Thrasymachus and the Baptist ethicist

Ronald Aronson answers Baptist Center for Ethics Executive Director Robert Parham who wrote an essay criticizing ‘the new atheists.’ He first addresses the fact that some atheists are blunter than believers have become used to expecting (and that irritation with this is at least understandable).

Why are these so harsh? Above all, each sees himself as breaking a taboo: Thou shalt not criticize religion…I for one am grateful for the space for discussion these writers, along with Dennett (certainly no angry professor) have opened up, and forgive them for not being calmer and more measured.

Same here. I think we badly need the space – and that the taboo in many (or perhaps most) circles, at least in the US, remains unbroken. It’s certainly well and truly unbroken when it comes to politics.

My primary concern is to develop a coherent contemporary secular philosophy, one which answers life’s essential questions for those of us who live without God…I oppose claims of absolute knowledge, and I also oppose those who would see fit to impose their claims on others…Dr. Parham and I are potential allies in opposing those who assume that their values, norms and practices apply to everyone.

I agree with that, especially with what I take to be the spirit of it, but…only up to a point. What point? The point where some claims, some values and norms and practices, have to be imposed on others, have to apply to everyone. The point where the law comes into it, or the point where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various international agreements based on it are in effect. I’m quite sure that’s what Aronson means, but what I don’t know is what language we can use to disavow dogmatism and authority on the one hand while insisting on human rights and secular law on the other. I suppose I’m just saying that disavowals of assumptions that some values, norms and practices apply to everyone have to be made with great care, in order not to say more than we mean. I do assume that ‘my’ value and norm and practice that women should not be subordinated applies (or should apply) to everyone.

Adam Kirsch on Raymond Geuss raises the same issues.

[Geuss’s] attacks on the Bush administration and the war on Iraq, and his loathing of the bourgeois complacency of Rawls and Nozick, all suggest that he has his own conception of justice, which involves solidarity with the oppressed and resistance to the powerful…But it’s hard to see how, on his own showing, any critique of existing power arrangements could have any intellectual or moral coherence. The world of Thrasymachus is a war of all against all, in which the powerful will always win. If Geuss does not want to inhabit such a world—and who does?—he should acknowledge that the inquiry into the nature of justice, which has occupied philosophers from Socrates to Rawls, is not an ideological trick, but the necessary beginning of all attempts to make the world more just.

That’s the problem, isn’t it. If we can’t get agreement or at least consensus, then we’re stuck with power, and being stuck with power is no good, because we can never be sure that Thrasymachus won’t be the most powerful. (Hitler came horribly close to winning the war, at the beginning. Suck on that thought for awhile.) Yet we can’t help knowing that consensus is very hard – and in some cases probably impossible – to get. It’s the only hope, but it’s such a faint one. But, keep trying.

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