Student Blogger - Susan Mendus, “Religious Violence and the Rise of Liberalism”
The Law and Philosophy Workshop opened Spring Quarter with a presentation by Susan Mendus critiquing modern liberal views on religious violence. Mendus argues that the modern liberal conception of pluralism does not take religious belief, and therefore in many ways religious people, seriously enough to address fundamental disagreement. Her target is John Rawls and his view that the just society cannot take positions on controversial moral questions. Put simply, this view cannot be easily swallowed by those who reject the distinction between moral and political questions, or even those who draw the line differently from the society of which they are a part, or with which they are at odds.
Mendus’ paper begins by contrasting two different conceptions pluralism. One is attributed to Rawls and the other is attributed to Machiavelli, or at least Isiah Berlin’s reading of his work. Her thesis is that modern liberal political thought involves too much of the Rawlsian view of pluralism and not enough of the Machiavelian view. Here, it will be useful to explain the differences.
According to Berlin, Machiavelli’s writings, particularly The Prince, have been seen as erschreckend, terrifying or alarming, because they point to multiple, and often contradictory, criteria of value. Something is lost when we say that in politics the ends sometimes justify the means. For Berlin’s Machiavelli, it is not correct to say that a politician can justify immoral actions by reference to a positive result. Instead, the correct formulation would be that morality is different for the politician. “The character of politics is not adequately described simply by referring to these characteristics, but demands something further—the recognition that politics is (or may be) a world of value in itself, distinct from, and in conflict with, the world of ‘ordinary’ or social morality.” Berlin argues that Machiavelli describes two worlds that we must choose between. The politician chooses a different path, one where different traits are valued or disdained, and this difference is fundamental. Berlin uses the example of the clash between Antigone and Creon, from Greek mythology. Antigone’s brother was involved in a revolt against Thebes and was killed as a result. Creon, the king, decreed that the brother’s body would be allowed to rot outside to send a message to potential revolutionaries (or possibly as further punishment). Antigone, however, saw it as her moral duty to make sure that her brother received all of the proper funereal rites. These two figures were unable to resolve their differences because of their different values and concerns; and nothing good came of the situation. What is so terrifying about Machiavelli’s writings, according to Berlin, is that they force us to confront the fact that disputes of this nature are an ordinary part of the human condition.
Machiavelli serves as a jumping off point, but his views are not entirely essential to her argument. What is really important is the recognition of multiple worlds where value is measured differently, without the possibility of translating back and forth. The focus for Mendus is not the distinction between the world of the politician and the world of the citizen, but the distinction between political and religious worlds.
The above view of pluralism is contrasted with the view of pluralism embraced by modern political liberalism. This is the view that reasonable disagreement is unavoidable and must be tolerated. Some have argued that this is not really pluralism, but something different; and while the terminological might not be particularly important here, the reasoning behind it is useful. Berlin’s pluralism is a theory of the sources of value; “[i]t holds that those sources are many and not one and it stands in opposition to monism or to a Platonic search for unity.” The modern political liberal view of pluralism does not make this claim. The claim, instead, is that there will be disagreement, not only on the sources of value, but even on whether there are multiple sources. Berlin’s pluralism is one of many views that Rawls’ pluralism acknowledges that people will disagree about. An additional, but related, difference between the two views is that Berlin’s pluralism recognizes, celebrates even, the value of the multiple worlds that it observes, while Rawls’ pluralism does not. Political liberalism does not say that all possible sources of value are equally good and it does not say that they are not; it only says that we should expect that people will disagree on this subject.
Political liberalism is criticized by some thinkers for inadequately addressing the reality that there are reasonable fundamental political disagreements. This means that a society may refuse to take a position on controversial moral questions, but will still be forced to take positions on political questions that are just as controversial. Other critics argue that Rawlsian pluralism is a controversial philosophical theory itself, of the kind on which it claims to take no position, because it cannot be justified without reference to moral skepticism, “understood as a lack of certainty springing from one’s ability to persuade others.” Mendus points out that both of these criticisms have in common the claim that political liberalism does not take disagreement seriously enough.
This is where Mendus’ project begins. Her focus is how a person’s view of pluralism might inform her view of religious violence. According to Mendus, Rawlsian pluralism is inauthentic, in that it does not capture the way that people view their own conceptions of the good. For this reason, she worries that it is a potential source of political instability and violence. Interestingly, she suggests that political liberalism’s failure today may be due to its previous success. Toleration has worked so well that we have forgotten that political liberalism arose in response to disputes that were very deep, and very bloody. Mendus suspects that Berlin’s pluralism will be a more useful tool in understanding religious violence.
Mendus has noticed a void in the recent literature on religious violence and terrorism. She points out that most of this literature can be divided into two categories, neither of which takes it seriously enough. Some writers describe terrorism as madness, while others describe it as political or strategic. None address the possibility that it is fundamentally religious. However, a Machiavellian pluralist can describe terrorists as “embrac[ing] a distinct set of values (religious values) different from, and sometimes in conflict with, the values that prevail in the wider society. Their acts may therefore be seen to be rational given their distinct world view.” This, Mendus, points out again, is what makes Machiavelli’s writings terrifying. Those engaged in religious violence may be “motivated by a different ‘world’ of value” making communication extremely difficult, but not necessarily impossible like it would be if it religious terrorists were really insane.
Before making positive argument for a particular view, Mendus explains in more detail what is wrong with the view that religious violence is primarily political (and not religious). The biggest problem with this view, for Mendus, is that it presupposes that there is a clear line between the political and the religious and that we know where that line is. John Locke, one of the original political liberals, devoted a lot of time and energy into tackling that question. Locke was writing in a time when it was taken for granted that the political and the religious should be closely related. Political figures were seen to be duty-bound to enforce religious commands and most of the debate was about which of these were correct, which religion was the true religion. Locke’s response to this debate, however, was not that it was intractable and we should therefore try to get passed it. His response was that God never gave any man the authority to compel others to his religion. It is God’s will for the state to be secular.
For Locke, then, the state should be secular because God said as much, and consensus here should be enough for toleration in cases where religious groups differ. For Rawls, moral consensus is impossible, so “we must appeal to the principle implicit in the public culture of a democratic society, constructed as a fair system of cooperation.” The big difference, according to Mendus, is that Locke presents arguments with authority (God’s) for his distinction between the political and the religious. In contrast, Rawls merely asserts that there is a difference and that the political has priority over the religious; he does not argue sufficiently for any of this. This points out two serious problems for Rawls. The first is that he assumes what he needs to prove, the difference between the moral and the political. The second is that he provides no explanation of why people should recognize the priority of the political when their moral code requires something different. The strength that Mendus sees in Locke’s argument is that they speak to religious people on their own terms. Rawls, in asking religious people to separate the religious from the political, misunderstands them in a lot of cases. In her view, Lockean liberalism takes moral disagreement more seriously, but still attempts to reach moral consensus. This, she argues, makes it the better candidate for resolving, or getting past, disagreements between people with very strongly held moral, or religious, beliefs.
Mendus then moves on to some special features of religion, or more precisely certain religions, that highlight the inadequacy of modern political liberalism in her view. She argues that salvationist religion is particularly insusceptible to coercion by the state. “[T]he more salvationist a religion is, the more inaccessible it is likely to be to the mechanisms of politics, whether they take the form of punishments or inducements.” Political rewards cannot satisfy religious desires. Further, it is hard to imagine how the authority of a political figure could compare at all with the authority of a God promising eternal life. For Mendus, Machiavelli’s pluralism captures this in a way that Rawls does not. And it captures this in a way that applies even to the religious terrorist. “[They] may be acting neither irrationally nor strategically, but rather in obedience to a distinct and, for them, compelling set of religious values.”
The story of John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, is an excellent illustration of how this might look in practice. He was arrested for preaching without a license. For him, preaching was a necessary step on the path to salvation; it was one of his many religious duties. For the English government, it was a seditious act, threatening the stability of their government by stirring up class hostility. Bunyan may not have seen his actions as political, but for the government officers who arrested and tried him, it was impossible to not see them this way.(Mendus analogized Bunyan’s story to Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, obviously a duck from one perspective and just as obviously a rabbit from another.) The illegal acts were performed with religious intent, but they were interpreted as having political intent. It seems that if there can be a resolution of conflicts of this sort, it will not be accessible until these problems of interpretation are recognized and addressed. This is the ultimate point of Mendus’ project. She believes that the modern political liberal re-labeling of religious acts into either insane or political ones exacerbates the problem. Ultimately, she does not promise a solution, but she does suggest that no solution will be found if we stay on the present path.
Next time: 4/13/09 Les Green, “On Being Tolerated”