Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The need for smuggling into secularism

But the debate takes another turn if one argues, as the professor of law Steven Smith does in his new book, “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse,” that there are no secular reasons, at least not reasons of the kind that could justify a decision to take one course of action rather than another. ...

Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles randomly colliding and . . . sometimes evolving into more and more complicated systems and entities including ourselves” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”...

Nevertheless, Smith observes, the self-impoverished discourse of secular reason does in fact produce judgments, formulate and defend agendas, and speak in a normative vocabulary. How is this managed? By “smuggling,” Smith answers. ...
 
The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include “notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or a providential design,” all banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation. ...

And how do we do that? Well, one way is to invoke secular concepts like freedom and equality — concepts sufficiently general to escape the taint of partisan or religious affiliation — and claim that your argument follows from them. But, Smith points out (following Peter Westen and others), freedom and equality — and we might add justice, fairness and impartiality — are empty abstractions. Nothing follows from them until we have answered questions like “fairness in relation to what standard?” or “equality with respect to what measures?” — for only then will they have content enough to guide deliberation. ...

Indeed, concepts like fairness and equality are normatively useless, except as rhetorical ornaments, until they are filled in by some partisan or ideological or theological perspective, precisely the perspectives secular reason has forsworn.
--Stanley Fish, NYT, on secular paralysis

No comments: