Book Club: The Edge of Reason 11, political reason

It has been a long way, but it is now time to wrap up my commentary of Julian Baggini’s book, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. We have looked together with Julian at the proper uses, as well as the abuses, of the concept of reason, in terms of science, philosophy, decision making, and impact on society. The last chapter is on reason in the political sphere.

Despite his criticism (in chapter 10) of Platonic and other utopias, Baggini begins his discussion by restating that, obviously, it would be foolish to somehow abandon reason in the context of political discourse, as much as it appears that’s exactly what we have been doing, especially of late. He begins with a discussion of the idea of a pluralist society:

“In its most general sense, pluralism is the belief that there is no one, single, complete and unified true perspective. There is more than one legitimate way of seeing and no one perspective can maximally accommodate all that is good or true. This is not to say that there are no wrong perspectives or that there are never good reasons for preferring one perspective over another.”

The problem is that while pluralism sounds good, some demands made by segments of our society are prima facie irreconcilable: certain people want to be able to openly criticize religions, others want to protect their faith from what they see as unacceptable offenses; some people want to eat meet and others to protect animal welfare; businesses typically want to cut cost, but there are issues of protection of workers’ rights, or of guaranteeing physical accessibility for everyone; and so forth.

Julian points out that political pluralism is not the same thing as democracy, since in a democracy a majority of people could pass laws that undermine the rights of minorities, even within a constitutional framework. Conversely, it is hard to imagine a functional non-democratic pluralist society, which would be a benign tyranny constantly in danger of slipping into a malign one.

What, then, justifies political pluralism? The standard answer, especially on the left of the political spectrum, is ethical pluralism: a major function of politics is to facilitate the flourishing of the citizens of a state, but since there is more than one conception of the good life, we invoke ethical pluralism, which entails political pluralism.

This is all fine and dandy until we realize that many people reject the very idea of ethical pluralism. As Baggini puts it: “although ethico-political pluralism is a liberal position, it is not even the case that all liberals are ethical pluralists.”

At this point Julian makes an interesting move: for him a good justification for political pluralism is not ethical, but epistemological, originating from the demands of reason, as he has outlined them in chapter nine. As you might recall, the principle he introduced there is that “we should believe what is most rational to believe,” a precept that gets its force from the simple fact that most people do, indeed, argue for their positions, i.e., implicitly accept the notion that we convince others on the basis of our reasons. If one rejects this principle, then dialogue becomes impossible by definition, and we are down to a might-makes-right type of society.

The principle, however, doesn’t simply say that we should believe what seems reasonable to us, but rather what is, in fact, reasonable. There is a difference, but how do we cash it out? After all, Baggini’s own discussion of religion and science early on in the book has established that reasonable people can, and indeed often do, hold different, yet incompatible, notions. Reason typically underdetermines scientific, religious and political positions.

Julian correctly warns against dismissing other people’s reasons on the basis of underlying biases, since we are all biased and fallible. He claims instead that what we should do is to accept a greater degree of defeasibility of our own positions, in essence agreeing to insist less forcefully on them on the grounds that they may, in fact, turn out to be wrong. He then introduces his principle of epistemological pluralism:

“In the absence of an overwhelmingly strong error theory [i.e., of an account of why others’ positions are incorrect], the impartiality of rationality entails that where competent rational judges disagree, we should accept that we have insufficient grounds to insist on the truth of one conclusion and so do what we can to accommodate reasonable different ones, even if we believe only one of them to be the sole truth.”

Yes, Baggini is well aware that some important ideas here are left underspecified, chiefly that of a competent judge. But one has to start somewhere, and I think we have a good intuitive notion of what he means by that label. Also, it is worth noting that at times we do have an “error theory” that allows us to dismiss a particular ideology, say Nazism, regardless of the fact that a segment of society thinks it reasonable (again, there is a difference between what seems reasonable to me and what actually is reasonable). The general idea, though, is that we can apply the principle of epistemological pluralism to the specific issue of how we should run our society. We have then arrived at political pluralism not via the ethical route, but taking the epistemological path:

“There can be no one way of ordering society so as to satisfy completely all aspirations for the good life because competent rational judges disagree about how society should be run, and the impartiality of rationality entails that in such cases we should accept that we have insufficient grounds to insist on the truth of one conclusion and accommodate different ones, even if we believe only one of them to be the sole truth. Therefore the role of politics is to balance and negotiate between competing claims and demands so as to enable as many compatible goods from different incompatible positions as is possible.”

Julian then moves to considering threats to political pluralism, focusing not on the obvious one (tyranny) but on internal ones, beginning with the danger posed by populism, which “in social science is almost always understood as entailing a malign kind of simplification in which the virtuous and the wicked are neatly divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

Populists undermine rational discourse in society because, even though they may agree that we should believe only what is reasonable to believe, they fail to distinguish between what seems reasonable to them and what actually is reasonable (according to the aforementioned competent judge). Specifically, populists want people to equate what is reasonable with what is self-evident, and when one takes that step then all need for defeasibility of one’s own positions disappear and one simply rejects out of hand the very idea that other positions may indeed be reasonable. The danger of populism in a multicultural society is then summarized in this fashion:

“In place of reason, [populism] puts conviction; in place of evidence, the seeming self-evidence of common sense.”

Baggini astutely observes that although populist parties have rarely gained power in Western countries in recent decades, the major threat they pose is indirect, since they cause a shift toward populism within so-called mainstream political debate. This is something I have directly observed in the Unites States since I moved here back in 1990. One political debate after another, over the years, seems to me to have shifted the parameters of discourse more and more toward simplified, populist analyses, until we finally got Trump, the logical endpoint (for now) of a process that has unfolded for decades:

“The root [of the problem] is a shift from real politics — which involves messy compromises between competing interests — to what I call political consumerism. … Today’s career politicians are like executive managers. In true consumerist style, the manager’s job is to deliver to the public what it wants.”

Or, more precisely, to pretend that he will deliver, and then use propaganda tools (don’t listen to the “fake news!”) to convince people that he has, actually, delivered. Julian brings up the example of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, who was elected and re-elected because if a sizable number of people believe that all politicians are crooks, it makes sense to vote for the most crook of them all. Mutatis mutandis, this surely applies to the election of Donald Trump.

The last part of the chapter then tackles a second major threat to political pluralism: the attack on secularism, which, properly understood, is also indispensable to a vibrant democracy.

“Secularism is not a doctrine of religious unbelief, but of state neutrality on matters of religious belief. … A secular state is therefore not necessarily a godless one.”

Secularism, for obvious reasons, appeals to atheists. A secular society, says Baggini, is superior (in terms of political pluralism) to a theocratic one, but it is also superior to one where the state imposes atheism. And indeed, secularism is often the result not of atheist politics, but of the need to balance different religious viewpoints. The famous “wall” of separation between Church and State associated with the work of Thomas Jefferson in the United States was originally proposed in order to reassure Baptists that the new republic would not impose a particular version of Christianity through the powers of the state. Secularism is a friend of religious believers and atheists alike.

Recently, however, secularism has been under attack, because it has allegedly excluded religious discourse:

“Bhikhu Parekh [for instance] advocates bringing religion back into the public square [on the basis that] excluding religion from it fails fully to respect religious beliefs and their importance in people’s lives. Furthermore, it privileges a certain atheistic, liberal world-view that is not widely shared. Secularism is not [according to Parekh], as it is claimed to be, neutral with regard to belief.”

Please notice that Parekh is a Labour member of the House of Lords in the UK, not a conservative, and he is arguing that a vibrant pluralist society emerges from open discussion of people’s ideas and values, including religious ones, which therefore we should not — as a society — simply pretend do not exist or play a fundamental role.

Julian acknowledges that the argument put forth by Parekh and others is appealing, but also says, correctly in my view, that we should resist it. It is true that zealous secularism (think France’s and other European countries bans on burqas) has led to the suppression of religious discourse. But there are other models of secularism that are viable and do not require Parekh’s step, which is itself fraught with dangers.

“Crucially for the current debate about religion, [secularism] does not require us just to leave behind our personal convictions: everyone brings their personal beliefs to the secular table. The trick is that we find a way of expressing them in universalist and not particularist terms.”

Consider, says Baggini, the example of debates about abortion. A given politician may oppose abortion because of his religious, let’s say for instance Catholic, convictions. But he is not going to make much of a headway in terms of rational discourse if he gives a speech on the floor of the Senate arguing that abortion should be illegal because the Pope (or Jesus) says so. That way lies the path to sectarian struggle, and ultimately violence.

Rather, the politician in question will attempt to “translate” his religious motivations into neutral secular discourse, just like political philosopher John Rawls (mentioned by Baggini) suggested we should do. The politician may, for instance, cast his objections in terms of the inherent worth of human life, and argue that a fetus, at any age, is a (potential) human being. His opponents (many of whom, incidentally, will not be atheists, but rather religious people who interpret the tenets of their own religion differently) will then engage the discourse at that level, not by simply rejecting the Pope (or Jesus) as moral authorities.

“The intention to respect fully the diversity of beliefs and not to impose a homogeneous, blurred-out secularism is a noble one. But the way to do this is not to scrap secularism and let a cacophony of different belief systems fight it out instead. The way forward is to reform existing secularism much more modestly and to rid it of its theophobia.”

I will leave it at that, though there are several other interesting points made by Julian in this last chapter. It has been, I hope, an interesting journey, made possible by a book that I do not hesitate to recommend to anyone seriously interested in the nature of reason and its practical roles in society.


The next book club will be a two-part affair, on Harry Frankfurt’s (he of “On Bullshit”) On Inequality. Stay tuned…

156 thoughts on “Book Club: The Edge of Reason 11, political reason

  1. ejwinner

    “If I adopted a moral system where I do whatever I believe at the time will bring me the greatest pleasure then you could still call it an objective morality because there will be objective facts about what I believe will bring me the greatest pleasure at any given time.”

    That ‘system’ has been around for about a century – it’s called Ethical Egoism. Few pay it any attention, because it has an epistemological hole one could punch a fist through: How does one know that what one wants to do, to maximize one’s pleasure and benefit, doesn’t blind one to the possibility of doing what one doesn’t want to do, but which would provide one with greater pleasure and benefit? The future result seems unknowable, and the only way to ascertain this is by asking external observers (which violates the near-solipsistic epistemology hidden at its base).

    However, since the theory assumes one can know absolutely what is of benefit or greatest pleasure to one, it is (oddly enough) considered an objective ethical theory.


  2. ejwinner

    …so, to help clarify, as the discussion closes, we have two definitions of “objective” now before us, each cogent and viable, but only so within differing fields of philosophic inquiry: The mind-independent (and self-subsistent) and the mind-dependent (and social). The first is operational in the realm of metaphysics and pure logic, the latter is operational in social and political reality (and is what we mean when we use the word in common parlance). It is misguided to hold one up as standard by which to judge the other.

    But I think the fact is that the mind-independent (Realism in its various formations) will eventually disappear into the margins. The mind-dependent is a social necessity. and the hope that logic or science will either dispel it or translate it is simply that – a hope, unfounded and unrealizable. And I think that this fact will be justified and recognized,. since it is continually re-enforced by how people actually speak.


  3. chrish2015

    I think 1st and 2nd order views of morality are being confused here.

    Ethical systems (e.g. Utilitarianism, Contractarianism) are 1st order views – they’re claims about what we (morally) ought to do.

    2nd order (metaethical) claims are about what morality is.

    It’s explained here:

    Click to access f02handout7.pdf

    As I understand it Coel is making a second order claim whereas many of the the responses are 1st order claims. I think you’re talking past each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Coel

    As Robin’s comments illustrate, there are both objective and subjective aspects to all moral schemes. They can thus be called either “objective” or “subjective” by focusing on different aspects.


    That you must pay a fine if your car’s tags are expired is objective, insofar as it applies whether or not you subjectively feel the force of that obligation. (Try not paying it and see what happens.) But that something is beautiful is subjective, insofar as it depends entirely on whether the person himself sees it as beautiful or not.

    Again, I think we agree on what the terms mean. And I fully accept that the set of rules and social obligations that society operates by are “objective” in that they objectively exist. But to me the terms “moral” or “ethical” refer not to society’s rules, but to value judgements about society’s rules (and, more generally, about how humans treat others). Thus ethical judgements are subjective in exactly the same way that aesthetic judgements are subjective. That’s why I dispute the concept of an objective ethical standard (I don’t dispute that society’s set of legal and social rules have objective existence and standing).


    And I’ve professed for some time now to be an anti-realist. Any better now?

    I accept that you’re an anti-realist. And you reject emotivism (which is to me the most straightforward anti-realist position). What I don’t properly understand is your meta-ethical conception of morals that is both anti-realist and non-emotivist.

    I’m not being purposely obtuse; I’ve tried to understand your position on meta-ethics and I’ve tried to understand Baggini’s position on it, and not succeeded. The fact that Robin doesn’t understand it either suggests that it’s not just me.


  5. Massimo Post author


    To some extent you are correct, though it isn’t quite as simple as Coel talking meta- and the rest of us going lower. There has been a (somewhat confusing) back and forth at both levels.


    Okay, I’m going to give it an honest try again, using a different approach. As you say, I’m an anti-realist, meaning that I don’t believe moral truths are “out there.” But I’m also an objectivist, meaning that I think there are objective facts about the human condition that constrain (though do NOT determine, i.e., “underdetermine,” in philosophical jargon) ethics — and it is this underdetermination that makes it different from etiquette, which is entirely arbitrary.

    Ethics is in the business of improving social living. Since we are talking about the species Homo sapiens, there are certain things that objectively make human living worse or better, and those are taken into account by a good system of ethics. No, this isn’t Harris-style straight reading of values from facts, because of the underdetermination mentioned above.

    So different ethical systems look at the same facts and reason their way to certain approaches, wfrom which certain conclusions obtain. Therefore ethics is an empirically-informed rational enterprise, where there are multiple, possibly equivalent, solutions to the fundamental problem: what is the best way to live for both individual human beings and the societies in which they exist?


  6. synred

    In politics and practical ethics, the Manifest Image is what matters

    I don’t see how that helps with x-cultural ethics. Of course, we are talking about ‘manifest image’ in case of ethics. Field Theory has little to do with it.


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