Re: MD secular humanism and dynamic quality

From: Sam Norton (
Date: Fri Apr 09 2004 - 14:32:09 BST

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    Hi Matt,

    I keep trying to focus in, and you keep trying to broaden out!!! ("Trying to get a single
    conversation, to me, is antipluralistic.") I'm not wanting to force you to talk about God
    specifically, only trying to resist the 'dialectical hold' that you try to establish - so we're each
    trying to shoehorn the other in a sense. The issue really is whether religious language must be
    excluded from the Senate floor, which is what I see as your pragmatic 'add-on' to classical
    liberalism. So I'm going to try and focus on that.

    Firstly, a quote from your post (quoting me) of Mar 26:
    Sam said:
    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 think you are absolutely right, I am "making a political point under philosophical disguise,"
    except that I don't think I've ever hidden this fact. I think this stance is encapsulated by Rorty's
    Deweyan remark about the "priority of democracy to philosophy." And, in your terms, I think you are
    right: what I take the mark of a fully fleshed out liberalism, taking the consequences of Mill and
    Dewey to its end point, is to think of politics as "purely technocratic, ie 'how can we best achieve
    The division you're not seeing between "the basic tenets liberalism" and "conceptions of the good,"
    between what I earlier called political discourse and religious discourse, respectively, is purely a
    practical division, a political point, not a philosophical point. If I were making a philosophical
    division between political discourse and religious discourse, between public and private, I would
    start sounding a lot more like the earlier Rawls, or I would start saying stuff like "the uncovering
    of the true human spirit" and "the emancipation of humanity," I would talk about how the distinction
    is based in the ontology of the universe. As a good pragmatist, I don't think any of these things. I
    think the division is there solely for practical purposes of getting good things done.


    So the "pragmatic add-on" that I was referring to is precisely this 'division... solely for
    practical purposes of getting good things done'. Put succinctly, I think that division makes it at
    best impractical, at worst impossible, to achieve good things, most especially in the extreme
    circumstances I cited (Lincoln and Rwanda).

    Let me spell this out further.

    Where we agree (for the time being <wink>) is that the classic pattern of liberalism, viz the
    liberal framework of democracy, rule of law, free speech, freedom of religious belief and so forth,
    is a high quality static pattern of value which deserves to be defended from lower quality patterns
    which would seek to destroy it, most especially those patterns which can be described as religious

    You see the "pragmatic add-on", ie the prohibition of god-talk on senate floor, as a means of
    ensuring that the pattern of classic liberalism is preserved from the fundamentalists. Your
    acceptance of the "pragmatic add-on" can't be separted from the Rortian perspective you're bringing
    to bear. Specifically, you see it as grounded in a philosophical rejection of essentialism, so those
    languages (God-talk) do not in fact provide any useful cognitive content for legislation. When a
    piece of legislation is considered within a democracy, outside the Senate it can be debated in as
    many languages as we please, but on the Senate floor we must only concern ourselves with the
    (minimal) questions of 'is it any good' or 'will this lead to less cruelty', questions like that.
    It's rather like Pirsig holding up the essays before students and saying 'which has more Quality'.

    With me so far?

    Now, let's accept for most of the time that this will function OK. I think that it functions OK
    simply because there is a degree of consensus around the classic pattern of liberalism being of high
    quality, in other words, democracy, free speech etc set a framework within which political problems
    can be resolved technocratically. We might say, the vocabularies used to explain the Quality of
    classic liberalism are 'first order', the vocabularies used to explain the Quality of particular
    pieces of legislation are 'second order' So on the Senate floor we can (in theory) compare two
    pieces of legislation - or a piece of legislation with its absence - and ask which has more Quality,
    and this is a 'second order' conversation, within the overall paradigmatic framework established by
    the first order language of classical liberalism (whether Hobbesiam or Kantian or whichever). (This
    I understand in parallel with the Kuhnian split between normal and revolutionary science. The
    revolution comes when the 'normal' framework experiences too many anomalies which cannot be dealt

    So my two reservations can be put like this.
    1. (the point which I haven't focussed on) is it in fact possible to assess the Quality of different
    pieces of legislation without resorting to a vocabulary which in some sense or other qualifies as
    'god-talk'? I think this is the objection you have mostly dealt with, partly because you think that
    my second objection collapses into it. Which it might do, although you haven't convinced me of that
    yet. I think you would reject the 'first order' and 'second order' division above, and say that
    there is only ever 'second order' language on the Senate floor - all other languages are confusing
    and irrelevant.
    2. (the point I most want to focus on) is it possible to reform the system of classical liberalism
    (democracy, free speech etc) without using the 'first order' vocabulary which explains the Quality
    of classical liberalism itself? I see the "pragmatic add-on" as an example of babies being thrown
    out with the bathwater and something which, in the long run, damages that classic pattern of
    liberalism by ruling out (what I see as) the *only* avenue for improving the classic pattern of
    liberalism when circumstances require the original framework to be changed or amended in the light
    of DQ - hence Lincoln and Rwanda.

    [NB I would be interested in a US lawyer's observation for the Lincoln example, as I'm not too
    certain of the precise developments in the 1860's, and how far there was a specific legislative
    change to achieve emancipation (eg was there a constitutional amendment or specific legislative or
    judicial act to be passed?).]

    Your answer earlier was ""Of course our private beliefs influence our public beliefs." The way I see
    it, what things we count as good are hashed out somewhere other than on the Senate floor. As
    agreement increases as to what things are good, then it becomes more plausible to "get them done"
    via the medium of politics. For instance, what we are doing here, right now in this discussion
    group. We are hashing out our conceptions of the good, and not on the Senate floor. I think this is
    wonderful and perfect. It allows us to think things through. It allows us to get our act together so
    we don't waste the Senate's time."

    In other words, in a democracy the generation of public consensus around a particular perception of
    Quality (this legislation has more Quality than that legislation) is something that happens outside
    the legislature, according to your model. The legislature is there to give expression to the
    democratic will that is educated and clarified through non-legislative means. So your model is (to
    extrapolate) of lawmakers as direct instruments of the demos, not as active participants in the
    democratic debate, helping to shape the democratic consensus rather than simply reflect it. (Or at
    least, in so far as they speak on the Senate floor they must simply reflect the democratic will
    rather than shape it - which they are free to do outside the Senate floor).

    This seems, if I might be so bold, a philosophical conception rather than a politically realistic or
    even desirable one. Are you saying that there is such a thing as 'first order' analysis of Quality,
    but this must be excluded from the Senate floor? Or are you saying there is no such thing as 'first
    order' analysis of Quality? (And remember, I don't consider accepting that latter to imply
    Kantianism). That's my remaining doubt about your position at the moment. For if you hold the first,
    then you are indeed simply making your political point under philosophical disguise (which you
    accepted), so the philosophical point is ultimately dispensable - it's a rhetorical ploy designed to
    discomfit those that disagree. However, if you hold the second then the challenge (for me) will be
    to show that the technocratic vocabulary you suggest for the Senate floor is impractical and
    unlikely to achieve what it is intended to achieve. Which is what I believe, and I don't think it
    would be too difficult to demonstrate it.

    But that's probably enough for now.


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