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. wtc48

    I have to own up to harboring a persistent anti-Islamic bias, the result of discovering, many years ago, that in all Muslim-majority countries (and only those), the life expectancy of females was significantly lower than that of males. I have had some success in countering this by reflecting on the repellent behavior of Christians during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, together with my admiration and respect for such medieval scholars as Avicenna and Al Farabi.

    If I were called to serve on a jury for a case involving a Muslim, I don’t think I would reveal this bias during voir dire, because it would require too much explanation of why I thought I could be impartial where the law was concerned. Here, however, we may offer what explanation we choose without fear of consequences (other than peer pressure, perhaps). It does occur to me that it would be useful, in discussions such as these, if we could enlist comment from, say, a conservative imam and a French bureaucrat, to see how they would present their views as reasonable and/or rational.


  2. ejwinner

    Having objectively standards for the sake of ethical discussion is not the same as holding to a moral realism, as has been explained to you time and again. And you don’t seem to seek understanding about anything so much as you have an ideological agenda you’re forwarding.

    People are not mistaken in their use of language; nobody needs Coel to correct them. They have different beliefs, and different reasons for the language they use to communicate those beliefs, certainly different from what Coel wants to hear. But that doesn’t make their use of language wrong. It just makes Coel’s judgment suspect.

    But this conversation is going nowhere; so spin your wheels down the narrow ideological street by yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ejwinner

    What Coel is arguing is that a religious practice ought to be banned – that is, there is an objectively arguable obligation to do so – if it is determined in the courts to be egregious violation of the social traditions or social norms of the country of the court making that determination.

    I’m uncertain how the matter stands in European countries. In the United States, it has long been held, determined on the basis of the First Amendment, that religious practices cannot be prohibited unless either a harm to others or an unacceptable burden to society is demonstrable (Wisconsin v. Yoder, 1972). Nor can States or smaller political entities use law to aid any religion (Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 1994) nor specifically to suppress any religion (Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 1993).

    Thus neither Western tradition nor social norms, nor any sense that these have been violated, can, in and of themselves, be used as standards by which to ban religious practices.

    Bear in mind that if tradition and social norms were allowed to function as such standards, then not only could a particular religion be suppressed in a given community – as they have been in the past, but so could a transgression of not performing expected religious practices of the community – such as we see among atheists, or a Snopes committed in teaching evolution in Tennessee in the ’20s. As the ACLU ‘faq’ page on religious freedom points out, only by accepting tolerance for religious practice do we win the right not to practice any religion at all.

    There’s a notable remark in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision I quoted in a previous comment worth noting here, because I think it highlights the kind of separation between Church and State we enjoy in our own representative democracy:

    “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing same-sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate. The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.”

    I don’t know if Coel’s argument would prove persuasive in any European country (and he admits that it is a “borderline” call), but I hope it would not be welcome here. At our best, we are a land of opportunity, of experiment, of innovation, and yes, also of risk. Change is in our nature (metaphorically speaking). Consequently we have some of the liveliest political discussions in history – again, when we are at our best. But intolerance, bigotry, prejudice – religious or otherwise – always haunt us, and thus should exactly be what we most strenuously guard against.


  4. Daniel Kaufman

    Social facts are perfectly objective. They may not admit of a realist treatment, but that this penalty will apply if I don’t renew the tags on my car is as objective a fact as there can be.

    Coel, if you want to understand the difference between objective and realist, we can discuss it. Massimo and I have covered it in a number of our dialogues. It is a basic distinction in philosophy. Feeling warm is subjective. That a loaf of bread is $2.00 is not.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. synred

    Depends on when you start those “Western norms and traditions.” That’s why I cited Christianity. Read St. Paul, 1st Corinthians, about women veiling. Some Christians still do it. And, yes, voluntarily.

    –>Hence babushka ladies.

    My mother used to use a hair bin to fasten a handkerchief on here head, if she’d forgotten her hat.


  6. SocraticGadfly

    EJ, indeed. That’s why I noted that France is at cross purposes at best, and hypocrisy at worst, when it bans people from wearing crucifixes as well as burkas, yet a sitting French president cites cultural Christianity as the reason to bar Turkey from the EU.

    Beyond that, given that Muslims are more than 10 percent of the French population, its a crude majoritarianism to argue that certain Muslim practices should be banned in France on the basis of social norms anyway.

    If only we could get the European social state — and multiparty parliamentary government — here, while letting Europe keep some of its more problematic issues. (The UK, as long as it has FPTP single-member districts, won’t get to true multiparty government.)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. synred

    The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing same-sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate

    If marriage is sacred the government has know business being involved at all.

    People can make whatever contracts they wish and mutter whatever mumbo-jumbo they like to celebrate them.

    You can’t make a contract of any sort with a sheep (Sorry Gene Wilder). A sheep is not competent to consent.


  8. brodix

    Religion is a cultural social contract. Government is a civil social contract. Finance is an economic social contract. It will be interesting to see how culture and civics re-orient their sense of community, when the financial foundation of our global first world society finds it cannot create/extract further debt.

    Interesting times ahead.


  9. synred

    Feeling warm is subjective

    That the too hot weather makes me feel warm is not subjective.

    In Missouri you must know this </;)

    There are physiological correlates of feeling warm, but the feeling is subjective.


  10. ejwinner

    “If marriage is sacred the government has know business being involved at all.”

    you don’t account for the concluding sentence (which is actually part of the decision itself, the prefatory remarks are considered ‘dicta’ which indicate the writing justice’s comment on the issue): “The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.”

    For economic and social reasons, the State has always been involved in marriage. In New York, marriage was until recently considered a contract of benefit – the man got sex, the woman got a child (no, really); but the birth of a child created economic needs and responsibilities that no church could regulate.

    This ‘marriage’ (as one might say) between the institution of marriage sanctioned by religions, and state interests concerning the economic viability of the family unit, has long been recognized in the West. Different countries have negotiated this relationship in different ways. Ours has largely been to allow the individual states to decide for themselves how best to regulate this relationship; but there have been moments when it was necessary for the Federal system (including the SCOTUS) to step in and protect the rights of the persons involved, regardless of individual state interests. The SCOTUS affirms that we are a religiously diverse society; and so disagreements between different perspectives, including differing religious perspectives, is not only to be allowed but to be welcomed. But the law, and the obligations and rights created in the Constitution supersede any particular perspective. In my opinion that’s precisely as it should be.

    There are in fact some marginal religious sects that agree with you, and ignore their state’s marital laws. These largely go under the radar. But when economic interests are triggered (as in the case of divorce) it is not to their religious elders that participants go, but to a lawyer.

    I strongly suggest reading Obergefell v. Hodges, it includes a broad historical discussion on marriage, and manages to reduce religious interests (which the anti-same-sex faction considers primary, hidden behind claims of ‘tradition’ and ‘social norms’) to a few brief comments that yet don’t insult the religious interests of these factions. A brilliant performance by Kennedy over all.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. ejwinner

    One last remark from me: The discussions concerning same-sex marriages and burqas may seem utterly tangential to a discussion of Baggini’s final chapter. However, I suggest that these hard-core political discussions are exactly what Baggini’s text indicate as necessary to a sound political reasoning. The real danger (as Baggini points out, concerning populism and ‘theophobia’ – which is actually a poor term, but for a correct insight) is when we reach a point where reasoning cannot intervene between differences of opinion.

    Also, I wanted to thank your for judicious editing of one of my comments; I will strive to avoid putting you in a position of deciding whether to do that again in the future. (I have a temper; but while I meditate on this daily, I was raised in a family where siblings communicated by screaming.)


  12. Coel


    … about women veiling. Some Christians still do it.

    I’ve never seen that except in very limited and special circumstances (the bride in the early part of a wedding for example). Routine veiling is very much out of line with Western European custom.

    Or, many wear Christian crosses, also banned by France. And, yes, that’s how stupid laicite is.

    No, France does not have a general ban on croses or religious symbols. It does ban them from particular public institutions such as schools which it pays for, because it wants them to be secular. That’s very different from a general ban.

    And, again, France and Belgium went after not just the burqa. Do you accept the ban on the hijab?

    Cite for a ban on a hijab? The French and Belgium bans are written in terms of covering the face, so would not cover a hijab (and no, I don’t think there should be a ban on hair covering).

    As for nudity? Show me a religion called “nuditarianism,” first.

    We’re discussing principles, and you seem to be accepting a ban on public nudity. While I’m not aware of religions asking for this (why does it matter that it’s a religion?) there have been cases of people flouting this ban (in the UK the “naked rambler”).

    I also suppose, if we follow Coel, he would agree with US court rulings that employers can regulate off-the-job behavior, …

    How is that following me?


    What Coel is arguing is that a religious practice ought to be banned – that is, there is an objectively arguable obligation to do so – if …

    Nope, I’m not arguing that European countries ought to ban the burqa, I’m saying that it is within their legitimate remit to do so (just).


  13. Coel

    Hi ej,

    In the United States, it has long been held, determined on the basis of the First Amendment, that religious practices cannot be prohibited unless either a harm to others or an unacceptable burden to society is demonstrable (Wisconsin v. Yoder, 1972).

    Actually, that’s not true. People had presumed that there was such an “unacceptable burden” test, but there wasn’t. Wisconsin vs Yoder and then Employment Division vs Smith said something quite different, namely that if a generally applicable rule was there for secular reasons then religious belief was not a reason for exemption from it.

    Indeed Scalia, no less, wrote:

    “Respondents urge us to hold, quite simply, that when otherwise prohibitable conduct is accompanied by religious convictions, not only the convictions but the conduct itself must be free from governmental regulation. We have never held that, and decline to do so now.”

    But Americans didn’t like that so then passed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act which introduced a “compelling government interest” test. But this law (if you ask me) is blatantly unconstitutional since it privileges doing something with religious motive over doing the same thing with non-religious motive, which is a blatant establishment of religion.

    (My fuller comments on this at: Christians don’t understand religious freedom and The Religious Freedom Restoration Act establishes religious privilege.)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Coel

    Hi Dan,

    Feeling warm is subjective. That a loaf of bread is $2.00 is not.

    Agreed. And Tom liking chocolate is subjective, but that Tom likes chocolate is an objective fact.

    The US constitution objectively exists and we can make objective factual statements about what it says. But it is not an “objective ethical system” since the only ethical normativity it has is through the advocacy of humans.

    Surely any ethical system that has standing or normativity only through the agreement and advocacy of humans qualifies as “subjective”?


  15. Massimo Post author


    You are welcome. We all have a temper to be reckoned with. Being the editor here just allows me to help others retain the meaning of their comments while lessening the potential negative impact. Of course some comments (not yours) are uneditable, but there is always the trash can…

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Coel

    Hi Dan,

    Coel, im glad to see that you agree that social facts are objective and not subjective. Earlier in the discussion, you’d denied it.

    I was responding to the phrase “objective ethical standard”. My intention was not to deny that the factual (descriptive) aspects of the “social fact” are objective, it was to deny that the “ethical standard” aspects (prescriptive; normative) are objective.


  17. wtc48

    ej: “One last remark from me: The discussions concerning same-sex marriages and burqas may seem utterly tangential to a discussion of Baggini’s final chapter. However, I suggest that these hard-core political discussions are exactly what Baggini’s text indicate as necessary to a sound political reasoning.”

    The gist of these discussions:

    The right (represented here mostly in absentia) says: “What you are proposing is just one more stratagem to weaken and destroy the Constitution.”

    The left replies: “What you are proposing is just one more stratagem to weaken and destroy the Constitution.”

    Rinse and repeat as necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. SocraticGadfly

    Coel, public schools are a public space inhabited by millions of French schoolchildren. If it walks, talks and quacks like a general ban, it’s a general ban. Fail.

    Besides, limiting it to “conspicuous” symbols is more ridiculous yet, and sounds like something out of EU bureaucracy in Brussels. Is a crucifix more than 2 inches long “conspicuous”? Are French school teachers supposed to get out rulers and measure them?

    And, as Wiki notes, and per my previous comments, although it targets all religious symbols on paper, it still seems to have one particular target.

    Also per Wiki, if the French goal was allegedly to secularize society, like a lot of French actions toward Muslims, it has spectacularly backfired. The response has been massive growth in Islamic (possibly Islamist at times?) private schools.


    And, of course, this is French. Not all of continental Europe. Germany, for anybody who’s been to Bavaria, goes too far the other way, with crucifixes still on the walls of public school classrooms.


  19. Robin Herbert

    If you had been saddled with a founding document which said “no sex without written permission from the Government” then the highest court would have to rule that you ought not to have sex unless you have written permission from the government. So perhaps you could say that it was an objective fact that you ought not to have sex without the permission from the government, but I doubt that many would see it that way.

    But of course there is no such constitutional requirement because nobody (or very few) would want that to be the case. And if you found yourself saddled with such a document then I imagine the referendum to amend it would be carried with a handsome majority.

    Constitutions in democracies are, very imperfectly, a reflection on what most of us want.

    It is an objective fact that such-and-such right is outlined in such-and-such a Constitution, but it is subjective in that it is there because it is a reflection on what most people want.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Robin Herbert

    In Australia one territory passed a law legalising same sex marriage. The law was immediately struck down by the High Court (roughly the equivalent of the Supreme Court in the US) when they ruled that the Federal Government had the right to make laws about marriage (including same-sex marriage).

    That is kind of opposite to the experience in the US, constitutions are often a bit hit and miss in this respect. In the end whether or not we have same sex marriage in Australia will boil down to whether or not most people want it to be the case and not because of any objective right to be married.


  21. synred

    Hi ej: While picking nits, not I said “if marriage is sacred…”

    It is the religious who confuse secular and religious marriage, not me. It’s hopefully moot now, but calling secular/state marriage something else, might have made things easier.

    There are still residual effects. My ‘son-not-in law’ got a new job and they will not give my daughter insurance unless they get married. They don’t accept domestic partners for oppo sex couples.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. ejwinner

    yes, and why politics must also engage rhetoric – the art of persuasion – and rhetorical criticism, as well as simple presentation of a seemingly rational case. And why political history is not a one-way street forward, but involves much give and take and risks missteps and back-steps. And why also it is inevitable to find politics in the courts, and naive to expect otherwise.

    I think most Americans distrust and soon weary of politics; but this is a thoroughly political culture, and we meet it at every turn, like it or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. ejwinner

    your hypothetical is irrelevant, because we have actual history, and history does not develop in the manner your hypothetical suggests. And Constitutions do not work that way, at least the US Constitution doesn’t. Of course a constitutions can be changed according to the popular will, through prescribed mechanisms, judicial or legislative; but the obligations and rights established by them are presumed – and in the US objectively argued and held by courts and politicians – to be held above the will of the majority, as for instance the Obergefell v. Hodges decision states quite explicitly.

    But go ahead and pretend otherwise, pretend that the justices signing onto that decision, legal experts with many decades of experience between them, don’t know what they’re talking about.


  24. synred

    Agreed. And Tom liking chocolate is subjective, but that Tom likes chocolate is an objective fact.

    Dan, Is seeing a tree subjective? Strictly speaking, I think it isn’t, but people don’t generally talk about seeing that way, as they would feeling hot and tasting.

    Perhaps that’s because seeing is at least roughly a shared experience.

    And ‘feeling hot’ seems more toward objective than feeling sad.

    Hot often has an external correlate that’s shared, i.e., closer to sensing that mere feeling and like the taste of chocolate and broccoli does not vary from person to person.

    All is fuzzy, even objectivity…


  25. synred

    Etiquette is made of arbitrary, and yet objectively true, rules. Etiquette is prescriptive, not descriptive.

    Etiquette varies from culture, so that while what that is objective (but petty arbitrary ), it does not help with issues like female gentile mutilation. Some cultures regard not doing it has being ‘immoral’…

    Kid joke:

    King: How dare you burp before my wife!
    Traveling Minstrel [a]: Sorry, I didn’t know it was her turn.

    [a] Danny Kaye?


  26. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    Etiquette is made of arbitrary, and yet objectively true, rules.

    What do you mean by “objectively true” rules? It’s indeed true that the rules exist, and that one can make factually true descriptive statements about them.

    Etiquette is prescriptive, not descriptive.

    The only prescriptiveness, the only normative force such rules have, is through the agreement and advocacy of humans.

    Hi Dan,

    Coel, you said that the rights outlined in the Constitution are subjective. They are not. They are socially constructed and thus not “real” in the Realist sense, but they are objective.

    As per my above reply to Massimo, the constitution objectively exists, and one can indeed make factually true descriptive statements about its declarations and how society reacts to them. But, again, the only normative force they have depends on humans choosing to abide by and implement them.

    I remarked here a while back that the whole subjective/objective debate is bedevilled by people not having agreed on how to use the terms.

    If we adopt the usage that you and Massimo are suggesting then sure, all moral systems are objective. Let’s suppose that Fred writes down a list of his personal, subjective opinions about morals. He calls this “Fred’s Feelings”. Three of Fred’s buddies read it and say “looks pretty good to us, we assent”.

    At that point “Fred’s Feelings” is a socially constructed moral system that objectively exists, and about which there are objective facts. The only difference between that and accepted etiquette, or indeed the constitution, is the number of people who have bought into the system.

    Is Fred’s Feelings then an objective moral system? As I see it, no, because the most salient feature of morality is the bindingess, the normativity, the obligation to comply. And, in the case of Fred’s Feelings that derives solely from the agreement and advocacy of the humans who have bought into it. Ditto etiquette, ditto the constitution, ditto any moral system ever.

    And the fact that the normativity and bindingness depend on human advocacy makes them subjective (by the definition of the word “subjective”).

    Well, that’s how I’m using the terms, though it may be that others here are understanding the terms fundamentally differently from me. Wouldn’t be the first time! 🙂 So what, in your usage, distinguishes an objective moral system from a subjective one?


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