Wednesday, May 25, 2011 9:26 PM

What then of our need to survive? It’s as urgent as ever it was, seemingly more so.  And yet our survival is threatened not only by earthquakes and tsunamis but by ourselves.   Our brains have thought up not only beliefs and cultures that set millions of us against millions of others, but also technologies and behaviors that are devastating the planet.  Even as our  governments  betray us, whole generation are being raised on ignorance and superstition.  No wonder more and more thoughtful people are beginning to wonder whether we are near The End.   Certainly there are enough selfish brutes among us to bring it about.   All of which means we are being forced to acknowledge that we are just another species not much cleverer than others, many of them already extinct.

Yet as a wise man recently observed, we seem unwilling to reflect on what’s been happening.  Could it be that indeed our history was somehow inevitable?  In the past we blamed luck or gods for things that went wrong.  In fact what we needed was what we describe as  ‘common sense’  including respect for each other,  Just  as the discoveries of Soupism would seem to recommend.

  But common sense has been notoriously in short supply.  Consider traffic lights, one of the simplest of social mechanisms:  no one is offended if the light turns red; no one claims superiority when it turns green, and yet it save lives.  Few today would question a government’s decision to impose them upon modern society.  They  seem to represent the triumph of common sense over the natural  greed and selfishness of the human driver.  Without them, the carnage would be appalling and urban life intolerable.  But observe: they are enforced by law and fear of punishment should they be disobeyed.  The law has been established at the whim of a secular democratic government designed on liberal constitutional principles, yet it still seems as if even at this simplest level of behavior, humans must somehow be coerced  to care for each other, compassion is in such short supply.!

Jurgen Habermas came up with the suggestion that toleration In some form is the way to solve our current world problems   He puts his trust in accommodations rather than in a final solution.  If the title of his book is to be taken at its face value [Between Naturalism and Religion] he assumes a  ‘natural’ religion lies behind the liberal truths established by the Enlightenment.

  It’s a book cobbled together from lectures and articles so, not surprisingly after dealing at length with the various meanings of tolerance from mere understanding to full acceptance he hauls in Kant at some length before reminding  us of the heroes of analytical theory, deconstruction , post modernism, post metaphysics and post secularism.   Finally he eschews analysis of science and even scientism and physicalism in favor of ‘naturalism’ as a concept but without allowing it to deal openly with religious convictions – thus, supposedly, the significance of his title.   Finally, he leads us to the United Nations as the best chance for universal peace.

The actual role of religion in all this, if any, is not immediately clear.  Locke insisted that the maintenance of a morality is best served by belief in the fear and promises of the supernatural which may or may not be its origin, whereas Habermas opts for a ‘civic equality’ defined as ‘egalitarian universalism of equal rights that is sensitive to difference’. This, he claims is what he describes as ‘ post modern liberalism’.  But even this has its limits, as he also reminds us when we consider religious observance in the face of common law.

Building on the hope that ideas percolate into action and the Kantian idea that injustice in one place affects all,  Habermas proposes that the enormous difference between Western  and Non-Western religious imperatives be dealt with by translating beliefs  and creeds into  equal rights. However he is seemingly not altogether sanguine that this is possible, given the resistance of fundamentalism to secular values, which presumably is why he ends by referring us to the growing authority of the United Nations as arbiter of a global liberal system.

Whether this suffices to give teeth to a new approach to public morality, depends on what success the UN might garner in coming years.  As a solution to humanity’s notorious, ever present greed and cruelty, it at least has the merit of being practical, even if dependent for its success upon time.  And time may well be running out.  The liberal point of view that Habermas espouses is not all that unanimous or universal, nor is the justice supposedly inherent in democratic institutions always to be relied upon.


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