Saturday, June 28

What makes a religion evil ?

The existence of God is not a very interesting question. Interesting, and worth fighting over, is this question: Who should have authority over facts and values ?
There is only a tenuous link between answers to the existence question and answers to the authority question. Religious language is very flexible, and the range of answers to the authority question it allows span an enormous range.
When people argue, in religious language, for positions on the authority question that are virtually identical to positions I would want to take using non-theistic language, then I see no reason to oppose them. I am therefore not opposed to the metaphor of God; I am only opposed to people abusing it in certain ways. I am not opposed to religion; I am only opposed to false religions.
Virtually all positions that fallibilism takes have actually been taken at one time or the other, in one tradition or the other, by either theologians or ordinary believers. Fallibilism is therefore not outside the religious space; it is one way of filling that space.
Except for the existence of God, an atheistic and a theistic fallibilism could come to identical conclusions. It is these conclusions that matter. The existence question by itself matters hardly at all. There is not much to choose between two equivalent sets of metaphors.
The enemy is not religion; the enemy are false infallibilist philosophies, independent of whether they come dressed in secular or theistic clothing.

The flipside of declaring one’s own position to be beyond revision is to declare alternatives to be worthless. Not just worth (much) less, but strictly worthless. If you believe alternative positions to be absolutely worthless, you should, logically, be indifferent to their annihilation. You might just as well wish for their annihilation.
There is only a small practical, but a considerable philosophical difference between saying “This belief is absolutely beyond revision” and saying “It would take an awful lot to convince me to drop this belief, and I think it is highly unlikely to happen, but I would find it exciting if it really did come to pass without my standards having slipped.” This difference in attitude is another way of distinguishing fallibilism from infallibilism.
Fallibilism thus creates breathing space. A little room for coexistence, and a basic level of respect.
Dialogue is only dialogue if both participants are willing, ultimately, to risk all of their beliefs in the conversation. For practical purposes dialogue is often limited and confined. But even limited, confined dialogue is enlivened by the latent possibility of expanding into an unlimited dialogue that risks everything.
Marking certain beliefs as beyond discussion – e.g. by declaring them to be “inspired” or “infallible” or “scientifically certain” – is to declare one’s intention to use them as weapons, as clubs to beat others. A move from dialogue to monologue, to the harangue and to propaganda.
Missionaries who do not risk being changed by their mission, being converted by those they seek to convert, are on a false mission.

Fallibilism takes a predictable position on the authority of scripture: Any human capturing of revelation is partial, scripture no different from other texts in staying radically fallible. Fallibilism also leans heavily against magical shortcuts around human fallibility, e.g. claims of dictation or direct authorship by a supernatural being. Any text from any source remains a text, and thus remains subject to complete fallibility.
The existing traditions already allow for critical interpretation of scripture. Take the Catholic insistence on interpretation within a tradition, the Protestant insistence on individual conscience, or the Jewish proclivity for enriching the original text by commentary.
In order to reconcile the treatment of scripture with fallibilism we must go beyond critical interpretation and also allow for innovation and selective rejection.
Although present on the margins – e.g. in avantgarde theology and Mormonism – , ongoing revelation is a concept that mainstream Christianity finds hard to assimilate.
Even so, the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council to undertake revisions in doctrine relies on some measure of inspired presence. By only a slight stretch can we consider ecumenical councils a form of ongoing revelation (unwillingly) recognised by the Catholic Church.
Protestantism has usually framed the Reformation as a project of returning to uncorrupted origins. The rhetorical conventions of infallibilism made it necessary to present any innovations as a return to pre-existing practices of the early Church (even if these practices should never have existed). But it is also possible, and arguably much more plausible, to view the Reformation as an instance of forward-looking innovation, not backward-looking restoration. And if innovation was possible in the time of Luther and Calvin, it should be possible today.
In the Jewish tradition, there is room for commentary to supersede the original text. As commentary becomes creative, it can begin to shift the text. Innovation may thus occur in the guise of commentary.
Is there more revelation to come ? Could future revelation contradict past revelation ? Or are we stuck with the depressing position that all the most important questions about life were answered once and for all two thousand years ago (or some other time in the remote past). The R&D department is closed. No new ideas or prophets need apply.

Fashionable theologian talk of keeping dogma liquid. This almost makes them fallibilist. What they would need to concede in addition is that when the liquefied dogma resettles, it could resettle into a substantively different shape. That the most appropriate incarnation of the Holy Spirit for our time may be secularism. (I am not expecting them to concede that this is likely. They should, however, concede the possibility. For if they do not concede this, all talk of keeping dogma liquid is mere window-dressing. A commitment to immovable dogma hidden behind fancier language.)
Compared against fashionably redressed varieties, I much prefer the honesty of unvarnished dogmatism: Take the Catholic insistence on the (occasional) infallibility of the magisterium, or the Protestant insistence on the inerrancy (of a plain reading) of scripture, and you have examples of bad, infallibilist answers to the authority question.
Infallibilist claims of truth cannot be established by ordinary means – by appeals to evidence, argument, or personal example. No properly critical mode of inquiry can deliver results that are absolutely final and irreversible. There are therefore only two ways of getting away with an infallibilist claim: By bluffing, or forced imposition. Historically, religious authorities tried the latter; today they are largely reduced to the first.
The grandfather of all infallibilist conceptions of truth is Plato’s allegory of the cave. Every time the pied piper of totalitarianism rides into town his many religious admirers swoon.
Although Plato claims that there exists a select priesthood, including him, who can guide us to a true reality beyond all appearances, reality is actually structured like a Russian doll. It only seems that you have left all caves behind during the first flush of discovery. As soon as your eyes have adjusted you will notice that you have another cave wall in front of you, that you have reached a slightly spacier, more pleasant cave, but you are still in a cave. We can play off less solid against more trustworthy appearances; we cannot leave all appearances behind.
Plato’s promise that we can leave all caves and chains behind is effectively blasphemous. Plato claims that we can jump out of all human limitation onto a divine plane, where we are supposed to be able to walk with God in the bright light, converse with God as an equal. Knowledge of the kind Plato promises is reserved to God, and strictly unavailable to humans this side of the Millennium.
But Plato refuses to accept this, and starts talking reality down. He likens life on earth to a cave, when in actual fact it takes place under a wide open sky. He talks down real, hard-earned knowledge by comparison with his bright fantasy of knowledge. He talks down the prospect of making real life somewhat more liveable by comparisons to a perfect standard of life outside of this world.
Claims of an Objectively Existing Platonic Moral Order have always and everywhere been used to legitimise, even sanctify, the status quo. In the U.S. the status quo is relatively decent, so this isn’t as big a problem as when the same kind of claims were made to justify slavery.
Religions that incorporate Plato’s concept of knowledge are false religions. Christianity was not at birth Platonist, but it did become, and remains today, largely Platonist. Adopting a dogmatic concept of truth was an integral part of the drive to power for the post-Jesus church. A drive that succeeded beyond imagination, turning the Church into an arbiter of power and the largest landholder in Europe.
The degree of objectivity and certainty Platonism promises is simply not humanly attainable. Platonist claims of truth are therefore always and necessarily a fraud.
Getting up on one’s soap box and claiming to own the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth has always been pompous. It is exposed in all its ridiculousness in a pluralist society when twenty others are routinely doing the same. Denied their coercive monopoly, the exponents of exclusive claims are left flailing, incapable of coping with the social reality of pluralism.
I am not the expert on following Jesus, but owning up to the vulnerability of one’s claims also seems a much more Christ-like gesture than the arrogant denial of imperfections issued by the Platonists.
Pro-authority Christians need to construct precedents for Jesus making hard, quasi-Platonist claims. The verse they most like to cite – “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6) – can be read in two ways: Infallibilistically, reducing Truth to a litmus test of specific doctrines. Or fallibilistically, reading the Way as a general attitude, almost Daoist in its connotations. Only on the first interpretation are infallibilist claims endorsed, whereas on the second interpretation the right way of life might just well be defined in opposition to such claims. (The infallibilist claim is strictly exclusive, the fallibilist claim not quite. Since the Way is primarily about the attitude exemplified by a teacher, it allows for a variety of contents. Not arbitrary content, obviously, but still a great variety. The attitude that governs the contents, though, is binding in a pretty much exclusive way.)
In sum: Platonist claims are hugely implausible. They are also fraudulent, blasphemous, and un-Christ-like. They are the mark of an evil cult.

It would not be enough to concede that one’s own position may only be the relatively closest to the truth, rather than the whole truth. To reach fallibilism even more needs to be conceded: That no component of doctrine, even its core, is absolutely beyond error, that every component could potentially deserve to be revised. (Recall that this is not about likelihood, only about conceding the possibility.) To admit radical fallibility is to admit that any part, not knowing which, could in future justly come to be revised.
Are there elements of doctrine, known today, that are absolutely beyond revision ? If you answer yes, you’re an infallibilist.
There is a harmless form of “Platonism”, but it hardly deserves the name. We can take the One as a purely formal regulative idea, an unattainable and unknowable limit of knowledge. Defining God as reality-in-itself is not false, but unwieldy. The apparatus is unnecessary, when all it effectively means is that we should work to make our claims as good as we can. What the regulative idea intends to say is that any existing claims is subject to be queried by a yet better claim.
There is also a religious tradition of leaving absolute truth to God, and remaining humble about one’s own truth claims. Fallibilism can be seen as an outgrowth of this contrary tradition.
Fallibilism is equivalent to the belief that we can perceive God only through a glass very, very darkly. Claims of clear and transparent instructions directly from God are the mark of a false prophet.
Iconoclasm is a familiar religious impulse, which fallibilism takes to new heights of purity.
Call it the irony of iconoclasm: Iconoclasts who still feel the need to smash something have not overcome their idolatrous desires, they have merely rechannelled them. Protestantism and Islam smashed images, but redirected their idolatrous worship onto the written word. A truly universal iconoclasm would smash nothing. It leaves everything in place, yet changes our attitude towards everything. It aims for an attitude of proper detachment. Just as any image is inadequate as a representation of God, any text is profoundly inadequate. To treat representations with proper detachment is to treat them as radically fallible, is to treat them as presentations made by people to other people.
A God who could be contained in a denominational creed would be a pathetic creature. A God who could be contained between the covers of a book would not be worth believing in.

I may be able to accept, on a generous day, the idea that true freedom requires obedience to God. Obedience to reality, yes, living at its edge – trying to find out just how bad the best possible world would be. Obedience, yes, if defined as maximal suppleness, minimal ego in our responses to reality. What I will never accept is the idea that freedom requires unquestioning obedience to a human institution that claims to speak for God.
Some institutions may provide for some people the best framework for individual development and the best shot at a successfully lived life. But even when they do, they are still only the least imperfect on the market. It is blasphemous for an institution to claim that its doctrines are perfect and deserving of total obedience.
It is embarrassing for people to preen themselves on how they have achieved grace. It is disgusting for an institution to claim that it owns grace: Only corrupt institutions would ever claim to be able to dispense grace at will, or claim a monopoly of grace.
Grace is like truth. As soon as you claim to possess either truth or grace they turn sour on you.
There are a few non-perverted ways of talking about grace, but they all involve the seeking of grace.
The most an institution, true to fallibilism, could claim: That it is a relatively better, relatively more reliable facilitator of grace. A relatively less unsuccessful company of seekers for grace.
Fallibilism has no objections in principle to a theologia negativa. It is, however, hard to see how a serious negative theology differs from functional atheism. If God is beyond human formatting, then this also applies to anything expressed by means of human language. If any formatting is inadequate, then the standing of revelation is severely relativised – to the point where the authority of sacred texts does not exceed that of other literary classics. If any formatting is fundamentally inadequate, the teachings of religious authorities can be no more than provisional approximations, more hints and clues than commands.
It may be worth the attempt for a corporate body to project a brand image of infallibilist certainty, built on exaggerated advertising. And then for the corporate officers to represent the corporate line. (It remains to be seen, of course, whether the bluff can still be pulled off once unsupported by coercion.) But even corporate officers have private minds. Even corporate officers retain an (atrophied) conscience.
Fallibilism stresses conscience as the ultimate locus of decision. There is nothing wrong with seeking guidance from institutions. We are in fact nearly unable to live meaningfully without respecting and accepting the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But no one should blindly follow to the extent of suppressing one’s conscience. For fallibilism there is always and inevitably a gap between what the institution says believers should believe and what the believer actually decides to believe. Closing the gap would not lead to perfection, but damnation.

There is nothing wrong with confident, or bold, or strong claims. Something starts being wrong when the word ‘absolutely’ is added in front.
Only a false religion would claim that firmness of purpose requires an irrational degree of certainty in one’s beliefs.
The mark of false religions, both secular and theistic, is the certainty of the fanatic. Contrast this with the sanity of fallibilism: resigned to making do with the least imperfect of all the available alternatives.
Firmness of purpose does not come from irresponsible punting on implausible premises, but from ruthless risk management. Hold firm to a practice for as long it proves best, and transition to a better practice if one arises. Consistently seeking best practice is exactly what the world’s largest corporations attempt to do. One can accuse Microsoft of many things. Softness of purpose is not one them.
There is nothing terribly wrong about becoming sentimentally attached to people and places and rituals. But it is unhealthy to become sentimentally attached to beliefs, including religious ones. We should be as unsentimental about religious beliefs as businesses are about their production processes. A belief that does not perform should be fired.
The paralysis and lack of imagination of Nietzsche’s Last Man is a withdrawal symptom. It describes the shock of the new, the shock of a recent and incomplete awakening from orthodox patterns of thought. Infallibilism is a hard addiction to cure. How romantic to be absolutely right, about some things.
A hand-crafted, experimentally confirmed purpose is still the most solid grounding our lives can have. There are no metaphysically true or false purposes that we could align ourselves with. There are only responsible and irresponsible choices. Reality is a demanding teacher, and running disciplined experiments to discover which purposes work for oneself the opposite of arbitrary. Irresponsible, by contrast, would be this: Staking one’s life on an arbitrary religious doctrine that lacks empirical grounding.
Religiously motivated practices may indeed be incidentally successful and worth maintaining. What interests, however, is their meaningfulness, not their religious character.
There is nothing wrong with actions done for religious reasons if they are also done for other reasons, e.g. compassion, community, caring for oneself. Ideological action – actions that are undertaken solely because of an abstract religious belief – is liable to be regretted as meaningless later on. True nihilism is making one’s purpose ride on assumptions with a high risk of turning out literal nothings. What is wisdom except taking care that one’s life retains its meaning even when one's ideology fails ?

Religions are lauded by some as facilitating social cohesion, collective action and sacrifice. As a matter of empirical fact, religious belief can be effective at motivating people to sacrifice themselves for the supposed benefits of society. Why the ruling elites might see this as a positive is clear; why anybody else should see it as a positive much less so.
Collective action is not an unalloyed good. Imperial conquests, crusades, pogroms, witch hunts, etc are also examples of collective action. And the action of a suicide bomber is undeniably costly. If less religion really meant less of these, then less religion would be welcome.
The main output of doctrinal theology, apart from second-rate philosophy, are tribal markers. Although funny hats or colourful tattoos would serve just as well, bizarre beliefs have been very successful as markers. Reasons, or sad excuses rather, for people to feel better about themselves, and look down on out-of-tribers.
Why is in-tribe solidarity good when it comes at the expense of out-tribe solidarity ? Why is religion’s artificially dividing humanity into tribes a good thing ?
Religious tribes are like families in both senses of the word. They can, like nations, be crime families, a conspiracy to conquer, plunder, and exploit. Or they can be healthy families, places of mutual support and shared lives, without expansionist intentions towards outsiders.
Setting out to conquer is just what tribes do. There is, on some level, nothing to object to. What does bear objecting: When the conquerors talk about love, peace, and justice. When the conquerors complain about the burden they bear in bringing civilisation and democracy.
Religiously motivated person-on-person violence is rare in western-style democracies. There are, however, still attempts by religious groups to wield political power through the law – which is after all only a cold, bureaucratic application of violence. A religion that gives others reasons to see it as a conspiracy to oppress, harass, and stigmatise is a false religion.

We could choose beliefs for many reasons other than evidence in their favour, e.g. for their comfort value, their energising force, or for facilitating social cohesion.
For as long as reality allows one to get away with it, preferring comfort over evidence is a rational strategy of belief selection. It assumes, however, that reality will stay quiet and stable. It may not.
Cautionary tale after tale teaches us how any supposedly life-enhancing illusion will rot and become toxic over time. Nothing happens more quickly than a noble lie turning ignoble.
To the extent that honesty tends to be the best longterm policy, evidence is probably our best longterm bet. The right path may be called risk-minimal, but it is rarely found without courage.

A true religion would encourage us to build our worldview from the ground up. Questions that arise locally within science should be answered locally by scientific best practice, and their results then integrated into our broader worldview. If, say, locally within biology the theory of evolution imposes itself, then a true religion should urge us to respect this fact on the more global, speculative level.
Fallibilism entails a commitment to being “empirical” in the ordinary way – empirical without succumbing to empiricism: preferring low-lying theories tied to lots of little facts to high-flying abstractions. Preferring messy particulars to all too tidy unification.
We should decide questions on as low and concrete a level as possible, and resort to higher-level abstractions only where necessary. We should focus on evidence, ie return to the small, more easily decidable parts of the questions as often as we can.
A religion worth believing in should encourage its believers to follow the evidence where it leads. Christians who takes this gamble risk discovering that Christianity may not be the Truth, and that the most honest mode of inquiry may not lead to Christ. At the same time, unbelievers risk falling into faith.
Certain enthusiasts are overly sure that their religion represents the Truth, and that it has therefore nothing to fear from free inquiry. I largely agree with religious reactionaries that this view is naïve, that in fact religious organisations have many things to fear from freedom.
As a matter of statistical averages, more often than not, a deepening of the commitment to honest inquiry seems to lead to a lessening of (orthodox) faith. To the extent that the historical record suggests that Christian orthodoxy tends to retreat in the face of honest inquiry, the prognosis for a Christian faith held fully in the spirit of tough and open inquiry must be at least doubtful. If one’s overriding commitment is the maintenance of orthodoxy, one should probably oppose unfettered freedom of both the press and the university.
I tend to agree with religious reactionaries that hoping for a vindication by reason is a bad bet, and more likely than not to lead believers away. Inquiry is far from guaranteed to converge with faith.
In contrast to the reactionaries, I would maintain that honest inquiry is its own reward, and trumps the value any orthodoxy could have. This, however, is ultimately no better than a faith – the faith that honest inquiry is the only creed worth being loyal to.
This faith is based on the belief that placing one’s ultimate trust in a creed, any substantive creed, is a cowardly evasion of life’s reality. A bet bound to turn out bad.
Fallibilism is hence defined by placing the pursuit of honest inquiry above loyalty to any particular beliefs. It respects any religious practice that does the same.
The common ground for all fallibilists, believing and unbelieving, is their loyalty to free and open-ended inquiry. Placing loyalty to a particular set of beliefs, including atheism, above open-ended inquiry is to leave fallibilism, and behave in a way that is, to fallibilist eyes, actively immoral.
Honest inquiry does not lead to single, binding answers. Honest inquirers can reasonably disagree about many issues, big and small. Honest inquiry only restricts the range of legitimate disagreements; as long as religious positions fall within this range (the boundaries of which are themselves contested), there is nothing to object to.
Tying respect for the beliefs of others to truth is an impracticable criterion (unless one collapses ´true belief´ into ´believing the same as I do´). Truth in a large sense is unobservable. All we can observe, at least partially, is the general honesty of the inquirer. And we can then calibrate our respect to be proportional to their honesty, independent of whether they agree with us or not.
When the evidence contradicts religious positions, but the contradictions remain contained within the limits of legitimate disagreement, no neutral ground remains. Just as there is no fully neutral ground to decide between scientific paradigms, can no referee be called to decide between worldviews. Once all disagreements have been aired, and best efforts of resolution been made, only undecidability remains.
Even when the religious position is apparently contradicted by present evidence, one could legitimately maintain that it represents the fuller truth, and will be vindicated by future evidence. The reasonableness of such an expectation is something about which inquirers can honestly disagree.
The final decision, although of course informed by public discourse, is essentially a private one. Evaluating the balance of explicit evidence and implicit intuitions, our own wisdom against tradition’s, making sense of the total picture, is a responsibility that we each have to meet on our own.

Everyone carries unprovable presuppositions, yet the better presuppositions are as light and thin and parsimonious as possible.
The presuppositions of the Christian worldview are big, fat and clunky: The particulars can seem implausible, the grand story of salvation takes a lot of swallowing.
To assert presuppositions without giving (relatively more) neutral reasons amounts to a retreat behind the walls of a sectarian ghetto. Unless the retreat is justified by active persecution, little truth is likely to be found there.
A faith that retreats behind a wall of sectarian presuppositions has given up on itself. Restricting oneself at the outset to a captive audience is to abandon all ambitions of world-class quality. Any intellectual product that does not aim for global domination is aiming too low.
A spirituality that does not put facing reality, facing the facts and the evidence, front and centre, is not deep. It is a recipe for self-indulgence, the self-serving retreat into a bubble. A pain-killing haze is not enlightenment.
Many traditional believers would reject New Age spirituality as shallow. Yet the same accusation of shallowness also applies to certain traditional forms of spirituality.
We cannot live by evidence alone, all of us have to take crazy chances. But we should borrow from trust beyond evidence only as little as possible.
There is nothing profound about evading the facts, or the best known explanations of phenomena.
Nor is there anything profound about accepting miracles, ie accepting bad explanations when better explanations are available.
There are religious ways of criticising belief in miracles. Many religious reformers have done so. Few have entirely succeeded.
A religion that erects a taboo around ways of knowing does not deserve to be trusted. Only people with something to hide would propagate a belief in mechanisms that are in principle beyond human understanding. Only a false religion would put any part of itself beyond ordinary, critical scrutiny.
If something is beyond human understanding the best we can do is to remain silent about it. (So perhaps we should remain silent about God.) If, on the other hand, it is accessible to human understanding we should investigate it just like anything else.
The label natural/supernatural is not relevant. Any good explanation of phenomena is welcome, whether they fall inside or outside of what is today considered normal. The argument is, in fact, about what we should mean by “good” explanation.

There are only very few dissenters today from the idea that scientific questions should be decided by scientific methods. The fact part of the authority question has almost been settled. The relevance of religious authorities for questions of value and behaviour is still disputed.
Should we grant people who speak for religion, any religion, a special authority on issues of morality and ethics, on how we humans live our lives ? Should we disqualify religion on the grounds that it impairs clear thinking ? Or should we say that religion as such makes no difference, that everything depends on the precise contents of the speaker’s position ?
There are religious ways of denying that the officers of a religious institution own special knowledge. The minister is still a sinner. The church still a fallible institution. The bible still a human text.
Do religious leaders enjoy an authority that exceeds secular knowledge, or should we trust them only if their advice also makes sense on non-religious grounds ?
A peaceful tradition that has survived for a long time without unfair state support and seen off many challengers has earned a certain presumption of trustworthiness. Such a presumption, however, only carries so far; it should not be mistaken for a blanket endorsement. There may be parts, even large parts, of the tradition that have reached retirement age.

There is a direct channel from democracy to unbelief: Pluralist democracies virtually require a policy of methodological naturalism in order to function.
When the only legitimate weapon left is speech, the only way of expanding one’s market share is to reach out to others who start from different premises. The need to build political coalitions trains even religious people in arguing as if there were no God, or God were in everything.
Participation in public discourse forces people to argue in ways that try to transcend, however imperfectly, the boundaries of their own tradition. And so it has become routine for religious conservatives to argue their moral positions with reference to social science studies. By allowing the battleground to shift from scriptural interpretation to the quality of social science, they have in effect accepted the policy of public naturalism.
The scientist enters the laboratory, and for the sake of communication with other scientists, writes her papers as if there were no God.
The same policy of methodological naturalism – speaking, for the sake of addressing the widest possible audience, as if religious authority were irrelevant – applies to matters of value.
To claim divine authority for one’s own preferred policy position is to dress up one’s claim in a fat suit. And fat, in this case, is clearly not beautiful.
So instead of waiting for each tribe to enact its own prostrations in front of its own favourite idol, we go ahead to bracket divine authority. All sectarian presuppositions are suspended. We temporarily move questions of ultimate grounds off-limits.
Instead of arguing – unproductively – about metaphysical grounds we argue concretely about the consequences of actions (the utilitarian track of ethics), the risks and uncertainties inherent in action (the rights track of ethics), or their effects on the person (the virtue track of ethics).
If we can best resolve scientific questions by pretending that God is irrelevant, and best approach a moral consensus by pretending that God is irrelevant, then we have proved that large parts of our (public) lives can be lived successfully without paying attention to (particular conceptions of) God. (This is assuming that God is separate from the world, not always already involved in everything. If ‘God’ is only another word for the totality of reality then we might come closer to God by leaving particular representations behind. We may be closest to God when furthest from theology. )
The usefulness of the policy is independent of belief in factual existence. It is in the interest of theists no less than atheists to adopt a policy of naturalism whenever public agreement, rather than personal testimony, is at stake.
Yet the success of pretending the irrelevance of religious authority will over time come close to proving the irrelevance. Uncomfortable as this may be for believers, it’s a price of plural democracy.

Like so many other Nietzschean concepts, will-to-power is caricatured by Christians as a philosophy that only someone with a secret wish to wear a SS uniform could want to subscribe to.
Claiming exemption from will-to-power is the lamest trick in the book. In order to believe that claiming exemption grants exemption you have to be either incredibly naïve, or believe that your opposites are incredibly stupid. Taking the line “I’m not subject to will-to-power because I’m a Christian saved by grace, motivated only by love, etc” does not mean that you will be outside the power game, it only means that you declare your intention to play the game in an unprofessional and hypocritical manner.
Will-to-power is really only a more mature version of the concept of original sin. It agrees with original sin in admitting our limitations, our imperfections, our fallibility. It is more mature because it refuses unambiguously what many Christian traditions only refuse either ambiguously or not at all: the false hope of reaching beyond any of these constraints through the saving power of faith. It means finally accepting the radical fallibility of anything human, including all humanly accessible parts of religion. Accepting that not even the tiniest scrap of our religious knowledge is perfect, or pure.
There is also no need any more to beat ourselves up over what is just our nature. Rather than call it ‘sin’ we should think of fallibility as something essentially neutral, or even something we can valorise.
Fallibilism means accepting we are inescapably subjective, have aggressive tendencies, have interests, have biases, have a sexuality. There may be techniques for mitigating these human characteristics, including traditionally religious ones, but in the end no one, not even the prophets, and nothing, not even scripture, is exempt. Managing the realities of our fallible nature is what we are called on to do. And just about the worst way of going about managing is to stand in denial, by looking for a supernatural cure, a magical way out, or claiming exemptions.
Infallibilists will say that the claims of their own religion, uniquely among all other claims, are not animated by will-to-power. They will say for instance that revelation is “true”, and since “truth” transcends the fray, that their claims are “objective”, not shot through with the pettiness of power. Which is nonsense. Precisely because no claim is beyond suspicion do we have to work so hard at reducing the impact of suspicious behaviours. Objectivity, such as it is, represents a fragile achievement that needs to be worked at continually. From all these efforts infallibilists believe themselves to be excused because, apparently, painting a sanctimonious face on one’s own will-to-power is enough to make it disappear.
Here is a test: When challenged to state whether their own claims are expressions of will-to-power, the infallibilist will deny it, citing some metaphysical notion of truth. The fallibilist will cheerfully admit it, and invite you to inspect all the measures taken to minimise the temptations of wilfulness and power.
Objectivity is not a metaphysical relation of correspondence to facts. Far from being the opposite of subjectivity, objectivity is actually a particular mode of subjectivity: Being objective means having been relatively successful at employing one’s subjectivity. Objectivity is thus a virtue, subjectivity managed in a desirable way. And the objectivity of claims derives from the objectivity of their authors. An objective claim is one that an objective person would make.
Peace is not the polar opposite of war. Peace is the state of having successfully managed our warlike tendencies.

A religion that totally identifies itself with a political party is an unethical creed.
The alignment of Christianity with conservatism is a little ironic. The simple fact that Christianity is old does not make it a natural fit. Christianity is a totalising ideology promising salvation. Taken seriously in its original, unencrusted form – which admittedly few people do – it has clear revolutionary potential. Could we not interpret communism as a variation on the social gospel, and if we can, does it not reflect back on the unconservative nature of Christianity ?
A conservative (in the historical tradition of conservatism in which for instance Burke was a conservative) should be repelled by the double fraud of complete explanation and attainable salvation. True conservatives should reject in Christianity what they rejected, for the same good reasons, in communism: the sweeping unempirical ideology, the simplistic narrative for world history, the smug moral superiority.
The idea of salvation – making whole, safe, and perfect – is the antithesis of conservative thinking. The only Christian traditions that a conservative could be comfortable with are those that cover up the embarrassment of salvation. The favourite theological ploy is to assign its action so exclusively to the next life that it amounts to a total denial of salvation for this, the only relevant life.
The left-of-centre has thoroughly rejected total systems and schemes of salvation with Stalinism. When will the right-of-centre finally reject the promises of salvation and total knowledge made by (some version of) Christianity ?
A religion that aligns itself closely with a particular nation or empire is a false religion. Just about every army leaving for slaughter has been blessed by a priest. The Wehrmacht’s belt buckle spoke for all: Gott mit uns – God with us.
A God said to entertain a special relationship with any particular nation is a tribal idol. Such a religion may have cultural value, but little ethical value.
A party calling itself the Party of God is certain to be no such thing.
A religion that converts by the sword is a false religion. A true religion triumphs by word and example. Since the state often uses other means, a wise religion keeps its distance from the state. It does not seek to exercise temporal power directly. Roman Catholicism gained when the papacy was reduced, against its will, to ruling no area larger than the Vatican.
A religion that persecutes apostasy is a weak and pathetic creed. A confident and credible religion would not seek to be shielded from competition or fierce criticism. A confident and strong religion does not seek government protection from blasphemous speech. Nor does it seek establishment – to be favoured by the government or any other agency of power over other belief systems. All it seeks is free exercise – fair, open and non-violent competition with other belief systems. And accepts that it could deserve defeat in such a competition. And accepts that the world would be a better place if it turned out the loser in a fair fight. And trusts that during an open process the truth content of losing positions will be absorbed by competitors, so that nothing much of value is lost when the defeated positions eventually disappear. A true religion, in other words, knows how to die.

Religious people have justly complained about “scientism” – a tendency to claim an unrealistic degree of objectivity for science and rule out beliefs grounded in religious experience as meaningless.
Postmodernism means that religious truth claims are let in the door once more, which is only right and fair. But once through the door, the claims have to perform. While postmodernism is quite accommodating towards highly abstract, generic notions of theology, the performance of the concrete, particular claims of Christianity is even worse under the hypercriticism of postmodernism than the already severe criticism of modernism.
The only way is forward. The first naiveté of unchallenged orthodoxy is irrecoverable. A second naiveté can be reached only by facing down all doubts, exempting nothing from criticism, not science, not religion, not criticism itself. Once our stance has been adjusted to handle universal scepticism, fear vanishes. There is nothing left to fear. We know we stand on the least shaky ground available, and know how to react when even this begins to shake.
Fallibilism is not the enemy of religion. It is the enemy of falsehood in religion. It aims to be the acid bath that burns away everything in current religious practice that is false, but leave the valuable remainder unscathed. How much precious metal and other, lesser resources the acid bath leaves behind varies from religious configuration to configuration. In some cases, admittedly, hardly anything will remain.
We should be honest and admit that the fit between fallibilism and religion is not comfortable. Fallibilism brings along hypercriticism, and maintaining (orthodox) faith under fallibilism is a struggle up a slippery slope. History over the last few centuries strongly suggests that what waits at the bottom of the slope may be atheism, or polytheism, or pantheism, but certainly not any form of orthodox creedal monotheism. History also suggests that positions half-way up the slope are argumentatively unstable. But provided they express themselves fallibilistically, have been cleansed and filtered through fallibilism, they are not illegitimate.
No creedal religion stands a chance of becoming catholic, i.e. a global, universally shared ethos. Any creed automatically generates heresy, exclusion. Only an ethos like fallibilism that eschews substantive creeds has a chance of universal acceptability. (This is not inconsistent with excluding infallibilism, just as it is not inconsistent to exclude moral evil.)
Ecumenical dialogue is almost impossible for religious institutions. The boundaries of creedal religions are defined by doctrine, so by compromising on doctrine they compromise their existence. At the institutional level, the most that can probably be hoped for are ground rules for peaceful coexistence.
But it is possible for individuals, when not speaking as corporate officers bound to represent the interests of an institution, to achieve true ecumenical dialogue.
As part of this quest for a global ethos, fallibilism welcomes any religion that thoroughly grounds itself in fallibilism.

Sunday, February 10

Is secularisation dangerous ?

People in the United States haven’t secularised as much as people in comparable countries, but they have still been “fallibilised”. American Christianity is so deeply enculturated that it doesn't amount to much anymore. Even nominally conservative people have gone far in adopting practices of toleration and pluralism that only make sense on strongly fallibilist assumptions. The constitutional framework has house-trained its Christians well.

If you, my conservative Christians friends/enemies, really had the courage of your convictions, if you really believed all you say you believe, shouldn’t you start to behave a lot more like jihadists and a lot less like the average evangelical voter ? Why do you put up so meekly with blasphemy, adverse court rulings, the practice of abortion ? Doesn’t it that mean that you have gone soft and sceptical already ? That there are other norms – norms of pluralism – that you put above the commands of your religion ? Don’t your actions belie the claim that your religious standards are your highest standards ?

When you put up with blasphemous speech, aren’t you implicitly saying that you value the norm of free speech higher than the purity of your religion ? It is quite easy to justify a norm of free speech from a fallibilist perspective, but how do you justify your own adherence to the norm ?

When you submit to defeats in the legislatures or the courts, aren’t you implicitly saying that you value the norms of democratic fair play higher than the commands of your religion ? Aren’t you admitting that there is a profound tension between the open-ended nature of the democratic process and your commitment to an eternal canon of truths ?

When you submit to the practice of legal abortion, aren’t you implicitly saying that you value the rule of law higher than what you see as an important moral imperative ? If the imperative were as absolute as you say it is, how can you stay inside the process, limiting yourself to lawful protests ? Does there not have to come a point, for a believer in divinely inspired truths, when the entire democratic regime is rejected as illegitimate ? If talk of a "holocaust" in our midst is not just tasteless hyperbole, how can it be that the most drastic step you take is to vote a certain way ? For if a holocaust were going on, wouldn't you be under a moral obligation to overthrow the government of the United States, immediately ?

Now I am glad you behave the way you do. I obviously don’t want you to turn towards trying to blow up the constitution. I am just saying that you may have made much more substantial concessions to the fallibilist way of life than you are aware of. Functionally you may already be fallibilists, or reasonably close to getting there.

Forgive me when I read your behaviour as a form of reverse hypocrisy: Barking bad infallibilist slogans while doing good fallibilist deeds.

There may even be a rational explanation for how this situation arose: Practice precedes theory. Practice grows from the ground up. Then very gradually a theoretical superstructure develops to explain it. The arrival of a satisfactory theory straightens and strengthens the practice, and accelerates its growth somewhat. But this only happens late in the game. Theory does not make practice. In other words, the worst of what you fear may happen has already happened. The change of governing philosophy is not to come, everyday practice has in effect ratified it some time ago.

The relentlessly sceptical cast of fallibilism may seem radical but it agrees quite well with a temperament that is already wide-spread. It just gives a little more structure and heft to that temperament. The philosophical superstructure only supplies premises for conclusions people are reaching already. The results are therefore going to be quite a lot more conservative with respect to already current practice than on philosophical paper. It will only slightly accelerate us in a direction we are going anyway. Fallibilism may seem radical, but compared to what is common practice in 21st century America, it isn’t very radical at all. (And compared to what is happening in liberal arts departments across the country, it’s positively friendly to religious sensibilities.)

It is a common idea among conservative Christians that secular humanists are parasitic on Christianity, “living off the accumulated capital”, “running on the fumes”. The implication is that as practices become ever more thinly Christian, they become ever more fragile.

This is a fallacy, a category mistake to be precise: Genealogy – explaining from where a practice is descended – is not the same as explaining its viability, or lack of, today.

Our ancestors once passed through a fish phase. That does not mean that we rely on gills for survival today. Similarly, that a cultural practice once passed through a Christian phase does not mean that it has to depend on Christianity today.

If you think that secularism must be on its last legs, then you should also fear that Catholicism today is running off the incense fumes of a more real, earlier Christianity, the old-time religion before the hierarchy came round – very late and reluctantly in each case – to state that the market economy might not be such a bad idea, that liberal democracy might not be such a bad idea, that anti-Semitism might be bad idea, that religious liberty might be a good idea, …

You would be wrong to think that fallibilist secularism is just some thinned-out, overstretched version of your own Christian infallibilism. The old secular humanism may have been like this, but the new fallibilism is not; it has entirely different bases. If there is something that is increasingly thinned-out and overstretched it is your position in the context of contemporary America. A fresher mentality is spreading all around you. There is a growing schizophrenia between what people like you say they believe philosophically, and what you do in daily life: In your stated philosophical views, you still demand rigid certainty; in your actual conduct you have become almost as tolerant and pragmatic as your liberal neighbours. Not convinced by argument, true (I’m working on that one); but convinced by the habits of postmodern society rubbing off.

There is in fact very little to fear from proclaiming fallibilism in today’s America.

1) Any effects on the public standing of morality are going to be minimal. Scepticism about the moral order has been priced into people’s actions since time immemorial. Aside from a very small number of innocents no one is going to be caught by surprise (Certain people may find it useful to act surprised, but that is not the same as actually being surprised.) What it will do is add another layer of reflexivity to the multi-layer game of strategic deception that is life. Same old game, slightly faster pace.

Fallibilism will strengthen the tone of our moral discourse. We will lose a few more pious lies, but gain a finally believable basis on which to explain and defend morality. All justifiable degrees of certainty about knowledge and ethics can be maintained under fallibilism. Fake authorities stand to lose their last shreds of metaphysical cover. If they are left with nowhere to hide, it would be all to the good.

2) Accelerated secularisation would be unlikely to change U.S. economic policy in a statist direction. The libertarian segment of U.S. opinion that is responsible for the distinctiveness of the U.S. approach to economic policy is already highly secular. They would still fight their corner even after God left the building. For this reason, and reasons of history, even a post-Christian U.S. would still likely remain distinctive. There is, after all, no secularist position on the economy, it ranges from anarcho-libertarians to socialdemocrats.

3) Democracy will, if anything, be even safer. It becomes a lot easier to justify the pluralist norms that underpin democracy on fallibilist grounds.

The justification of a classically liberal system like the U.S. constitution flows much more naturally from fallibilist assumptions than orthodox Christian ones. After all, at the time of the Continental Congress the Catholic Church was still busy defending the divine right of kings.

The U.S. constitution is not something a strictly orthodox believer would have designed. It is something that (rich, slave-owning) fallibilists would have designed. The framers were great pragmatists, but they had lacked a theoretical structure into which their piecemeal efforts could have fitted with any coherence. The salient features of their brain child – the separation of powers, checks and balances, neutrality between religious sects, free speech and enterprise, a strong constitutional court to guard fundamental rights, elaborate procedural guarantees of fair trial and appeal – really only make sense as measures of coping with a fallibility more radical than perhaps they could have stomached.

Infallibilists believe that individuals – the Great Dictator –, committees – the Iranian Council of Guardians –, or institutions – the papacy –, are able to know timeless truths, and should therefore be protected against the assault of mere opinion. The framers, on the other hand, left no perch in the constitution unchecked or unbalanced.

Infallibilists care about enshrining content; fallibilists care about enshrining process and procedure, leaving content to come out in the wash. The framers, on their part, wrote at great lengths about procedure, and enshrined virtually no content.

Infallibilist care about preserving and promoting truths; fallibilists care about promoting competition among truth claims on a level playing field. The first amendment is silent about discrimination based on content.

If the United States had been a primarily Christian project, then there would have been an established church, minorities be damned; there would have been broad blasphemy exceptions to the first amendment; there would have been explicit constitutional supports for religiously motivated limitations on commerce; religious oversight of education and the press; and morals legislation.

The only norm in the text, the only surety for explicitly Christian legislation, is the principle of majority voting. When these majorities evaporate there is nothing in the constitutional text to stop Christianity from disappearing.

If you are looking for a time when the rot set in, the U.S. was started on a non-Christian track, try the 1760s, not the 1960s. It was at the founding that all U.S. Christians made the concession of submitting to a fair and open process in the course of which their own denomination could not only lose, but could deserve to lose. It was then that the American system was set up as an essentially open-ended process. That the major concession each denomination made at the founding should in our time become the concession that the religious worldview as a whole could not only lose, but deserve to lose, was unforeseen by most at the time, yet entirely in keeping with the logic of system. Wherever people are honest enough to abstain from rigging a process it may not give victory to their own side. The process of freedom is unpredictable, and can surprise even its champions.

So while there are social changes that carry risks, I don't really see it for our drift towards fallibilist secularism. The essentials of the fallibilist position are conservative with respect to where Western society finds itself, whereas any attempt to reestablish hard-edged claims of religious truth would have to begin by tearing up its fabric. Moves to arrest and reverse the drift are now far more dangerous than acceptance could ever be.

If you still think there is an unfathomable risk, and we should better not go there, then I have to ask you this: What’s your position on free inquiry ? Is it worth the risk ? You never know what people might come up with, and what that might “undermine”. None of my stuff is as intoxicatingly transgressive as anything by the great Nietzsche; and his writings have been in bookstores for over a hundred years now. If anything, fallibilism is serving your interests by trying to rein in the Nietzschean impulse (as much as possible without going back behind any of his discoveries).

The process of modernisation that, among other things, gave us secularisation was a huge risk, but also quasi-inevitable, and ultimately worth taking. Accepting fallibilism would in a sense mark the end of this historical episode, would show that we have reached the other side, a new pole of stability, after a long and confused transition. It could heal and repair some of the rifts caused by modernity.

Human groping towards progress has in the past unleashed a rabid form of secular infallibilism that was, in its time, even more dangerous than religious infallibilism. I’m no friend of Stalin, or repression in the name of atheism. But I do not see these particular ghosts coming back in our time. (Why repression when we can win this on the merits ? It’s the conservative Christian side that should be, and often is, afraid of unrepressed liberty. Voluntary abandonment of faith is the best sign that nothing of value is being lost.)

Infallibilism, taken to its logical conclusion, gives you totalitarianism. We have probably seen the end of totalitarianism as a political ideology. What we could still see is the return of a religiously coated infallibilism, a zombie ideology which aims, farcically, to be even more total than the political totalitarians.

Christians naturally believe their own belief system to be a force for good. So when there is a prospect of there being less of it in the (developed) world, you worry. Fair enough, from your perspective. Yet from a different perspective that views your belief system as evil in parts, that would be a reason to celebrate, not to worry. Faith in the unalloyed goodness of a belief system (or its founding prophet) is touching, but not very mature.

Is it obvious that social institutions become worse as they become less Christian ? Has Harvard become a worse university by becoming less religious ? Or has the university, rather, come into its own ?

Was Christianity essential to the Western take-off ? Or did the take-off only happen after the grip of Christianity had already weakened, and was, at each point in time, always driven by the most heretical element within Christianity, the forces most susceptible to secularisation ?

Be that as it may, we are in a new season, and last season’s scores no longer matter. The question of whether religion has in the past, on balance, been a force for good is not the same as asking as whether today this is still the case. It could be true that, for lack of alternatives, monotheistic religions have been a force for good at certain junctures in the past. But that does not mean that today, where fresh alternatives have emerged, religious worldviews could not simply be bad options, rather than the least bad option they may have been in the past.

Monotheism is a recent invention. Whenever you let human history begin – a few hundred thousands or millions of years ago – for only a small sliver of time have humans known monotheism, and for only of a few hundred years, a fraction of a fraction of fraction, has monotheism enjoyed anything like global hegemony.

Is monotheism still a good influence ? The one area where monotheism is strongest today and least doubted is the Middle East. Not the happiest region on earth.

Islam is a reformed faith in the monotheistic tradition. Reformed faiths, just like Protestantism, have a tendency to spawn two types of strains simultaneously – very mild strains (Quaker, Bahai, etc) as well as incredibly rabid reassertions of infallibilism.

I am half-convinced that in the near future we are going to see a final show-down between infallibilism’s last gasp, led by certain sections of Islam, and fallibilism, supported more or less by the rest of the world. I’m just hoping that we can keep it on the level of a shouting match, not a war. At least as useful as aircraft carriers in this struggle might be the following: A critical edition of the Quran and other Islamic scriptures. Scrupulously academic, not aiming to be polemic (but which would no doubt meet accusations of polemic intentions anyway).

As secularism makes headway in the U.S., a reaction from a tiny Christofascist terrorist movement is not inconceivable. The main confrontation, though, is likely to be inside the Islamic world, between two or more camps of citizens in each majority Muslim country.

We shouldn’t be too afraid. Time is on our side. The purer the infallibilism the less workable it will be. But there could be outbursts by an avantgarde of dead-enders running amok. Making sure these fevers pass with minimal casualties is not going to be easy.

I believe that American Christian conservatives have a tendency to misidentify their cause and their allies in this fight, and as a consequence are feeling alone in the world.

We should all, believers and secularists, as believers in the pluralism of the American system stand together in opposing the blasphemy of theocratic infallibilism. And that includes opposing infallibilism at home. You can’t fight the Islamists with some half-hearted, watered-down, cosmetically enhanced, tied-into-a-thousand-knots, restrained and relaxed in all the wrong places, almost already fallibilist version of Christian infallibilism. We need a simple, solid, thought-through position to defend. I suggest that that position should be fallibilism.

It also happens to be the only position that is ultimately compatible with both democracy and the practice of science.

Let me be blunt: Fallibilism is the best deal postmodern reality is ever going to offer to the conservative religious. Walking away from this deal is to start down the road Bin Laden went. You are free to search for a third way; I dare say there isn’t one.

I am not terribly interested in theism-atheism debates. I won’t hide my opinion when asked, but I am not invested in pushing it. For all I care people can keep their belief. What worries me is not belief as such, but when belief inclines people to adopt bad moral and political philosophies as well. If they drop their infallibilistic philosophies for fallibilistic ones, then I drop my case. Unlike a certain atheist, I have no interest for instance in talking an Andrew Sullivan, who is very nearly a fallibilist, out of his belief in Christ. I would not recommend trying to combine full-blown fallibilism with Christian faith, but I am open to the possibility of someone achieving it.

I very much want people to become fallibilists. Once they do I don’t care much whether they retain religious belief or not. Hardline conservatives will find it difficult to believe, but there is no intent here to destroy faith. The intent is to provoke an admittedly risky reform, to modify and purify, and see what can be kept. Belief filtered through fallibilism could keep alive resources that are available nowhere else; a language, rich with metaphors and poetry, that is able to express human experience in a way no other language can quite match. This fine sensibility is not something I would want to see lost, and I am relying on believers to keep it alive.

Fallibilism is in hard opposition to institutional Christianity, the kind of Christianity that sold its soul to Constantine in exchange for worldly power. There is much less opposition to a personal practice of Christianity that stresses non-violence and compassion, and keeps at least some distance from certain institutions. Moreover, the humility and vulnerability fallibilism fosters are not unreligious attitudes. There will be frictions even with a Christ-imitating practice, but, it seems to me, no unbridgeable chasm. Whether infallibilism is the way of the Pharisees, and fallibilism the way of Jesus is not for me to decide; it is something that believers might possibly want to debate among themselves.

If we were all to become fallibilists, we wouldn’t all suddenly start to agree on everything.

The non-committal nature of fallibilism is shared by any text meant to function as a holy book. Any holy book has to be strategically ambiguous, quotable against itself. If it weren’t so notoriously “two-handed” – amenable to considerations of ‘on the one hand’, ‘on the other hand’ – on all debatable issues, it wouldn’t be able to do justice to the balancing act that is life on most days. Just about the only thing that fallibilism rejects without a counterbalancing act is the idolatry of infallibilism.

People who claim to have History on their side are dangerous idiots. But we all, except for a few deep pessimists, provisionally believe ourselves to be on the winning side of history. Christians claim it, secularists claim it.

We could endlessly debate the balance of merit for past successes, and the prospects for the future. In the end we can only wait for the evidence to come in.

Religiosity makes the (Dis)United States of America an outlier among developed nations; all outliers revert to the mean eventually. So from my perspective it’s just a matter of waiting and letting the weight of the arguments take its course. The action is slow but over time virtually unstoppable, the intellectual equivalent of gravity.

Instead of arguing endlessly, let’s take a bet then: What happens first, the oft-predicted (by Christian apocalyptists) collapse of Sodom and Gomorrah, i.e. Europe and San Francisco, or the collapse of Christianity in the Bible Belt ?

The philosophical implications of Darwinism

If human knowledge is the evolving production of an evolved being, what kind of knowledge could that plausibly give us ? Beings subject to evolution are perpetually harassed. Everything about them is patched-up, provisional and just-good-enough. They grope, they try, and fail. If they manage anything approaching rationality, it’s only local and myopic.

What does that suggest ? As evolved beings we have no chance of acquiring anything by way of knowledge that could be constant or certain. Nothing shiny, or pure, or transcendent. Only messy, fleshy, incarnate truth.

The knowledge evolved beings like us possess is bound to be drastically fallible.

Even among people who nominally accept the theory of evolution some believe that more is at work. They believe in a telos, a transcendent goal towards which the process of evolution is pulled forward. An Omega Point, as Teilhard de Chardin calls it.

This is either a confused way of stating the obvious, or a devious strategy for reintroducing God and infallible purposes through the backdoor.

If we can think of our beliefs as instruments, as pieces of mental software, then it is easy to see how their use value tends to rise over time. This happens for the same basic reasons that manufacturing productivity steadily rises. People are not normally motivated to discard good tools for worse. So barring cataclysms, if the productivity moves at all, it should move up.

Even though productivity rises, there needs to be no continuity in the way it is achieved. No continuity in the content of our beliefs is implied; if it serves productivity every last bit of content is liable to be exchanged. Today’s best practice raises the bar for any later practices but has no power to determine the principles on which the future will operate.

The value of our knowledge can be thought of as an abstraction similar to productivity in this crucial sense: The expectation that productivity will rise is reasonable; the expectation that modes of production will be retained is not.

All trends, even long-term trends, can come to an end. The only permanent trend worth betting on is the rise of productivity in our knowledge, stripped of any commitment to permanence of content. In the contents, continuing threads abound; but none could be relied on to go all the way.

There is a harmless way of interpreting talk of a teleology inherent in the process of human evolution: We can take the telos to be simply a placeholder for “whatever will be thought most productive at a given point in history” or “wherever the process decides to take us”. The “telos” here is a misleading nominalisation, introducing an object where there is nothing object-like. It may not be the most elegant way of speaking, but it is not actually wrong.

What would be wrong is this: To claim that the telos is more than purely formal, that it has substantive content. To claim that the process allows us to accumulate truth, allows us to fix substantive content in approaching the telos; that there are parts of presently known content not subject to being revised at any time. The purpose behind this move is to restore infallible truth as the limit of ever fuller approximation. It amounts to a sneaky denial of the open-ended nature of knowledge discovery. As more and more content is assumed to be settled, the window for discovery shrinks and shrinks. This cock-eyed view of teleology is tantamount to an expectation for history to shut down, eventually.

Yet the historical process is and remains radically open-ended: No one has a less than radically fallible way of predicting the future, including in particular the content of people’s future beliefs. And it is meaningless to claim that God has traced a course for history when we have no way of knowing what that course might be.

I prefer my Anti-Darwinians honest; I prefer Protestant literalists who flatly reject the theory of evolution to certain others, Catholics especially, who want to wreck it with screwball additions.

Darwinian theory has no room for divine intervention or guidance, ie substantive teleology by any name, in any way, shape or form. All who believe otherwise should have the courage to move beyond the pale of science and declare themselves Anti-Darwinian outlaws.

When some secularists fall into the trap of teleology, they are also tempted by the prospect of claiming the authority of the ideal limit for today’s actual claims. Certain European discourse theorists like to define truth as the progressively less impaired limit of societal consensus; certain American pragmatists – e.g. some statements by Peirce – can be read as positing an ideal (and very “unpragmatist”) limit towards which the search for truth converges. These ideals are thin and unconvincing secularisations of religious fantasies. Passing from the Holy Spirit to Hegel’s Spirit hardly counts as an improvement.

We have seen how the theory of evolution as a whole can lend plausibility to an evolutionary, strictly non-teleological account of knowledge. We now want to look at what individual inquiries within the evolutionary paradigm can amount to.

An empirical inquiry can only tell us what is possible to do; not what we ought to do. It can help us restrict our moral choices to only practicable moral systems.

That, however, is almost no constraint at all. It is very hard to imagine anything an empirical inquiry into evolutionary biology could prove to be impossible for people to do. And if it’s not literally impossible, just very, very hard and costly to do, then moral philosophy still has all the freedom in the world to say: ‘Bite that bullet. We don’t care how hard it is, it’s right anyway.’

In other words, empirical inquiries into human nature provide no constraints at all on moral philosophies. Only other moral philosophies can do that.

This is then a battle between two types of moral philosophy: On the one hand, there are “with the grain” philosophies asserting that an empirical finding, e.g. “Humans find X hard to do”, provides a reason not to force people to do X. Perhaps not by itself a conclusive reason, but at least a prima facie reason. On the other hand there are “transcendentalist” philosophies that assert that such a finding would provide no, or next to no, reason not to try and get people to do X.

An example should make it clearer: Suppose a scientist were to document that humans find it for such-and-such evolutionary reasons hard to live monogamously. They like sleeping around. (Well, doesn’t take a scientist to discover that.) A “with the grain” moral philosophy would conclude from such a result that we should perhaps think about changing our mores in the direction of polyamory/polygamy, or at least allow for unbiased competition among models of intimacy. A “transcendentalist” philosophy would conclude that we should try even harder to drum the standard of monogamy into people.

This is a debate purely within moral philosophy, between different conceptions of moral philosophy. No empirical finding does have, or should be allowed to have, any bearing on the outcome.

It is too glib to say that an ‘ought’ never follows from an ‘is’. Under a “with the grain” philosophy, an ‘is’ can at least strongly suggest an ‘ought’. This suggestion is defeasible, there is indeed no strict logical implication. We remain morally free to take any attitude we like to whatever life decides to throw at us. That does not, however, make the wisdom of always taking the path of maximal resistance, as “against the grain” philosophies would have us do, any less questionable.

How high we want to make the hurdle from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is a moral philosophical question. “With the grain” philosophies say: Not so high. “Against the grain” philosophies say: As high as we possibly can.

That something feels good is a prima facie reason doing it. It may not be a sufficient reason because the value of the good feeling could be outweighed by a reason not to chase the thrill. So far, so commonsensical. What is difficult to credit is the line some “against the grainers” take – that a good feeling could by itself be a reason not to do something. Feelings are surely fallible indicators, but to deny them all validity as pointers to a good life seems excessive.

Only the “with the grain” philosophies have a motivation to learn about nature and are interested in the results of empirical inquiries. “Against the grain philosophies” do not care, are often not even interested in discovering the relative cost of various options.

On the philosophical merits, it is looks clear to me at least that there is – generally speaking, with proper exceptions – more sense in going with the grain of nature than against it. We have good reasons to respect the grain of the timber out of which we are trying to build our societies. The presumption should be in favour of going with the grain; we need a strong countervailing reason in order to ignore the grain. Before we decide to go against the grain we need an argument for assuming the costs this moral choice carries.

One example of a valid countervailing reason could be that the practices suggested by empirical findings contradict current practices which work well, and deserve to be preserved. In such a case, the usual conservative cautions about changing successful traditions apply. (What is to count as “successful” could of course quickly lead to another debate between moral philosophies.)

In contrast to what certain zoological inquiries might suggest as normal, closed marriages – closed by norm if not in fact – are currently the rule among humans, and concurrent polygamy is rare as a model of the family in developed countries. The only form of polygamy that is frequent is serial monogamy.

The generic conservative argument against any and all change is valid as far as it goes, but not very interesting. One has to look at the specifics, and balance the risks and opportunities of change in each case. Every time we change a running system that is not obviously broken we are taking a risk. But the risk of unexpected complications and unknown side-effects can be managed to some extent and finally outweighed by the promise of improving the system.

Fallibilism is a good basis from which to acknowledge that the process could be smarter than we are, that norms and institutions may work for reasons that we do not fully understand. We tinker with them at our peril, yet we also have an obligation to correct what, in the light of more recent evidence, seems to merit correction. After all, that's what our predecessors did.

A Burkean/Hayekian conservatism blends very well with a Darwinian account; reactionary ancestor worship does not. (As a matter of fact, Hayek chose not to call himself a conservative, so we should perhaps call this stance conservative liberalism/ liberal conservatism, something close to the philosophy of the framers.)

Nothing prevents people of a sceptical, anti-authoritarian mindset from respecting the impressive rigour of the evolutionary process, and the generally high quality of products it produces. A muted and critical respect, for sure, but that's very different from a generalised loss of all authority.

Knowledge, even if not shiny, is useful. The evolutionary view does nothing to undermine the standing of our knowledge claims – if you’re a fallibilist. For infallibilists the very idea of introducing evolution into epistemology spells disaster.

Humanity’s adolescent fantasy about knowledge of the shiny variety may once have served an inspirational purpose; today it has become a bore. Today we’ve grown up, and should be ready to accept the limitations of our knowledge.

Friday, February 8

Do we have rights ?

The best known way of deriving imperatives to respect the rights of others is to ask whether our actions conform to a Kantian criterion of generalisability – What would happen if everyone did this – or reciprocity – Do onto others as you would have done onto you.
The problem with this way of deriving imperatives is that it leaves moral equality unargued for. An assumption of equality is already built into the procedure, so running the procedure does nothing to justify or explain it.
Why should all people be invited to join the negotiations for a social contract, and if all are invited, why on equal terms ? The real world rarely works this way, so why should we for deriving rules use criteria that imply that all be considered equally ?
What feeble gestures towards justification Kant does make come down to this: That humans are endowed with a funny capacity called reason (read: are created in the image of God) and therefore deserve moral equality (read: God loves all his children). Unless you believe the God story, this is very hard to swallow.

To justify the initial assumption of equality one would need nothing less than – a moral theory. By way of that, the only resource left to Western culture in Kant’s time was Christianity. So away our philosopher went to steal some Christian clothes and resell them under his own label. Thin secularisation was his predicament, even if he saw it as the solution to his predicament.
We already know from a previous post that this was no solution at all: The metaphysics of God, whether explicitly appealed to – divine commandments, divine law, divine purpose – or thinly disguised – the bombastic magnificence of Natural Law, Immortal Souls, Human Dignity, Human Persons – are completely useless for the justification of morality.

If we want an answer, not a lullaby, we have to forge ahead to full secularisation.

Let’s listen first to what a classic character of infallibilism, the enlightened egoist, is able to say:
I have an interest in living within a social arrangement that almost everyone finds tolerably fair, because any other is very likely storing up trouble for itself; and emerging favourably out of a violent escalation is a gamble at the best of times. The threat apart, I have a positive interest in seeing others flourish, which they are again most likely to do under a fair arrangement.
However, even the most enlightened egoist’s concern for the flourishing of others has its limits: It is restricted to people who are ever likely to do something for them. This probably means: people they like, or are like them, or both.
Moreover, their willingness to make concessions to fairness is going to be limited by the extent of their fear of an uprising by the oppressed. If there is not much to fear rationally, then no reasons for concessions remain.
What then about those whom we don’t like because they are uncomfortably different ?
Fallibilists alone are able to see themselves as being able to become these others. This gives fallibilists a much more profound interest in other people’s flourishing than non-fallibilists could ever have.
For unless you can see yourself as potentially changing beyond any of your current definitions of life interests will you be unable to see people who live very differently as keeping alive or developing something which you yourself might one day share. With radical learning, on the other hand, there is nothing that could not potentially become relevant.
From the possibility of radical learning – as long as it is acknowledged, however quietly – derives a positive justification of equal chances of development for all (non-destructive) ways of life for which even the most enlightened egoist is never going to be able to give any.
Why then oppose oppression even when the regime seems stable and to one’s own advantage ? Fallibilists recognise that occasions to regret giving justice are rare, whereas there are many ways of coming to regret participation in oppression. If the aim is to construct a life that remains meaningful to the end, then positioning oneself on the side of justice, although potentially very dangerous, may in one sense be safer after all: Justice has a permanence that tends to emerge relatively intact from the vicissitudes of fortune.
Only from a fallibilist perspective are we thus able to give a justification of rights as something other than codifications of might. A tiny voice, barely loud enough for conscience to hear, but real.

To recapitulate: When we proceed to apply Kantian criteria, all fundamental questions must already have been answered.
Criteria of generalisability or reciprocity – such as the Golden Rule, the generalisability figuring in Kant’s moral writings, or at their most elaborate in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice – can tell us how to design an arrangement. They cannot tell us why we should design it this way.
These criteria are perhaps best thought of as something like a wind tunnel, design aids for streamlining norms and other institutions. Just as using a wind tunnel assumes that the question of why a fuselage should be aerodynamic has already been answered, Kantian criteria take the moral intention for granted. The only question they address is how, within given specifications, an optimal system can be designed.
The design aids can never tell us why we should apply them; can never tell us why we should care about fairness, the flourishing of others. That is something we are assumed to know already.
Kantianism and the construction of rights solely concern technical questions; they are part of applied philosophy, ethical engineering so to speak. (This is meant descriptively, not to diminish the importance of work in these areas. Most of the meaty issues in philosophy are applied issues that require empirical inputs; the foundational issues that armchair philosophy can handle are very few and far between.)
The main foundational reason for using Kantian rather than other criteria is then this: Because, generally speaking, social arrangements that are based on voluntary consent are preferable to other arrangements, in particular arrangements based on violence. The Kantian design aids can now help us develop an arrangement that has a chance of winning the voluntary consent of the people it concerns because it is perceived to be fair. Kantian design principles make is easy both to construct fair looking arrangements and, once constructed, to explain why people should consider them to be fair.
Voluntary arrangements constructed along Kantian lines minimise the necessity of force. This makes them – all things, risks, and doubts considered – better bets, better exposure minimisers. Generally speaking that is, with proper exceptions and qualifications.
Arrangements based on consent tend to be more resilient, sustainable, easier to police. They also tend to be more pleasant to live in because they build trust among the participants, and make them proud. Finally, consensual arrangements are unlikely to lead us into shameful choices that our grandchildren might come to despise us for.

Where there are people there are laws. When no formal laws, then customs. Outside of Robinson’s island the question is not: Are we going to have a social arrangement among ourselves ? but this one: What sort of social arrangement are we going to have ? From the moment you’re born you find yourself always already bound by all kinds of (implicit) deals.
We are bound to these implicit arrangements by a fiction of voluntary consent. A "consent" that either has been freely given, or that could be reasonably construed as having been given. Voluntariness assumes for instance that whoever is covered by the arrangement had a chance to opt out. (Hold-outs inhabiting a territory aren’t free to reject just any deal. Once reasonable accommodations to their interests have been made, rejection no longer qualifies as legitimate. What constitutes “reasonable” accommodations is of course going to be politically charged.)
There can be no question of an absolute notion of legitimacy. The only real question is this: What is the least bad, least illegitimate social arrangement we are able to build and maintain ?
Legitimacy does, on the whole, track the use of force. For a long list of reasons, the less force needs to be used, the more legitimate the arrangement should be considered to be. (Even though regimes renouncing the use of force favour brainy over brawny people, they offer enough advantages – e.g. the positive externalities of inventions by the brainies - to be attractive also to brawnies.)
Deals would be incomplete without mechanisms of verification and enforcement. Word of honour works in some instances; in others we cannot get by without more muscular rules of enforcement.
Just as we do not have to ask for a right to breathe or to flick away a mosquito do we not have to ask for the right to enforce arrangements that enjoy a satisfactory degree of legitimacy.

Kantian criteria offer solutions only in cases where we can already assume to be talking to people of good will. Where we know that negotiation has a chance, or we want at least try giving an advance of generosity as an opening gambit.
Kantian reasoning only helps in addressing opponents who even if not exactly peaceful in their intentions show at least some willingness to reciprocate and respect at least some limits; Kantian cant is useless in engaging opponents who are committed to total war.
The reason we adopt Kantian restraints that limit our freedom of action towards others is not, in the final instance, that we expect those others to reciprocate. They may, or they may not. No, we adopt restraints as a constitutional framework for governing ourselves, for preventing a slide into committing atrocities we may later come to regret.

Instead of metaphysics we have this: People and the constructions of rights they project. Some of these constructions will prove themselves and turn out – in the long run – to have been wise, some won’t. Societies making (constrained) choices; failing or succeeding with these choices; arguing about them; sometimes coming to agreements about them, sometimes not. That’s all there is to it.
You say that we can’t depend on an agreed definition of “success” (or “wisdom”) ? That definitions of success – e.g. Is going down gloriously better or worse than surviving mildly ? – are controversial is a given. But this is just another question of values, most of which are controversial.
Controversy is natural because values represent strategic responses to complex realities. Only rarely is one response going to be obviously best. While some disagreements about values are illegitimate, a wide space for legitimate disagreement exists.
Does controversy stop us from looking for the best criteria of success each of us can find ? No. Are these criteria going to be perfect ? No. Are they going to be fallible ? Yes. Is any of this a problem ? Only a practical problem, not a philosophical problem. Just the familiar challenge of dealing with pluralism.
The proof of values is in their practical consequences. We can disagree because the prediction of consequences is often uncertain, and because we may evaluate the consequences differently. What we should not disagree about is that for moral strategies, which is what values are, experience is the judge. As little as facts can be value-free can values be fact-free.

Mere survival clearly does not confer moral legitimacy on an arrangement. The last competitor standing might be the most despicable. Nasty guys sometimes do finish first. The victors will always flatter themselves on their destiny; we don’t have to encourage them.
The winners in history, if they care at all about other people’s opinions, will always want to make it appear that they won for better reasons than dumb luck or outlandish nastiness. They will want to claim that there was fairness to the process out of which they emerged victorious. This gives us an handle on them today, for asking them to allow for a process that is structured for fairness.
One last reason why success cannot be an absolute criterion of value: Success is transitory. No regime is true or inevitable; all eventually fall.

There was never a time before Babel, a world without pluralism is as unimaginable as the state of the world before the beginning of time. For fallibilists, all politics therefore starts with the legitimacy of pluralism. For infallibilists, by contrast, pluralism is only apparent, hence illegitimate and resolvable into truths everybody ought to be able to agree on. At the core of the infallibilist view stands the fantasy of basing politics on substantive truths (In its most recent mutation, the fantasy of basing politics on discursive agreements). Denying the profundity of pluralism predictably causes the oppression of non-conformers. The siren song of resolving the cacophony into unity has led to disaster, every time.
Even the most brutal regime could only suppress the reality of pluralism. The irresolvability of pluralism implies that we cannot base our political and social institutions on agreements about substantive claims. Agreements emerge so rarely and patchily that they would not give us enough to work with. While it is laudable to invest in seeking agreements, most of the time people will walk away from the conversation unconvinced. The normal outcome of dialogue is for disagreements to persist. Occasionally a disagreement may be resolved, but new ones arise all the time, leaving the stock of disagreements roughly constant. We cannot let ordinary coexistence rely on extraordinary events – on dialogue changing minds and creating agreement. The act of convincing by entirely loving means, only by unmanipulative presentation and example, is little short of miraculous, and thus unsuited for the daily administration of public life. With discursive agreement out of reach, the best we can hope for is to find a political settlement that allows us to agree to disagree, yet still live side by side in peace. Being a political rather than a discursive agreement, it enshrines only very few and thin truths.

Wherever you live, there is the actually existing social contract. And then there are imaginative anticipations of a better contract – proposals for reform or plots for revolution – that you and I and everyone's uncle can come up with and try to have implemented. And beyond that there is nothing worth talking about, no ideal Platonic society up in the heavens. The rest is just rhetoric, and bad rhetoric at that. Pumping up the volume without ever adding to the substance of the argument for (or against) change.
Moral constructions – e.g. the rights and corresponding duties allotted under a fair arrangement – are all ultimately pragmatic; some are pragmatic in a higher sense, and called principles. (Principles function in analogy to constitutions which are harder to override than ordinary laws.) Scratch me as much a you like, you will not find a frightened idealist under the suave pragmatist exterior. I am a pragmatist all the way down, a pragmatist even about my pragmatism. There is no reason to be afraid when all that there is to be discovered is reality, something that needs facing anyway.

The stories about Kantian designs that I have been telling are in no way remarkable – they were just a rearranged string of commonplaces –, except perhaps that they have taken a route which would not be open to theorists like Kant who want morality to retreat into other-worldliness.
We should make a habit of answering all moral questions without question-begging references to metaphysical abstractions. How, for example, should we answer this question: Why is the use of force, and in particular the most egregious use of force – killing – wrong ?
Why killing is wrong, or what is almost the same: Why our laws should defend a right to life, in no particular order: Because people are fierce animals, and likely to fight back when expecting to be attacked. Because killing is irreversible. When you go off to war for a cause you believe to be just and later come to doubt the cause then you can’t bring back the dead. Because abstaining from killing in the implementation is an insurance policy for any utopian project. Aim high, but implement safely. Because getting killed often hurts before the pain ends. Because the intended victim is usually a member of an organisation for collective self-defence. Because if you do not feel any reluctance or compassion in a killing situation you are emotionally disturbed. Because people only very rarely want to be killed. Because becoming used to killing could change you into a worse person. Because killing almost always hurts loved ones of the person killed. Because killing one man can invite a feud and spiral of revenge killings. Because each person is a unique creative resource. Because the human being you killed might have become to your friend. Enough reasons ?
None of these reasons is perfect. For each and every one we can construct exceptions where the reason does not apply. Together, however, these reasons form a tissue that is able to bear some weight. Not every weight, but considerable weight.
The chain of Why-questions – Why A ? Because B. Why B? Because C … – has to come to an end somewhere. It cannot and does not come to a “foundation”, however. It will just peter out.
Killing is wrong because it can cause hurt. Why is hurting wrong ? Because people don’t want to be hurt (outside of special situations – e.g. battlefield surgery or consensual sadomasochism or …) It will likely create hostility against you. Why is it right for people not to like pain ? Because pain being pain, it is unpleasant. Why should we prefer pleasant over unpleasant experiences ? Because it comes naturally to us. Why should we go along with what comes naturally to us ? Because it fairly reliably points to our best interest. Why should I pursue my best interest ? Because you might just want to.
Why specifically should I avoid pain ? Because beings made of flesh are right to be concerned about organic malfunctions usually indicated by pain. Why are they right to be concerned ? Because the malfunctions could permanently impair your health and ultimately kill you. Why is it better to be alive than dead ? Because life isn’t so bad. Moreover, by staying alive to this day, you have revealed a preference for it. Why can’t I change my mind ? You could, but are you absolutely sure that nothing keeps you here ?
So people do not want to be hurt. Why should I respect their wish ? Because understanding and regularly respecting the wishes of others is the basis for cooperation and intimacy. Why bother with cooperation ? Because there are often gains to be had from cooperation, but if you don’t find the gains attractive, you can try going it alone on the hostile route, and see where that gets you. Why do I need close relationships ? Because many people find that being close to others enriches their lives, and supports personal growth. Enough platitudes ?

There is a wide overlap between the reasons of individuals for not killing, and the reasons of a collective to enforce its prohibition against killing. In a few atypical cases, the two strands of justifications separate. There are conceivable scenarios where it becomes almost impossible to deny, no matter how broadly or subtly one looks at it, that killing would maximise the killer’s self-interest. In such a case the collective still has an obvious interest in defending the prohibition to protect its member and maintain order, whereas the individual’s reasons not to kill falter. The collective routinely responds by threatening to sue for breach of social contract, and since even the most selfish agent could willingly have entered into a mutual compact against killing, the legitimacy of the compact is not in doubt. As a consequence, rogue agents cannot normally hope for any sympathy or allies breaking to their side when the provisions of the compact are enforced. Either the agent will be deterred, or sanctioned without a second thought when caught. When legitimacy is less clear – and almost all other cases are less clear than murder – the call for punishing the agent can divide or even break the collective.
Now in some unusual cases no contract may be in force, not even the minimal contract that arises spontaneously from any meeting between two people of good will. Although the default setting against which any first meeting instinctively gets measured is a mutual compact, the parties may, for example, have gotten off to bad start, and gone on to a history of hostilities. Or the agent may have been declared an outlaw, or have voluntarily withdrawn from compacts. In such cases both sides may believe mutual obligations to have lapsed.
What the lapsing of obligations regularly means is not that all obligations are abolished, but that the previous bundle of obligations is replaced by a different, reduced set. If killing is no longer off-limits, chemical weapons, say, still may be. Just as it is virtually impossible not to communicate is it very hard not come to an understanding about terms of engagement with the people one is dealing with. Silent signalling can lead to an understanding far ahead of formal negotiations. It is unclear whether a condition without any mutuality at all can occur. (The final days of the Warsaw ghetto may have come close.) What is clear is that such a state of total emergency would be very disturbing.
Under normal, stable conditions duty is a shorthand for investing in the continuation of an existing compact (or paying back debts owed under it). In destabilised conditions, agents may for various reasons continue to act as if a compact existed, e.g. in order not to poison a future reconciliation.
Absent a binding compact, the agent’s decision to abstain from breaking its provisions becomes not a duty owed, but an act of self-denial. While we may hope for sacrifice, we should not expect it. For if we expected our enemies to be behave like saints, they would probably not be our enemies.
Restraints that are maintained without a contractual basis are not in the first instance directed towards others but about being able to live with oneself, not becoming a horror to ourselves.
Unless mediation can re-establish a contract, unless a peace settlement is brought about, and the situation regularised at the last minute, the absence of recognised compacts means that we are in a more or less serious state of war, with more or fewer restraints still applicable. It then comes down to a show of force, or rather the parties’ assessment of each other’s strength. Whoever needs to give in, gives in. Whoever fights, fights. Whoever prevails, prevails.
As extraordinary as eruptions of lawlessness may seem, they are only business as usual. Hobbes, an apologist for the power grab that made the modern state, was too optimistic. Even when pacified by degrees, the war of all against all continues to this day. It flatters the self-image of rulers, but the Leviathan is not a benevolently detached, Godlike figure who floats above the primitive passions of the population. The creation of the state did not actually end the war, it only changed its complexion. The state is the continuation of interests warring by other means, through legislation, the bureaucracy, and a hundred other channels. The existence of the state only gave the warring factions a more powerful weapon to vie for and turn against each other. Rather like God, no sooner was Leviathan created, was he captured and dragged down to earth, pressed into partisan service. Leviathan became a big player whom the other players must try to control, or be controlled. Leviathan developed a free will and after a greedy appetite also every other of seven deadly sins. In short, Leviathan fell, and became human.
Constitutional government does not abolish the state of nature. It only manages it somewhat better, allowing for lives that are less nasty, less brutal, and much longer.
Kantian compacts are not about wishing away the human jungle; they are means of shaping it. Non-violence assisted by mutual compacts remains the conservative treatment for conflict. Letting living beings live and grow is not an infallible policy, but still the natural default policy. Risk-minimal overall, it is the normal fallibilist preference.

As little as a wind tunnel aims to simulate realistic road conditions does the scenario of a state of nature set out to reproduce social reality. We base our designs on a contract struck under highly idealised conditions because we want our arrangements to be transparent and therefore our rules to be relatively simple. Such simplifications are legitimate as long as they are deliberate. By tilting the balance further in the direction of empirical adequacy we would lose in ease of monitoring what we gain in accommodating variability.
Apart from making the rules as simple as possible and applying them consistently, still the most reliable way of ensuring that an arrangement will be perceived to be fair is to try and make it fair.
All political ideologies promise fairness. They differ on the form of equality their concept of fairness involves – equal justice done to people’s essential nature, just rewards for equal merit, equality of property, equality of opportunity, etc. They also differ in what they consider workable. Since what is workable has always been, and will always be, subject to debate and experiment, fairness is not something that could be decided in philosophical theory alone. Fairness is intensely political, so political in fact that we could classify political ideologies according to the way in which they define fairness, that is propose to achieve both equality and workability.
The trouble with a number of assumptions on which the economists have built their entire discipline – assumptions which imply that the language of social justice is meaningless – is that people are never going to believe them. Their ideologically convenient scruples about talking justice are doomed to remain a game of academic insiders. Ordinary people everywhere will go on talking, meaningfully, about how justice might be served by seizing funds from the rich to support the poor, whether economists show themselves interested or not. Because of this ingrained and entirely reasonable habit, any economic system preserving a more than moderately unequal distribution of incomes is going to have a problem explaining its fairness. The greater the inequality, the greater the problem.
The problem need not be insurmountable. Under certain conditions – for example when opportunities are ample, civil liberties secure, wealth creation is fast, corruption low, participation possible – even the less well-off can sometimes be persuaded of the fairness of a highly unequal distribution.
People do not have a metaphysical right to, say, their property; nor does society, ie other people. It all depends on how many material and non-material advantages the rich can convince the non-rich to let them get away with. In these negotiations of a fair arrangement we have everyone’s (ethical) interest in minimising exposure to appeal to.
Systems of rights only have legitimacy if they manage to convince the least advantaged of their fairness. If the system does not manage to convince for an extended time then the disadvantaged are, as always, thrown back on the vagaries of collective revolutionary action.

Fair arrangements are about negotiating with equals. What about “negotiating” with the weak and powerless ? What, finally, about human rights ?
Abiding by a canon of human rights is a way of insuring oneself against ever regretting one’s political projects. A political project that is implemented while respecting human rights can still do damage, but is unlikely to do catastrophic damage. We have built memorials for our collective shame of slavery, the holocaust, the Gulag. One day a memorial of shame might be built on Tiananmen Square, or at Guantanamo. Respecting human rights is a way of ensuring that we will not have to build any more such memorials in the future.