Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Itching To Get Beaten

Austin Dacey is a philosopher by training and an active secularist not only by conviction but by profession as well: He is a representative at the United Nations for the secularist Center for Inquiry.

That he has written a book titled “The Secular Conscience” is not surprising. That his book is subtitled “Why Belief Belongs in Public Life” has lifted quite a few eyebrows — to say nothing of his claim that “secularism has lost its soul” by putting a “gag order on ethics, values and religion in public debate.”

Mr. Dacey argues that secular liberalism has come to hold that because conscience is private or personal, its moral conclusions must be subjective, and because conscience should be free from coercion, its moral conclusions must also be free from public criticism.

This combination of what he calls the Privacy Fallacy and the Liberty Fallacy has led to the conclusion that controversial religious and moral claims are beyond evaluation by reason, truth and objective standards of right and wrong, and should therefore be precluded from public conversation.

This has also led to what Mr. Dacey calls the Bracketing Strategy, apparent in Roe v. Wade when the Supreme Court decided that it could settle the question of abortion rights while bracketing, or setting aside, the issue of the status of fetal life. The success of the Bracketing Strategy, Mr. Dacey argues, “has convinced generations of secular liberals that the way to deal with moral problems in our shared life is not to deal with them.”

But in fact the Bracketing Strategy has left abortion rights “in constant peril,” he writes, because it “circumvented a broader public debate on the moral issues that might have produced a more stable national consensus.”

Don't know how many folks may have caught this article in the New York Times over the weekend.

It gets to a few issues that are very important to me as well. I agree with Austin Dacey that there is a regrettable tendency among those on the left to appeal to courts other than the court of public opinion. So much so that it sometimes seems that those on the left have completely lost the gift of rhetoric (rhetoric as in persuasive speaking, not as in bullshit).

Examples: the degree to which the leftist agenda (particularly in the 1960s and 1970s) moved forward through court cases. Granted, these cases do sometimes have had a legislative basis, but often (as in Roe v. Wade) these cases have involved novel applications or interpretations of constitutional rights. Granted, too, that some of these "novel applications" were pretty much there but unacknowledged (I would put the right of privacy in this category).

This reflex to circumvent or countermand politics has not only led to a great deal of resentment of liberals, it also has to some degree crippled the left--we no longer seem to know how to win consistently in the political realm.

Another example would be the degree to which academia has absorbed the energies of political radicals. Academia has become something of a wildlife preserve, where political species rarely if ever seen in the wild seem to thrive. While I think that there may be something to be said for the "hothouse" environment of academia, I think the freedom from criticism and question many beliefs enjoy in academia is unhealthy . . . and I don't think the isolation of academia does anyone any good. But leftists seem to value this fiefdom greatly, and spend a fair deal of energy defending it. In spite of the fact that from a social standpoint their fiefdom is irrelevant and probably doomed.

So, yes, liberals DO have too strong a tendency to "bracket," as Dacey says.

But on the other hand, Dacey doesn't seem to realize that bracketing is absolutely essential to liberalism. The idea that people have inalienable rights to, say free speech, regardless of what the present day consensus on the matter is is bracketing. Liberalism has always held that the majority should rule and they've always held that the rights of the minority should be protected against the power of the majority. THAT is what liberalism means.

John Stuart Mill wrote long ago on tolerance--and here again, tolerance is a bracketing technique, where you say that certain disagreements are just to be set aside and aren't to be made the subject of constant (and useless) public dispute.

The bracketing can be strong or weak--we may frown severely upon religion or politics as dinner table conversation; or we may engage in religious and political dispute knowing that there is no existential question at stake--we know as wrong as a religious or political idea might be, our opponents have a right to hold it.

When to invoke bracketing is a judgment call. It'd be illiberal (and insane) to just throw it away.

This hostility to bracketing is quite similar to the general hostility to the liberal tradition we see in neo-conservative thinkers like Leo Strauss and in harder to classify anti-statists like Sheldon Wolin.

One curious thing is that Dacey's hostility to bracketing dovetails with the pugnaciousness of the new atheists and points out again that many folks of the Dawkinsian stripe are either a) neo-conservative or b) make very big assumptions about the liberal order: that it is natural or that its existence can just be assumed (as H. Allen Orr points out in his review of Steven Pinker's Blank Slate).

Not only are these folks itching for a fight they'll probably lose, they don't understand what's at stake.