Philosophy’s role in bridging between religion and social, economic, and political issues: Example: the quest for world peace
For the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Salt Lake City, Utah, October 19, 2015
This presentation focuses on the quest for world peace as part of a larger question: What is philosophy’s role in in bridging between religion and social, economic, and political problems?
SECTION I. WHAT SHALL WE DO ABOUT WORLD PEACE? HERE ARE THREE POSITIONS
On the problem of how to pursue world peace there are a variety of positions, and each one has different versions, some more wise than others. Three examples stake out the territory.
Position 1. Factually, scientifically, realistically, world peace is not on the horizon. Therefore, we should prepare for war and participate with international partners in selected conflicts around the world. The just use of force must be distinguished from violence. Military action will occasionally be required to protect the peace-loving and peacemaking elements of the world’s population in preparation for a better day. The spiritual ideal of world peace will only come when God finds that the conditions are right to act to establish it through the agency of those who are qualified to lead and those who—consciously or unconsciously—have been prepared to cooperate with their leadership.
Position 2. Spiritual idealism directs us into the ways of non-violence. These ways take courage, stamina, and the willingness to suffer and die. Violence breeds more violence. Non-violent action has won remarkable victories, and people need to know about them and learn the required personal disciplines and tactics. Essential to this approach are peace-building initiatives working for cultural understanding and reconciliation. As women and men around the world are inspired to collaborate, peace will eventually come. We should always be ready for surprises, such as the non-violent political liberation of Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1992, when, in one country after another, hundreds of thousands of people spontaneously massed in the public squares and the secular totalitarian rulers stood down without a fight. And one of religion’s main contributions is to proclaim in thought, word, and deed that we are all brothers and sisters in a universal family. A world-wide spiritual renaissance may be needed to prepare the way for some of the needed changes in the social, economic, and political realms.
Position 3. Realistically, the present global system of sovereign nation states is a recipe for more wars. The very idea of national sovereignty implies that a nation has the right to pursue its own interests without regard for the interests of other nations. Therefore, the only realistic solution is to cooperate with the wisest version of the idealism that advocates world government. This solution will make Position 1 obsolete and will liberate billions of dollars for the tangle of social, economic, and political problems.
Section II. A PATH OF PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY
These three positions, as stated, are not mutually exclusive. But more extreme versions are mutually exclusive. On a particular question, a one-sided position fairly far to the left or fairly far to the right can sometimes brilliantly and boldly slice through all the confusion and come up with the right answer. Extreme positions usually express some value that that needs to be actualized, sooner or later, whether through the agency of government, or through social institutions such as schools, or economic organizations, or simply on a personal level.
On questions of war and peace, two kinds of one-sidedness are political and philosophical. Political one-sidedness dismisses competing positions because it is so easy to pick flaws in what their most extreme advocates say: those vicious war-mongers, those silly pacifists, those traitors who are out to destroy our nation. We avoid this kind of narrowness by integrating insights drawn from competing perspectives.
Philosophical one-sidedness is illustrated by scientific realists who believe that the facts obviously dictate a particular policy and by spiritual idealists who think that religious values obviously dictate a particular solution to a human need. We avoid hasty judgment by asking about the meaning of the relevant values and the meaning of the relevant facts.
A full philosophical inquiry seeks to learn from well-conducted science regarding facts and from mature religious thought regarding values. And philosophy goes further. It does not automatically accept what scientists and religionists say, because they all inevitably mix something of their own philosophy into their presentation of religion or science; and that philosophy may be more or less well developed.
Truth has a spiritual core, a scientific periphery, and a philosophical bridge between them. Wisdom integrates scientific realism with spiritual idealism.
By itself, philosophy cannot prescribe particular solutions, but it can prepare us for a prayer process which effectively opens us to receive divine wisdom, a process to be spoken of later.
Section III. HOW CAN RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY BE RELEVANT WHILE KEEPING OPEN A BIG TENT OF SPIRITUAL INCLUSIVENESS?
My way of doing religious philosophy aligns with those who do not entangle their expressions of faith with commitments to particular organizations, political leaders, or specific policy initiatives. Faith unites, not divides. And one of religion’s essential functions is to provide a big-tent under which humanity can gather and worship as one family.
How do you stay relevant without becoming divisive? One example is this Parliament’s Declaration on Hate and Hate Speech, Violence, and War. The Declaration lifted up disciplines of non-violence without asking signatories to become pacifists. It supported efforts to find global solutions without coming out in favor of world government. Its demands on signatories judiciously allowed for a wide spectrum of direct and indirect contributions to the problem. In these ways, the Declaration cooperates with the big tent of genuine spiritual and religious faith that can gather humanity under itself. Here we see an example of how to express religion’s moral mandates in a way that addresses social, economic, and political problems.
Section IV. A WAY TO CONDUCT PUBLIC INQUIRY ON DIVISIVE TOPICS
How, within the constraints of big-tent, inclusive, faith-based ethical inquiry, can we advance philosophical inquiry into an applied-ethics issue such as world peace?
In 1989 I had the pleasure of meeting Roger Hutchinson, a member of the faculty of Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto. He told me of a remarkable method used by his wife, Moira Hutchinson, to facilitate public discussion of highly contentious issues. She would organize meetings that gathered people representing all stakeholders, all sides of the dispute and take the group through an inquiry in four stages. She would begin by having people tell stories relevant to the dispute from their own experience. Listening to those stories gave everyone a chance to empathize with others’ experience. On the basis of that understanding, she led the group in working to establish an agreed-upon set of facts. Next, she opened a conversation about the ethical meaning or implications of those facts. And finally she invited the participants to share religious perspectives relevant to the ethical questions. Moira Hutchinson knew more about the relevant disciplines of inquiry than most of the citizens in her groups, but she was able to give a taste of philosophical thinking to people many of whom had no time for, or interest in, pursuing a fully philosophical approach.
- A CLASSROOM APPROACH:
INTELLECTUAL PEACEMAKING—FRAMING THE DEBATE
A next stage in philosophical inquiry involves actually doing some study of applied ethics. When I taught courses in applied ethics, I developed a way of big-tent inclusiveness in shaping the question. I would not defend a particular position, but instead I would have the class read selections by philosophers with contrasting perspectives. By the way, I found the most detailed thinking about social, economic, and political questions in law review articles. My experience with this method of organizing the inquiry convinced me that an excellent ethical decision on such matters requires reading of well-informed philosophers who disagree. In class, I had no hesitation about criticizing poor arguments for one position or another. I did not hesitate to add essential considerations that were left out of the readings in the text. I tried to make the strongest case for each important alternative. And then I left the question open for the student.
When I saw the second Gulf War coming in 2002, I taught a seminar on the philosophy of history in order to give perspective to help students interpret what was obviously about to happen. At the center of the course was the debate on history and politics between Kant and Hegel. The key essays of Kant are “An Idea of History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View” and “On Perpetual Peace.” Kant’s first article, written in 1784, makes a strong case for world government in a very readable, eleven-page realistic and idealistic essay. Hegel’s 1821 Philosophy of Right and his later Introduction to the Philosophy of History criticized Kant for impractical idealism on the grounds that differences between civilizations are so deep that we should not pursue world government but must mobilize our readiness for the occasional war. In the twentieth century, a version of the Kantian position was published by Grenville Clark and Louis B. Sohn, titled World Peace Through World Law. The thirty-page introduction to that 1963 book made a powerful case for world government, and the book itself detailed the significant changes in the charter of the United Nations that would be required to transform the U.N. so it to become effective in this new role. The Hegelian position was restated by Samuel Huntington in his article, “The Clash of Civilizations.”
These positions of Kant and Hegel flatly contradict each other. But a big-tent approach can explore how ideas from these two approaches might complement each other. We observe the beginnings of trans-national political integration around the world. The Organization of African Unity is continental; the Organization of American States is hemispheric.
Section V. TWO BOOKS THAT ADVANCE THE INQUIRY
A new book on world government was published last Thursday by Glen Martin. Titled One World Renaissance, it sets forth a holistic philosophical framework, a powerful critique of the current system of sovereign states and a proposal for a world government that would deal with peacekeeping and establish the rule of law—and also enforce global socialism. Like Clark and Sohn, Martin has an answer to the challenge of how world government can be kept from becoming global tyranny.
Martin’s book is a must-read, but I want to raise a question about the wisdom of combining political peacemaking and peacekeeping functions with the economic revolution that Martin has in mind.
I also want to mention my book that will be published next summer with Cascade Books. The title is Living in Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. It build on my first book, The Golden Rule, and it adds lessons on some of these topics from Socrates, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others. I would also mention that the text of this talk was published a few minutes ago online at my blog: ANewPhilosophyOfLiving.com
Section VI. AN ESSENTIAL PRAYER DISCIPLINE
Many religious people pray as quickly as they make inferences from their religious values to their social, economic, and political beliefs. Quick prayers and quick political decisions can sometimes work acceptably; but a more adequate approach involves the exercise of virtues that are not often cultivated in our prayer life.
Scientific and philosophical inquiry, well done, can greatly enhance our perspective; but the decisions that we make in particular situations are not fully determined by the total of knowledge and wisdom thus assembled. Only a deepened prayer process brings a realistic hope of finding divine wisdom.
World-class, universe-class prayer, requires stamina. The will of God may point us in directions that we have been following for years—or it may require us to mobilize our powers to follow in a different direction. Any viable option has its challenges, and we must work to explore the alternatives thoroughly and come up with our best hypothesis of what is to be done.
Then we open ourselves radically. We relax our attachment to our well-formed intellectual conclusion, because God might have something better to show us. We let go of attachment to those beautiful values that our soul craves to see actualized in this situation, because God may have something better for here and now.
Unless we open ourselves in this thoroughgoing surrender, we are likely to remain the prisoners of the interlaced momentum of the unconscious mind and the brain. Neuroscience tells us that we tend to prepare our muscles to act on a decision even before we become conscious of making the decision. Clearly, our existing desires are ready to short-circuit a full prayer process.
But if our quest for divine wisdom reaches that total openness, we are more likely to receive the fresh revelation of the truth, beauty, and goodness that we need to make our decision and launch our action.
Section VII. QUICK CONCLUSION
Our primary relationship with God STABILIZES the dynamism of change, and that dynamism is also divine. Anchored in the eternal now, and accelerated by that divine dynamism, we shall not panic. Our universal family will weather whatever we have to go through, and we will, sooner or later, accomplish whatever needs to be done on the path to a much better world.