On the Absence of Dogmatism

12 March 2005

During our episode on Religion and the Secular State  Robert Audi claimed that some religions are non-dogmatic  He might be right about that,  I am not sure which ones he had in mind.   On the other hand,  John was pushing the line that many of our "secular" beliefs have pretty much the status and function of dogmatic religious beliefs. At least for some people, he might be right about that. I recall that   at  least one caller agreed with John's remark.  I still insist that if we are to have a shared public life that reflects what  John Rawls calls "reasonable pluralism"  citizens must pursue public debate with an absence of dogmatism.    

Within reasonable pluralism we can follow Rawls and include   "all the reasonable opposing religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines likely to persist over generations and to gain a sizable body of adherents in a more or less just constitutional regime."    Rawls thought that there could be a  convergence among the adherents of  all such  reasonable,  but opposiing "comprehensive"  moral doctrines,  He thought that the adherents of such opposing views could nonetheless agree on  certain basic pricinciples of justifice.  principles, he claimed, that are enshrined  in the fundamental ideas of a democratic society and  that all reasonable citizens may  share, despite their differences in fundamental moral outlook.   This is what he called the overlapping consensus.

I share Rawls's optimism that it is possible for plural and conflicting comprehensive moral views to converge on something like an  overlapping consensus.   But I think a condition for the possibility of such convergence is an absence of dogmatism.  And I think achieving an absence of dogmatism is very hard.   About that I am in fact deeply pessimistic.   Indeed,  I think that given persistent and thoroughgoing dogmatism,  divergence and fragmentation may be more likely than convergence.

What do I mean by an absence of dogmatism?  And why do I thinks its a condition of the very possibility of achieving anything like an overlapping consensus.   It goes back to what I called in a previous post  totalizing nature of various moral outlooks.  By that I mean not just that they provide comprehensive moral assessments of a wide variety of things, but also that they generate felt entitlements to hold others to the strictures of the relevant moral outlook, whether or not those others endorse the relevant moral outlook.   This last part is the key. 

Suppose that I have a moral outlook that condemns slavery as wrong.  And suppose that you have a moral outlook that permits you to own slaves.  What am I to do when faced with your slave holding practices, practices that I abhor.   There are at least three options.   I could try to persuade you out of them.  I could try to force you out of them.  Or I could simply tolerate our differences.   Which options am I entitled to take?   One can imagine my endorsing a moral doctrine that entails an absolute prohibition on slavery -- not just for myself or adherents to that doctrine, but for everybody.   And one can imagine that doctrine generating in me a felt entitlement to hold the world to that doctrine, even those who do not accept that doctrine.   If I accepted such a doctrine,   I might feel entitled not just to try to persuade or to tolerate your slaveholding, but to force you out of your slaveholding.  Now suppose your slave-holding morality generated in you a felt entitlement to hold the world to a norm of permitting slave-holding.   You might feel thereby entitled to resist my attempts to change your practices with force or coercion of your own.

One quick caveat.  You might think that anybody who endorses a slave-holding doctrine is in some sense unreasoable, so not part of a Rawlsian reasoable pluralism.   There is something to be said for that approach.  But I think it's very tricky to make it work in the end.  Whatever else slaveholders have been throughout history,  I doubt much of a case can be made that they were any more or less deficient in rationality than the rest of us.   

I think that the committed slave-holder and the committed abolitionist might never reach moral consensus.  Nor do I think their failure to do so would require a failure of rationality on either of their parts.  Rational consensus and rational emnity are, I think, equally open to rational beings as real possibilities.   Because of that fact, moral struggle among even highly rational beings seems to me  as likely to end in discord, fragmentation, and/or the domination of one party by the other as in an overlapping consensus of the Rawlsian variety.  This is what makes the achievment of overlapping consensus deeply subject to historical and cultural contingencies, on my view.

There is a way  out,  I think, but it requires what I call an absence of dogmatism.  By that I mean that within certain limits,  we should not view ourselves as entitled to hold another to a moral principle that she would not herself endorse  (upon certain ideal conditions that I won't bother with here).  It should be clear that the absence of dogmatism is not rationally mandatory and not a directive of reason itself.  That's why I flag it as a separate and additional principle. I also think that there are lots of exceptions to it.  Moreover, the principle as I just stated it is much too crude and  needs lots of refinements.  But never mind about those just now.

The significance of the principle is that in accepting it, I represent to myself that I am not entitled  to hold another even to my deepest moral commitments unless that other in effect herself entitles me to do so.   By accepting some such constraint on my relations with others,  I view even my deepest moral commitments as commitments, in the first instance, for me alone.   That is not to say that they must remain commitments for me alone and that I can't propose them as commitments for us all.   But if I am to achieve moral community with those with whom I start out in deep disagreement,  I have to be open to revising my moral commitments in such a way that we together can reach a set of mutually binding agreements about the conduct of our shared lives.    I have to allow others as much say in the constitution of that order as I demand for myself.   And of course, the other has to do the same for me.

All this was meant as a response to John and a bit to Robert.   John says that many secular beliefs have the character of dogmatic religious beliefs.  But if that is so,  then I agree that secularism is not better than dogmatic religion as a basis for a shared life among plural and conflicted moral views.   If  Robert is right that some religions are non-dogmatic and if he meant by that that  they are held as provisionally binding, subject to moral debate, answerable to the canons of collective rationality, well then such religions can have a place in our attempt to constitute a life together.

Comments (4)


Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 14, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

I don't think that secular dogmatism in the servic

I don't think that secular dogmatism in the service of what is morally right (such as the abolition of slavery) is problematic. I do think that religious dogmatism in the service of any political purpose is morally unacceptable, unless the principles that form the basis of the relevant religious outlook are derivable from secular principles. There are those who believe that God's existence can be established on rational grounds (e.g., they accept the ontological argument). If they want to make the argument, and then bring religious considerations to bear on political questions, fine. But most religious folks don't believe that God's existence can be established on rational grounds. As I see it, these people should not bring religious considerations to bear on political questions. In a society, which is a system of cooperation for mutual advantage, they have no business imposing (or attempting to impose) on others the results of a religious framework that can only be accepted on faith. Anyway, I'm more worried about irrationality than I am about dogmatism. (Without dogmatism, we wouldn't have a Bill of Rights.) For more on this, check out my "Religious Arguments and the Duty of Civility", Public Affairs Quarterly 15 (2001): 133-54.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, March 15, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Sam: In one way, I agree and in another I disa

Sam:
In one way, I agree and in another I disagree. Here's where I agree. I don't think dogmatism is intrinsically problematic at all. I think our own deepest commitments often do in fact entitle us to hold others to certain norms, whether or not they are themselves committed to those norms themselves. I think where we are entitled we can sometimes use coercion. My point wasn't that it is never permissible to hold another to a norm that they would not endorse and to which they are not bound. (This last part has to do with the fact that I think that we are BOUND only to those norms that we ourselves would endorse upon what I call culminated competent reflection.)
My point was that if we think of ourselves as engaged in the project of trying to achieve moral community with others, with whom we do not yet stand in moral community, then there is a kind of practical requirement to abandon dogmatism. That requirement certainly isn't a requirement of reason itself. And there are some people with whom we are so at odds that we probably cannot achieve moral community with them. So with them there is no pressure to abandon dogmatism.
By moral community, by the way, I mean having a system of norms that we "mutually endorse," that we regard as mutually binding, and that generate a system of reciprocal obligations and commitments.
My point is really about the instrumental value of the absence of dogmatism for the project of constituting moral community. In that regard, I don't see that difference between secular and religious dogmatism.
Also, though I agree with you in distinguishing dogmatically held beliefs from irrationally held beliefs, I do think the two are related in the following way. To commit to a norm "dogmatically" is to commit to it, as it were, on behalf of all rational beings, but without regarding it as subject to "ratification" by the rational others on behalf of whom you purport to commit to that norm.
If I am another rational being who does not not share your commitment, your attempt to "hold" me to what you have committed to as it were "on my behalf" certainly has the feel of an unquestionable article of faith.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, March 15, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

I sometimes wish this issue weren't so relevant (e

I sometimes wish this issue weren't so relevant (especially with folks like Cokie and Steve Roberts writing Op-Ed pieces urging pro-choice dems to make concessions to pro-lifers for the good of the party ... I think there's a difference between a political view that wants to preserve rights, including the right not to have an abortion, and one that wants to restrict them for everyone, so it's hard for me to understand this as a real compromise...)
Anyway, I've come to believe that the crucial ingredient in achieving moral community is probably a commitment to treat others as rational beings who we ought to engage by reasoned dialogue (including listening to them) and persuasion, rather than trying to cram the commitments we endorse down their throats just because we know these moral commitments are good for them. It seems to me that we can't have anything like a community if there is not some sort of shared commitment, and that we can't have a moral community unless our first dogma is that we recognize each other as moral agents. My (perhaps naive) hope is that a commitment to this dogma would substantially de-fang most of the other dogmas that seem to complicate the project of playing well with each other.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

I have come to think, humbly, that the notion comm

I have come to think, humbly, that the notion communal morality boils down to the old biblical an eye for an eye. The grammar of morality pressuposes authorial intention the expressive genius of which is written in the phenomenological bracket of power to inflict violence.

 

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