politics without metaphysics?

During three recent talks on What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life, I received interesting questions of a similar type.

In the book, I argue that human beings must come together in a whole variety of groups in order to learn what is right by discussing and acting together. I claim that this is our best way of pursuing wisdom.

The questions I received were about animals and/or the divine. Does my account presume that people are the only beings that fully count? That assumption could be cashed out as a metaphysical view–for instance, that human beings alone have free will and therefore represent the sole intrinsic goods. As such, it would conflict with many other metaphysical views–for instance, that all sentient beings have been given harmonious roles by their attentive creator.

My answer (hardly an original one) is fundamentally pragmatic. I think that discussing and acting with other human beings is the best way we have to make ourselves wise. We don’t have the option of including animals in our discussions because they can’t talk. And we don’t get direct and explicit divine instructions, unless perhaps very rarely.

This does not mean that animals don’t count or that there is no higher power. Perhaps we have very important duties toward other sentient creatures (which may require close attention to their expressed needs) and toward God or gods. But we must define and honor these duties by interacting with other human beings.

John Rawls is the most famous advocate of the idea that politics does not require metaphysics (see Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” 1985). I am saying something similar, except that my view is much more polycentric.

The main focus of Rawls’ thought is a constitutional democracy as the sovereign power in a nation. He sees a legitimate government as the mechanism for deciding what justice demands. Because its citizens have the right to hold their own religious and other fundamental views, a legitimate state must be neutral in relevant ways, which makes it “liberal” in a certain sense of that term.

I view any religious denomination as one of the venues in which people come together to decide what is right to do together and to learn from one another. It may be defined by certain metaphysical premises that all its members endorse (although that is not uniformly true of religions). Unlike Rawls, I do not see the liberal state as one uniquely legitimate umbrella organization set over the religious denominations and other groups. Rather, a society is a panoply of associations that have diverse purposes and assumptions, and the liberal state is simply the association that is charged with settling a range of issues that involve public law. The society as a whole generates wisdom (and folly, in various proportions).

Most of our associations have no need to be neutral about metaphysics. They are entitled to take strong positions about the divine, about nature, and about other philosophical questions. Still, all of them are necessarily groups of human beings, and the topic that interests me is how to design them to bring out the best in their members. That topic does not seem to require getting the metaphysics right.

Objection: When some groups of human beings gather to decide what they should do, they consult non-human sources. They pray, they study texts of revelation, or they commune with nature and try to learn from non-human animals. Must we not decide whether their beliefs are correct in order to assess their behavior? For instance, perhaps it is wise to pray to a divinity that exists but not otherwise. In that case, metaphysics must come before politics.

I would answer this objection from two different perspectives. First, as an individual, I must put myself in groups to learn from others and keep myself accountable to them. To some extent, I can choose which groups to join. Their core philosophical commitments are relevant to my decisions about membership. I should be less likely to join a group that I fundamentally disagree with, and some of those wouldn’t want me in the first place. However, core philosophical commitments represent one kind of consideration among others. Plenty of people are good members of religious communities despite doubts. In short, I can critically assess groups and join only my favorite ones, but I shouldn’t be too fastidious about these choices.

Second, as a citizen, I should be glad that there are many different groups. They reflect freedom of association and diversity. They contribute to the society-wide discussion. Not only should I fight for their First Amendment rights and tolerate their presence, but in many cases, I should actively learn from them. Even if I disagree with their metaphysics, they may have insights that would benefit me. From a different perspective: even if I am foolish in doubting their articles of faith, their divine inspiration can speak to me through their human members.

I often return to John Dewey’s formulation of “the democratic idea in its generic social sense” from The Public and Its Problems (1927). He proposes three principles. Everyone should belong to many groups, which must “interact flexibly and fully” with each other. These groups should derive the full benefit of all their members’ contributions. And people should be involved in “forming and directing the activities of the groups” to which they belong. This vision is all about human beings, but I don’t think it challenges either religious beliefs or deep concerns for nature. It is rather an idealistic account of how people–who may hold diverse fundamental views–should govern ourselves, because that is something we must do.

See also: modus vivendi theory; bootstrapping value commitments; what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?; social justice from the citizen’s perspective; what secular people can get out of theology; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare, etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.