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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

humanism and fragmentation

In my view, a secular state needs a humanist basis. Yes, that means that I think secular humanist culture should be privileged in liberal democracy (or in what I would prefer, social democracy) but not religion. The reason is that it can encompass religious lives, whereas religious culture cannot do the same for secularism and atheism. Humanism, with its Renaissance origins (among thinkers who were mostly religious in some way), fostered pluralism by legitimizing multiple authorities, leading people to evaluate for themselves, to see varied points of view, not just to accept a last word from one authority. These are prerequisites of citizenship in a free, pluralistic society – a society that assumes its members are grown-ups and can make choices about different options in life—secular, religious, or some mix—and then also can legitimately change their minds.

But pluralism, radicalized, can also create a sense that nothing unites or even links people; that linkage is essential for citizens in a democratic society. I think that this problem of fragmentation can be offset by an amended version of what John Rawls, the American philosopher, called “public reason.” Democratic debate must finally address “citizens as citizens.” I think citizens must be able to express arguments on the basis of their own particularities—whether political, cultural, religious—but there must be a point at which they translate their deliberations and claims into a common political language. (Rawls thought to separate public reason and secular reason, but I would demur on that).
- Mitchell Cohen (interview in Dissent Magazine)

update 10/14/2007

A loosely related discussion, specifically on Raymond Geuss's criticisms of Rawls is on Leiter Reports today. As someone else in the comments mentioned, I don't think the two approaches need be mutually exclusive and I'm skeptical of criticisms which don't tend to start from a generous reading. In this case specifically it sounds like Geuss has an issue with Rawls's starting point and might be thereby missing out on other positives. But what do I know, I've read neither Rawls's Theory of Justice nor Geuss's Outside Ethics in whole.

It is nice to hear something that disagrees with Rawls for a change. Both the discussion on Leiter's blog and Cohen's interview make me wonder which are the best vantage points to make decisions about societal justice. The more abstract viewpoints do seem to be disingenuous in a sense but they still seem to have a moderating effect (which I think is usually a positive thing). Guess's quote "After all, a major danger in using highly abstractive methods in political philosophy is that one will succeed merely in generalizing one's own local prejudices and repackaging them as demands of reason." pairs nicely with what Cohen said in the quote above... "I think citizens must be able to express arguments on the basis of their own particularities." Cohen recognizes a similar issue but sees his view as in conjunction with rather than in opposition to Rawls.

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