This is the first of two essays on the issues related to ethical debate and decision making in a pluralist society. This first essay examines how language and issues of defining what is real and what is not present unique problems. The second essay examines John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice as offering one approach to dealing with the problems of pluralism described in this first essay.
There are a great many advantages to living in a country like the U.S. where we are ostensibly free to believe what we choose to believe and free to express those beliefs with only very modest restrictions. Freedom of speech opens the door to dialogue between persons of both similar and differing points of view. We can discuss important matters as a society in an open manner and use the representative democratic process to regulate our society as a nation of laws. In addition to being a nation that enjoys freedom of speech, we are also a very diverse nation made up of people from a large number to cultures, religious traditions, countries, political persuasions, educational backgrounds and an increasing number of languages.
In this sense, we are a pluralist nation. In the US there is no official, national or established church as in the United Kingdom or Spain. There are a variety of political factions and conceptions of how a people should be governed (or govern themselves). There are real political differences vying for public attention unlike in countries like the Peoples’ Republic of China or Myanmar where political disagreement and challenges to the government are suppressed, sometimes violently. Issues are debated by politicians, in the press, among individuals and interest groups. Laws and regulations are challenged in courts. Arguments are made and judgments rendered. Our religions traditions range from Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist Hindu, Naturist, Agnostic to Atheist. There is no prescribed set of beliefs about the nature of humankind or the cosmos itself. There are many views, some more powerful than others, but all are officially not only tolerated but also (with the exception of the most vile) generally welcomed.
In the main, this pluralism, to the extent that there is real sharing between and openness to differing groups, enriches our society, expands the horizons of those who participate in that sharing and leads to a greater national solidarity and sense of purpose without the loss of each group’s or individual’s uniqueness. (e pluribus unum.) In fact, pluralism like this is one of the sine qua nons for a functioning democratic republic and in that sense a significant social good.
While essentially a social good, in practice pluralism presents a number of functional problems when it comes to engaging in productive problem solving and ethical decision making. One of the most significant of these problems, and the focus of this essay, is the problem of finding fundamental or central points of agreement upon which to build a coherent philosophical or political case that will be meaningful to all parties.
Some of the problems of communicating across differing groups are evident and well known. Communication across differing groups can be limited by differences in language. Spanish speakers may not understand English speakers and English speakers in turn may not understand French or Russian or Mandarin speakers. Interpreters can help but subtle nuances are often lost especially when the speakers use idiomatic language.
In cases where these superficial language barriers are worked through, communication can still remain only partial because of differences in the meanings of words in differing cultures. For example, while a term like “marriage” in whatever language it is spoken may denote or name the same thing, connotative differences will remain from culture to culture.
For the sake of argument, assume that most, if not all, language and cultural barriers to clear communication could be overcome in the US and that as a consequence, citizens could communicate in a manner that everyone understood and that public debate was therefore carried on in a manner understood by almost everyone. One road block to enjoying the full benefits of being a pluralistic society would certainly have been removed.
Clear communication would, however, not ensure that those engaged in public debate had similar values or even aims in life. In addition, people vary in intelligence, articulateness and other important things like capacity for empathy. Some of this variation would likely be a good thing as those who could now talk clearly with one another learned about others values, abilities, cultures and a multitude of other things. In the course of this dialogue, some values would likely become more widely shared and even grow in the depth of their meaning. At the same time, sharp differences in values and life aims would also likely arise.
Shared values and perspectives would bring our society closer together at the same time that sharply differing values and aims would contribute to lack of agreement and some degree of social fragmentation. We would come to agree on the things we could agree on and continue to dispute those issues upon which we could not agree. If decisions needed to be made on disputed issues, we would, and do, turn to the ballot box or the courts to settle a dispute for the moment. For example, there remains substantial disagreement around the question of abortion. The Supreme Court in the Roe v Wade decision determined that citizens have the right to privacy and that the question of whether or not to have an abortion was a private decision between a woman and her medical provider. Those who do not agree with this decision generally abide by it even as they continue to forcefully articulate their point of view in public debate or the courts.
Differences of this sort are to be expected and they are part of what makes for vital society. Public debate, learning, growing, improving our arguments, and abandoning misguided notions are all part of a free and vibrant community. In this country, not everyone will always have his/her way but current social regulations and priorities will at least approximate the outcomes of the national conversation.
There is however one type of difference that provides a pluralistic nation unique difficulties. Religious and non-believing people can agree in practice on a great deal. For example, a religious and secular person could probably agree that it is good to be kind and at least less good to be indifferent to others. However, they are unlikely to ever agree on the existence of a “god” who created the universe, has a personal plan for each of us, defines how we should treat one another (what is right and what is wrong) and yearns for our allegiance and devotion.
The theist/believer takes it on “faith” that this divine entity exists. The believer believes that when he or she uses the word for “god” in whatever language they speak that they are referring to something that is “real” albeit in a spiritual sense. Unlike Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or any of a variety of other mythological beings, “god” is a “real.” God “exists” maybe not quite like finite things, such as humans or trees, but “god” is “real” and when we refer to god we are not just talking about an idea.
For the secularist/non-theist, references to “god” refer only to an idea that some people have but to which there is no corresponding reality. For the secularist, there is no actual entity referred to as “god,” and because of that it is literally nonsensical to refer to a “god” as the source or telos of anything. “God” does not wish anything, create anything or guide anything because he/she/it/they is/are nonexistent in this or any other dimension of reality. “God” is a word without an existing referent.
The atheist or even agnostic and theist have very different first principles that seem to be irreconcilable. One believes that something exists and starts from there while the other finds no empirical evidence for the existence of an entity named “god” and lacking evidence regards language that speaks about “god” to be speaking about a reality only in the sense that some, if not most, people believe in something for which their is no empirical evidence. For the atheist or agnostic “god” can have no authority because “god” is nonexistent for the former and of indeterminate existence for the latter.
Since there are numerous religious traditions in our pluralistic society there is an accompanying pluralism of “gods.” This godly pluralism further complicates social dialogue by pitting, from the atheist’s point of view, vying nonentities against one another and further obfuscating reality: yielding a multiplicity of delusions.
Believers and nonbelievers can, of course, agree that the difference in point of view I describe above is accurate; i.e., one regards “god” as “real” and the other as not “real.” One regards “god” as having authority while the other regards “god” as having as much authority as any other non existent thing–none. Once this point is reached and if the interlocutors insist on building their arguments from their first principles, no real progress can be achieved. The interlocutors might be able to reach similar conclusions using completely different methods: one using what they feel is the inspired word of god and the other deductive reasoning. We might, for example, agree that killing without justification is wrong in one moment and in the next, when one party to the discussion concludes that a justification for killing is the commission of the sin of blasphemy, be in utter disagreement: why execute someone for saying something insulting about something which does not exist!
Attempts have been made especially by the Roman Catholic ethical tradition to deal with this problem of first principles using the concept of the “natural law.” Ironically, attempts at reconciling Christian Ethical thinking in this way had more to do with illustrating how Christian thought related to the great minds of the ancients like Plato and Aristotle
than establishing a common ground for debate with contemporary nonbelievers. The ancient Greek thinkers were widely revered in Renaissance Europe and the Church was keen to illustrate how its thought was supported by that of the ancients even those ancients that did not have the benefit of “knowing Jesus.” What these thinkers of old could see, the Church argued, was the rational order placed into creation by the rational creator; i.e., god. Reflection on this natural order could reveal a natural law which while only reflective of divine law was fully congruent with it. As a consequence, they argued, those things contrary to the natural order–which could be easily seen by believer or nonbeliever–were immoral and vice versa.
The appeal to “natural law” to enable ethical debate between believer and nonbeliever proved quite useful for several hundred years until views of what was clearly the natural order of things began both to diverge and become less clear. A simple and current example of this divergence is the view of same gender relationships. For years, both believers and nonbelievers alike thought of same gender relationships as contrary to nature. Both believers and nonbelievers alike regarded this type of behavior as unnatural and perverse. Believers had little need to turn to the authority of revelation in the Bible since natural law arguments sufficed.
Gradually, the scientific study of humankind has revealed that same gender orientation is perfectly natural; i.e., gender orientation is a function of the genetic structure of an individual and that approximately 10% of people are same gender oriented. Gender orientation is not a choice nor is it contrary to nature. Natural law, which once sufficed to arbitrate the morality of same gender sexual behavior, could no longer fully support arguments against same gender relationships in our age.
Believers had to revert to divine authority to bolster their public case. In practice, they therefor turned to texts in which believers believe that “god” has revealed his (usually his) divine will. These texts are taken by believers to be supremely authoritative and literally true.
Nonbelievers, of course, think that since god does not exist he/she/it/they has/have never said anything. Belief in these texts as authoritative is therefore as delusional as the belief in the spiritual entity who is said to have inspired them. Since “god” does not exist, communications from “god” do not exist either. While there may be cultural history interest in understanding what the priestly authors of Leviticus had to say or in what Paul of Tarsus
said about homosexuality, pedophilia or slavery, there is nothing divinely authoritative about these texts if there is no “god” to have shared the divine will with us.
With progress in science and other fields of human study gradually whittling away at the Aristotelian and Catholic natural law tradition almost daily, it is becoming more and more difficult for believers and nonbelievers to find common first principles from which to build compatible ethical frameworks. If there were no way around this problem, dialogue (at least on first principles) would cease and any sort of rational ethical consensus become much, much harder (if not impossible) to achieve. “Conversion” of one group to the other group’s position would be the only solution and “pluralism” would be shaken at its roots.
Fortunately, philosophers are a creative lot and have offered a number of “ways-to-think-about-it” that hold some promise for enabling interlocutors who have fundamentally different understandings of reality–like believers and nonbelievers–to not only continue real dialogue but arrive at a point where they agree on a few first principles to which they can both assent. One example of such a philosopher is the late political and moral philosopher John Rawls.
The second part of this essay will explore Rawls’ approach to thinking about justice as a way of illustrating one technique which offers hope for potentially working around the believer/nonbeliever problem; i.e., the thought experiment.