Sunday, April 10, 2011

Should Philosophers Contribute to Social Life?

I've recently started listening to a series called "Philosophy Bites," which is a podcast of top philosophers interviewed on bite-sized topics. This morning I was listening to a brief conversation with Mary Warnock. She is a philosopher, a member of the House of Lords in the UK, and an advocate for euthanasia.

I was struck by several things she said in the brief interview. Of particular interest was this segment where she talked about  the role of religion in  moral decision making around issues of euthanasia. In this time of "culture wars" in the United States her voice was a refreshing new and challenging look at what is happening.

I certainly wouldn't want to deny that religion has it's place. The trouble is that some people don't like them and don't feel any need for them. And therefore it seems to me absolutely and totally wrong that legislation which has to bind everybody and the rule of law seems to me something that is far more important than any particular religious dogma. It is completely wrong that religion should be given an enormous part in producing legislation. But anyone who says that human life is a gift from God is just simply talking irreverently because not everybody believes that. And so how could their particular believe possibly be brought in to justify blocking any attempt at legalizing assisted suicide. I mean obviously people who are religious very often have very good an acceptable moral views, but they have no special access to what would be a good and sound basis of legislation in a matter like that which is a moral matter.

There are a number of hot-button issues facing our world today. Gay marriage, equality, war, abortion, education,  the environment, the budget... all topics that we have opinions about in part based on moral judgments. As played out in the epic struggle between the left and right, these struggles seem deeply rooted in our sense of morals--morals that are (nearly) inextricably intertwined with religious teachings.

Turn on the television recently? Check out Twitter, Facebook, or comments made about articles online? Dismayed at how we seem to be talking (or yelling) at each other rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue? I know I'm dismayed.

This is what got me so interested in Warnock's interview. I hadn't fully noticed that at the heart of our public discourse is the divide between the moral reasoning of (some) religious folk and the moral reasoning of (some) secular folk. That divide is brought to life in our public discourse through the constant chatter of one side trying to prove the other side is wrong. In her interview, Warnock showed me how easy it is to lose sight of how one particular set of beliefs does not have any "special access to what would be a good and sound" in any of these situations. Neither religion nor political believe, nor intellectual tradition provide any one group with access to a particular truth.

So what's a concerned person to do? For starters, know your own epistemology (what is knowledge, how is it obtained, and what constitutes acceptable criteria for knowledge) and ontology (what do people consider reality). Also be open to understanding how another person goes about making meaning in the world.

In an article in the New Statesman Warnock offers this:

I believe morality comes from our common human nature and that we live in a society that is precarious and difficult. To take morals seriously is to take the view that we've got to collaborate and taken one another seriously.

I like that. It is a challenge to really be open to listening and understanding someone with a radically different viewpoint than our own. I think it's worth it. In fact, our very survival might depend on it. Who are you going to take seriously today? 

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