The political blog Citizen's Rent, (CR) recently raised the issue of whether we should go with the "politically correct" or the "religiously correct." CR argued we should reject the "religiously correct." CR tried to focus on a segment of the religious community that has been pushing its own agenda at the expense of the rest of us. CR later wanted to acknowledge a distinction between "people of faith," who she has no problems with, and the "religiously correct." About the more aggressive ones, CR said,
"We are a country of laws - and I expect pressure to follow the law. What I don't expect and find un-American is pressure to follow a religious moral code, to agree to the supremacy of that code over the law."
I left some commentary hoping to say that we have to well understand the position of the "religiously correct" before CR or others, myself included, attempt to criticize them. I want to acknowledge the real concerns that I believe motivate CR in criticizing the "religiously correct." I take it CR sees the "Religiously correct" as a threat to our national unity and to important national values like religious freedom and individual liberty. CR put her point well in stating,
"If we abandon our commitment to law in the name of a higher authority, if we subjugate our law to the relative interpretation of God's law (and there is no objective interpretation out there), then we have lost our common ground that allows us to live in harmony."
CR thinks that the "religiously correct" as opposed to the "people of faith," are attempting to accomplish just what she fears. In defending the "social contract" CR thought it was enough to point out that their effort was "un-American" in too many ways.
My posts wanted to point out that "unity" and "religious freedom" may not be very important to the religious community pushing the "correctness." It is probably more important for them that they and their country be right by God than it is to continue to be tolerant of evil.
The social contract that CR wants to defend was thought to be a way of preventing religious wars over moral codes and how our lives should be run. I don't think the religious hardliners are much afraid of religious conflict. They believe, I think, that they are right and the rest of us are evil. It does no one any good, I suspect they would argue, to refrain from confronting the evil of our ways. The hardliners believe, I suspect, that their compromise has not given us a chance to get ourselves right with their God, and so they've changed their mind about tolerating evil.
I believe the "social contract" theory was developed just to respond to the "religiously correct" kind of position. But, such a response works only in situations where the "religiously correct" are willing to make compromises and to be tolerant.
At times when they are under personal stress, their commitment to such negotiated settlements crumbles. It seemed to me that CR's argument failed to consider the possibility that our current situation is one of those times. So, I pointed out an article in the Atlantic magazine of July/August of this year by Benjamin Friedman saying that in times of economic downturns, the commitment to democracy fails. He points out this happened in Germany during the depression.
There was a comment that CR was not in any way making a blanket criticism of the religious in arguing her case against the "religiously correct." CR wanted to acknowledge that "people of faith" hold moral positions and rely on an environment of "religious freedom" and "tolerance" that everyone should support. More than this, though, the virtue of "people of faith" seems to be in the fact that though they do hold their own moral code and absolute values, they do not insist others have to conform to them. They have not broken the "social contract," so to speak.
In my comments I wanted to argue that this response can not really stop the "religiously correct" from trying to take over government and insisting the rest of us abide by their moral code and absolute values. I don't think CR provides an argument to "people of faith" for why they should continue to abide by the "social contract," the commitment that distinguishes them from the "religiously correct." I suggested the difference between the one and the other was that the "religiously correct" have interpreted their own suffering as God's punishments to them for the sins of our society, in general. They have concluded that in order to be saved, they have to reform us. CR has not given these "people of faith" any reason to think their "social contract" and its "religious freedom" isn't just a license to sin and the toleration of evil. She's given them no reason to maintain their commitment to the "social contract."
I can understand how difficult it is to make an argument in support of a "social contract" when it is attacked by the "religiously correct" who claim that such an agreement is immoral. Their argument says the modern state, as it's based on "social contract" theory, is also immoral. Libertarians attack the "social contract." They seem to think people would be much better off without it. Government created by such a contract, on their view, inevitably steals from and enslaves those who enter into such agreements. Some Libertarians, it seems, believe people have innate moral and epistemological wherewith-all to get along fine without the state. It would be a good question whether Libertarians could offer any better response than CR to the claim coming from the "religiously correct" that without God, morality is impossible.
Though the "social contract" may be the traditional alternative to "religious correctness," it is not my response. We should reject both alternatives because both agree to a common assumption about how we should understand knowledge and values. Both the "politically correct" and the "religiously correct" have only a hairsbreadth philosophical difference.
They both agree to Socrates's account of knowledge and values. That account claims knowledge and values, a.k.a., morality, are a matter of logical argument. The point of my argument here is to show that there is an argument that goes from this Socratic claim to the debate CR had about the merits of "political" and "religious" correctness.
I want to say a little about Socrates's claim. Logic has been given a free ride in philosophy. It's been thought of as a trouble free account of reason with which we can begin to understand all other philosophical issues like knowledge and values. One thinks of logical argument in terms of inference, such as: "If p, then q. P, therefore q." I have wanted to question this story about logic, and whether one can really understand knowledge or values as being a matter of these kinds of arguments. I reject the claim that logical argument is reason. I reject this account, not because I have anything against reason or argument, but that logical argument is only an attenuated or mischaracterized form of argument. Despite this inherent inadequacy, our commitment to it has catastrophic implications.
Socrates's account implies knowledge and values are impossible. The terms of logical arguments are meaningless, when compared to words, and are thus manipulable by the powerful. Arguments that would otherwise be effective to obtain knowledge and values, are futile. And life, in a world so described, is not worth living.
Hence, one's commitment to Socrates's account of knowledge and values as a matter of logic establishes skepticism, nihilism, and relativism.
People are still confronted with their lives, despite what philosophers say. They rely on philosophical arguments to provide ways of thinking and making decisions about their lives and the lives in a risky world.
One might suppose there wouldn't be much more to say, once one has gotten people to hold a position that makes knowledge and values impossible, argument futile, and life so understood not worth living. Yet, one must understand that Socrates gets us to adopt such a position for a reason.
The reason is his underlying thought that the purpose, point, and meaning of life is to survive, and the point of accumulating wealth and power is to assure those who have it they will be more assured of survival than those who don't.
The further thought of the powerful is that swords are more powerful than words. The point of power is to be able to employ more force to get done what it takes to survive. Socrates's efforts to seduce us into adopting his account of knowledge and values is to destroy words and the arguments made with words as the strength and refuge of the weak. Without words, the weak have nothing in the face of overwhelming force. They cannot dissent. They cannot critique.
The account of Socrates here suggested has many virtues. It provides an explanation of how the "politically correct" and the "religiously correct" participate in such a vicious and seemingly endless argument. The reason is they both are responses to the obvious complaint that Socrates's basic position cannot be true. It cannot be true, so his audience should say, because it makes our lives pointless and impossible, whereas we do have lives involving knowledge and values, have purposes, and much worth defending.
The responses given by the philosophers to this complaint are either that Socrates is right, and that it only seems like you have such lives, or Socrates is right, and the lives you have are the result, not of agreements and negotiations, but "social contracts" that are the working out of power. That is, you have the lives you lead because you have been manipulated, forced, threatened, lied to, or otherwise made to suffer if you thought to do anything else.
It is as a response to our disastrous commitment to Socrates that Plato develops the "allegory of the cave" and Aristotle the "social contract" argument.
Aristotle argues that since knowledge and values cannot come from everyone insisting on their own arguments, everyone has to agree to disagree. No one has a knock down argument to establish what they take to be knowledge and values. The reason this "relativity" is true has to do with the fact that logical arguments, as opposed to rhetorical arguments, are not about controversies. They cannot, therefore, be compared. You can not take a logical argument that goes to establish that one is sitting writing and compare it with another argument that establishes that one is dreaming one is sitting writing. The question of which is true can never be resolved. One cannot compare arguments, and so, in order to survive, on this view, people must agree to put aside their arguments and develop laws, to replace their own moral codes, and governmental institutions as the way of resolving conflicts and providing for the general welfare.
In response to the Platonic argument that survival, conflict resolution, and the avoidance of suffering, are granted from outside the cave in which we live, Aristotle argues decisions about what we do or reason in our lives come from experience of this world, not through testimony from some other world about another time and place. His insistence that evidence or support for our logical arguments originates in sense experience is meant to respond to the Platonic account that it all originates from beyond.
Plato, on the other hand, argues that nothing experienced of this world can or should be counted on as true, because it's all illusion. Socrates is right about that. Claims about knowledge and values based on arguments of this world cannot be anything but baseless opinions and belief. The only source for knowledge or values is experience of what's real outside these lives of illusions. Plato tells us to look to the Forms, but also he talks about the character who comes from the world of the Forms to tell us their truths. I call this figure the Socratic Hero.
According to the "religiously correct," we have been given testimony about what's true, and can thus, develop knowledge and values. This testimony is about the realities of our lives but not about the illusions of our sense experience. All this testimony comes from Jesus, their Socratic Hero. On their view, if we want to survive, to avoid suffering, or resolve conflicts, we must do exactly as Jesus commands.
This is where we can start talking about choosing between "political correctness" and "Religious correctness." As Socratics, do we want to go with Aristotle or with Plato?
What am I saying is the basis for "religious correctness?"
Well, actually, the religious don't care so much about knowledge and values, or at least, their positions on abortion, homosexuality, and so on, are not based on knowledge and values. Instead, on their view, whatever we think or do to survive should be whatever pleases the Gods. Survival, then, requires an awareness and understanding of what Jesus said we should be doing or thinking.
And then, what is the basis for "political correctness?"
The advocates of "political correctness" also admit their recommendations are not based on knowledge or values. Our agreements or laws about whether drinking, dancing, smoking, having sex, or swearing, are allowed , supported, or opposed, are not based on knowledge or values. CR did not argue the merits of the "religiously correct's" concerns about these things. CR instead insisted that they should rightly be regulated by laws. You can have moral positions or absolute values, but for the sake of "religious freedom" and unity, one must put all that moral thinking aside.
The basis of law for CR is not the moral codes or absolute values that any number of people might hold. She was upset that any group would take advantage of their momentary positions of influence in government to push their own religious views. CR resisted such a "power grab" because, as she argued, we are a pluralistic society and have agreed to this "social contract."
CR assumes there are no arguments or "objective interpretations" to establish one moral code or absolute value over all others. She doesn't provide an argument for this. The assumption is made, I'm saying, because it is an implication of thinking of morality as a matter of logical arguments.
What is the strength of the argument for the "religiously correct?"
The religious assume their position provides them with answers to both moral and epistemological questions that their opponents, who do not apparently listen to God, do not have. This disconnect between the secular and God renders all secular arguments, from the point of view of the religious, absolutely worthless.
Relying on the Allegory of the Cave, where the cave dwellers experience nothing but shadows and echoes, and are contrasted with the Socratic Hero, who has had experience of reality, the religious have a way of reconciling commitment to the Socratic position with the understanding that people claim to have lives involving knowledge and values. The Platonic argument is that Socrates is correct about knowledge and values because we only seem to have lives.
The great innovation by Plato was to excuse the lie Socrates makes about knowledge and values by making people discount their own objections to it. People are lead to think it's OK to give up knowledge, values, argument, and so on, because in return they'd get life after death and the promised intervention in this life of a powerful Socratic Hero.
Unfortunately, the Socratic argument is like what the salesman said to Jack to get him to exchange his family cow for magic beans. There's more in it for the salesman than for Jack. You can understand Jack giving away the cow. He was told they were magic, after all. But, it still was a mistake that none of us should emulate.
The problem with Jack's exchange, and with our adopting Socrates's claim about knowledge and values, is they both put us in great danger of suffering .
What would be the strength of the argument for "political correctness?"
The "political" think the strength of their position comes from the fact that religious wars, over whether one is sufficiently subservient to the right God, are so terrible. They assume reasonable people would rather negotiate and work together than open themselves up to violence.
One problem is that people can become ignorant of or immune to the suffering caused by religious conflict. They may come to think that a little bit of conflict in the service of religious or moral reform can be no vice. They do not consider that there may be no easy way to reign in the conflict once it would begin. Tit for tat, and all.
The strongest points on behalf of the political solutions to moral and epistemological questions, however, may be thought to come from the argument that solutions to conflicts must come from assessments made and values derived from this world, the one we live in, not from another world where we get strange authoritarian commands from an unspecified place and time.
One may argue that whether or not one pushes for a political solution to conflict, based on a "social contract," or a religious solution, based on accepting some account of the "allegory of the cave," the decisions are based on people's concerns and values given the facts at their disposal. However they choose, their choices have nothing to do with having any commitments to philosophical theories. A discussion of Socrates and his arguments of thousands of years ago have no relevance to us now.
However, I'm afraid the philosophical claims made in the past have "framed," so to speak, how we think of things in the present. The point I want to make about the "politically correct" and the "religiously correct" is that they assume that the morality, as well as epistemology, of the common person involves arguments that do not lead to "objective interpretations." In order to survive or resolve conflicts, one must either agree to disagree and then "live-and-let-live," as with the "social contract" theory, or contrast the data of the common person with data one gets of reality, and go with a Socratic Hero who has had access to such truths and values. The other point I make is that the idea arguments lead to no "objective interpretations" follows from committing oneself to the Socratic claim that it's all about logic.
Isn't your view that both political and religious correctness are corrupt?
They are both corrupt because both demonstrate a commitment to a view having a reasonable alternative, that can be rejected, that is based on a lie about reason, and that has catastrophic implications. Salvation has been assumed to be something we can hope for despite our commitments to logic. So, I've said the Teacher of Righteousness would have argued one shouldn't expect to be saved from one's self-centeredness. One should just not be selfish in the first place.
Both the "social contract" and "allegory of the cave" arguments suffer from, what I call, the "good cop/ bad cop scenario."
In both cases we are asked to believe we are like suspects dragged in by two cops for questioning. The "bad" cop tells us he's going to get us to tell him what he wants to know, or submit to what he commands, or he'll beat it out of us. We may resist, so he does make us suffer. The other cop pulls this "bad" one off us, saying he'll try to protect us, if only we instead submit to him. In this scenario, of course, the cops work together on us. The fact that we call the "kindly" cop "good" is only because he promises to keep us from being injured by the "bad" more muscular cop.
The problem here is well argued by the writer of Job. It is unfortunate but true that the "good" cop is "good" only because he keeps us from being injured by the "bad" cop. We can always suspect that the "good" cop, himself, may be corrupt in allowing the "bad" cop to threaten and injure their suspects. If there was any goodness between either of the two cops, then they would not resort to using force on us to get our obedience or acquiescence.
The writer of Job suggests that a God conceived as going along with Socrates and allowing that his goodness comes by saving us from suffering, suffering he is in a position to have allowed, cannot be good in the sense we want him to be. We have no reason to praise a God that manipulates us in this way. In the same way, we need not praise people who resolve conflicts by force, all of whom refuse to negotiate or consider an opposing point of view.
Whether it's God or the compact, their knowledge and values cannot be any more than what we see in these "good" or "bad" cops.
What's at stake in this argument between the "politically" and "religiously correct?"
The problem with both these views has to do with what either of them do with outsiders. The people who promote the "social contract" pretend their arrangement will solve problems, but can only be a solution for those people who participate in that contract. Those who come up with a different contract are suspected of evil. ...So, the French, commies, or Muslims are our enemies. And so forth. People who agree to promote "social contract"theory are left with the question how to assess the arguments that don't get incorporated into the contract. The United States tends to think outsiders are evil who need to be taught lessons.
The "Religiously Correct" have the same problem. The Socratic Hero tells folks in this cave what their lives are really about, and they may believe him, yet we can easily ask, in terms of the metaphor, what one should think about the folks who live in other caves, or on other planets. Do we want to say that this Socratic Hero is just right for this cave, but not appropriate for that one? And like we go to war with those who don't obey our Socratic Hero here in this cave, would we also go to war with the followers of another Socratic Hero in another cave?
The possibility of different contracts and different caves suggests that even if we agreed to follow along with the one contract, or the one Socratic Hero, in this cave, other contracts and caves show we are still all deprived of knowledge, values, and arguments, still relativists, and still at constant war.
What do you recommend?
Don't trade the family cow for magic beans like Socrates asks you to. Don't expect to get saved from your being selfish when you should not be selfish in the first place.
Give up thinking that "Social Contracts" or "Socratic Heroes" are going to save you from suffering, assure your survival, or resolve the conflicts you'll face.
My line about Socrates is that if you live by the philosopher, you die by the philosopher. So, you should be careful which one you choose.
I might give the impression that I am recommending one do nothing in the face of the powerful, that all is hopeless. I take it the proponents of either the "social contract" theory or the "allegory of the cave" tried to provide some plan that evaded the use of force. The weak should never expect to win on a battlefield that the powerful control. Instead, I say that there is a lot to do in pointing out how the powerful have an indefensible argument. We must make the case that those who rely on violence, stealth, and deceit are ultimately a danger to themselves and others.