With All Due Respect

So, a couple of days ago, turning over and over in my mind this much-vexed subject of belief and respect and faith and religion and whether we are or are not allowed (‘allowed’ in the broadest sense, not the most literal one) to criticise them – I re-read an essay of Martha Nussbaum’s that has puzzled me in the past, and behold, it puzzled me all over again.

The essay is packed full of statements that puzzle me – the margins are riddled with question marks. I’ll give just a sample.

Even if one were convinced…that all religion is superstition, and that a comprehensive secular view of the good is correct, we do not show sufficient respect for our fellow citizens when we fail to acknowledge that they reasonably see the good differently…So it is hard to see how we can respect the bearers of such convictions and yet not respect the choices they make to lead traditional religious lives.

We do not show sufficient respect for our fellow citizens when we fail to acknowledge that they reasonably see the good differently? So – we have to acknowledge – in advance, without questioning in particular – that our fellow citizens reasonably see the good differently, in order to show them sufficient respect? That’s an odd idea.

By calling them [comprehensive doctrines about the good – OB] reasonable, the political liberal shows respect for them and commits herself to a political course that is as protective of them as it is possible to be, compatibly with a just political structure.

Well, yes, no doubt. By calling everything that anyone thinks or says ‘reasonable’ one does show respect – but at the price of calling everything that anyone thinks or says ‘reasonable’. The trouble with that idea is that not everything that anyone thinks or says is in fact reasonable. I’ve noticed that on more than one occasion.

Political liberalism [in contrast to comprehensive liberalism; this is a distinction from Rawls – OB], the type of liberalism I would defend, seems to me far more able…to accomodate the very great value of citizens’ religious freedom…by calling the conceptions ‘reasonable,’ it gestures toward the many contributions religions have made, and continue to make, to the goodness of human life.

But why would one want to gesture toward those instead of toward the opposite? Why would one want to gesture toward the contributions rather than toward the diminutions and deprivations, the subtractions and denials, the removals and excisions, the narrowing and stifling and stunting, the frightening and bullying, the dominating and tyrannizing? And then, another question, why would one want to perform such gesturing by calling the conceptions ‘reasonable’ when one in fact thinks they are the very opposite of reasonable? Why should one decide ahead of time, as a matter of principle, to call any conceptions ‘reasonable’? Why doesn’t one rather wait until one has learned what the conceptions are, and thought about them? Why doesn’t one then call them reasonable if they are reasonable and unreasonable if they are not? Why does Nussbaum think we should put the need to ‘respect’ our fellow citizens (and it’s highly debatable whether such an approach even does respect people, but that’s a separate question, which I want to pick at later) ahead of our need to evaluate conceptions on their merits?

I’ve talked about this before. I don’t understand it now any better than I did in June 2004. So I was pleased to note how Barbara Forrest’s contribution to the Kitzmiller comments starts:

One of the greatest gestures of respect for one’s fellow Americans is to tell them the truth. To do otherwise is the height of disrespect.

Well exactly. Surely ‘respecting’ people by firmly deciding in advance to assume that their conceptions are, sight unseen, reasonable, is – no respect at all. It’s just a caucus race, it’s just Lake Wobegon. All have won, all shall have prizes, all conceptions are above average. With respect like that who needs contempt?

17 Responses to “With All Due Respect”