- At last, the new issue of The Philosophers' Magazine is out. It contains, among other delights, my review of Bernard Williams' In the Beginning Was the Deed and an amusing (non-) discussion between Julian Baggini and Robert Pirsig.
- TLS subscribers can now read my review of Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, which has been added to the archive.
Ophelia Benson has a "fit" (her word) about this passage from a piece by Stephen Beer in yesterday's Guardian:
Western liberal democracy owes much to the Christian view that all have equal worth before God, which in our political system reads as democracy and equality before the law; and those ideals have often been applied because of religious faith, not in spite of it.
No it doesn't. Or at least no one knows if it does or not. That's just that confusion of correlation with causation again. The 'Christian' (and not exclusively Christian, and not thoroughly Christian either, given how many exceptions Xianity always managed to find to its supposed 'view' over the years) view that all have equal worth before God, and the idea of democracy and equality, just happened to be around in the same part of the world now and then. That doesn't mean Xianity caused it. And really, is it likely? Has Xianity really been all that egalitarian all this time? Hardly.
I wonder, has Ophelia ever read Locke? Locke, for whom the state of nature into which men are born is a state not only of "perfect freedom" but also of
equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty. (Second Treatise, ch. II)
As Jeremy Waldron makes clear in his remarkable book God, Locke, and Equality, the principle of human equality articulated in the Second Treatise, which he says with good reason is just about the best worked-out "theory of basic equality ... we have in the canon of political philosophy", is an axiom of theology. It is, says Waldron, "the most important truth about God's way with the world in regard to the social and political implications of His creation of the human person". (Nietzsche thought the same, incidentally, which is why he was sceptical of the principle of equality, and of the related notions of pity and compassion.)
Now, of course, the challenge that Locke and Waldron set us is whether secular sense can be made of the principle of equality and of the idea that each human life is inalienably precious. Ophelia and I agree that this is a challenge that can be met. But it is simply ahistorical to deny that our (liberal) conceptions of equality and human dignity have Christian antecedents.
Brian Leiter asks an interesting question about the literature on religious toleration:
I'm wondering ... whether there are ... articles that try to argue why religion in particular should be tolerated, arguments that make claims appealing to distinctive features of religious belief and practices. Or as [Timothy] Macklem frames the question: "What is it that distinguished religious beliefs from other beliefs, so as to make them worthy of distinctive, perhaps superior constitutional protection"?
In other words, he's interested in arguments for tolerating religion qua religion which don't proceed from more general notions of autonomy or human flourishing. I think Leiter is right to say that "while religious toleration is often a paradigm case for discussions of toleration, the arguments for it are not specific to religion". The standard (liberal) case for religious toleration and religious freedom maintains that religious liberty is important for the same reason that individual liberty is important: we promote religious liberty in order that people be free to live autonomously and choose their own values.
I'm not sure, however, that an argument for according religion "superior constitutional protection", as Macklem puts it, would be an argument for toleration. There are lots of arguments out for there for according religion special protection - arguments from the tendency of religion to cultivate civic virtue, for example, which hold that religious beliefs ought to be considered worthy of respect in virtue of their content, rather than, as is the case in the liberal account, insofar as they are taken up freely. But could such arguments plausibly be construed as arguments for tolerating religion qua religion?
Peter Beinart, in a piece about Joseph Lieberman in the New Republic, nicely adumbrates what might be termed the "hawks' dilemma" - the dilemma of liberal hawks, that is. Of course, not all "liberal hawks" (I use that unsatisfactory formulation for convenience's sake) find themselves in the predicament Beinart describes, but I'm sure we'd all at least recognise it:
Behind Lieberman's obsession with national unity is his deep conviction that the United States is at war--not just in Iraq, but around the world. The war on terrorism is his prism for viewing Bush. And it drains away his anger at the president's misdeeds, because they always pale in comparison to those of America's true enemy.
According to Beinart, what Lieberman lacks -and I think the point applies quite widely- is a sense of what Irving Howe called "two-sided politics":
Liberals are engaged in two different struggles--one against illiberalism at home, the other against an even more profound illiberalism abroad. Both must be fought with passion. Neither can be subsumed. Each must be sometimes compromised for the sake of the other. It is that moral tension--more than Bush-hatred, and more than wartime unity--that defines the liberal spirit.