"no harm, no foul"
Thursday, May 26, 2005
TWO FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES: A couple items that struck me reading today’s New York Times.

First, there’s an op-ed on Bush’s stem cell theology. The piece begins and ends with the claim that Bush is imposing his morality on a “society with pluralistic views,” which is wrong, even though (as the opening paragraph concludes) his “convictions deserve respect.” The problem is that the rest of the editorial goes on to bash those convictions, calling them “extreme.” So I think the kind of posturing the editorial does gives respect a bad name: it makes it appear as if there’s some meta value that’s really being appealed to, when what’s in fact going on is a first order disagreement about what we should do. That is, the argument isn’t about, “who’s imposing his moral beliefs on whom?” but “whose moral beliefs are the right ones?” It’s not as if the New York Times had its way, it wouldn’t also be imposing its moral beliefs. If the reply is that it wouldn’t be imposing its beliefs on a majority of people, but only a religious minority, the counter reply is, 1) how do we know who’s in the majority? and 2) if it’s OK to impose on a minority, then wasn’t the appeal to pluralism just a mask for majoritarianism?

The Times’ editorial is just one example of a risk in political philosophy from going from plain talk to talk about talk. Recent philosophical debates about political liberalism have been phrased in terms of unreasonableness, mutual respect, and pluralism. But it’s not clear at all what these terms mean, because they are second-order terms. One isn’t reasonable, doesn’t show respect, isn’t sensitive to pluralism not because of the content of one’s beliefs, but because of their form – in this case, because Bush is “imposing his moral beliefs,” his position isn’t a viable one in a liberal democracy. Is the substantive debate advanced by this? Not that I can tell. And isn’t the substantive debate in the end all that really matters? (In fact, I don’t think it’s all that really matters, but the key point is to have an explanation of why not.)

Second, Brooks’ editorial discusses an alliance the left and the religious right might form against poverty. Of course, I’m all for such an alliance, but Brooks seems too sanguine about its possibilities. Two deep differences seem to divide left and right on poverty. (a) Left and right disagree about the causes of poverty. The left will point, first, to structural problems, say, the distribution of wealth and resources, shifts in the nature of the economy, recession, etc. The right will tend to emphasize character, e.g., one’s needing to have the right moral values, the right religion, the right work ethic. (b) The right and left will disagree about the proper nature of the response to poverty. The left will emphasize governmental action, the right will emphasize private initiatives, e.g., volunteering, church action. The relationship between the causes and the nature of the response are obvious.

These differences don’t mean that the right and left can’t forge agreement on some issues and some solutions. It’s just that such agreement will fall far short of an alliance. The two conflicting perspectives on what causes poverty and what action will end are too deep.

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