Sunday, September 17, 2006

The One Thing

I will have a go at answering Dave's question about whether I am diminishing myself by being a single-issue voter. It is my self-description, so I have to wear it. But I will redefine what it means to suit my purposes at the moment. When I say I am a single-issue voter, is the single issue really 'abortion', or is it something larger? Remember, the most important thing about a person is their philosophy. Does holding a correct opinion about abortion necessarily indicate that an aspiring politician holds a philosophy that is consistent with my own? No. But, does holding an incorrect opinion about abortion necessarily indicate that an aspiring politician holds a philosophy that is inconsistent with my own? Yes.

I have recently been forcibly reminded of a minor flaw in my character- the extreme contempt with which I regard all arbitrary rules. For this reason I must necessarily believe in the existence of non-arbitrary rules. Are there philosophies that permit abortion and hold that there are non-arbitrary moral rules? Yes. Are these philosophies internally consistent and not inconsistent with our experimental observations of the universe? No. And since internal consistency and harmony with the results of observation are the two other things that I look for in a philosophy, there I must part company with the Sikhs and Dr Ahmadinejad et al. There are of course philosophies that are internally consistent and not contradicted by the universe which would allow abortion: the philosophies of moral relativism.

Which brings me to the Pope's speech at Regensburg. It is really about how a philosophy needs to be internally consistent and not inconsistent with observations of the universe, but that those two things are not enough. He was talking about how faith (that there are absolute rules) must be combined with reason (those rules have to make sense). These are the two things that need to be believed before anything else is possible. Science accepts these two things, without explicitly saying that is what it is doing. They are the assumptions you have to make before you can begin doing science. I don't think the Pope's philosophy is entirely internally consistent or in harmony with experimental evidence, but he is entirely correct to say that is how a philsophy ought to be. The bits of his speech that have caused all the trouble are where he is talking about religious philosophies that reject these as values. But he spent more time discussing the irreligious philosophies that reject the other half of the equation.
Quote number one from the Pope, on what happens when we reject absolute morality:
It is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science" and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

Quote number two from the Pope, on what this rejection means to the relation between the West and Islam:
In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.

Which is sufficient unto the moment.


Dave said...

This is a good answer. I want to pick at and question little bits here and there, not to mention assert an almost completely opposing worldview on my part but at the moment I am way too tired, grumpy and oddly melancholy, and could only do both of us a disservice.

I will leave it for another time. But thanks for taking the trouble, Clam.

Marco said...

I disagree that the pope's choice of quote was at all incidental. I see a subtle and clever provocation of islamists. I believe I know what the actual aims were here, and I think he will succeed. Islamic clerics will fail to condemn violence related to this speech (either because they are afraid or because they take sympathy with the violent elements) while the recent popes have condemned even violence done on behalf of catholic values. This will be an extremely powerful political force working in favour of traditionally catholic countries and against traditionally Islamic ones.

Nato said...

Wow - my brain is spinning from this discussion.

There's three books I've been exposed to that I've found really helpful in charting a course through the challenging world of world-views (and world leaders of those views):

1. "A Spectator's Guide to World Religions", by John Dickson.
Copies available from all good Aussie bookstores.

2. Islam in Our Backyard, by Tony Payne. It's part novel, part essay. Currently out of print (due to popularity), but probably available again soon.
You can read the introduction at before you decide to go futher.

3. God's Politics: Why The Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't get it, by Jim Wallis
Critique of Bush & American Politics v. Religion in general.
Avaialable v. cheaply from Amazon.

I've found them useful antidotes against melancholia when confronted with the daily 9/11 of African AIDS, the multiplicity of wars/coups, and man's inhumanity to man in general.

Dr. Clam said...

I don't think the choice of quote was at all incidental, either, but the main target of the speech is still secularists: "Six-hundred years ago we could sit down with Muslims and argue in a civilised way about the rights and wrongs of what we really believed in; today, you have shrunk from even attempting such a thing, and have abandoned the common ground that would have enabled you to have some kind of dialogue."
I will have a look at your books, Nato, starting from #3!

Dr. Clam said...

Hmm, my brief perusal of reader reviews on amazon seems to suggest that Jim Wallis is evil. But I will research further!

winstoninabox said...

The Pope thinks the problem with science is not enough religon.

And an engineer will tell you that there wasn't enough reinforcing used to begin with, but if it ain't broke don't fix it. 8-)

In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter.

The implication being that commmunities stand or fall on their religon? I
think not.

BTW, nice little twinning of "ethics" with "religon". Are they inseperable?
Again, I think not.

V.G point about Christians and Muslims or yore.

Dr. Clam said...

Quoth winstoninabox: "The implication being that commmunities stand or fall on their religon? I
think not."
If religion is defined in the Clammish way, "the beliefs people have about the universe that guide their behaviour", then I think so. I expect the Pope would concede that some communities, such as Japan and the Roman Republic, stood have/stood for quite a long time on the basis of shared values having nothing to do with "religion" defined more narrowly.

Dave said...

As an avowed secularist, I'm with Winston on the equation of religion and morality/ethics - the two may traditionally go hand in hand, but I am unconvinced they are intrinsically linked other than by precedence.

Religion's had a good few millenia to arrive at its moral and ethical frameworks. Wholly secular society doesn't really exist (yet), and even if it did (when it does) it will necessarily build on what has gone before - but I see no logical reason to suppose that it could not create equally (or more) robust models.

On the subject of the Pope's intentions, it seems slightly disingenuous of him to bemoan Islam's incapacity to engage in dialogue with Christianity while making comments guaranteed to elicit an (over-)reaction.

Dr. Clam said...

The 'will necessarily build on what has gone before' is not at all borne out by the history of secular ethicists, from Bentham to Nietzsche to Peter Singer etc., etc. 'Ecrasez l'infame, let the chips fall where they may', seems to have been a much more common way of going about things.

And Benedict was clearly bemoaning *secularism's* incapacity to engage in dialogue with *Islam*. The 'tolerance' which modern secularism extends to religion is really patronising contempt, and Muslim intellectuals are not so blind as not to see this. The Pope knows that Muslims and Christians have been picking over each other's arguments in a (more or less) civilised fashion for the past 1300 years, much to the delight of atheistic types who think that this somehow disproves them both.

PS: Hope you are feeling less irritable today, Dave. Though it may be an exciting day in the blogosphere if you aren't! :)

winstoninabox said...

With the secular community yet to have blanket ethical agreement about much at all, it would be a pretty sorry atheistic indeed, who'd point out that a lack of agreement between Islamists and Christians is any kind of disproof of both.

From disagreement comes understanding - not just of the issue, but of oneself. Debate is good.

What I find worrying about the absolute moral authority issue is that debate would finish! Egad, I hope that there's enough humilty in absolute moral authority that it might conceede to be wrong, or at least only partialy right. 8-)

Dr. Clam said...

No, no, winstoninabox, this is a recipe for *endless* discussion! You might notice I haven't said anything about 'authority' at all. Let's assume:

(1) We agree that there is an absolute morality

(2) We agree that there is no way we can ever know *exactly* what this absolute morality is in any given circumstance

(3) We agree that there are certain principles by which we can approach knowledge of this absolute morality

We can then argue about (3) until we have set some ground rules we can all agree on (time allowed: three generations) and then, while continuing to argue about the bits of (3) we haven't decided on, we can explore all the ramifications of the rules we have decided on and debate how they should be applied (time allowed: from now until the end of time.

winstoninabox said...


1) We can agree there is no absolute morality.

2) We can agree that there is no way to know what to do in any given circumstance.

3) We loot, rape and pillage.

Hmm, I seem to have come adrift somewhere.

Let's revise 3.

3) We agree that although we cannot know such things, we can try to find a way to approach something which we don't know.

Oh dear. And so.

1) We agree there is an absolute morality....

(P.S. my word verification this time was "kefrog", written in green. This obviously has connections to KErmit the FROG!)

Marco said...

That's just silly. We need to have at least some starting assumptions to argue - even if you don't necessarily believe them yourself. One often accept axioms "for argument's sake" otherwise, how could one use peoples own arguments against them.

Nato said...

dr.clam, can I encourage you to not go by the reviews of Jim Wallis, but engage with the author directly, you'll find his critique of the Religious Right refreshing.

The only negative review I read was from somebody who constructed straw man arguments without fully understanding Wallis' world view.

Perhaps if we replace the word 'religion' with 'world view' (as Dave's original comment to this post used) we will lower the inner temperature that tends to rise based on the appalling failures of everyone to live up to their own standards and the often horrific consequences that follow.

Everyone has a world view - just as everyone puts their 'faith' in something.

The question is whether the object of that person's faith can be proven beyond reasonable doubt to be trustworthy.

The issue of humility, rightly raised by brother winston, should rightly be held to (this from someone who in his early days of certainty in faith was anything but humble much of the time).

Which raises another question - what do we understand humility to mean, and where do we find it?

To disagree (hopefully humbly) with dave, I believe that secularism has had just as much time to prove its mettle as any other world view. While on a superficial reading of history one might argue that the Enlightenment was the birth of secularism.

The real challenge for anyone who holds to the secularist world view is that it combines relativism, pluralism and individualism into one powerful cocktail.

If there's no common belief, standard of behaviour or sense of belonging, then things inevitably break (or in the words of the TS Eliot, 'fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world).

So we all have constructed our assumptions and absolutes that help us make sense of life.

But do we truly hold to them consistently and live out the fullness of their implications all of the time?

I can't put it any better than Valcav Havel, Czech poet, dissident and prime minister:

"There is such an enormous gap between our words and deeds! Everyone talks about freedom, democracy, justice, human rights, and peace; but at the same time, everyone, more or less, consciously or unconsciously, serves those values and ideals only to the extent necessary to defend and serve his own interests, and those of his group and state.

Who should break this vicious circle? Responsibilty cannot be preached: it can only be borne, and the only possible place to begin is with oneself."

One of my most painful experiences was to have the light bulb go off in my head and realise that I had met the enemy, and it was me :-(.

Nato said...

Or as another great thinker wrote:

"The very things I hate, I find myself doing." :-).

Dave said...

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Couple of things on the good Doctor Clam's response:

1) Are we talking about the same thing when we say secularism? From where I'm standing, Western European secularism doesn't go back much more than the Enlightenment/industrial revolution, as nato mentions. And since then it can hardly be claimed that it's had, for want of a better term, an unfettered run. There's no secular equivalent to post-Abrahamic religions' thousands of years of work on the subject.

2) Good point on secular ethicists, though from what I understand of Singer's work you do him rather a disservice there. My point is, though, that secular ethicism is in its infancy. It's going to take a long time for the meme to find its feet, if it does at all.

3) Fair enough point re my misinterpretation on engagement with Islam. But I think it's worth noting that there have been the odd rough patches historically in the relationship between Christianity and Islam. It could be that in time the bad footing that the mostly-sort-of-secular West and grumpy-at-the-loud-kids-wth-their-jeans-and-rock-and-roll-and-disrespect-for-tradition Islam has got off to will blow over (hopefully not in a mushroom cloud).

Conceivably, the current contretemps between the West and the Middle East will be viewed as no more than that, when all the dust settles - it's a bit difficult to look at the big picture when one side is provactively building nukes and funding lunatics and the other is rattling sabres to the tune of "Mars, Ender of Civilisations" and funding lunatics.

...I'm straying away from the point here, aren't I?

Dave said...

That word I made up in the last paragraph is standing in for 'provocatively'.

Oh, and I almost let that (quite correct but entirely impeous) reference to secular tolerance's equivalence to patronising contempt go by, didn't I?

It's pretty hard not to see a cause-and-effect relationship there. Certainly I think organised religion (name your favourite brand - even Buddhism isn't immune to this one) has quite a bit to teach upstart secularism about the art of being patronising. It's reasonable to expect that it will have picked up the basics, if not yet developed any finesse in its application.

Dr. Clam said...

Hmm, I will await in all due humility Dave's assertion of his almost completely opposing worldview. I don't really want to quibble about historical accidents of secularism and the Abrahamic religions as we know them- well, yes, I'm keen to do that too- but I'm more keen to see non-grumpy Dave pick my original post apart!

winstoninabox said...

We have rather taken up the later half of your post (the Pope) rather than focused on the first.

I'll have a go:

Diminished yourself - no.

Left yourself with way fewer options at the polling booth - yes.

And possibly some options that, because the only issue you can agree on is abortion, give way to other thorny ethical problems.

For example:
Abortion - not OK
Vivisection of orphans - OK

OK, something that extreme is probably not realistic, but you get the point.

Dr. Clam said...

I suppose I would find it difficult if the anti-abortion party was committed to the genocide of a particular segment of the population, but I don't think anything less extreme would present me with a particularly thorny ethical problem.

Marco said...

Being a single-issue voter in a two-party preferred system is a little inconsequential. To get the block vote a party just has to be minisculely more conservative than the other to get the two-party preferred vote for that block. I'm not sure what that means in the big scheme of things, but single-issue parties tend to stay minor in this system.

Dr. Clam said...

Whether your vote is worth anything is much more dependent on the accident of where you live, in our system. I think the influence of minor parties and independents in the Senate is definitely significant.

Marco said...

Thus gerrymandering is born - changing which "location" people live in to influence the value of their vote.
But you still don't get the point about minor parties. It is the minor parties/indipendents in the *middle* of the left-wing,right-wing continuum that get the balance of power, if there are any. Thus, very conservative (or ultraliberal) minorities are last chosen for balance of power duties. In fact, where the only choice for coalition is with a "extreme" party, a new election is often called (in analogous situations worldwide)

Dr. Clam said...

Marco, Marco! Are you saying that the Greens are middle of the road? Or Brian Harradine was middle of the road? It is the people on the fringes, who will not join coalitions, who will end up holding the balance of power. Look at how in Israel extreme religious parties levered all sorts of concessions out of successive governments, concessions that were bitterly resented by practically all the rest of the population.

Marco said...

Yes, and yes. Do you not wonder why it wasn't the democrats that had the balance of power in the latter case? I guess what I am saying is that an individual can have "extreme" views while still being in the middle of the "left"/"right" political continuum.
Even in Israel, the tail wagging the dog from the extreme end is more the exception rather than the rule.