Delicate Regard

This is a brief but interesting interview with Richard Dawkins. (My colleague did a longer and of course much more thrilling one which is included in What Philosophers Think.) For one thing, he talks about a subject we too are interested in, as you may possibly have noticed. He answers the very odd question ‘Another of your pet peeves is Post-Modernist scholarship, and you satirize a few writers from this school in your book, A Devil’s Chaplain. Isn’t your problem with these academics simply that they are poor writers?’

I don’t think they are poor [writers] at all. They are dominant alpha males in the academic jungle and, in some cases, are ruining the careers of honest scholars who would make an honest contribution.

To be fair, or do I mean strictly accurate, a lot of ‘Post-modernist’ writers are very bad writers indeed – but they are not necessarily the ones Dawkins has in mind, and others are indeed good writers but crappy thinkers. All rhetoric and no thought. You can find traces of such ‘scholarship’ in various corners of B&W.

But even more, I like his reply to a question about his ‘polemic voice’ –

I do it because I feel strongly about things … especially about double standards, hypocrisy, failure to think clearly…I am very hostile to religion because it is enormously dominant, especially in American life. And I don’t buy the argument that, well, it’s harmless. I think it is harmful, partly because I care passionately about what’s true.

Well, same here. No doubt that’s one reason Dawkins is one of my favourite writers. The double standards problem is one we’ve been noticing a lot lately. I was a bit shocked to find a glaring example of double standards – of explicit, declared double standards, which is to say a declaration of ‘special’ status, of need for special protection, on the part of religion – in Martha Nussbaum’s new book (Hiding from Humanity). I shouldn’t have been shocked, because I’ve read such an argument from her before, in her reply to Susan Moller Okin’s ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ – and I think I did a N&C on my shock at the time. But I was shocked anyway, even though I shouldn’t have been. Nussbaum admires John Stuart Mill, and bases much of her argument in this book on On Liberty – but she also takes him to task for not being ‘respectful’ enough of citizens’ comprehensive doctrines:

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…In On Liberty he does not hesitate to speak contemptuously of Calvinism as an ‘insidious’ doctrine…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

I hate to say it, because I admire much in Nussbaum, but I find that idea truly staggering. I did read and re-read, and go back and forth between the various places where she discusses all this, to try to clarify whether she is talking about laws and the state, or about writing and public discourse. Some of the time she is talking about the former, but not all of it. She really is – as far as I can tell – saying that Mill should not have written what he did about Calvinism, and that no one should say such things ‘in the public sphere at least.’ That ‘such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.’ So people ought (in order to be decently respectful) to ‘adopt’ a public conception of truth that will not contradict religious claims. People ought to choose their ‘conceptions’ of truth on the basis of whether they are respectful enough of the sensitivities of other people as opposed to – well, you know, whether they in fact think they get at the truth or not. That’s a pretty good description of just exactly what B&W was set up to oppose: deciding what is true on the basis of extraneous factors like ideology or whose feelings might be hurt, rather than on the basis of one’s best understanding of the evidence and logic of the matter.

So in short that is a very forthright statement of exactly the idea I’ve been puzzling over for a few months now: the idea that religion ought to have some sort of special, protected status that no other kind of human thinking gets to have. But what it doesn’t do is say why. Why religion should be immune from challenge when socialism and capitalism, for example, are not. Why religion should not simply accept public discussion and disagreement and argument on the same terms as any other set of human ideas. For the sake of ‘respect,’ yes, she does say that, but she doesn’t explain why that should apply to some kinds of ideas and not others. Because religion is consoling? But so are other ideas and beliefs that are not protected, so that’s not it.

But for my part, I have to agree with Dawkins. I don’t think double standards and ‘special’ protection and delicate regard and ‘not showing up the claims of religion as damaging’ (especially not that!) are a good idea at all.

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