I was saddened to learn today of the death of John Shelby Spong, Bishop Emeritus of the Newark, New Jersey diocese of the Episcopalian Church. Though I can’t claim to have known Bishop Spong very well, he was a close friend of my parents’, and a constant presence in our family home. He was for decades Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Christ Hospital in Jersey City, where both of my parents worked–my father for forty, and my mother for thirty years. So we knew Bishop Spong less as a bishop than as a hospital trustee. The stories–or legends–I heard about him for decades were about health care, not theology.
Christ Hospital started its life as an Episcopalian institution. It later merged (or attempted to merge) with St Francis Hospital across the city, a Catholic institution. The merger initiated an apocalyptic sectarian battle for the mortal souls of both hospitals, a battle in which (I’m told) Bishop Spong did a fair bit of the fighting. Eventually, after a series of Jesuit-worthy legal complications I’ve never been able to grasp, Christ Hospital was consumed by the godless and soulless CarePoint Health System. By then, Bishop Spong had had the good sense to leave the hospital behind; Jesus Christ may or may not have been resurrected, depending on your theology, but Christ Hospital was not going to be resurrected, at least not in the form it originally took as an urban community hospital in the Episcopalian tradition.
In an earlier post, I took issue with the widespread but premature tendency to “link” the recent Jersey City shooting to the Black Hebrew Israelite (or Black Israelite) movement. From what I’ve read, the tendency takes the form of inflating the shooters’ interest in the group into a “link to” the group (suggesting something like membership), the implication being that the group’s ideology helps explain the shooters’ motivations, hence explains the shooting (suggesting something like complicity by the group itself).
About a year ago, I attended a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) as part of an assignment for a class on addictions counseling I’d been taking in the Master’s in Counseling Program at Felician University. Struck by the philosophical richness of what I’d encountered at the meeting, I thought I’d reproduce a version of my report on it here in case readers found it of any interest. In the interests of preserving the confidentiality of the group’s members, I’ve omitted any identifying features of the meeting with respect to time, place, and the identity of those present, describing the event only in the most general way. My aim here is to reflect on matters of general principle, not to dwell on the particulars of anyone’s life. Continue reading →
Estlund’s Democratic Authority makes much of the idea of acceptability requirements for political justification. Acceptability requirements come in different versions, and one respect in which those versions can differ is what they are requirements for. They might be requirements for laws, policies, procedures, constitutional structures, the kinds of reasons that citizens or certain officials can give in certain public fora, and so on; they might also require acceptability as a condition for justification quite broadly, for political or legal authority more narrowly, or for political legitimacy — i.e., the moral permissibility of a government’s enforcement of its laws by coercive or punitive means. For Estlund, as for many, the most important application of acceptability requirements is to legitimacy, since coercion raises peculiarly urgent questions of justification. The rough idea of an acceptability requirement on legitimacy is that laws backed by coercion must be acceptable to the citizens that they purport to govern, and must be acceptable to them despite their deep moral, religious, and philosophical disagreements.
Discussing the views of Joshua Cohen, Estlund writes:
For Cohen the fundamental tenet of a deliberative account of democratic legitimacy is the principle that coercive political arrangements and decisions are morally illegitimate unless they can be justified in terms that can be accepted by citizens with the wide range of reasonable moral, religious, and philosophical views likely to emerge in any free society. (Democratic Authority, 91)
Earlier in the book, Estlund cites Rawls describing what he calls the “liberal principle of legitimacy”: Continue reading →
I’m curious what readers think of this New York Times piece on opposition to the BDS movement by the philosopher Joseph Levine (U Mass, Amherst). I myself don’t have a single univocal view on BDS; I agree with some aspects of it, and disagree with others. But I agree with Levine’s criticisms of the anti-BDS movement, which strikes me as sinister, dishonest, and dangerous (in part for the reasons he gives). Given that basic agreement, however, what struck my eye was Levine’s use of and reliance on Rawls’s conceptions of pluralism, comprehensive doctrines, and “the reasonable” to make his case. Is it uncharitably anti-Rawlsian to say that Levine’s appeal to Rawls is a pointless fifth wheel that does no useful work in his argument?
I’ve read my fair share of Rawls, but have never seen the point of (or argument for) the Rawlsian claim that appeal to comprehensive doctrines in political argument–in the context of “public reason”–is “unreasonable” simply qua comprehensive or unshared-by- others. The examples of unreasonability that Levine adduces are indeed examples of unreasonability, not because they appeal to “comprehensive doctrines,” but because they involve fallacious appeals to authority, poison the well, and are underdetermined by argument. As far as I can see, neither comprehensiveness nor not-being-widely-shared-by-others explains their unreasonability. So Rawls aside, it’s not clear to me why comprehensiveness is invoked. Continue reading →
Politics and religion sometimes make people say stupid things. They even sometimes make otherwise quite intelligent people say stupid things. Perhaps it’s naive, but it does seem natural enough to expect that unusually intelligent people would have intelligent things to say about things in general, and that they wouldn’t suddenly start sounding like people of merely average or lower intelligence when the conversation turns to religion or politics. This expectation seems to be satisfied insofar as the people who most often have intelligent things to say about politics and religion are, well, otherwise pretty intelligent. But it continues to astound me how often really smart people seem to lose hold of their intellects when they think there might be something at stake. I suspect that anyone with a Facebook account has encountered this phenomenon. I have encountered it enough times today that I feel compelled to write about it.
Today’s most egregious offense appeared in a Facebook post complaining about the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in schools. In case you’ve been living under a rock, ‘intelligent design’ is the label for a loosely related set of theories that criticize Darwinian evolutionary theory and purport to offer an alternative scientific hypothesis about the origin and development of life: life is (surprise!) the product of intelligent design. This family of theories is widely dismissed by scientists and usually endorsed only by religious believers (and not even by many of the most educated and informed religious believers, at that). The controversy that has occasionally boiled up in the United States over whether it should or should not be taught in schools owes much of its heat to its apparent religious implications and motivations; critics charge not only that it is bad science, but that it is a not very covert attempt to inject religious dogma into science classrooms and public education more generally. I’d thought that the political debate about this issue had more or less died a while back, but apparently not, since I found myself this morning reading a rather strong condemnation of efforts to teach intelligent design.
One of the chief reasons for studying the past and reading old books, as for learning about our contemporaries in other cultures and other parts of the world, is to appreciate the tremendous diversity of human possibilities. It is, however, difficult to spend much time studying the past without being impressed by how similar people can be across wide spans of time and despite great differences of culture. For someone who, like me, has spent many years with his head crammed in books written over two millennia ago, 1859 AD doesn’t seem so long ago, and Victorian England doesn’t seem quite so different from America in 2017. But of course the differences are striking once we zoom in a bit; to take but a few examples, neither the lightbulb nor cocaine had yet been invented, women could not vote and the United States had about 4 million slaves, and probably nobody believed that it would ever be possible to create bombs that could kill millions of people in seconds. It was a different world. Yet John Stuart Mill could write this in On Liberty:
Aristotle gets a lot of flack for defending slavery. It’s not bad enough that he accepted it, like so many Greek thinkers before him; he went to the trouble of arguing for it. Worse still, his argument is, by almost universal scholarly consensus, pretty bad. The gist of the argument is that some human beings are so rationally deficient that they cannot lead autonomous lives and therefore need to be ruled by others in order to keep out of trouble, or at least in order to live decently; slavery is actually beneficial for them, and they’re better off being slaves than being left to their own devices.
I’m a Londoner, I’m European, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband.
Why do I feel such a powerful impulse to throw cold water on this? Is it because, as an apostate Muslim, I find something problematic about a supposed Muslim who lists his religious commitment fifth on a list of politically expedient identities that helped him win an election? Or is it because, as a person of South Asian descent, I just find loud public expressions of South Asian–sorry Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Nepali, Kashmiri, or Bengali identity really embarrassing? Continue reading →