Innocent times

Simon Blackburn makes an interesting point (several actually, but this one in particular got my attention) in discussing Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture.

Relativism can certainly go along with complacency, and I think it is fair to say that even philosophers more serious than Rorty were tainted by that…[C]onsider in this connection also “political liberalism,” the heading under which John Rawls could imagine the peoples of the world willingly leaving their ideological and cultural differences at the door and coming into the political arena carrying only that which they hold in common. What they had in common turned out to be a birthright of reason sufficient all by itself to enchant them with a nice liberal democratic constitution, amazingly like that of the United States, or perhaps western Europe. Conflict could be talked through and violence abated. When the philosophers explained the right way to live, everyone would fall happily into line. Innocent times.

Precisely. This was my complaint about Martha Nussbaum last April when she said to Bill Moyers in an interview –

[W]hat our whole history has shown is…that people can get along together and respect one another, even though they have differences about religion, because they can recognize a common moral ground to stand on. They can recognize values like honesty, social justice, and so on.

And I said that’s too easy, and why I thought so, and Nussbaum replied (to Moyers, but I pretended she was replying to me) –

George Washington wrote a letter to the Quakers saying, “I assure you that the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with the greatest delicacy and tenderness.” And what he meant is you’re not going to have to serve in the military. And I respect that. And unless there’s a public emergency, we’re just not going to do that kind of violence to your conscience. So, I think we have understood that lesson.

And I said Not so fast; that’s still too easy, much too easy; that’s a cheat, because that example won’t do because it’s an easy one, and the problems come in not with the easy ones, but the hard ones.

The problem is, the Quaker scruple is much too easy to ‘respect.’ Most people do understand and respect and sympathize with conscientious scruples about killing people, even if they don’t agree with particular instantiations of them. But that is not the case with all religious ‘scruples’, to put it mildly.

I take that to be exactly what Simon Blackburn has in mind there. Innocent times, indeed.

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