Have a Tough Month

All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


Tonight is the first night of Ramadan–”Ramadan Eve,” in effect–the night before the Muslim month of fasting. I used to fast as a child, but lost my faith, and stopped for several decades. I started again in 2016, and intend to fast this year. I’ve journaled about Ramadan privately each year as I’ve fasted, sketching out thoughts about the significance of the month; who knows when or if I’ll commit any of it to print for public consumption. But a few thoughts seem worth posting.

It’s customary for Muslims to wish one another a “Ramadan Kareem” during this season–an “easy” or “merciful” or “generous” fast. Jews do much the same before Yom Kippur. I acquiesce in it, especially in a Muslim context, but find it a little irritating. In one innocuous sense, of course, the phrase is just an injunction to be extra-merciful or -generous to other people. Fine. In a more irritating (and equally real) sense, however, the phrase expresses the hope that God will “go easy” on us this Ramadan, and spare us the tribulations of a difficult fast. I hope He doesn’t. 

Ramadan isn’t supposed to be “easy.” It’s not supposed to be brutal, either, but it is supposed to be at least moderately difficult. Self-imposed duress is the whole point of Ramadan: if you find it easy, you’re either doing it wrong or superhuman. The point is to experience what virtue looks and feels like when taken out of its habitual comfort zone. But if so, wishing people a “Ramadan Kareem” (in the second sense, at least) is like wishing them into moral mediocrity. It’s less a form of well-wishing than a collective exercise in missing the point. If we wish anything for one another at all, we should wish one another a hard fast, not an easy one.

It’s also customary in Islamic countries to ban the public display of food during Ramadan, and ban all eating in public, even among non-Muslims. Apart from the fact that this practice violates human liberty, I find the underlying attitude here repulsively childish, and in fact, allied with the “Ramadan Kareem” attitude. The whole point of a fast is to resist the temptation to eat. It seems pathetic for a society to confess that it can’t resist temptation unless there’s no temptation to resist. But most Muslim societies do.

No Muslim regards the Ramadan fast as incumbent on non-Muslims. So why should non-Muslims have to protect the tender sensibilities of Muslims when it comes to eating or drinking during Ramadan? That others are eating doesn’t mean that you must. That others are eating doesn’t mean that you can’t resisting doing so yourself. Unless one assumes that the fast must be made artificially easy, there’s no ethically intelligible rationale for forcing non-Muslims not to eat in public view because Muslims have decided to fast. Doing so is not only indefensible as such, but undercuts the point of the fast itself.  

Nor do things change when it comes to Muslims who decide not to fast. I understand that Muslims who don’t fast are, in the eyes of the devout, sinning against God’s law. But God’s law isn’t one’s own law, and can’t obviously be enforced by non-deities like us. Famously, the Qur’an enjoins against coercion in matters of religious belief (Qur’an, 2:256). So it’s not clear to me why backsliding Muslims can’t be left free to grasp the truth (or fail) on their own, or in general be dealt with by non-coercive persuasion rather than force. Force produces compliance, but doesn’t persuade. A fast produced through coerced compliance is as about as bad as none at all. 

Muslims mostly seem to have figured this out when it comes to prayer. Setting aside fascist theocracies like Saudi Arabia, there’s no legal or even customary expectation in most Muslim countries that when the call to prayer sounds, you must drop what you’re doing and run to the mosque. When the call to prayer sounds, the devout go to the mosque; others don’t. Those who don’t aren’t regarded as insuperable obstacles to the devotion of those who do. Those who do are not regarded as coercing those who don’t by their devout example. It’s simply taken for granted that some hear the call to prayer as an injunction to pray; others don’t. Maybe it’s regrettable that some don’t, but their faults are theirs to own. Individual responsibility need not become collective responsibility. Repeat after me: we’re all individuals. 

What’s become true of prayer can also become true of fasting. Those who don’t fast are no obstacle to the devotion of those who do. Those who do are no threat to the freedom of those who don’t. They’re each just separate people doing their own thing.

It’s become fashionable nowadays to believe that every morally significant task requires communal solidarity and collectivized responsibility of a kind that demands near universal participation, and ultimately, coerced compliance. A Jew can’t be a Jew on his own; he needs a Jewish State to force other Jews to be Jewish with him. A Muslim can’t be a Muslim on her own; she needs a caliphate to Islamicize the world as such. Christians, who might have been thought to have learned the relevant lesson a few centuries ago, slowly seem to be unlearning it. And though I happen to have used religious examples, what’s true of sectarian doctrines is also true of secular ones. Collective solidarity is a great thing, but can be taken too far, and often is. 

I’m the last to dispute that there is some value in collective identity, but one thing that appears to have been lost in the din is the simpler thought: if you really need a whole community to do what God commands of you, maybe there’s something wrong with you, and you’re the only one who can fix it. Maybe stop enrolling the whole world in your sectarian project, fix yourself, and take it from there? Nobody really needs the kind of “communal solidarity” that’s shoved down one’s throat with a plunger. “I am defective, hence we must suffer” is not an expression of piety, but of sado-masochism. 

I read some asshole polemicist the other day saying that what “we” in the West have lost, and were obliged to restore to public life, was God, Scripture, and “the Sabbath.” The writer was Jewish, but the thought was identical to the one I’ve just attributed to Muslims: you’re promoting “the Sabbath,” on this view, if you make sure that everything is inconveniently closed on “the Sabbath.” But promoting shop closures is not promoting “the Sabbath.” There is no such thing as the Sabbath, anyway. There are as many sabbaths as there are ways of coming to a stop in things, and despite the unwarranted confidence of many religious con-men, there’s no self-evidently, intrinsically best way of doing so. There are, on the other hand, a plurality of ways of pretending to know and have The Good, and of enforcing it at legalized gunpoint. A permanent stop to such pretensions would be a nice thing, and is certainly more exigent than universal sabbatarian observance. 

But I digress. For those who are starting the Ramadan fast, I hope you find it a rewardingly difficult ordeal. I know I will.

For those who aren’t fasting, bon appétit. We couldn’t do this without you. Not as well, anyway. 

16 thoughts on “Have a Tough Month

  1. There also seems to be a difference of opinion between Jews and Christians (well, most Christians; not Adventists, obviously, though I’m sure there’s some disagreement about details there too) as to which day is “the sabbath.” I think this shows the need for more theocratic state regulation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Once the law identifies a given day as the Sabbath, then that day becomes The Sabbath Day, and there’s an end to it. In a Christian commonwealth such as ours, that day is presumptively Sunday.

      My fervent hope is that violations of the Sabbath laws should be made criminal offenses. With any luck, we can abolish all of criminal procedure from Miranda onwards, and the idea of incorporation of the 14th Amendment to the state constitutions with it. We can then create separate (but equal) prisons for those who violate our abortion laws and those who violate our Sabbath laws. Those who violate the Sabbath will then face an enforced long-term sabbath.

      As someone who has no policy prescriptions for any actual human problems, I think it’s a good second-best to invent problems out of whole cloth, then provide ethno-theocratic solutions to them. That said, if the Sabbath laws end up criminalizing the NCAA (e.g., college sports events on Sunday), maybe they do solve an actual human problem.

      I think you’ll enjoy this passage from an eminent political philosopher that supports my idea. Source at the bottom.

      First of all, that the different states had the right to have established churches or religious tests for holding office to concern themselves with the general welfare of the public, which included the moral welfare. So Sabbath laws or blasphemy laws were very common in the United States for a very, very long time. And this assumption that the first amendment to the constitution banned the federal Congress from interfering in the rights of the states to make determinations as to precisely what form of Christianity and in what way would it be publicly supported? But the idea that there’s a national government mandate to suppress public or government supported Christianity or religion comes very, very late in the history of the United States. The first time that we see the American Supreme court arguing that there is a tradition of separation of church and state that has to be authoritative is in 1947/48. That’s the first time that the national Supreme court strikes down things like religious instruction in schools. And of course by the 1960s, that’s already become more or less a ban on prayer in the schools and on devotional Bible reading in the schools. So from my understanding, the big watershed when America goes from being a Christian nation, that it loves freedom to being a liberal nation that thinks that Christianity and public religion are not a matter for government and really should just be privatized. They should be exclusively in the domain of the private individual, that doesn’t happen until the 1940s. It’s a tremendous revolution in America’s constitution, which is like I said, consummated in the 1960s. And I think that conservatives who are concerned to ask the question, “What’s gone wrong, where have we gone off the path?” I think that’s the place where they should look. And in fact, during the Reagan years, justice Rehnquist wrote a famous, powerful dissent in 1985 on the Supreme court, which made exactly the same argument that I’m making the book, which is the separation of church and the state is alien to the American constitution at the state level. And that the whole series of decisions that descend from those 1940 cases are a wrong turn in American history and should be struck down.



  2. Thomas Jefferson thought that the Constitution was an obstacle to Presidents declaring national days of prayer:

    Of course this was only for the federal govt and didn’t bind the states, but this was also pre-14th-amendment. However, per Wikipedia: “Rep. John Bingham, the principal framer of the Fourteenth Amendment, advocated that the Fourteenth applied the first eight Amendments of the Bill of Rights to the States.”

    So the suggestion that this is all super-recent is misleading.


      • Hazony: “the different states had the right to have established churches or religious tests for holding office to concern themselves with the general welfare of the public, which included the moral welfare.”

        Jefferson: [against established churches]: “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”
        [against religious tests for holding office]: “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry …. [T]herefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right.”


        • The sadist in me wants to impose an Islamic theocracy on people like Hazony, so that he can be awakened at 5 am for the morning prayer, then forced to walk to the mosque for prayers, then forced to say the subsequent four prayers, then forced to fast for Ramadan. If this sounds a little Merchant of Venice-like, I can then point out that if we push the clock back to 1940, and repeal all precedents thereafter, Palestine was after all an Arab Muslim country, where Arab Muslims called the shots by the rules of sharia. No hard feelings!

          He sounds like he wants to bring the blasphemy laws back, too. On the bright side, that should make all of the Pakistani cousins of mine who’ve emigrated here feel right at home.

          I would prefer not to mess around with historical precedents. There’s just a basic normative point to make: If we’re going to have a state, it has to be limited in scope and function. Hazony’s construal of the general welfare clause essentially entails an unlimited, totalitarian state. That’s a non-starter. It doesn’t matter what proof texts one can produce for or against it. What he needs is an argument for why our moral welfare is best promoted, in a global way, by legalized coercion. I highly doubt he has any such argument. His whole MO is to shift the burden of proof by insinuating that his opponents have the burden of proof, regardless of the actual dialectical situation.

          But if you shift the burden of proof back where it belongs, I doubt he has any means of discharging it. I read his book on nationalism a few months back, and the section in it on Locke (and Lockean liberalism) really has to be read to be believed. I don’t know how it managed to make its way into print, but I guess nowadays, if you run in the right circles and know the right people, you can get away with just about anything.


            • I’m writing a post on it, and want to save what I have to say for then. A few quotes convey his essential message, but don’t convey the slap-dash, haphazard, gaslighting approach he takes to the text to ensure that it says what he wants it to:

              Unlike the Protestant construction, which thrived on a tension between the two biblically derived principles of national freedom and the moral minimum for legitimate rule, the liberal construction of the West [via Locke] assumes that there is one principle at the base of legitimate political order: individual freedom. (Virtue of Nationalism, p. 30)

              …And so it is with the Second Treatise, which offers a rationalist view of human political life that has abstracted away every bond that ties human beings to one another than consent. In speaking of “consent,” Locke means that the individual becomes a member of a human collective only because he has agreed to it, and has obligations toward such collectives only if he has accepted them. This is flattering to the individual, since it makes it seem as though the important choices are almost always his to decide. However it is painfully lacking as a description of the empirical political world, in which mutual loyalties bind human beings in families, tribes, and nations, and each of us receives a certain religious and cultural inheritance as a consequence of being born into such collectives. It ignores the responsibilities that are intrinsic to both inherited and adopted membership in collectives of this kind, establishing demands on individuals that do not arise as a result of consent and do not disappear if consent is withheld (Virtue of Nationalism, p. 31).

              But despite the great success these [national border-flouting] enterprises have had in altering the face of our world, and their genuine worth in some fields, the Lockean account remains what it was: a utopian view of human nature and motivations, and a radically insufficient basis for understanding political reality (p. 37).


              • A summary of Hazony’s overall strategy:

                (1) He simply ignores everything that Locke has to say about the distinction between parental and political power in both Treatises, as well as everything Locke has to say about the family wherever Locke discusses the family.

                (2) He then collapses the distinction between parental and political power, and notes that Locke demands consent as a necessary condition of political community.

                (3) He then reads Locke’s demand for consent backward into the family, inferring that since Locke requires consent for community as such, he must think, absurdly, that children only have moral obligations insofar as they consent to those obligations, in the same sense of “consent” that’s required by adults for establishing a political community.

                (4) Given (3), he then concludes that Locke has a ridiculous conception of family life, and can therefore be dismissed as a silly and jejune “rationalist,” out of touch with empirical reality.

                (5) As for Locke’s supposed empiricism and rejection of rationalism in the Essay, Hazony cites secondary literature to the effect that that as far as ethics is concerned, Locke is a kind of Cartesian rationalist no matter what he claims to be.

                (6) Since all liberalisms are fundamentally Lockean, they’re all absurd. That’s why he feels entitled to make claims like these:



                • “Locke means that the individual becomes a member of a human collective only because he has agreed to it, and has obligations toward such collectives only if he has accepted them”

                  Only if by a “human collective” Hazy Hazardony means a political community (what Locke calls a “civil society”). But not, as you point out, if it includes the family. Also not if it includes the overall community of the human race, toward whom Locke thinks we have a great many pre-contractual obligations.

                  “Hazony cites secondary literature to the effect that that as far as ethics is concerned, Locke is a kind of Cartesian rationalist no matter what he claims to be.”

                  Well, in the Essay Locke (like Hobbes before him) does say that “morality is capable of demonstration as well as mathematics,” and so that “if a right method were taken, a great part
                  of morality might be made out with that clearness, that could leave, to a considering man, no more reason to doubt, than he could have to doubt of the truth of propositions in mathematics,” since in the moral sciences, by contrast with the physical sciences, “the precise real essence
                  of the things moral words stand for may be perfectly known.” Thus for example “‘Where there is no property there is no injustice,’ is a proposition as certain as any demonstration in Euclid: for the idea of property being a right to anything, and the idea of which the name ‘injustice’ is given being the invasion or violation of that right, it is evident that these ideas, being thus established, and these names annexed to them, I can as certainly know this proposition to be true, as that a triangle has three angles equal to two right ones.”

                  I take Locke to be making a point similar to the one Hayek makes in “Facts of the Social Sciences,” that since the “objects of human activity” are defined “not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons,” it follows that “we can, from the concepts of the objects, analytically conclude something about what the actions will be.” So if Locke is a rationalist, I guess Hayek is one too. I don’t see anything particularly Cartesian about this form of rationalism, though.


  3. By “human collective,” Hazony means any human association as such. He ascribes to Locke the view that we have no pre-contractual obligations whatsoever, then criticizes Locke for having an absurd view of human relations. He also does nothing to explain why we shouldn’t have the right to exit families, tribes, nations, etc. at will.

    To be fair, “Cartesian” was my word, not Hazony’s. Hazony’s point is that Locke’s rationalism contradicts his empiricism. (He mentions Mises and Hayek, and regards both as rationalists.) I myself don’t think Locke has a fully coherent meta-ethics or moral epistemology, but I don’t think that the passages you cite above (which Hazony cites as well) necessarily contradict a commitment to empiricism. An empiricist can have an empiricist account of mathematics, then say that ethical claims can be demonstrated with the same accuracy or precision as mathematical ones. That’s not a very plausible claim, but the two commitments are still consistent with each other.

    I think Locke has a totally different problem. In the Essay, he says that the claims of ethics are capable of quasi-mathematical demonstration, but in The Reasonableness of Christianity, what he ends up saying is that reason is incapable of tracking the truth about the fundamental principles of ethics (sections 234-46). This is not quite an inconsistent view, but it’s more pessimistic about reason than the Essay suggests. My own view is that Locke is a kind of foundationalist about ethics who thinks that the foundational axioms of ethics are supplied by revelation (specifically, through the teaching of the Gospels), but that the superstructure is derived by inferences from that foundation (mostly by study of the Gospels). But unaided reason can’t discover the foundations of ethics. There is no purely naturalistic road to first principles.

    There’s an additional problem for Locke. On the one hand, he thinks that the Gospels offer up a full, comprehensive morality (both foundations and applications, with reason having to discover the bridging principles between them). On the other hand, he thinks that given the political circumstances in which Jesus found himself–Roman occupation, Jewish collaborationists, Jewish insurrectionists–he had to adopt a roundabout manner of speaking and teaching, tailoring what he said to each audience, and speaking so as not to tip off the authorities (Roman or Jewish) as to his real message. So Jesus was an esoteric speaker: he couldn’t offer up a teaching that would get him arrested until it was the right time for him to get arrested. So he had to do a little of tip-toeing around difficult questions, and engage in a lot of circumlocution.

    This makes very good sense of the text of the Gospels, but not with the idea that the Gospels contain a clear, comprehensive, coherent account of ethics.

    But all of this is worlds away from Hazony’s preocupations.


    • I have to amend one thing I said in the previous comment. I said, “To be fair, “Cartesian” was my word, not Hazony’s. Hazony’s point is that Locke’s rationalism contradicts his empiricism.” Actually, Hazony explicitly describes Locke as a Cartesian rationalist, along with Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant. It’s in a breathtakingly awful paper, Yoram Hazony, “Locke’s Rationalism and the Future of Political Theory,” The Political Science Reviewer 43:1 (2019), pp. 256-62. The paper is supposed to be a response to critics (ultimately, a single critic) of Hazony’s reading of Locke.

      It doesn’t do that (at all), or really even try. Hazony’s critic, Michael Harding, blows a couple of holes in Hazony’s reading of Locke (vastly understating the criticisms that could actually be made). Hazony ignores all of these criticisms (every one of them fatal to his reading), then moves the goalposts and asserts (without argument) that the real “heart” of his argument is his (supposed) critique of Locke’s commitment to Cartesian rationalism. There is no such “critique” in his book. The alleged “critique” is in fact just a longish quotation, relegated to the footnotes, from a book of Anthony Quinton’s, in which Quinton offers some snarky criticisms (a few sentences long) of Locke’s Essay.

      Hazony’s then re-formulates his argument against Locke’s political philosophy, which is that since Locke’s theory has never been exemplified, it’s false. The claim is couched in a crude “argument” against ideal theory, but whatever Hazony intends by it, the argument actually entails that if a normative theory has so far not been exemplified, it must be false. In other words, the criterion of truth for a normative theory is its prior exemplification in history. At a bare minimum, prior exemplification is a necessary condition for the truth of a theory.

      Though the argument doesn’t do anything that Hazony thinks it does, or wants it to, it does show two things:

      1) It provides a perfect example of the crudest way of rejecting ideal theory, which helps clarify what’s at issue when ideal theory in any form is rejected outright.
      2) It provides a perfect example of how a person with a PhD can posture at being a political philosopher, and fool a lot of people into thinking he is one, while lacking both the temperament and the competence to be one.


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