Dec 15, 2017
Among the Disbelievers
Most modern and postmodern systems of political ethics presume that humans will not all share a single conception of ultimate happiness or of the best form of life. But more importantly, it is commonly held that it is reasonable for humans to disagree on the best way to live and that justice, therefore, must not be founded on the identification of the ultimate human good but on what humans are entitled to in political and social life. Since the good is a matter of reasonable disagreement, and many forms of good lives can be pursued within a single society, modern liberal theory paradigmatically asserts that what we owe each other takes priority in law and politics over what we owe ourselves in matters of political justice (or what is sometimes referred to as the “priority of the right over the good”). Such theories thus seek to ground accounts of social goods and contracts on a rational basis that does not rely on a single, shared conception of the purpose and meaning of life, such as that of a faith tradition. Of course, many ethical projects in post-Enlightenment modernity—from Marxism to recent revivals of natural law—do not yield to such constraints. But theories that prioritize the protection of individual and group rights and religious and cultural freedom, and that trust in individuals’ capacities to develop and validate their own conception of the good, are characteristic of modernity.
But the commitment to pluralism results in well-known paradoxes or dilemmas. How valuable are liberal rights or autonomy if they do not contribute to some particular kind of well-being? Is it possible to take sides in the defense of bodily and intellectual autonomy without taking sides in the dispute between the truth or falsity of certain doctrines? Can there be a common public account of why political life should prioritize the right over the good, given the commitment that many have to the truth of their ethical and metaphysical doctrines? Can the reasonableness of pluralism be articulated without a positive declaration of skepticism about knowledge of the good?
There is a core problem that we cannot simply sidestep: shared political life requires some consensus about which differences amongst humans we should struggle to remove from the world and which we should accept as likely to be enduring for good reasons. We cannot avoid inquiry into which moral and intellectual differences are reasonable and which are not. For example, two persons who agree that race is morally arbitrary, and that thus we must struggle for a world without racial supremacy, might disagree about whether social differences based on gender should be allowed to persist. Similarly, two persons who agree that political struggles over what justice and welfare require are inevitable because of the social embeddedness of reason might disagree on whether revealed religion is so manifestly contrary to reason that the world would be a better place if religion faded away.
This, in brief, is the problem of “reasonable pluralism.” It is the difference between mere toleration and reciprocal recognition. We tolerate what we find distasteful or even immoral, but we recognize and accept what we find valuable. But there are some puzzles here. How do we understand what lies between disapproval and full acceptance? Indifference is one possibility: I do not tolerate your taste in footwear, nor do I value it; I am simply indifferent to it. But that is not the case with areas of common concern: I am not at all indifferent to your opinions on health-care policy or the new legislation to cut taxes. What then determines whether I regard views contrary to my own as dangerous and wrong, but not criminal, and therefore demanding toleration, or rather as somehow wrong-but-reasonable and therefore demanding (reciprocal) recognition? Does the difference rest in the quality of the other’s views? (For example, does some definable range of reasonable use of evidence and moral consideration of others exist, such that views can either fall within or outside of that range?) Or does the difference rest in my own level of certainty about the view I hold? (I am presently persuaded by it, but I recognize that my reasons for holding it fall somewhere short of demonstrative certainty.) Or does the difference lie in the nature of the matter in question? (Some issues admit of clear, demonstrable truth or falsity; others are matters of indeterminate and inconclusive evidence; and still others are matters of mere taste.)
The important point here is how the question of disagreement on matters of metaphysical and ethical conviction fits into this scheme of toleration-versus-recognition. Some contemporary Western political philosophers believe themselves committed to a distinctive position on religion that is neither skeptical about truth-claims nor merely utilitarian or instrumental in its approach to social difference. They do not assume that the persistent attachment to religion is evidence of a failure of reason and then focus on how it might nonetheless support, sustain, or at least not interfere with this or that secular vision of political justice or emancipation. Rather, they justify self-restraint in politics (i.e., “We do not just articulate what we think is true or ideal for all persons and then seek its realization”) by referring to the way human reason and moral psychology tend not to converge on universally shared beliefs. The most famous articulation of this approach is, perhaps, that of James Madison in “Federalist No. 10”:
As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.… The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice… have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.
But present-day liberal political philosophy is more likely to take its bearings from the twentieth-century American political philosopher John Rawls. His views on reasonable pluralism ground his efforts to distinguish a “political liberalism” from a kind of perfectionist, Enlightenment liberalism.
A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines. No one of these doctrines is affirmed by citizens generally. Nor should one expect that in the foreseeable future one of them, or some other reasonable doctrine, will ever be affirmed by all, or nearly all, citizens. Political liberalism assumes that, for political purposes, a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime.1
Why does the normal exercise of human reason result in this kind of pluralism? Rawls advances an account of the conditions under which humans form beliefs about matters of ultimate truth or value, conditions he refers to as the “burdens of judgment.” In making various kinds of theoretical, practical, and moral judgments, we are confronted with the facts that (a) evidence is often conflicting and complex; (b) we may disagree about how much weight to give different kinds of evidence; (c) our concepts are often vague and indeterminate and reduce to human interpretation; (d) how we assess evidence and weigh various values is shaped by our life experience, which is different for each of us; (e) different kinds of normative considerations of varying force are brought to bear on both sides of an issue; and (f) not all values can be pursued in any given context of social action, and thus hard choices must be made, about which reasonable people will differ.2
This epistemic and psychological approach to difference represents an attitude toward religion that atones for some of the moral arrogance and historicist hubris to be found in the post-Enlightenment secular tradition. As Rawls notes: “There is, or need be, no war between religion and democracy. In this respect political liberalism is sharply different from and rejects Enlightenment liberalism, which historically attacked orthodox Christianity.”3 In a crucial passage, he writes that when “political liberalism assumes the fact of reasonable pluralism as a pluralism of comprehensive doctrines, including both religious and nonreligious doctrines, [t]his pluralism is not seen as a disaster but rather as the natural outcome of the activities of human reason under enduring free institutions. To see reasonable pluralism as a disaster is to see the exercise of reason under the conditions of freedom itself as a disaster.”4 Rawls insists that the “evident consequence of the burdens of judgment is that reasonable persons do not all affirm the same comprehensive doctrine… [and] will [thus] think it unreasonable to use political power, should they possess it, to repress comprehensive views that are not unreasonable.… Reasonable persons see that the burdens of judgment set limits on what can be reasonably justified to others, and so they endorse some form of liberty of conscience and freedom of thought.”5
But that atonement is not unilateral disarmament. For it is precisely the commitment to publicity—a shared, public rationale for coercive legislation—that also makes enormous demands on the religious. In retreating to a reasonable form of liberalism and secularism, Rawls also hopes for a reasonable form of religion. This reasonable religion need not be a rational religion in the sense of removing all mysteries and miracles, but is to be reasonable in its moral attitude toward others because of the basic epistemic condition reflected in the burdens of judgment; it must recognize the reasonableness of others not sharing the same religious beliefs, or any religious beliefs at all. Rawlsian liberalism respects and recognizes religious moral lives for fundamentally epistemic and psychological reasons (“There but for the grace of Darwin and my progressive education go I…”) but hopes that all other reasonable doctrines, including religious ones, can articulate parallel accounts of toleration, respect, and restraint, grounded in an account of why all rational people will not necessarily converge on the same metaphysical and moral doctrine. That is, they will have explanations for the disbelief of others that give reasons for regarding unbelievers as something other than a-necessary-evil-until-truth-prevails, and ideally those reasons will involve an acknowledgment of the burdens of judgment.
With that as a prelude, we can approach the problem of reasonable pluralism through a very specific question posed to Islamic moral psychology and theology. Given that the foundation of Islamic ethics and moral agency is the rational verifiability of the existence of God, can the acceptance of moral and doctrinal pluralism extend all the way to recognizing that rejection of theism itself might be driven by something other than ignorance, divine spite, or willful neglect of manifest signs? In other words, is this kind of radical moral pluralism something the theist might be able to see as other than tragic or temporary in the social world?
Let us pose the question of toleration within Islamic political ethics more sharply than is usual in the substantive existing literature. Let us ask: How does the epistemic and moral-psychological vantage point of the “radical other”—the unbeliever, and not merely the wayward Abrahamic cousin—figure in Islamic discourses on toleration and coercion, if at all? Can there be reasonable pluralism based on an understanding of why various people fail to become Muslim? Do any prominent Muslim theologians see the social and epistemic conditions of modernity and postmodernity as raising distinct and novel challenges for the universal validity of religious truth-claims?