A wonderful, unspecific day

Tuesday was a wonderful, exciting, day.   But the job of the philosophical blogger is to look beyond the general euphoria, and seek out discussion points.  

A commentator in the ChicagoTribune remarked that President Obama’s inaugural speech was ‘heavy on allusion, short on specifics’.   That was probably not intended as a criticism, however, and it would have been unreasonable if it had been.  If you are trying to engage everybody in a nation which has, as the President said, a ‘patchwork heritage’ of ‘Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers’ the only possible way to do it is to avoid specifics.  Everyone can unite round ‘mutual interest and respect’, having things in their ‘rightful place’ and  ‘a future of peace and dignity’, because these are terms that, as philosophers would say, have strong connotations but no particular denotation.  We know they imply approval of whatever is being alluded to, but we may not know much about what that is.

We also know in advance that when we find out, there will be trouble.  We all want peace and dignity, but many Islamic militants think that treating people with dignity requires a world under Sharia law, and that the only way to achieve it is to fight for it;  many Christians think that respect for human dignity requires the total ending of abortion, and perhaps that until that comes about they are justified in murdering abortionists;  many other people, including members of both religions and none, think that until women have the equal rights that systems like Sharia deny them, and the complete control over their reproduction that anti-abortionists want to limit, women will be denied their proper dignity.   All these groups want peace, of course, but only when they have achieved their ends;  and conversely the ones who want peace more than anything will have to give in to the ones whose idea of dignity is radically different.   As a matter of logic, Obama cannot please all of them.   And there are obviously some people he has no intention of pleasing, since he will not ‘waver in defence’ of the American way of life (which aspects of it?).  The American spirit will be stronger than that of ‘those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents’.  For him, too, peace cannot come until sufficient dignity by the standards he approves of has been achieved.

Many people now have the vague idea that the right way to cope with our patchwork world is by respecting everyone’s values equally.  But to say we should respect everyone’s values equally is in itself to express a value – because it implies that there is something wrong with not respecting everyone’s values equally.   The statement is, as philosophers say, pragmatically self-refuting:  to make the claim is to undermine it.   Furthermore, it does not even express a coherent value.  How can you possibly respect equally the values of people who think that all women should be free to have abortions, and those of the ones who feel that they should kill the abortionists before the abortion takes place?  This kind of relativism may sound attractive, but it is totally incoherent.  What most people are vaguely thinking of, when they come out with claims about valuing everyone’s ideas equally and not imposing your own values on other people, is the liberal idea that we should as far as possible – as far as it does no harm to others – we should let everyone pursue their own ideas of the good, and be free to discuss them.   But this is a very different matter.   Liberalism itself expresses a substantive moral position, and one that is actually in conflict with other views.

The fact is, there is no neutral moral position.   Any decision about how to act presupposes values of some kind, and those are necessarily in conflict with innumerable other possible values.  President Obama must inevitably act on a particular set of values, and they will be opposed to those of innumerable other people.   Whatever he tries to achieve will be at the expense of other aims that other people regard as more important.

It may well be the case that the best way to achieve whatever ends he wants to achieve is to keep the specifics as vague as possible for as long as possible, so that as many people as possible go on feeling that they are on his side.   Practical politics and philosophical ethics are very different things.   But many of us who are full of hope about the new direction the world has taken also suspect that there is far more underlying clarity than could appear in the inspiring rhetoric of an inaugural speech.  

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