Sunday, October 21, 2018

Nationalism 011: Van Wietmarschen's Separation of Philosophy and State

Some people fear that political liberalism - a society built on the tolerance of many different groups - is incompatible with people actually believing in the teachings of those groups. Philosophical, moral, and religious doctrines seem incompatible with letting others live their lives as they choose. If something is wrong, then it is universally wrong. If God forbids something, it is forbidden to everybody. Indeed it is the case that if slavery is wrong, then it is wrong to tolerate enslavement. If the killing of a fetus is murder, it would still be wrong to allow murders in the name of political tolerance.

Han van Wietmarschen argues for a skeptical conclusion from political liberalism by combining it with certain principles found in the philosophy of disagreement. (See: van Wietmarschen, Han (2018). "Reasonable Citizens and Epistemic Peers: A Skeptical Problem for Political Liberalism." Journal of Political Philosophy, pp. 1-22.)

The philosophy of disagreement states that if you have a belief (e.g., that a god exists, or that no god exists), and if you live in a society where a reasonable person can disagree with you, then you ought to be somewhat skeptical about the beliefs that you hold.

This happens to be the principle that got me into philosophy when I was quite young. I had my beliefs about how to make a better world - as just about every teenager does. Yet, I was aware that there were some very intelligent people who had done a great deal of research and study who disagreed with me. I thought, "By what right do I declare for myself to have superior knowledge to those who have spent their lives studying this subject? Am I claiming that I need only a passing glance at the material and its arguments to make a judgment on the issue? That is an arrogant and presumptive attitude to take - one that can be founded only on a misplaced ego.

Let me present a few more details about this view of political liberalism.

The conception of political liberalism under consideration says that political matters may only be justified on the basis of “public considerations.” Public considerations are understood to be considerations that, according to van Wietmarschen, “all reasonable people can reasonably be expected to accept.” This means that considerations which reasonable people can reasonably expect to disagree about – called Non-public considerations – are not legitimate considerations for political matters. They are only relevant to an agent's private decisions.

Van Wietmarschen provides an example - the case of ensoulment. Ensoulment is an issue about which individuals can be expected to disagree. We must note that to be counted a private consideration requires more than disagreement about ensoulment. It requires rational disagreement - an admission on the part of those who hold one view that those who disagree with her are not necessarily irrational; they have their reasons (even if she believes those reasons must ultimately fail). This is a part of the idea of a respect for different points of view; the attitude, "Though I think you are mistaken, your mistakes are not unreasonable."

I want to take van Wietmarchen's ideas and apply them to another dispute - a dispute about slavery in 1860.

If a time traveller dropped van Wietmarchen's manuscript off on the doorstep of a northern abolitionist in 1860, it appears that the abolitionist would have to abandon his view that slavery was wrong - or, at least, that his views on the wrongness of slavery counted as any type of "public consideration". It is a private consideration only. Consequently, it is not a consideration on which any national political policies ought to be based.

We clearly see that the defense of slavery in 1860 involved prejudice and bigotry that caused people to draw unreasonable conclusions from evidence that was substantially made up. Their ideas on the "nature" of black people that allowed them to thrive in a condition of slavery had no basis on reason or evidence.

However, what is at issue here are the applications of the principles of disagreement we find in the field of epistemology. The abolitionist in 1860 does not have our perspective. What she knows is that there are certainly people supporting slavery who are at least as intelligent and as concerned with morality as the abolitionist herself. After all, virtually the whole population south of the Mason/Dixon line supported slavery at the time. There had to be a few counted among them at least as intelligent as she is, looking at the same evidence - perhaps even more evidence given their proximity to the slave society - who yet held that her own views were mistaken.

By the principles of epistemology, she ought to be skeptical of the idea that she is such an specimen of intellectual superiority that she got right what so many others who are at least as smart got wrong.

Then, by the principles of political liberalism, she ought to consider her attitudes on slavery to be "private considerations" - considerations of the type where reasonable people disagree and, as a result, ought not to be put forth as the reason for adopting or abandoning any political policies. Political liberalism - or, at least, the type of political liberalism that van Wietmarchen was concerned with - prohibits this.

This creates a problem. The pro-slavery advocate is in the same position. Skepticism on the legitimacy of slavery is skepticism on the illegitimacy of slavery. It provides no answer one way or another.

Or, to return to the issue of ensoulment, skepticism about ensoulment implies skepticism about non-ensoulment. One cannot argue from skepticism to, "Therefore the opponents of ensoulment win," any more than one can argue from skepticism about slavery to, "therefore the opponents of abolitionism win."

This means that political issues involving ensoulment or slavery cannot be settled until the people are brought into agreement. Yet, they are being forced into an agreement about a matter where, according to the best information at the time, reasonable people could disagree. This seems to be an impossible trap.

Indeed, it is an impossible trap.

The fact of the matter is that political disagreement includes private considerations. The assertion that people must leave what van Wietmarchen would call "private concerns" out of political disagreement is absurd. Part of our political disagreement involves fighting to persuade others that the position we take that it would label "private considerations" are fully relevant in determining what policies and procedures to adopt.

A part of our political debate is persuading others that our "private considerations" ought not to be private considerations at all.

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