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.