me first sketch out where I agree, because I think that will clarify where
    I disagree. I'm happy with 'liberalism' as what we're talking about, although (i) I think 'secular
    humanism' is accurate too! and (ii) you and I understand liberalism as akin to Locke/JS Mill etc
    rather than as a political insult. Within that JS Mill style tradition freedom of religious belief
    is a high quality static pattern, one of the highest, which needs to be preserved and defended from
    lower quality static patterns which might undermine it (eg an insistence on an established state
    religion, variably defined, so Stalinism qualifies). Essentially, as you say, allowing free speech
    to be a part of the process rules out an insistence on dogma, which would undermine that static
    pattern and inhibit its dynamic evolution.

    Now those things I think you and I can pretty much agree on. Where I think we still part company is
    your insistence that it is only the practical outcomes of policies that "have a place on the Senate
    floor". I am happy to say that I DO want to debate God on the Senate floor - if, that is, 'God' is
    understood in a broad (classical or MoQian) sense, not a narrow (Modern) sense. I think that your
    effective qualification on free speech does itself undermine that high quality pattern of
    liberalism. I need to explain why I see a tension here.

    The tension exists on two levels and it's the second that I think is more important and interesting
    for our conversation.

    The first, simple level, relates to your comment that "The secular vocabulary is the one used in
    politics." This is clearly untrue for the United States, although it probably is true in much of
    Europe. But what IS employed in political debate is the language of values, of what is the good
    life, of, as you put it, "What type of people should we become?" I think this sort of language is -
    for historical reasons if nothing else - religious language, although it doesn't have to be tied to
    any of the established religions. I think that a MoQian language would qualify - in other words,
    people are debating Quality in political terms.

    The second (much more interesting) level, though, is a point about the 'basic tenets' of liberalism.
    You said,

    "Well, the problem I have with conceding that "it is at least _prima facie_ plausible that there
    will come a time when the Dynamic evolution of secular humanism requires a reconsideration of its
    basic tenets" is a legitimate objection is that I don't see it as an objection. I simply agree with
    you and fail to see why I shouldn't be able to."

    I want to know how it is possible to reconsider the basic tenets of [liberalism] without engaging in
    fundamental considerations or articulations of the Good or Quality (which I think count as
    'religious' on a family resemblance understanding). These would seem to be disqualified by your
    comment that "The only sense in which religious discourse is illegitimate in a democracy is the
    sense in which religious discourse poses as political discourse." I just don't see the division
    between the two vocabularies that you do; in fact I think it is that division which you are trying
    to enforce as a pragmatic 'add-on' to classical liberalism, and which I think is unjustified. You
    seem to want to make political discourse purely technocratic, ie 'how can we best achieve X', when I
    think an essential part of political discourse is 'what X should we achieve'. So you're making a
    political point under philosophical disguise. I don't think that latter question (what X should we
    achieve) can be answered except through the use of non-pragmatic language, both in the simple sense
    of 'where should we go' but also in the profound sense of 'lets leave room for debating whether
    liberalism is the best system we can have'. In other words, even if we're debating about health
    care, I don't think we can escape ultimate questions of the good. (Perhaps we could focus on that?)

    I don't think there's a huge difference between our views in practice (pragmatically!) but I think
    the difference is important. What do you think?


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