Archive for the ‘02. Political Philosophy and Theory’ Category

It is striking for me to realize that, although they are supposed to be the masters of human reasoning, most philosophers generally do not / cannot understand each other. Probably this is what is happening now to me and George and to our debate concerning the relation between religion and the public sphere.

Although I started this debate in Romanian, I am writing this time in English (a poor English, to be sure), not because of my audience (if there is such a thing), but because I respect George’s “larger audience” )

Let me first explain the context. George considers that he has a say on the recent public debate in Romania regarding the problem whether we should keep religious icons in our public schools, or we should take them out. He thinks that we should take them out – period.

A few days ago I felt like answering George, because it seemed to me that there are some very interesting points with this debate. While recognizing that the questions George is raising (about the segregation potential of keeping Christian Orthodox icons in public schools, for example) are very important, I had a problem with the following excerpt from George’s post. The translation is mine, so probably it only approximates his words:

“I tend to think that the problem of the equilibrium between the majority’s right of taking decisions and individual rights is a tangent one here. I thus refuse to transform a situation that is related to the lack of education and obscurantism in a subject of political philosophy. The neutrality of the public space cannot be negotiated – especially when this space is extremely fragile”.

Now I had three problems with George’s ideas:

1) I do not think that religion is something related with lack of education and obscurantism, as George seems to think. From his assertion, it logically follows that every human being cannot be religious unless he or she lacks education and live in obscurantism. Conversely, there is no intelligent, educated individual who can be at the same time a religious person. So it seemed to me that, in order to refute George’s assertion, it was enough to show that there was at least one individual who was at the same time an educated and a religious person. And I think, in fact, that there are many persons in this situation. Unfortunately, in his response to my critique (that can be read here), all George is doing in order to answer my objection is offering an example of an educated, former religious person, now an atheist – Anthony Flew. But I really don’t see how George’s example is destroying my critique. George still didn’t prove that there is no educated individual who can’t be at the same time a religious person.

2) George says that he doesn’t want to transform this problem, which according to his views is related to ignorance and obscurantism, into a subject of political philosophy. I tried to show, in my critique, that the problem of neutrality of state in what concerns religious practice simple is a topical debate in political philosophy (whether we like it or not, many political philosophers discuss it at length). What is striking for me is that George, in his response to my critique, still thinks that it is not a problem of political philosophy. Well, I really recommend him to read more books in political philosophy (try Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka and others)…

And this is the response to another problem of George. He writes: “I said the scandal about icons shouldn’t be treated as a problem of political philosophy. I stick to my guns. I don’t know what parties Andrei would have in a debate. Secular and religious intellectuals? Should I remind him about the intellectual stars of the day maybe?”. Well, I cannot believe that George (who really knows logic much more than I do) is making a logical fallacy, called “the appeal to authority”. Be that as it may. Anyway, if Sandel, Taylor, Kymlicka, Raz, and Waldron are not the “intellectual starts of the day”, then maybe I AM between those ignorant persons with which George fails to communicate….

3) Concerning the neutrality of the state: George thinks that it must not be negotiated. In my critique, I tried to show that state’s dealing with religious practice (and with the presence of religion in schools) is not that neutral as it seems to be. I tried to show that, far from being an implementation of neutrality, taking religion and its symbols (icons, or Bible reading) out of public schools might well be a sort of discrimination against a social group and against a way of life. For example, if it is OK to teach the Darwinist theory in public schools, it is not clear at all why you cannot also teach the Creationist doctrine, too. Maybe teaching both doctrines is “more neutral” than just throwing religion out of school. This is not my example; in telling you this, I was / am relying on some lawsuits within the American jurisprudence, quoted from Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent (the quotes from Sandel are in English, so check my post in Romanian Scoatem icoanele din scoli? (Do we take the icons out of schools?), if you are interested).

But take now another example. As we all know, the secular state’s economic activities are build upon Christianity’s religious practice. In other words, we all work from Monday to Friday or Saturday, and we all rest on Sunday. The problem is that there are some religions which claim that their followers should rest or pray in another day – for example, Muslims have to pray a lot on Friday. Now, what we are supposed to do with a Muslim teacher? According to the idea of state’s neutrality, we are supposed to do nothing. This is because the state is considered to be neutral to the religious practice, so it is not interested in this problem. But the state is organizing its economic activity according to Christian religious week, not to Islamic religious week. So state’s neutrality is not… that neutral! What I wanted to say with all these is that neutrality is not something fixed. Sometimes state’s practices are neutral only to the surface. And because the meaning of neutrality is not fixed, it is and it must be negotiated, as long as we think that liberalism and democracy still mean something.

Instead of discussing these problems, George says that it is not the time to talk about them. Because “the public space in Romania is fragile”, he thinks that „before debating subtle issues of negotiated neutrality of the state, we should make sure we still have something as a public space in which issues can be discussed”. Two things I have to say here. First, George seems to make a step backwards and seems to accept that neutrality can be negotiated, after all. That is a progress. But second, he thinks that now is not the time to do this in Romania. George cannot understand that creating a public space is the same thing with negotiating a common accepted neutrality. You cannot just throw away different religions, cultures, and so on, and say that, after throwing away all these, now we have a public space. This is a theoretical, as well as a practical impossibility. The terms of neutrality are negotiated every day – and this is what creates public space. We cannot just create first the public space, and talk about neutrality only afterwards.

(Just a small comment about the public space in Romania: I am not that pessimistic about this problem as George is. I really don’t think that the public space in Romania is a “ruin”, and this debate, its mere possibility and occurrence, shows that the situation is getting better and better. I know that being pessimistic is a good rhetorical figure, which makes you very popular, but I do think that being realistic – or at least neutral? ) – is a better thing to do)

Besides these topics, in his response to my critique George is making some further points. I try to respond now:

1) I accused George as being arrogant (well, I didn’t actually used this word, so this is his personal interpretation), in the sense that he believes that his truth is the only truth. In his answer, he complains that he cannot see “why it’s arrogant to hold some things to be true. E.g. that there is no anthropomorphic God”. And he goes on: “I struggle to communicate with people that have such beliefs and sometimes I fail – that was my point”. Well, the answer to George’s first question is simple, and it can be found in his last remark: nothing is wrong in holding some things to be true. What is wrong is to hold that your truths are “the only ones in town”. I think this is why George sometimes fails to communicate with religious people. In fact, George’s strategy of communication is identical with the religious individual’s strategy of communication: both of them hold some things to be true. But both of them are also emotionally related to their truths, both of them are fundamentalists, and none of them is ready to accept that he could be wrong, or at least ready to bracket for a while his truth. George is accusing religious people of having the same problem he has: the incapacity of being self-ironical. Irony means here accepting that you might be wrong, or at least the capacity of bracketing – or even laughing at – your truths. At least for a while…

George is saying: „Andrei thinks I’m wrong to associate religion on the one hand, and obscurantism and ignorance on the other. Well, I’m not so sure that the association is illegitimate”. Well, I am pretty sure this is not a good way to begin a conversation with a (religious) opponent. Yes, is arrogant. Yes, believing even from the start that your opponent is ignorant only because he holds some specific views is not respecting him. And the conversation cannot be possible.

2) Take another idea: “Religion as form of life and what not? Sure, it’s your time and your money, go play. But don’t think you have the right to put that in public schools on tax money. Not only that it is against the law, but this silent move – with all its hypocritical justifications – can only have [morally] dubious effects”. As I have already explained, I don’t see why you can teach the Darwinist doctrine in school, but you cannot teach the Creationist doctrine. I think teaching both of them is the real neutrality we are looking for. Of course, no child should be compelled to learn the creationist doctrine. Here George has a good point. This is why I think that, where applicable, the state should sustain religious schools (Muslim, Christian and other religious schools), with public funds (at the end of the day, religious parents pay taxes for education, too). In this way, every parent can decide to what kind of school he sends his child. I think this is the real state’s neutrality: not excluding some world views from schools, but incorporating them. And I don’t see why this should necessary mean segregation.

Just a note: I don’t say that this is the best solution; I am only saying that it can be taken into account. So I can exercise self-irony. I hope George can do this, too…

3) George’s final words: “Take a look at the photo embedded in the ‘fara icoane’ page. Fact is, I’m not open to negotiations with these guys. Sorry to make you sad, Andrei, if that shows I’m not a liberal, so be it”. Well yes, this makes me sad. Because I really believe in communication and negotiation. Even with these guys. Otherwise you have war.
One more thing. Maybe you are wondering, together with George: “I don’t know what parties Andrei would have in a debate. Secular and religious intellectuals?” I am telling you that I don’t take sides. I think that George and religious intellectuals are both right, nevertheless at the same time they are both wrong. What do I believe? Take another look at my blog’s motto: I believe I will have another glass of wine… really!

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[Article written on February 21, 2008]

UPDATE. George has also commented Iddo Landau’s talk and the reaction of gender fundamentalists here.

The first example of political correctness and gender stupidity (this is taken from a serious philosophical text):

“One way to flesh this idea out is to pretend that there is a superbeing, GOD, who can comprehend very complex patterns. SHE alone grasps in full the pattern in the way that moral matters connect with descriptive ones” (Frank Jackson, Philip Pettit, and Michael Smith, “Ethical Particularism and Patterns”, in B. Hooker and M. Little, Moral Particularism, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 90; capital letters are mine)

Two days ago I had another two examples of gender fundamentalism and gender hate. I attended two conferences at Central European University: the first was offered by the Gender Department, the second by the Department of Philosophy.

weiss.jpg Gail Weiss

The first talk was given by Gail Weiss (George Washington University) and its title was “Intertwined Identities: Challenges to Bodily Autonomy”. She discussed the problem of surgical separation of conjoint twins. She is against this separation, because she thinks it is based on: (a) “the dominant logic of identity” – that is, “one identity – one body”; (b) the idea that “conjoint life is not a worthy life”. As an argument in her favor, she says that in the majority of cases, adult conjoined twins refuse to undergo such an operation. The conclusion is that all these can show us an alternative theory of identity, which goes beyond the “dominant” one – that is, “one identity – one body”.

Now this idea strikes me as simply false. I propose the following counterfactual situation. Suppose that a physician tells the twins: “Look, because of the very advanced technology, we assure you 100 % that the operation is totally harmless to both of you; moreover, after the operation, you will live happily until the age of 99”. Now, my question is: what would the twins say? I am sure that they would like to undergo the operation. This shows that they refuse to be operated not because they have some strange philosophical notion of identity, something like “one identity – many bodies”, but because they fear that they would not survive the operation. In what concerns the fact that the separated life is worthier than the conjoint one, I really do not think that this is necessary or logically related to the social and cultural norms of our societies, as Gail Weiss sustains. If we set aside some perverse ideas, what is so worthy in being obliged to “shut down” yourself when your conjoined twin makes love with his wife??? I think the whole talk was a good example of empty words. I mean, if you want to present me just a nice story with metaphors, then it could be interesting. But if you present me this story with propositions like “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” (Noam Chomski) as being a scientific truth, then you have to do much more than using metaphors. That is, metaphors like this: “intercorporeality as a basic condition of human existence that doesn’t undermine identity but makes it possible in the first place”. Some of us are not that stupid, Mrs. Gail Weiss!

landau.jpg Iddo Landau

The second talk was given by Iddo Landau (University of Haifa) and its title was „Should Marital Relations be Non-Hierarchical? Issues in Distributive Justice and Love”. Some of the members of the Gender Department came too. Basically, Iddo Landau wants to argue against the idea of the Marital Non-Hierarchy Standard (MNHS). He says that in every human associative venture there are hierarchical relations (“in almost all associations, including many financial, professional, educational and recreational ones, in almost all spheres of life”). Because of this, it is odd to claim that one such human association – that is, marriage – should be exempted from the rule. His idea is this: if I am married and I stay with my wife in her parents’ house, it is normal for her parents to have the last word in what concern, for example, their house. Here is a hierarchy in the family, based on the fact that we stay in your parents’ house. This does not run against justice and does not diminish family love. Again, if we are married and we have a child, and if you read a lot on child rearing it is absolutely normal for you to give me directions in what concerns this domain, and it is absolutely normal for me to listen to you. This is yet another type of family hierarchy, which is based on knowledge. But this does not run against being justice and does not diminish our love towards one another. In consequence, it is absolutely normal for hierarchies to exist in a family. So MNHS, which has a strong egalitarian claim, is false.

Unfortunately, after the talk, four representatives of the Gender Department (three “female” students, one “female” professor) demonstrated that they understood nothing from this talk. Very hysterical and very aggressive, they monopolized the discussion for more than one hour, attacking Iddo Landau. The only thing they understood from this conference was that the poor guy wanted to legitimate the hierarchical status of man over woman in a marriage, and that he does not recognize the importance of the academic literature written by “female” authors. The poor man really tried to explain what he was talking about – with the only result of a considerable increase in hostility and agressivity. That was very telling, in fact. Gender hate and fundamentalism is jointly nurtured by violence and stupidity. It is sad, because this is very detrimental to the receptivity of serious academic writers in gender studies as Martha Nussbaum, Susan Moller Okin, Uma Narayan, and many others.

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[Article written on February 27, 2008]

UPDATE (03.03.2008). It seems that the problem of teaching religion in school was settled reasonably well, at least in my opinion. Romanian readers might want to take a look here. Does anybody know something about evolutionism?

Yes, George, there are two theories:

(a) The Dawn of Man (”2001: A Space Odyssey”, Stanley Kubrick, 1968)


(b) The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo, “The Creation of Adam” Sistine Chapel, c. 1511)


You are free to choose whatever theory you like – and I think that, choosing one (or choosing none) does not by itself give anyone the moral right to ridicule the other one (or both).

I think Kubrick himself is an exponent of epistemological neutrality – or, if you want, of agnosticism. Remember that, in his movie, man evolves from the monkey – but this evolution itself is made possible by a superior intelligence (remember the monolith!)

vlcsnap-315212.jpg vlcsnap-315720.jpg

In rest – I know: my way – the third (fourth??) way – is (politically and psychologically) the worst…

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[Article written on November 5, 2008]

California’s voters said “yes” to “Proposition 8″ – read here (thanks, Stefan)! This means that gay marriages (which were allowed since June, 2008 in the state of California) will be banned from now on. I keep wandering what the fuck means this. I mean, I thought there are some basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The fact that they are “guaranteed” means that they cannot constitute the subject of a popular vote. “Freedom of expression and association”, “equality under the law”, etc. are such rights. People cannot vote to ban an individual’s or a group’s enjoyment of these rights.

So why the right to marry whoever you want should be different? Why should the group of heterosexuals decide something which concerns only the group of gays? America is the land of the free? But who the hell qualifies for the “free person” label? Where’s the “Land of the free” ?!

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That’s right: in the hobbesian “state of nature” (1) even the week can destroy the strong. Nobody is safe. That’s why (2) we have to sign the contract and act together as a “body politic”. In this civil society, (3) the free rider does not always win something (watch the crocodiles!). And (4) the deceitful Kings are almost killed by the mob… The following movie extraordinary illustrates these four contractarian ideas. Here’s the real thing, although the actors are animals. The movie is 8 minutes long – but be patient and wait for the end, it’s marvelleous!


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[Article written on June 10, 2008]

In Bled (Slovenia) I had the great honor to meet and discuss with Tom Christiano. In my talk (“Does Liberal Neutrality Require Epistemic Abstinence?”), I advocated a Rawlsian version of the “epistemic abstinence” theory, according to which we should not build the basic institutions of a liberal democratic society on “the truth” promoted by one of the competing comprehensive views of the good, but on an “overlapping consensus” over the basic political (not metaphysical) values. Now, Tom Christiano advocates the opposite view, according to which a decision is authoritative if it is the outcome of a fair, democratic decision making (the decision-making procedure must be publicly recognized as being fair, and it must take into consideration the interests of everyone involved) [of course, the outcome is limited by the constitutional provisions regarding the basic liberal rights].

But take the following example. In some modern, liberal democratic states there is pervasive disagreement regarding the teaching of evolutionism and creationism in public schools. The evolutionists want to take religion off the textbooks, whereas the creationists want the same thing in what concerns evolutionism. How can a liberal democratic state solve this problem? Let’s apply the two theories to this example.

According to my “soft epistemic abstinence” theory, the state should say to the contending parties: “I am a liberal democratic state, and I have to further equally the interests of both of you. My political concern is not the ‘truth’ each of you advocates, but the way in which you can all live peacefully, and the way in which you can all have the possibility to further your own interests. According to this goal, the solution is the following: evolutionism is to be taught in biology classes, and creationism is to be taught in religion (and history of religion) classes. In this way, you can all further your own interests, while respecting the others’ constitutional rights of furthering their own interests”.

According to Tom Christiano’s view, there should be public discussions about evolutionism and creationism. Everyone interested in this debate should have the right to say her own point of view. Then individuals are required to vote one of these three possibilities: a) only evolutionism should be taught in public schools; b) only creationism should be taught in public schools; c) both evolutionism and creationism should be taught in public schools. If the decision-making process is fair, publicly known and democratic, then the decision is authoritative.

Now, my problem with this view is the following. Suppose that, in a particular state (say, Romania) people vote that evolutionism must NOT be taught in public schools. According to Tom Christiano, if all the democratic requirements have been met, then this decision is authoritative. But I feel uneasy with this solution.

Tom (who thinks that creationism is a stupidity) had several answers. First, he said that in a liberal democratic state many of us feel uneasy with many decisions – but we still have to accept them, as long as they are the outcome of a democratic decision-making process. Then he thought again, and he asked me why the teaching of evolutionism in public schools, in a democratic state, should be regarded as necessary, as long as the citizens rejected it through a fair and democratic process. And then he thought again. His final answer was that the only way to save evolutionism in such a case is to declare that some basic scientific education (evolutionism included) is necessary for citizenship.

Moreover, He told me that my solution is not exactly neutral – but it is a triumph for evolutionism. This is so because my solution accepts the teaching of evolutionism in biology classes, but it sends creationism from scientific to religious textbooks – and this is not quite a neutral answer. On the contrary, it safeguards evolutionism, while at the same time it diminishes the importance of creationism.

The discussion was long enough and it was late – we didn’t finish it. But I have two answers to Tom Christiano’s ideas.

First, to declare some basic scientific knowledge as necessary for citizenship seems a very controversial idea. I’m not saying that it is impossible to defend it – I’m just saying that there is much to be said in its favor. Moreover, if we accept this proposal, I do not see any reason to reject other proposed requirements for citizenship – for example, some basic knowledge in religious matters, or some basic moral knowledge, and so on. There are good arguments for supporting such requirements, but I will not discuss them here. I would rather say that it seems to me hard to defend some basic scientific knowledge as a requirement for citizenship, while rejecting the same status to basic moral or religious knowledge. And if we accept all these requirements for citizenship – then Christiano’s outcome is the same with my proposal’s outcome: evolutionism and creationism should both be taught in public schools.

Second, I do not agree with Tom’s critique, according to which my proposal is not neutral – because it favors evolutionism, by making it the single theory taught in biology classes. First, I think that I can explain to creationists that they don’t really want to see their theory taught in biology classes: they don’t accept this kind of science, so they shouldn’t care about it. They can teach evolutionism in religious classes – however these classes might be called (why not a distinct class, of “creationist biology” – indeed, “what’s in a name?”). There is, of course, the problem of the status of these classes. But I think there could be ways of solving this problem. We can device different combinations between “obligatory”, “optional” and “facultative” classes for both biology and religion. So the problem of neutrality could be in principle solved.

I am happy to see that me and Tom Christiano both agree with the outcome (evolutionism and religion should be both taught in schools). It is true that we have different ways of reaching this conclusion. But the debate is not over yet – or so I hope.

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