102–103: Pragmatism, William James, and Mormon Sensibilities

June 7, 2012
By

Pragmatism is the name of a philosophical approach for judging between competing truth claims. It essentially says that if you are presented with two ideas and there is no clear way to determine which is superior to the other, you should consider the difference it would make to you if you decided to accept one or the other as the true one. For instance, one of philosophy’s long-standing discussions is about whether or not human beings have free will or if they are fully determined. Since there are good arguments and evidences on both sides, the pragmatic method suggests we should turn to the practical effects it would have in our lives if we were to live as if one position or the other were true. William James, one of pragmatism’s key champions, broadens this “difference” to  include which idea would “work” better in moving us to positive action, increased zest—what he calls living the “strenuous mood.” Ideas have a “cash value” of sorts, with the value being how much they contribute to greater vitality and richer experience. If an idea “works” in this way, it can be considered “true”—but then pragmatism says that truth still needs to continue to prove itself in struggle with other ideas; these things we hold as “true” should always remain open to further refinement as they interact with other truths. It’s a philosophical method of experimentation and engaged action in the face of possible paralysis and stagnated action caused by the fear of perhaps being wrong. The pragmatic processes of continued engagement will help sort out the truth of any claim or system of thought.

In this episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists Jared Anderson, Charles Randall Paul, and Chris Naegle introduce key aspects of pragmatism, especially focusing on the flavors given to it by William James. They then engage several of its shared sensibilities with Mormon theology and its optimistic temperament, as well as directions it points regarding why religion is such a powerful force—for good or ill—and reasons for not closing ourselves off to the areas of inquiry and subconscious realms religion focuses on. The discussion also includes a look at a fun section in William James’s book, Pragmatism, that proposes a thought experiment that matches in striking ways the LDS notion of a “council in heaven” and competing choices about whether to take part in earth life. Finally, the panelists tackle how pragmatism intersects with ethical decision making and the best ways to influence others who are engaging in what you consider to be harmful practices, and they also discuss some of the motivations and forces at play in the 9/11 tragedy and in the practice of circumcision—both male and female.

We are excited to have you listen and share your comments below!

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

29 Responses to 102–103: Pragmatism, William James, and Mormon Sensibilities

  1. HuskySouth
    June 7, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Has anyone read this CNN I report? It references the impact of podcast such as these.

    http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-752119

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      June 7, 2012 at 8:29 pm

      Hmmm. Not sure you can fairly call anything a “report” or even take something seriously that has an image like the one this has or that has a voice so clearly opinionated. And if you mean to include Mormon Matters as one of the podcasts with the purpose the piece claims of representing voices that put forth that kind of “we’ll stay only if church changes” ultimatum, know that I don’t see this podcast that way.

  2. June 7, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    William James saved me.

  3. Gmanat12
    June 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    AND that is the heart of the matter.  The gospel of Yeshus has nothing to do with pragmatism, but with the Word of God, which has little to do with pragmatism.  Was it pragmatic to follow the God into the wilderness?  The Children of Israel turned to a pragmatic mindset and concluded that “it would be better to have remained a slave in Egypt” than to follow the Word of God. Pragmatically, David would not have put 5 smooth stones into his pouch, and slain Goliath.  Christ would not have fulfilled His mission….etc, etc.   Some of the many examples of how pragmatism destroys: the refused to completely destroy the pagan cities of whoredom, child sacrifice, and Nephillim….survival of the fittest and paganism brought them down.
     
    The problem with Mormonism is that is built with fake bricks and held together with mortar of sand.  The bricks are the 9 versions of the first vision (google it), the revised version of View of the Hebrews (the most correct book, with 3500 “corrections” within the first few decades), the fiction of the Pearl of Great Price, and the satanic rituals of freemasonry (google: five points of fellowship which was Druidic).

    I am almost ready to publish my book, which is about 100 pages, without references, but with links to more than 100 hours of video, and a couple dozen websites that speak for themselves.   

    • June 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      You’ve not understood Pragmatism, and that’s contributing to your straw man of Mormonism.

  4. J H
    June 9, 2012 at 4:57 am

    I thought this was a particularly good podcast. Randy and Chris really knew their James. I liked the push back on Jared for a moment. The problem with James (and probably Dewey as well) is that they blend a little too much of liberal (and I mean the technical term for “liberal”) sentimentalism in with what is really a coherently constructed project built upon some rather set parameters.

    The problem with Jared’s point of view on sentimental or even emotive ethics is that it assumes a kind psychological universalism that denies the cultural component to how values structure sentiment (rightly pointed out by Chris). That said, Jared is totally right to point out that values (in the neo-Kantian sense of the term), as those elements that structure one’s epistemological stance, are ethical arguments. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily a common ethical ground that different value systems are build upon. It’s clearly not going to work for everyone to discuss the ethical effects of pain, exploitation, or suffering (and it hasn’t worked since Socrates-it’s a modernist fantasy), because those things mean different things to different people. In other words, they value something differently. This is the whole point of pluralism. You can’t just assume the commensurability of valued effects [everyone on the podcast was sentimentally horrified by and gave coherent reasons against FGM, but that doesn't really tell me anything about the ethical stand of FGM, it only tells me about FGM's place among the guests' value-commitments for the undesirability of pain or gendered power differentials] Nearly all ethicists today–from MacIntyre to Parfit are going to tell you that you have to seriously deal with “tradition” or “world-view” to one extent or the other. Even hardcore correspondence people are going to tell you that although there may be an objectively “real” truth or good, it is embedded within a social reality that is intersubjectively made. The experimental philosophy crowd as been real hot on this stuff lately. For them everything seems to come down to intuition and sentiment. However, they have only just started to realize (through cross-cultural experiments) that intuition and sentiment is also an effect [this is where pragmaticism totally rocks teleology]. Pragmatism asserts that intuition, sentiment, and the final cause of becoming is a process. There is no end game and there is no beginning. You can say that one picks values based upon sentiment, but where do those sentiments come from? I think it was Mead who said something along the lines that we are the sum total off all that has come before us and all that will come after, we are a locus of the aspirations and values of generations long forgotten and not yet realized, and yet we are ultimately constrained to cohere to both temporal realities. We are constrained by the limitations of the categories we have inherited, and by their telos.To bring it back down to earth… I study religion in a culture where penile bleeding, scarification, and sometimes ritual homosexuality has been widely practiced. I can tell you one thing for sure. Although there may be pain,  what that pain means may be a pretty different thing that what our liberal sentiments want to make it mean. In pain hurts for everyone just like it does everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily cognized as the same way. Pain may also be something that reveals, makes relations, and cleanses. Furthermore, where I study there’s little sense of an autonomous individual “self” like what we’ve inherited in the western tradition (there has been a ton written about this), so where do the liberal rights of self determination fit into that. The simple answer is that they don’t. Liberalism makes very little sense unless you’ve got individuals in the first place. Values are changing and are being contested but I think you probably want to step back for a moment and realize that you can’t presuppose a commonality of values in intercultural dialog, must less in religious dialog. The innovation of pragmatism is that it allows for a pluralist theory of truth and values while maintaining that any such theory must be coherent AND correspond to a cosmological world view. It’s not that anything goes but ethics (because apparently we all agree on ethics, or on the consequences of ethical decisions. [Jared-utilitarianism is your downfall-run. It's a relativism that presupposes universal means of evaluation, it's completely incoherent]). It’s that theories must cohere within themselves, correspond to a cosmology [for example, James foreshadows Latour and the Object-Orientated-Ontology people who want to argue that things that obviously don't exist in a cold external reality, do exist in a kind of flat ontological sense--Santa is real to my son, therefore Santa has real effects on my son, therefore Santa is real not just as an idea but in his effects], and they must be understood as a process rather than a set of rules or measures of thought. Furthermore, the pragmatists really are progressivists in that they believe that is more than possible for a “truth” to be revealed that has never before been revealed [this is Peirce's point about infinitude and creativity]. I think this point is important because at the end of the day there is no real dialogue without contestation. There is no point of pure mutual recognition or much less agreement (another liberal and modernist fantasy). It’s almost dialectical. I can’t believe I said that all without ever talking about Mormonism… 

    • June 9, 2012 at 8:57 am

      Wow, thanks for engaging at this level @JH:disqus . Message me on facebook; I would love to speak about this more at length. These are important critiques. 

    • June 9, 2012 at 9:10 am

      And if you could suggest a book or two that will help me begin to engage with these issues in a responsible and informed way, I would appreciate it. I still reject what you are saying, but I want to be able to do so with sophistication and address critiques. I will respond to this comment in detail when I can, and hope that others do as well.

    • JT
      June 9, 2012 at 6:24 pm

       I took the FGM discussion merely as a stark example intended to make a point and, perhaps, to avoid turning the spotlight full on the Church’s history of ethical problems. You make your points about how innocent children may cognize their pain as delivered courtesy of an arbitrary worldview.  But your erudite comments may be wasted on a red herring.

      Let’s bring the discussion back to where Jared gave his ethical testimony – back to where he makes his stand – in the land of limited pluralism, America, where an assumption of limited psychological universalism is close enough and where liberalism makes some sense – as it did for those who thanked him after his testimony.

      Well, on second thought, perhaps there are limits of psychological universalism even within the borders of Utah.  It seems that liberals under-value aspects morality that are dear to conservatives, who, after all, dominate LDS culture.  In his article “The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology” (Science, 18 May 2007) Jonathan Haidt proposes an intuitive primacy principle of moral psychology that draws on evolutionary biology. His scientific argument is that innate moral sense pertains to more than simply harm and fairness – which liberals privilege.  It also encompasses in-group loyalty, respect (reverence) for authority, and purity – which conservatives privilege.

      There is growing scientific support for psychological universals – humans are not born blank slates – which is not to say that culture has no significant influence.  Mead has her critics, some apparently misguided, but others who are on to something.  And to me it seems absurd to think that essential aspects of human psychology are NOT products of biological evolution.

      But my point is not to debate nature vs. nurture – science will work it out eventually.  I’ll simply toss out my conjecture that no worldview is so universally sacred to a person that it will not be disowned when another offers better this-life-prospects, like not having one’s genitals mutilated. And I would be very surprised if the parents in those societies don’t agonize over their children’s suffering – or that culture buffers the child from physical and psychological trauma.  I would challenge those who stand behind FGM to share in that meaningful pain, perhaps by penetrating their genitals with a disinfected skewer that would do no lasting damage.

      But I digress – back to the home front, which is where the conversation might have focused. I challenge anyone to suggest that betrayal is not universally experienced as harmful. A good example would be anguish of being systematically deceived through the formative years of one’s life.  There is no human group capable of nurturing that degree of self-subjugation to welcome that – or is there?  

      Well, even if it is I don’t think that makes it defensible.  

      (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/316/5827/998.full?ijkey=9S1Vi6nUWCqY.&keytype=ref&siteid=sci)

      • J H
        June 9, 2012 at 11:19 pm

        Thanks for the thoughts JT,

        First, the FGM point is merely an illustrative example, just as it was to Jared. The recognition of “meaningful pain” does mean that one must then succumb to the acceptance of that pain. It only means that what you see through one perspective may not be the whole story (burkas are another good example of this). Second, Mead is George Herbert Mead (one of the most famous pragmatists). Third, sure evolution plays an incredibly important part in human psychology, but it hardly accounts for the total human experience. Probably the best pragmatists to discuss this issue is Terrence Deacon whose work on mind, semiotics, and evolution is unparalleled. One of his major points is that evolution can’t be understood reductively as an total explanation of human psychology, must less of reality itself. His point is that any evolutionary framework is essentially teleological and indicative of a process of realizing incompleteness (Incomplete Nature, Knopft 2011 is awesome).  Therefore, any totalizing theory of the mind or human action must take seriously the situatedness and complexities of meaning (which is inherently social). Universalist reductions built on a totality of complete mechanization (like much of evolutionary psychology) completely fall apart. Another problem about the moral evolutionary psychology folks is that they privilege the reducing of human action to a kind of Hobbesian model of human nature (Marshall Sahlins has been harping on this forever). Haidt is no exception. If you are interested in the ethics of evolutionary psychology, you should check out Prinz’s The Emotional Construction of Morals (2007, Oxford). It’s an excellent overview of the whole debate on emotion and evolutionary psychology of morals as well as a subtle critique of those models that refuse to pay attention to culture.

        Lastly, the point about deception–I’ll leave the laundry lists of cultures who do socialize through continual and systematic deception and betrayal (if you’re interested in on example, the Min peoples of New Guinea are probably the most famous). In fact, most serious work on ritual has concluded that deception and secrecy are very common ways to structure ritual behavior (Victor Turner was pretty big into this and there’s great work by French anthropologists doing work in Gabon on this very issue). I think “betrayal” is a good example of something which has different values attached to it depending on the cultural logics it is structured through.

        In the US Mormon context betrayal certainly seems like a cogent example to build an ethical stance against, and I’m totally fine with doing that. However, I’m still disturbed by the universalism built upon a local experience of the betrayal of liberal sensibilities (a pretty situated phenomenon). The LDS Church has far more people disaffiliating outside of the United States (and it has since the 1840s). I’d be careful about extrapolating from the rather limited experience of betrayal here in the US (meaning that as good Modernists our conviction that reality corresponds to external truth is shaken when find out that the truth claims of Mormonism don’t stack up to that external reality provided to us through science, history, etc). World wide, I think the betrayal of Mormonism has far more to do with inequality and cultural hegemony than it does with its truth claims. Just saying…

        Most importantly, and I think this gets to the gist of my objection, Joseph Smith has this really awkward moment in the opening of his letter to Nancy Rigdon where he says something along the lines of “what is right under one set of circumstances may be wrong under another. God says thou shalt not kill and he says thou shalt utterly destroy.” His point is that you don’t really know what God’s commandments are so you’ve got to listen to the prophet (pretty self serving considering the fact that it was a letter to Nancy to convince her join him as his polygamous wife [sorry Rigdon]). He also gives a really weird divine command theory of truth and morality in the letter. Still, I think that it would take us all in a pretty interesting direction if Mormon was to realize that completely uncorrelated vision that is but a kernel in that letter. What if it was right to do somethings in certain cultural contexts and not right in others. That seems like a far more robust and complicated religious message than a one size fits all approach. I just think when we like to moralize about things like FGM, or whatever is our favorite “savage slot” example, we often reproduce the same universalizing ethical approach that betrayed us in the first place. I’m not offering a relativistic moral vision, it’s only a situated one.

        • JT
          June 10, 2012 at 9:09 am

          Thanks JH, I really appreciate you response … a few responses back to you.  I’ll mark your comments with “H” and mine with “T”.

          G:  First, the FGM point is merely an illustrative example, just as it was to Jared.

          T:  Yes, I see that.  I was just hoping that the panelists would bring the discussion back to local Mormonism.

          G: The recognition of “meaningful pain” … means that what you see through one perspective may not be the whole story.

          T: Yes, I agree.  It can be presumptuous to barge into another culture and assume you know what’s best for them.  I was saying something along these lines when I brought up Haidt’s work on moral psychology and why liberals and conservatives don’t understand each other.  Liberals privilege the harm/fairness dimensions while conservatives also value in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity dimensions.  We can all think of the stereotypes.  So, for instance, liberals experience living in a rigid patriarchal/hierarchal society as oppressive and frustrating while conservatives find comfort and security.

          G: Second, Mead is George Herbert Mead (one of the most famous pragmatists).

          T:  Oops, my bad inference based on: (1) my ignorance of George Herbert – and pragmatism,and (2) what I took as an anthropological context given your study of a culture practicing penile bleeding, etc..  Sorry, I’ll review that reference again.

          G: Third, sure evolution plays an incredibly important part in human psychology, but it hardly accounts for the total human experience.

          T: Yes, particularly biological evolution alone. However applying the idea of various selection levels and mechanisms to cultural evolution seems a fruitful avenue and maintains a connection with the deep human psychological core.  But then again, when a brain that was hard-wired in the Pleistocene interacts with a recently evolved and complex culture, the psychology/human experience that “emerges” will probably have qualitatively new features.  Evolution does produce exquisite complexity – I don’t see that its application needs to be taken as overly reductionist.  I admit to having a lot to learn here, especially with regard to your next comment about theory of mind.”

          G: Probably the best pragmatists to discuss this issue is Terrence Deacon … evolution can’t be understood reductively as an total explanation of human psychology… any evolutionary framework is essentially teleological and indicative of a process of realizing incompleteness (Incomplete Nature, Knopft 2011 is awesome).  

          T:  Here’s a coincidence!  I just listened to a lecture by David Sloan Wilson who praised Terrence Deacon – I think he was referring his book The Symbolic Species. When I looked Deacon up I discovered Incomplete Nature.  After reading Jerry Fodor’s review in the London Review of Books and the following Wall Street Journal Review by Raymond Tallis.

          http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204618704576642991109496396.html

          I put him on the back burner.  Maybe now I’ll move him forward

          G:  Therefore, any totalizing theory of the mind or human action must take seriously the situatedness and complexities of meaning (which is inherently social). Universalist reductions built on a totality of complete mechanization (like much of evolutionary psychology) completely fall apart.

          T:  In my naïve position, feel inclined to agree – this makes sense.  But I do not think that “Universalist reductions built on a totality of complete mechanization” represents all there is, or, more importantly, all there will be, to this young field.  But perhaps you are right to characterize “much of” it as being this.   Tallis made this point.  He also praises Gazzaniga’s book, Who’s In Charge” which I did read and appreciate.  

          G: Another problem about the moral evolutionary psychology …they … reduce human action to a kind of Hobbesian model … has been harping on this forever). Haidt is no exception. … you should check out Prinz’s The Emotional Construction of Morals (2007, Oxford).

          T:  I’ll have to look up what you mean by “Hobbesian model” (unless you would be so kind as to explain) and I’ll look into Marshall Sahlins harpings.  The Prinz book sounds particularly interesting.  Thanks for that reference.

          G:  Lastly, the point about deception- … laundry lists of cultures who do socialize through continual and systematic deception and betrayal …. most serious work on ritual … deception and secrecy are very common ways to structure ritual behavior …Victor Turner … French anthropologists doing work in Gabon on this very issue).

          T:  You mean Mormonism is not alone in this?  ☺

          G:  I think “betrayal” is a good example of something which has different values attached to it depending on the cultural logics it is structured through.

          T:  Well, it certainly does not play well in my cultural logic, which I have to admit is what matters most to me ☺

          G:  In the US Mormon context betrayal certainly seems like a cogent example to build an ethical stance against, and I’m totally fine with doing that.

          T: Thanks for the affirmation.

          G: However, I’m still disturbed by the universalism built upon a local experience of the betrayal of liberal sensibilities (a pretty situated phenomenon).

          T:  I understand and agree with this point in principle.

          G:  The LDS Church has far more people disaffiliating outside of the United States (and it has since the 1840s).

          T:  Yes, I would not presume that much of the disaffiliation going on outside the United States has to do with ethical issues – or experienced harm, such as betrayal.  I suspect other factors – such as (1) the stress being part of an ill-fitting culture prevents group attachment, (2)  People have ulterior motives for joining the Church and they don’t pan out, or (1) the novelty and excitement their introductory experience of Mormonism wears off and they have other places to turn.    

          G:  I’d be careful about extrapolating from the rather limited experience of betrayal here in the US (meaning that as good Modernists our conviction that reality corresponds to external truth is shaken when find out that the truth claims of Mormonism don’t stack up to that external reality provided to us through science, history, etc).

          T: Yes, I agree.  For us disaffected Americans Mormonism is definitely a “First World problem.”  ☺

          G:  World wide, I think the betrayal of Mormonism has far more to do with inequality and cultural hegemony than it does with its truth claims. Just saying…

          T:  I agree.  And this bias also seems to be what hampers the Church’s success World-wide.  By the way, I was a teenage convert from New England and had very little exposure to hegemonic Utah culture early on – when I finally was introduced to it my response was “nice place to visit, but I don’t want to live there.”

          G:    Most importantly, and I think this gets to the gist of my objection, Joseph Smith has this really awkward moment in the opening of his letter to Nancy Rigdon where he says something along the lines of “what is right under one set of circumstances may be wrong under another…” His point is that you don’t really know what God’s commandments are so you’ve got to listen to the prophet (pretty self serving…) … He also gives a really weird divine command theory of truth and morality in the letter.

          T:  Yes, I found this letter disturbing … one of the later nails in my Mormon coffin.  But I am interested in re-reading it now.

          G:  Still, I think that it would take us all in a pretty interesting direction if Mormon[ism] was to realize that completely uncorrelated vision that is but a kernel in that letter. What if it was right to do somethings in certain cultural contexts and not right in others. That seems like a far more robust and complicated religious message than a one size fits all approach.

          T:  The message itself is more robust, which is why there are thousands of Christian sects all gaining some traction and growing.  The robustness lies in its creative disintegration.  On the other hand, the Pentecostals seem to be doing so well in Africa because they adapt to the local culture.  I’m sure they have their limits though (FMG?)

          G:  I just think when we like to moralize about things like FGM, or whatever is our favorite “savage slot” example, we often reproduce the same universalizing ethical approach that betrayed us in the first place. I’m not offering a relativistic moral vision, it’s only a situated one.

          T:  I agree to a point.  It seems to me that the golden rule should be understood in a “situated” sense.  But certainly some moral issues get pretty close to being universal – like stealing and assaulting people.  I think a thoughtfully formulated list of basic human rights is a good starting point for at least challenging, if not intervening, in apparently harmful behavior, rather than taking a “to each (culture) his own” attitude.   In other words, ask the question: Are you being harmed?  Do you need protection?  I’m sure that not all women in the Arab world are happy about wearing burkas – why should they have to suffer – who is to tell them what worldview they must suffer for?

          I am an advocate of shedding as much light on matters as possible and educating people so that they can freely make their own best choices.  I think that slavery, whether the full-blown physical subjugation of a person by others, or its more subtle forms (oppression) – if for no other reason than when you ask them they tell you so.  Our common humanity demands that we respect this – and yes, such respect includes not presuming they have entirely the same values we have.

          The most vulnerable people, especially children, occupy a special place in these considerations.   

          JT

          • June 11, 2012 at 11:10 am

            Will you message me on facebook too @d6f17cd81323e8e2cd07f10046fa9e93:disqus ? I need to be friends with you.

        • JT
          June 10, 2012 at 11:21 am

          JH,

          I just read Jesse Prinz’s article Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response.  Perhaps this summarizes the main arguments of his book.  His argument for Moral Relativism makes sense.  A couple of quick thoughts:

          Not only are emotions necessary for moral judgments, they play a role in all rational judgements – consider the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

          He never mentions the role of empathy, which seems to be biologically innate and a core element.

          I was thinking about the golden rule.  My updated version is either (or both)

          1.  Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you if you were them.  

          2.  Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want them to do unto you if you were them.

          Of course, both forms require that you find out what it’s like to be them.

          Cheers

          JT

          Link to Prinz’s paper:

          http://www.philosophynow.org/issues/82/Morality_is_a_Culturally_Conditioned_Response

          • June 11, 2012 at 11:42 am

            @d6f17cd81323e8e2cd07f10046fa9e93:disqus , I think even the “platinum rule” is flawed as our wants are. People have complicated reasons for wanting things done to them, and rather than simply accede to that there are times to challenge them. In my World Religions class I encourage something I call “critical empathy”, where we work to understand and appreciate religions from both an insider and outsider perspective. I think that if we all do so our worldviews can evolve to a better form of themselves. 

          • JT
            June 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm

             Jared,

            Yes, I like that …  critical empathy … a nice uniting of essential habits of mind and heart.

            Giving third thought to “platinum” I see how this can be problematical … for instance, I wouldn’t indulge a masochist  :)

            And I’m all for evolving worldviews.

            Thanks,

            JT

        • June 11, 2012 at 11:08 am

          Just wanted to applaud this comment. Loving this conversation. 

    • June 11, 2012 at 10:54 am

      @JH:disqus 

       

      My comment is already getting long so I will just share it
      in the form I have it now.

       

      Your comments really gripped me, challenged me to the point
      where I need to take notes in the car. It was a philosophical punch to the mind
      that knocked the wind out of me, in a productive way I hope. Well done.

       

      First, I agree that untangling the issues of “good” and “benefit”
      is nigh impossible, as it depends on your goal. Are we talking about the good
      of humanity? The good of the planet? For how long? I would suggest that our
      goal should be sustainability while working on alternative ways of existing
      (simulations come to mind faster than interplanetary travel), but any real
      wrestling with such an issue would require ethics that most would consider
      brutal (which I consciously hold to by the way).

       

      You also make a critical point about perceptions and
      conceptions of pain and harm being culturally situated. It is important to
      distinguish those—pain from harm.

       

      So let me begin a response. I still hold that there is
      benefit in intersubjectivity gained through cross-cultural dialogue. I believe
      that we are evolving culturally, and that we can refine each other’s worldviews
      while respecting or at least allowing even things we disagree with. The most
      important thing is to have the conversation, make the argument. I am open to an
      argument that a hundred babies must die for the greater good, but that argument
      cannot stop at “That is what Odin wants”.

       

      Obama put this rather well: “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate
      their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It
      requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I
      may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law
      banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or
      evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that
      is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

       

      I think we can respect the insider reasons while also
      holding them accountable to ethical standards to result in a win-win situation.
      I think we can help each other refine our worldviews, or at least improve them.
      We can no longer allow the perspective of the minority to determine allocation
      of resources necessary for life and well-being.

       

      Even if there is not a perfect “best answer”, we can still
      choose between two alternatives and say one is superior to the other—Creation
      > Waste, for example, though destruction is necessary at times. That is why
      theft is better than vandalism.

       

      Those critiquing other beliefs and practices have the
      responsibility to put aside their own prejudices. What is the ethical
      imperative where someone says, “If I didn’t know my religion was true, I would
      never do this.” But then once they do it, they find tremendous benefit in it
      and would not replace it for anything. Even here, we can add some insurance in
      benefit independent of the worldview.

       

      Here is an example of what I mean by “insurance” and “win-win”.
      I advocate an approach to religion recognizable to insiders but acceptable to
      outsiders at a minimum level.

       

      I get the complexities and contradictions that you address.
      There are insider rewards that are real to those experiencing them, and I do
      not believe that we should privilege our liberal, western, whatever you want to
      call it perspective over those experiences. At the same time, I think we can maximize
      the health of those practices and minimize the harm. Let’s explore a few
      examples.

       

      Marriage. Let’s take a culture that either believes in
      marrying young or in polygamy, that a man needs seven wives to get to heaven. I
      think that we could accede to those beliefs while maximizing benefit and
      minimizing harm though engagement with outside worldviews. More than anything,
      I believe in the power of comparing our differing perspectives and hopefully
      all being improved for it.

      So the wider culture can allow for these beliefs such as marrying young or
      plural marriage. But while doing so, we could encourage the principles of
      healthy relationships within those worldviews. Insiders in those religions
      could say “Marriage is important and we need to get our families started young,
      and here are some really good books about how to make a marriage work.” In
      Mormonism for example, someone could say “Yes, attending the temple often does
      improve a relationship, but so do these principles that therapists have found
      effective.”

      One problem is that doing difficult things because of expectations decreases
      our chance of doing them right. Plural relationships, for example. I think that
      polyamory can be done ethically, but part of what makes it ethical is that all
      parties know what they are getting into and choose it based on an awareness of
      alternatives. But once again, in that situation an emphasis on the principles
      of healthy happy relationships could improve those plural marriages while also
      respecting the insider reasons for getting into and maintaining them.

      On a CRITICAL note however, there are limits. If a believer says, “Well it
      doesn’t matter what my wife thinks, because a woman’s role is to be completely
      submissive”, I think that is life denying to a degree that society should not
      allow for it. Similarly, “married young” should have limits based on our very
      best knowledge of psycho-social development.

       

      And with circumcision, you could still maintain the insider
      reasons for going through the ritual, but insiders in traditions could push for
      performing circumcision when the individual can make a decision rather than it
      being performed in infancy. Or the community could come up with an alternative
      replacement ritual, symbolic perhaps.

       

       

      One problem with religion is that it minimizes the
      importance of this life by requiring present sacrifice for unverifiable
      rewards. So I suggest the maxim, “The afterlife should be hoped for, but not
      relied on.” Believers I have talked to resonate with this, because they believe
      this life has some value. And for those worldviews that completely reject the
      value of this life, I think that goes beyond the limit of what a pluralistic
      society can tolerate people imposing on others.

       

      What I suggest is a rigorous ethic of informed consent. I
      support people’s decisions to make their own choices, even to the point of
      suicide, but one person’s rights end where another’s begin (yes I realize that
      idea has a history but that doesn’t make it wrong).

       

      “Informed” would require than the decision maker understand
      the reasons for the action requested (circumcision for example), possible
      consequences, as well as the consequences of alternatives (not getting
      circumcised). “Consent” would require the right of refusal, the message, “This
      group will accept you even if you don’t choose our way of doing things.”

       

      I realize that people don’t think like this. Groups don’t
      work like this. You aren’t going to get a group of frat boys saying, “These are
      the benefits of the hazing process, and the consequences. We will accept you
      even if you don’t go through it.” People just don’t think rationally for the
      most part. At the same time, there must be laws and limits to what people can
      agree to be put through.

       

      A productive approach is, “How would you feel about these
      choices if your worldview turns out to be wrong?” Let’s look at two reactions
      post worldview shift:

       

       “I am so angry and
      betrayed. I gave tens of thousands of dollars and all that money went to the
      institution. There is nothing I value in what I gave.”

       

      “I gave tens of thousands of dollars to care for those in
      need because I was told God would bless me. Well, I gave more than I could
      comfortably and don’t have as much retirement as I would hope for, but at least
      my money went to a good cause”

       

      Thanks again for the comment. Now I need some book
      recommendations. J

      • J H
        June 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm

        Jared,

        I get where you’re coming from on this. I still think there are two fundamental problems with this approach. First, is the utilitarian ethic. I don’t think this is something that we are going to resolve here, but utilitarianism still implies a universals standard of ethical measurement while holding to a relativist position of ultimate values. I know “harm” seems self-evident, but it’s not. For example, on a Mormon Stories Regional group I’m on one of our members posted a story about his family alienating him because of his homosexuality. Clearly harm has been done from the perspective of the gay Mormon (someone I personally count as a friend). However, from the perspective of his family they don’t recognize harm at all. In fact, they kind of adhere to their version of utilitarianism. They believe that if there is harm done in the alienation of their son it is necessary because it is a necessary means to bring about some supposed end where through his alienation their son gives up his homosexuality. For them, “harm” in the act of alienating their son is negligible to non existent. I don’t think this is necessarily an isolated case, especially in the Mormon community. I want to recognize this plurality of values without succumbing to the relativism and incoherence of determining what are objective ends (it’s pretty much impossible). 

        The second problem I think is at the heart of the liberalism, which I think is the ethos of what you’re proposing. I usually don’t feel required to talk about this but I’m often disheartened by how enthusiastically the Mormon Stories crowd embraces liberalism. I’m saddened that for most of the Mormon Stories crowd there seems to be two polar oppositions in the political spectrum. There’s conservatism or there’s liberalism. Worse yet, most reduce both to solely their American versions (betraying the American-centric view in which Mormons, postmormons, and the like usually view the world). There seems to be a profound ignorance of the leftist critique of liberalism. Some good examples of the critique, which is legion, are Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter History, which outlines liberalism and utilitarianism complicity in the slave trade and racism, and Louis Dumont who has a strong critique of liberalism’s cultural logic of inclusion through exclusion, one example of which is racism. As someone heavily committed to social change I’m confused by why people so earnestly grab onto the very ideological system that gave birth to capitalism and the oppressive regime that drives global inequality, much less the foundation of neo-liberalism (in my opinion liberalism and neo-liberalism are the same thing but that is something I would expect to be challenged on). Part of the major conceit of liberalism is that in the diversity of individuals, values, and perspectives mutual agreement can be reached through reasoned dialog. It’s essentially a progressivist take on society. Sure we can found sociality on “hope” like you suggest, but really…? How is that any different from a cargo cult? I’m being facetious, but I am really curious about what that would look like. There’s a couple of things I really like about liberalism that I think it totally got right. First, in so far as recent versions have given up on utilitarianism and embraced pluralism (Isaiah Berlin being one example), liberalism isn’t monist (reduces morality to one rubric or measurement). Second, is that it does recognize that mutual recognition is the foundation of political action (this started with Hegel but has it’s also in current proponents like Michael Walzer, or even Axel Honneth [although it's debatable whither he's really a liberal]). The problem is that liberalism takes that mutual recognition turns it into consensus while ignoring the fact that consensus itself is a program of unequal power arraignments (the person best known for attacking this issue is Jacques Ranciere). Consensus is a conceit (just look at how it’s worked out for Obama). The thing is that you can recognize the alternate values of my friends family as coherent but that doesn’t mean that I need to accept them. To get back to polygamy, sure I can recognize the FLDS have having a coherent ethical imperative for practicing underage marriage (I’m actually not convinced they have one), but that doesn’t mean that I need to accept it. The pragmatist approach on values would be something along the lines of “does polygamy contributed to their moral foundation of their society? If no, game over. If yes, then does it contributed to the well being of it’s participants according to their definition of “well being”. If no, then it’s akin to crimes we have in our society. If yes, then we ask is it commensurable with the values of groups they regularly come into contact with (in some cases it is “yes,” but most it is “no”). And this point we know that we must ask our selves a couple of questions. We must ask, is it a violation of our own values to do nothing to try to stop this practice? I not saying it’s a foregone conclusion that we should do something about but at least at that point we are being upfront about what we are doing. We are imposing coercion through the justification of our own values. There’s isn’t consensus and it isn’t monist.In terms of the consent issue. I agree that sentimentally it’s a good idea. But, are we going to apply that standard to everything? I don’t remember giving my informed consent when I received my liberal education by the state? I don’t remember giving my informed consent to be a citizen, a son to a rather screwed up family, or plethora of things I’m not too happy about. Informed consent again presupposes a level playing field between two actors. I don’t that is possible when one is doing the informing and the other is consenting (that’s unequal from it’s very nature). I think Mormon Stories people should be upfront about the disagreement in values. We should say “Those values that cause you to alienate your sons are wrong. Not because we find them incoherent, not because we find them to do MORE harm than others, but because they are a violation of the values that our sociality is based on. We don’t want to live in a society based upon the moral stigmatization of persons of differing sexual and gender identities. In fact, we want to be a heterogenous society founded on the holism of difference.” Then in the conflict that arises from those differences in values we should do all we can to either change LDS values through the legitimatization of our own or leave the dialog all together. I know it seems hyperbolic but I don’t think we have much of a standing when we say your values do more harm than ours. The point is that they are incommensurable. If you’re interested in this issue about liberalism and pluralism you should check out Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” and Peter Lassman’s Pluralism (Polity, 2011). It’s a really good overview of the topic (very accessible). Ranciere’s Dis-agreement (U Minnesota, 1998) or Hatred of Democracy (Verso, 2009) may also be of interest to you.  
        Thanks again for the comments. The only reason I’m writing these replies is because I’m very interested in this discussion as one worth having with you. Perhaps we can come to a consensus… (I just couldn’t help it)

        • June 12, 2012 at 12:11 am

          I take this level of engagement as a sign of respect; thank you @JH:disqus . I will respond to this one tomorrow. 

  5. Wade
    June 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Another great discussion, thank you all for your wonderful insights and perspectives!  I tried to jot down all the books that you referenced but I think I’m missing a few, here is what I have
    Pragmatism by
    William JamesThe Will to Believe
    and Human Immortality
    by William JamesA Pluralistic Universe
    by William James

    The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary
    Possibilities of Religious Affirmation
    by Peter L. Berger

    Dan and/or other panelists will you add others that I am missing?

  6. JT1
    June 9, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Jared,

    I appreciated the last half hour – the “fun” you started at about 54 minutes.  I applaud you saying “this is where I take my stand” – that is, against the harm a group can perpetrate on its vulnerable members in the name of its theology – which is more likely to be a rationalization of its entrenched power structure than an expression of metaphysical truth. 

    Your “rant” was not “self-focused” because it spoke for so many whose tradition denies them a voice – or keeps them in such ignorance as to believe such things as the genital mutilation being a heavenly requirement. These children deserve an informed choice – they deserve advocates willing to “do violence to harmful worldviews.”  They don’t need people assuming they are immune to “arguments [that] could be brought against that.”  “Let he who has ears let him hear” – so to speak.  You need not apologize.

    As for those reluctant to engage in challenging harmful worldview because they do not deem it “effective,” I would ask if they are not merely providing them cover in order not to expose the weaknesses of their own worldview.  Female circumcision is an extreme example, but the importance of challenging core beliefs applies generally – including to matters close to home, such as withholding relevant facts of history during the course of an indoctrination aimed at eliciting covenants of consecration.

    Consciousness-raising that champions “self-evident truths” of human decency and dignity speaks more deeply than theologies that scramble and degrade relationships in the interest of institutional conservatism.  Your point about how religions can be (and have been) transformed hit the mark.  As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”   Such bending rarely emerges from within entrenched hierarchies.  

    Each new generation receives a world prepared by the stodgy winners of the previous generation. A few inspired and courageous souls – whether a fifth column or open heretics – see more ethical possibilities and make great sacrifices for them.  But progress in diverse cultures are just as likely accomplished by forces external to the offending group.  Martin Luther King tapped resources from both within and without religion.

    In this regard we can look back at the major ethical transformations of Mormonism – which I was waiting to be acknowledged.  It seems that the Church’s reversal of its discriminatory policies (qua doctrine) against blacks and women (via polygamy) were driven by external pressures.  Indeed, the Church’s belated transformations could be interpreted as a form of pragmatism, at least in the sense of forgoing what was once deemed sacred to preserve an institution.  And there has certainly been plenty of “post hoc theological rationalization” carried out in the wake of those transformations.

    Perhaps a growing “fifth column” in Mormonism will succeed in effecting change in it’s remaining ethical failings – its doctrine on homosexuality and not giving women an equal voice in guiding this self-admittedly imperfect institution.  But my guess is that such changes will come as pragmatic responses to an external moral Zeitgeist nurtured by a diverse society whose group boundaries become more and more permeable putting everyone in ear-shot of those willing to “do violence to harmful worldviews.”

    Thanks,

    JT

    P.S.

    I found the following lecture by Philip Kitcher, a brilliant philosopher from Columbia University, inspiring, particularly his final thoughts on how secular humanists and liberal Christians can make common cause in the directions you spoke of.  

    http://vimeo.com/4197013
     

  7. nielper
    June 10, 2012 at 6:29 am

    Another great podcast, interesting, insightful, and fabulous guests.  I haven’t read William James since my college days, many years ago.  I just discovered that all of his books are free on Kindle.  I downloaded several of them.  Can’t wait to dig in.  Now I know what I’ll be reading behind the piano in primary today. lol

  8. Chris Naegle
    June 11, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    I’m liking the comments – it seems like Jared, J H, and JT have things under control for now!  I don’t have too much to add right now, but I’ll find somewhere to contribute in a day or so.  I’m just finishing up a paper on epistemic norms, but I’ll weigh in shortly.

  9. June 12, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Thanks for the great podcast! Which of James’ works would you suggest starting with?

  10. Carey_Foushee
    June 12, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    I totally and 100% agree with J   ;-)

  11. Jacob Brown
    June 14, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    I was surprised how quickly the panelists jumped on the “religion is the most potent force” bandwagon starting with the twin towers example. I totally agree that religion is a powerful influence, but so are so many other non-religious social forces. What about nationalism, patriotism, and other political ideologies?

    So what if one and a half dozen extremist Muslims killed a few thousand people they didn’t know. How does this compare to the World Wars that killed over a billion people or the wars in China during the dynastic period that killed up to 15 percent of the world population at the time? How many of these deaths do you attribute to religion?

    Maybe tribalism is the common denominator here.

    • June 15, 2012 at 4:06 am

      I think I included religious motivation with nationalism and tribalism during the podcast – so we definitely considered this for a short while.  James was particularly interested in defending religious belief, so it wasn’t especially relevant to the podcast topic.

      We might have found a less inflammatory example to avoid any resemblance to the “faith makes you fly airplanes into buildings” trope, though, if that’s what you are worried about, Jacob.

  12. Birkyb
    June 15, 2012 at 4:59 am

    I can’t believe I waited a week to listen to this podcast.  Goosebumps listening.    

  13. UTManMI
    July 3, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Anyone interested in seeing how government co-ops the strenuous mood for its own purposes (and whether or not that is valid) should look at Part II of Chief Justice Burger’s majority opinion, Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion, and Justice Brennan’s dissenting opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984).  http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/465/668/case.html