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Habermas on Rawls on Religion December 14, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Political Philosophy, religion.
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In his blog on Habermas and Rawls, Thomas Gregersen has published a link to a new afterword by Habermas about the young Rawls’ analysis of religion in his senior thesis from 1942, “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith.” This piece apparently wasn’t known to exist until after Rawls’ death in 2002. In 1942 Rawls was 21, and since I’m right now grading what seems like a stack of several thousand papers 🙂 from students in that age-bracket, I am acutely aware of the quality of writing and argumentation…however, I’ll pursue Rawls’ own text at a later date, and leave it to Habermas to “grade” Rawls!

I thought you might find it interesting to (1) see Gregersen’s blog, (2) read the Habermas piece .

An excerpt from Habermas’ review, quoted by Gregersen:

“I will limit myself here to four observations. (1) This confident work, which is strikingly mature for a twenty-one-year-old, merits interest in the first instance as a surprising biographical testimony concerning the work and personality of the most important political theorist of the twentieth century. (2) The philosophical substance of the senior thesis consists in a religious ethics which already exhibits all of the essential features of an egalitarian and universalistic ethics of duty tailored to the absolute worth of the individual. (3) At the same time the posthumous insight into the biographical sources of the author’s work offers an outstanding example of the philosophical translation of religious motives. It is as if one were examining the religious roots of a deontological morality based on reason alone under a magnifying glass. (4) The student’s senior thesis also foreshadows his later recognition that the secularisation of state power must not be confused with the secularisation of civil society. Rawls owes his unique standing in the social contract tradition to the systematic attention he devotes to religious and metaphysical pluralism.”

Of course it is always fascinating when precursors to a thinker’s prominent contributions can be found in his or her early writings. But that shouldn’t detract from the significance of a good thinker being able to change his or her mind…


Animal Suffering September 26, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, religion, Uncategorized.
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From Jeff McMahan on the NY Times Opinionator Blog

Viewed from a distance, the natural world often presents a vista of sublime, majestic placidity. Yet beneath the foliage and hidden from the distant eye, a vast, unceasing slaughter rages. Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous. […]

The continuous, incalculable suffering of animals is also an important though largely neglected element in the traditional theological “problem of evil” ─ the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent god. The suffering of animals is particularly challenging because it is not amenable to the familiar palliative explanations of human suffering. Animals are assumed not to have free will and thus to be unable either to choose evil or deserve to suffer it. Neither are they assumed to have immortal souls; hence there can be no expectation that they will be compensated for their suffering in a celestial afterlife. Nor do they appear to be conspicuously elevated or ennobled by the final suffering they endure in a predator’s jaws. Theologians have had enough trouble explaining to their human flocks why a loving god permits them to suffer; but their labors will not be over even if they are finally able to justify the ways of God to man. For God must answer to animals as well.

Theists have never had an answer to the problem of human evil. I doubt they have an answer to animal suffering either.

McMahan speculates that humans might do better than “God.”

But ought we to go further?  Suppose that we could arrange the gradual extinction of carnivorous species, replacing them with new herbivorous ones.  Or suppose that we could intervene genetically, so that currently carnivorous species would gradually evolve into herbivorous ones, thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.  If we could bring about the end of predation by one or the other of these means at little cost to ourselves, ought we to do it?

As McMahan points out, intentionally inducing the elimination of entire species is itself a moral wrong. (Almost as bad as just allowing them to go extinct in order to make sure oil men profit.)

But in the end McMahan’s proposal is silly. It is hard enough to get human beings to care about the suffering of other humans. That is apparently about all the morality we can handle, and our lack of moral capacity is threatening our own existence.  There may be some possible world in which animal suffering carries the same moral weight as human suffering. But it is not close to this world.

But God doesn’t have the same limitations. God’s moral capacity is not limited.

So why animal suffering?

When Hypocrisy Becomes Farce September 19, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, religion, Uncategorized.
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Following shortly on the heels of the announcement by a Church-appointed commission that uncovered pervasive child abuse in nearly every Catholic diocese in Belgium, this weekend, the Pope visited the UK and spewed more of his nonsense about “atheist extremism” which he claims threatens “traditional values”.

I didn’t know pederasty was a traditional value. But I guess its a good thing those Belgium priests were not atheists. Who knows what they would have done.

But then rank hypocrisy becomes farce: he blames the holocaust on atheism:

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny” (Caritas in Veritate, 29).

Ophelia Benson was livid:

That vicious authoritarian theocratic homophobic misogynist hierarchical thug presumes to blame atheists for Nazism when his own fucking church was all but an ally of the Nazis and really was an ally of Mussolini and Franco.

Indeed.  Of course, Hitler was no atheist. He professed belief in Catholicism and was solidly supported by the church during his reign. The Pope’s historical revisionism goes beyond hypocrisy—it is an outright lie.

If you were making a movie about a rabid lunatic who became Pope could you find anyone better than Herr Ratzinger to play the part?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Dalai Lama’s Wishful Thinking June 15, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, religion.
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Everybody likes the Dalai Lama (except the Chinese government) and he seems to be quite a nice person, full of wisdom and all. But in a recent NY Times article he engages in a bit of wishful thinking:

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

This is a nice thought and I hope it is true, but given the amount of evidence to the contrary, such a claim would require some defense. So what is his defense?

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

The rest of the article details the commitment to compassion in Hinduism and Islam as well.

But there is no argument here. The fact that all all religions share some feature does not entail that they have much in common. And it strikes me as simply false that the main idea or raison d’etre of most religions is compassion. Christians and Muslims seek salvation and the end of sin. Buddhists seek the end of suffering and the achievement of Nirvana. Compassion is a means to an end at best; just a side issue not the central concept. And al religions teach that their doctrine is a divine truth that require intolerance toward others.

What reason is there to think that religions could somehow ditch their doctrines and make compassion the point?

None as far as I can see.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Authoritarianism On Display April 1, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, religion.
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The revelations regarding the Catholic hierarchy’s involvement in protecting pedophile priests is disturbing but unfortunately predictable.

The future Pope Benedict XVI was kept more closely apprised of a sexual abuse case in Germany than previous church statements have suggested, raising fresh questions about his handling of a scandal unfolding under his direct supervision before he rose to the top of the church’s hierarchy.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope and archbishop in Munich at the time, was copied on a memo that informed him that a priest, whom he had approved sending to therapy in 1980 to overcome pedophilia, would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment. The priest was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish.

An initial statement on the matter issued earlier this month by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising placed full responsibility for the decision to allow the priest to resume his duties on Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy, the Rev. Gerhard Gruber. But the memo, whose existence was confirmed by two church officials, shows that the future pope not only led a meeting on Jan. 15, 1980, approving the transfer of the priest, but was also kept informed about the priest’s reassignment.

These revelations come on top of another scandal involving the Vatican.

Top Vatican officials — including the future Pope Benedict XVI — did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.

The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal.

This is predictable because all authoritarian institutions tend towards corruption.

The charges are disgusting enough but the cover up is becoming more disgusting each day. In the face of media reports, the apologists are out in force making excuses that are logically lame and morally despicable. Here is one singular example from a blog post by Archbishop Dolan of the New York Diocese:

What adds to our anger over the nauseating abuse and the awful misjudgment in reassigning such a dangerous man, though, is the glaring fact that we never see similar headlines that would actually be “news”:  How about these, for example?

–    “Doctor Asserts He Ignored Abuse Warnings,” since Dr. Huth admits in the article that he, in fact, told the archdiocese the abusing priest could be reassigned under certain restrictions, a prescription today recognized as terribly wrong;

–    “Doctor Asserts Public Schools Ignored Abuse Warnings,” since the data of Dr. Carol Shakeshaft concludes that the number of cases of abuse of minors by teachers, coaches, counsellors, and staff in government schools is much, much worse than by priests;

–    “Doctor Asserts Judges (or Police, Lawyers, District Attorneys, Therapists, Parole Officers) Ignored Abuse Warnings,” since we now know the sober fact that no one in the healing and law enforcement professions knew back then the depth of the scourge of abuse, or the now-taken-for-granted conclusion that abusers of young people can never safely work closely with them again

Not only does Dolan ignore recent cover-ups of child-abuse. He seems oblivious to the fact that the church is supposed to be the highest of moral authorities. Yet when confronted with the church’s complicity in abject evil, the best he can say is “everyone else is doing it”.

As Matt Tiabbi writes:

These pompous assholes run around in their poofy robes and dresses shaking smoke-filled decanters with important expressions on their faces and pretending to great insight about grace and humility, but here we have the head of the largest Diocese in America teaching his entire congregation that when caught committing a terrible sin, the appropriate response is to blame the media and pull the “All the other kids were doing it, too!” stunt!

Apparently, having the moral compass of a 6th grade school yard bully is sufficient qualification to be a Bishop these days.

The corruption goes to very top of the Catholic hierarchy. And it is a lesson in how corruption will effect any organization that shields itself from moral criticism by appealing to some higher power.

I’m not Catholic but many people I care about are; they must be suffering to see what has become of the institution in which they have become so invested.

The fact that the Pope continues to spout nonsense about the moral relativism of modern society is nauseating.

 book-section-book-cover2   Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Sam Harris on moral relativism March 31, 2010

Posted by michaelmussachia in Ethics, religion, Science.
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Sam Harris gave an interesting and thought-provoking talk at the 2010 TED conference on how neuroscience can contribute to our understanding on morality and values. For those who are interested, the url is http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/moral-confusion-in-the-na_b_517710.html.

Harris challenges the traditional fact/value, is/ought distinction by pointing out that science can investigate values, both how they arise socially and their neurobiological nature.

To quote Harris:

“When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal well-being that we can, in principle, know–simply because well-being (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.”

He argues that if morality involves well-being and happiness (rather than “God’s will”), it has an empirical basis. Science can provide data on what factors are most efficient it bringing about happiness and well-being, just as it can with regard to what constitutes a state of good health and what can bring it about. Harris grants that, just as there are numerous ways to achieve good health, so also there are many ways to achieve happiness and well-being,  but their effectiveness can nonetheless be scientifically investigated. Harris also argues that while happiness, well-being (and good health) cannot be defined in a completely objective and universal manner, experience and empirical data clearly show that some values and forms of behavior  are more likely to result in happiness and well-being than others, e.g., if good health is a value, then consuming poison is not an effective way to realize that value; if well-being is a value, throwing acid on the face of young girls because they resist arranged marriages with men three times their age is not effective in realizing that value. Of course, there are all kinds of social issues here, including who defines the values and the means to achieve them, e.g., a Taliban fundamentalist vs a liberal secularist, but I agree with Harris that, broadly and loosely speaking, values and the means to achieve them are subject to empirical investigation. This doesn’t eliminate the fact/value, is/ought distinction, but both sides of the distinction involve empirical issues.

Another part of Harris’ argument is that a value does not have to be subject to a completely objective and universal (let alone mathematical) formulation for us to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable definitions of the value. He also argues that when academics embrace moral and cultural relativism, they confirm the claim of religious moral objectivists that only religion can provide an objective basis for values and morality.

Dummy Inflation March 22, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, religion, Science.
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Brad Delong was on irony watch this weekend:



And doing double duty on All Souls Market Watch as well:


and Thomas Nagle will soon publish his new paper: What Is It Like to Be a Rock?


Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Beck’s Theology March 15, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, religion.
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Last week, on his radio show, Glenn Beck condemned churches that promote “social justice”.

“I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church web site,” Beck urged his audience. “If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”

He claims social justice is “a perversion of the Gospel,” and “not what Jesus would say” and fears that concern for social justice is a problem “infecting all” faiths.

Many people are upset with Beck for these remarks and Rev. Jim Wallis, a prominent evangelical argued :

“I don’t know if Beck is just strange, just trying to be controversial, or just trying to make money. But in any case, what he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show.”

Religious conservatives have long argued that government-run welfare is ineffective or that it undermines genuine charitable instincts by non-state actors. But the claim that charity in and of itself is irreligious is new and bizarre.

Of course, I don’t know why anyone would listen to Beck’s interpretation of gospel. But many people regard  his opinions on economics, history, or foreign policy to be worthy, so why should theology be spared?

I have always been amazed at conservatism’s ability to use anti-government animus to hold together vastly different ideological positions. Surely Beck’s version of the “libertarian gospel” is pushing the limits of that coalition.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

All God’s Children? December 13, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, religion.
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Charity in the 21st Century apparently means punishing children for the “sins” of their parents.

The Salvation Army and a charity affiliated with the Houston Fire Department are among those that consider immigration status, asking for birth certificates or Social Security cards for the children.

The point isn’t to punish the children but to ensure that their parents are either citizens, legal immigrants or working to become legal residents, said Lorugene Young, whose Outreach Program Inc. is one of three groups that distribute toys collected by firefighters.

“It’s not our desire to turn anyone down,” she said. “Those kids are not responsible if they are here illegally. It is the parents’ responsibility.”

Why does the Salvation Army care about the immigration status of the recipients of their charity? Apparently only “the right sort” of children deserve toys and food.

This organization of bigots doesn’t deserve anybody’s cash.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Kierkegaard to the Rescue! November 2, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, religion.
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I was intrigued when Gordon Marino’s New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Kierkegaard on the Couch,” popped up on my Google meter. (I was also intrigued when I read that aside from being a Kierkegaard expert, Marino is also a boxing trainer. Kierkegaard, being fond of incongruities and ironies, would probably have liked that. At any rate, never at a loss for words, he’d have had something to say about it.)

These days when philosophers hire out as counselors for people whose world view has crumbled, Marino is taking a bold and interesting step, bringing Søren Kierkegaard into the debate about the quintessential contemporary American response to depression: pills, brain scans, and other external mind-pacifying approaches. Can Kierkegaard help us when our despair over life is running high? But not all cases of despair are depression, says Marino:

“These days, confide to someone that you are in despair and he or she will likely suggest that you seek out professional help for your depression. While despair used to be classified as one of the seven deadly sins, it has now been medicalized and folded into the concept of clinical depression. If Kierkegaard were on Facebook or could post a You Tube video, he would certainly complain that we, who have listened to Prozac, have become deaf to the ancient distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair.”


His lapidary “Sickness Unto Death” is a study of despair, which in the Danish derives from the notion of intensified doubt. Almost as a challenge to keep out the less than earnest reader, Kierkegaard begins “Sickness” with this famous albeit slightly ironic bit of word play:

A human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation.

Marino’s suggestion is to consider the possibility that when we feel an overwhelming malaise about our life and our self, to not go straight to the doctor and ask for Prozac, but to go along with Kierkegaard and explore the condition of the self, considering the possibility that we might learn something about our own spirit and spirituality or lack of it. Not a bad suggestion. Looking into the depths of our own soul before we decide to be medicated into normalcy is a good philosophical approach. But why does Marino stop there? He needs to  share with us the real point of Kierkegaard’s despair analysis.  It is to find God, not just once, but as part of a continual quest. We feel despair (which in Danish is a little different, “fortvivlelse,” more like a profound sadness than despair), says Kierkegaard,  precisely because we feel disconnected when all we find when we look into our selves is our selves looking back at us. And we experience the fundamental doubt. So we need that leap of faith that Kierkegaard’s philosophy is incomprehensible without—and which is so uncomfortable for existentialists who have settled into the atheistic brand of existentialism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy got it right:

But the choice of faith is not made once and for all. It is essential that faith be constantly renewed by means of repeated avowals of faith. One’s very selfhood depends upon this repetition, for according to Anti-Climacus, the self “is a relation which relates itself to itself” (The Sickness Unto Death). But unless this self acknowledges a “power which constituted it,” it falls into a despair which undoes its selfhood. Therefore, in order to maintain itself as a relation which relates itself to itself, the self must constantly renew its faith in “the power which posited it.” There is no mediation between the individual self and God by priest or by logical system (contra Catholicism and Hegelianism respectively). There is only the individual’s own repetition of faith. This repetition of faith is the way the self relates itself to itself and to the power which constituted it, i.e. the repetition of faith is the self.

Is that what Marino wanted to say? Did he know, and chose not to go there, or did he not know? Because you can’t have one part of Kierkegaard without the other: you can’t have the intriguing language games and witty insight into the aesthetic and the ethical mindset without also getting Kierkegaard’s view on faith and religion. You can’t just go half way and assume that Kierkegaard can help us gain a deeper understanding of our self without anti-depressants or therapists, and deselect his actual solution to the problem of despair. What Marino’s suggestion leads to, then, is responding to the sense of modern despair with the old-fashioned question of “Have you found God?” Not a question that appeals to many contemporary thinkers, depressed or not. The debate on the NY Times website is animated, but few get Marino’s point, and even fewer have gotten Kierkegaard’s point. Be that as it may, it was fun to see Søren be dusted off and reintroduced as having a solution to a contemporary problem.