Absolutist Pluralism

From time to time when I stake out pluralist positions on the Internet, I am accused of relativism. It took me a little while to articulate how pluralism does not necessitate relativism, but I think the more interesting point is that many morally absolutist worldviews in North America today are minimally pluralist. Conservative forms of Christianity offer some of the best examples. That’s what I want to outline in this post; in part, I hope to direct people here if I ever get into such an argument again. If you find this argument compelling, you can use it in this way too.

(If you prefer “moral realism” to “moral absolutism,” feel free to swap them in your head. I’ll be using “absolutism” because “realism” has way to many meanings, depending on the specific philosophical argument at hand, than I care to deal with here.)

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Source: Lawrence OP at flic.kr/p/kxTYRQ

I can give an abstract case for a pluralism compatible with an absolutist view of what’s good for humans: Imagine there are sixteen types of people in the world, but there are thirty-two ways of doing something (earning a living, say). It might be the case that for each type of person a different way of doing something is best. Nonetheless, it does not follow from this that all thirty-two ways of doing something are good. A full half of them might, by objective standards of value, be bad for people at the same time that many of them are legitimate. Moreover, it may be objectively the case that for people of any given type, one way of doing something is best. However, I think this abstract case too readily allows a person to project their ideas about pluralism onto it. Specific and unexpected examples, I suspect, will work best to drive the point home. The examples I want to use are vocations and complementarianism. Continue reading

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Are Jones’s Theological Worlds Comprehensive?

I have mentioned W. Paul Jones’s theological worlds construct more than a few times here. It is one of the constructs I use to help me understand why other people believe and assume the things that they do. But I’ve also expressed concern here about two potential problems that arise out of Jones’s very Christian emphasis: a) how useful is it to apply Jones’s construct to non-Christians and b) how comprehensive is his set of Worlds?

To an extent that last question is an empirical one which will be difficult for me to answer; Jones’s method involved surveying hundreds of people and I do not have the resources to do the same. But there is another way to attempt to answer the question about comprehensiveness which, I have discovered, might also help make his constructs more useful for non-Christians. After a bit of thought I think I have been able to schematize his Worlds so that they do, or at least might, cover all possible sources of anxiety and obsession about the human condition.

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Stephane Lollivier at flic.kr/p/DnhB8H; I spent a while trying to find a Creative Commons image of a garrison town with a wooden palisade in boreal forest, but no such luck.

Let’s start with that human condition: human life is characterized by a) individual humans with their own internal dynamics b) embedded within and enmeshed with an environment which includes, but is not limited to, the facts of time and space, of the Laws of Thermodynamics, and so on, and c) associated with other individual humans (even if only their own parents) in ways more or less organized. The internal workings (understood both physically and psychologically) of any given human, which I will call human nature, has various requirements (ie. sustenance, medicine, narrative), some of which that person can only attain from the surrounding environment; when humans organize themselves into institutions, they usually do so with the purpose of making it easier for themselves to meet these needs through collective action. These organizations are necessary because it is often difficult for people to meet their needs either within themselves or through interaction with the environment. Even when it is not difficult to meet these needs alone, there is no guarantee that it will remain easy.

Therefore there are three places where crises may arise for any given person: in the environment (which, again, includes all contingent and all necessary features of existence, such as time and space and the laws of physics), in the person’s own internal workings (which might be generalized human nature or a specific person’s unique nature), or in human organization. Indeed, while all problems must necessarily involve elements of each of these three aspects of human existence, an individual person may experience one of these as being more responsible or more ultimately responsible in comparison to the other two.

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Guilt and Shame in the Colossus of Rhodes

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was the Colossus of Rhodes, an iron-framed and brass-covered statue of the titan and sun god Helios, which stood in the harbour of Rhodes, Greece. Built in 280 BCE, it was the tallest statue of its time at 70 cubits high (about 33 metres or 108 feet). Contrary to popular depiction, it likely did not straddle the mouth of the harbour. Nonetheless, it would have been an impressive sight to any sailors approaching the city. Greek myth animated another bronze colossus in Crete named Talos: either Hephaestus or Daedalus made the automaton on Zeus’s behalf in order to defend Europa, queen mother of Crete. He had one vein in his metal body, which ran from his neck to his ankle; it was fastened shut with a single nail. When the Argo approached, with Jason at the helm, Talos tried to repel it and Medea used her sorcery to dislodge the nail. His ichor ran out of him like molten lead and he died. The Cretan word talôs is equivalent to the Greek hêlios, meaning the Sun, which is the subject of the Colossus of Rhodes. Much later the Romans made further bronze colossi: the Colossus of Barletta, the Colossus of Constantine, and the Colossus of Nero.

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Source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coloso_de_Rodas..jpg

I feel like I live inside a colossus of this type: a brazen image of myself, physically idealized, well-proportioned and gargantuan. It is hollow, and I stand inside it with the clear understanding that I am supposed to grow into it. I am supposed, somehow, to fill this statue so that it is merely my own skin. But I have no sense that this thing is possible, nor how to achieve it if it is. Instead I try to operate the colossus and speak from it like a puppeteer. Relying on the full extent of my scant ingenuity I try to create the illusion that I have done what I am supposed to do, or at least that I am in the process of growing into it. But I know better. I have made no gains in that direction. From within, the colossus rings as empty as it ever has.

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MacIntyre on Sophoclean Tragedies

Amod Lele of Love of All Wisdom, in the comments of my second to last post, “A Partial Apology for Liberalism,” recommended that I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Though I was skeptical for the first few chapters and I found some of the prose unclear, I wound up quite enjoying it. I’m not convinced of the demonstrative half of his argument, but I will discuss that in greater length later. Right now I want to focus on his discussion of Sophoclean tragedies.

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Source: UCI UC Irvine at flic.kr/p/dp67Vf

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A Partial Apology for Liberalism, or, A Partial Criticism of its Critics

Before I begin, a note is warranted: I will be dropping a lot of names in this piece and I want to put you at ease before you have to deal with them. I don’t expect that any of my likely readers will be familiar with most of the people I mention and I am trying to write specifically so that you can still understand what’s going on without knowing who they are. Anything I need you to know about them, I will tell you myself. I will also provide links should I fail in this endeavour or should I succeed in piquing your interest, but I do not intend for you to rely upon them. That said, let’s begin.

A statue of the Godd of Democracy, holding a torch aloft, behind whom are evergreen branches.

The Goddess of Democracy at UBC. Source: Carl Mueller at flic.kr/p/5cNvQY

A few weeks ago I found Love of All Wisdom, the philosophy blog of Amod Lele. There’s a lot going on with Lele’s work that I find interesting and compelling. An academic philosopher with a PhD in the subject, he describes himself as working in the Aristotelian, Buddhist, and historicist traditions and his work is wide-ranging, bringing a huge variety of both Western and non-Western philosophers to a problem. (His header has pictures of his major influences: Santideva the Indian Buddhist philosopher, Aristotle the ancient Greek empiricist, Hegel the German historicist, Confucius the traditionalist communitarian, and Martha Nussbaum the contemporary academic philosopher.) He also uses a few different categorization schemes for philosophies, two of which he’s organized into a quadrant system that I am thinking of adopting: integrity vs. intimacy and ascent v. descent. (If I was still at my old blog, I’d add it to my Taxonomies of Religions list.) His thought is new to me, but I admire his precision, erudition, creativity, and seriousness–a rare combination of traits in a thinker.

Although I would love to just list the things I’ve learned from Lele, what I want to focus on for this post is where his ideas intersect with those of other people whose thought I’ve encountered lately, who explicitly reject the anthropology, and therefore politics, of liberalism.* Continue reading

Against Libertarianism: An Annotated, Opinionated Bibliography

Jon Wong has asked me to write a post about my understanding of libertarianism, and I agreed to do it.* In retrospect, this was maybe foolish: I can’t think of anything interesting to say which hasn’t already been said by others. So rather than write 3000 words that have already been written, I will introduce those already-written words which best represent my understanding of libertarianism.

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Source: Tom Wardill at flic.kr/p/yFx8a

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What World Do You Live In? Part 1

One of the lenses through which I look at ideas and the people who hold them is W Paul Jones’s theological worlds concept. I wrote about Jones’s theological worlds before here, having learned about them in his book of the same name; they are personality types of a sort, though they pertain more to a person’s root cosmology than to whether or not a person enjoys going to parties.

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Source: Classic Art Wallpapers at flic.kr/p/nKDY9i

I want to talk a bit more about the theological worlds now that I’ve taken Jones’s “Theological World Inventory” and gotten somewhat surprising results. As such rather a lot of this discussion will be navel-gazing, but I think even so that will throw off some useful material nonetheless. In this first post I’ll re-introduce the concept; in the second I’ll discuss the Inventory and my results; in the third I want to think a bit about the typology’s usefulness (including to whom the typology is useful).

Theological Worlds

Each theological world represents the fundamental dynamic, or perhaps dialectic, underlying a person’s engagement with the world. Jones’s own words from the introduction to his inventory will work as an introduction to the idea:

A World results from the interaction between two poles. The first is one’s obsessio, that lived question, need, ache, or dilemma which has its teeth into us at the deepest level. Other concerns are variations on that basic theme, standing in line behind its importance. The second pole is one’s epiphania, that which through one or more events, moments, and/or persons brings sufficient illumination, satisfaction, or healing to provide a lived answer worth wagering one’s life upon. One’s epiphania is what touches promisingly one’s obsession as fact or as hope.1

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Anglican Reason

If you’ve read the blurb associated with Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition, you might have noticed something that I’ve so far neglected to mention, something that is entirely out of character for me to neglect:

Highlighting their complexity, fallibility, humility but also passion Bartlett suggests that Anglican spirituality and theology are not only resilient enough to survive the present malaise but have the potential to be a most effective ‘post-modern’ expression of the Christian faith (emphasis mine).

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Richard Hooker by Wenceslaus Hollar.

Part of the reason I haven’t yet mentioned it is that explicit discussions of postmodernism are rarer in the book than the blurb suggests. The most detailed and extended discussion, however, comes at the beginning of “‘God-Given Reason’,” the book’s fifth chapter, concerning the Anglican cord’s third strand. Here Bartlett gives a history of reason in the Western tradition, from Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker’s Thomist Christianity (“Reason is received as a gift from God within a God-shaped universe”) through Locke’s Enlightenment thinking (in which “what was believable was what was reasonable”) and modernist reason’s specialized disciplines, up to the postmodern moment:

But now, in the postmodern West, where society is emerging from the modernist world view, belief in the objectivity of the human mind has been severely criticised and confidence in science has been battered. We can add to this the swamping of human minds by a tidal wave of information and complexity, and also a recovery of the sense of people as whole beings, shaped by body and emotion and psyche as well as ‘pure’ thought. (146-148)

In a bit of characteristic understatement, Bartlett concludes, “In this context, the meaning and status of Reason is much more slippery” (148).

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Kegan-Chapman Developmental Model

One of my various hobbies is collecting models of human development, either on an individual psychological basis or a social civilization basis. In particular, I’m interested in the move between what I once would have identified as modernism (or absolutism) and postmodernism (or pluralism). I very recently stumbled on another example at David Chapman’s “Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence,” written in October 2015. I’m not wholly convinced by it, but it does seem intriguing. Moreover, it seems to mirror, with significant differences, various ideas I’ve had on this subject; for instance, a while ago I was worried about academia’s ability to shepherd people into the final ideal stage of personal epistemology.

I am writing this post mostly to a) mark that it came into my attention and b) share it with you, in case you want to follow along with my stumbling attempts at improving my epistemology, ethical philosophy, and political philosophy.

Related topics:

Selves as systems
Categories as patterns (and, using Chapman’s terms, nebulous ones)
Ethics as ungrounded

Ruthven’s Islam in the World and Christianity

Malise Ruthven’s Islam in the World (Second Edition) is an excellent survey of Islam for those who are not yet well-read on the subject. What I have read of it so far (six and a half of its eight chapters) is well-researched and balanced, neither alarmist nor falsely flattering; Voltaire Panda lent it to me specifically for this reason, in contrast to some of Karen Armstrong’s writing. Further, it offers information I have never seen offered by any of the Muslims who have taught me about Islam (ie. acquaintances, university professors): the Quran’s historical, religious, and literary influences. It has also done a good job discussing the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, though I would have appreciated a summary in table form, and has a more textured, less rose-tinted description of Sufism than I have seen anywhere else. Ruthven also shows an informed and intuitive understanding of human spiritual needs and therefore does not rely on the political, material, or philosophical explanations of Islam’s development that most secular commentators privilege, though he also puts these kinds of explanations to good use as well.

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Source: Cristian Viarisio at flic.kr/p/7fmue7; the Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox basilica which was later converted into an Ottoman mosque and is now a museum

As with any survey, it covers quite a lot of ground and, alas, it can be hard to follow for this reason: the sheer number of movements, terms, approaches, factions, dynasties, and individuals can make it feel like one of those novels with innumerable similarly-named characters with shifting loyalties—Russian literary, high fantasy, or airport spy novels, as you prefer. The glossary at the back helps with this, but is far from sufficient.

As usual I’m not especially interested in writing a book review. I’ve learned a lot about Islam from the book, but instead of talking about it I’d be more inclined to just recommend the book. But I’ve also learned a bit about religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s these insights that I’d like to share. Continue reading