Taking Words Seriously

Jonathan Derbyshire has an interesting post that’s relevant to that last post, and to many of the posts lately.

“Is religious identity special?” This is a question Amy Gutman poses in her excellent new-ish book, Identity in Democracy. And of course it’s a question many people have been asking themselves recently…As far as specifically religious identity groups are concerned, Gutman’s view is that they should not be treated with special consideration. However, and this is very important, she takes seriously, as some liberals do not, the reasons why it is argued that religion should be given such consideration. The best argument for according religion special consideration in democracies, in Gutman’s view and mine, is that the “ultimate ethical commitments of individuals -which may be religious or secular in their source- are an especially valued and valuable part of individual identity”. But, she goes on, a “degree of deference does not mean that conscience [another name for those ultimate ethical commitments, JD] trumps legitimate laws”. Moreover, conscience is special but religious identity is not, because religious identity is not the “only source of binding ethical commitment”.

Hmm. “ultimate ethical commitments of individuals -which may be religious or secular in their source- are an especially valued and valuable part of individual identity”. Yes…but then, since ultimate ethical commitments may be religious or secular in their source, I’m not sure why that is a good argument for according religion special consideration in democracies. Since (as pretty much everyone seems to agree, at least I have yet to see anyone disagree) it doesn’t apply to secular sources of ultimate ethical commitments. So aren’t we still left with the same problem, the same asymmetry? Why treat one source of ultimate ethical commitments with special consideration and not treat others the same way? Am I failing to take the reasons seriously in asking that question? I don’t think so. I think I do take them seriously (if only because I’m afraid of them). I just fail to understand them entirely – because of the asymmetry. There are other sources of commitment, other systems of belief, other cherished illusions, other sources of consolation – but they don’t get the kind of consideration that religion does.

And then there’s also the problem that we’ve noticed before: some people’s ultimate ethical commitments are inimical to other people’s ultimate ethical commitments, or sense of identity, or well-being, or freedom, or tenure of life, or all those and more. The BNP has ultimate ethical commitments. So, very much, does the Taliban and its offshoots in Bangladesh and elsewhere. So ultimate ethical commitments and valuable parts of individual identity seem to me to be somewhat slippery terms. Maybe I’m just being dense…but the Mafia has those, gangbangers have those, all sorts of people and groups and parties have those. The people in Bosnia and Kosovo and Rwanda thought they were doing the right thing, most of them – and for reasons that had a lot to do with identity. I tend to think people should be somewhat less concerned with their own identities and ultimate ethical commitments and consciences and a little more concerned with their effects on other people – a little more consequentialist in their thinking, I guess is what I mean. I could be dead wrong, but I have a lurking suspicion that there’s something irreducibly selfish and self-concerned and self-aggrandizing in all this identity-hugging. Yeah yeah, one wants to say, never mind your conscience and your ultimate ethical commitments, just stop whipping that woman and mind your own business.

Is that what I’m saying? Maybe. That ultimate ethical commitments and conscience and identity sound nice, but too often they’re just disguises and pretexts for pushing other people around. Words and phrases that sound nice have a tendency that way, sometimes. That’s one reason the 18th century was so down on enthusiasm, why Kant hated Schwärmerei. People can inflate themselves with high-sounding rhetoric (see Falstaff on ‘honour’) and then go out and punish everyone they consider less moral or pure or enthusiastic than they are.

2 Responses to “Taking Words Seriously”