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An Ethics for TodayReview - An Ethics for Today
Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion
by Richard Rorty
Columbia University Press, 2010
Review by Brad Frazier
Feb 14th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 7)

An Ethics for Today: Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion is one of Richard Rorty's very last public lectures before his death in 2007.  Rorty delivered it in Turin at the Teatro Regio on 21 September 2005.  In addition to the lecture, the book also contains a q&a session between Rorty and the audience, moderated by Gianni Vattimo, who also briefly introduces Rorty; a foreword by Jeffrey W. Robbins, "Richard Rorty: A Philosophical Guide to Talking About Religion"; and a concluding essay by G. Elijah Dann, "Philosophy, Religion, and Religious Belief After Rorty."  Rorty's lecture spans approximately 11 pages; including the notes and bibliography, the entire book itself is a mere 76 pages in length. 

The lecture is geared toward an educated public.  Still readers will need some familiarity with Rorty's broader philosophical project to understand it well and the perspectives of the other authors.

Never one to be confused with a believer, Rorty often confessed to being "religiously unmusical."  In the latter part of his life, he began calling himself an "anticlericalist."  This was his way of underscoring both his disdain for organized religion and, ironically, his loss of faith in reason, as Dann suggests.  Because of this latter apostasy, Rorty never quite fit in with the so-called "new atheists."  However, he did share their concerns about the "conversation-stopping" nature of appeals to religious belief in liberal democracies.

So why would Rorty be interested in finding common ground between philosophy and religion?  Was he trying finally to get on God's good side as he entered the last phase of his life?  More seriously, what sort of theological reflection could Rorty's work inspire in others?

In regard to the last question, some philosophers and theologians, such as Vattimo and Dann, think that Rorty's Nietzschean critique of traditional philosophy and his corresponding antifoundationalism provide support for and sync rather well with a post-Christian naturalized spirituality (to borrow a phrase from Robert Solomon).  In some cases, this spirituality is wedded to a theological view that posits a God "beyond metaphysics" or "beyond Being," or a view of God that consciously rejects the onto-theological tradition.

For Dann in particular, Rorty also provides a useful way of dealing with the thorny issue of religion's role in a liberal democracy.  The basic idea is that philosophy has no "privileged, epistemological vantage point from which it can describe and adjudicate reality."  Therefore, philosophers, according to Dann, "can't make heavy-handed criticisms about religious belief on the basis that it isn't 'rational,' doesn't correspond with reality, or because there is no objective referent for the term 'God'" (38).  Crucially, though, "the same constraints that hold for criticizing religious belief also apply to those with religious belief" (39).  Since neither side can claim ultimate allegiance to the Truth, the "test" or standard for public discourse becomes political, not metaphysical or philosophical: can one's views be understood and shared by people with very different comprehensive perspectives?  This is not a move that picks out and picks on religious believers, as some of Rorty's critics have argued.  As Dann explains, "like everyone else, religious believers must subject their values to the political test.  If they cannot do so, their right to continue voicing their views remains, but the rest of us have no obligation to listen to them" (43).

Dann elaborates a Rortian philosophy of religion at much greater length in his book, After Rorty: The Possibilities for Ethics and Religious Belief.  His way of appropriating Rorty is somewhat novel and intriguing.  Nevertheless, here are some of my preliminary concerns with Dann's approach.  First, his reading of Rorty makes Rorty's view of the role of religion in public life seem even stricter than that of John Rawls.  For Rawls, in a liberal democracy, reasonable citizens will, if necessary, observe some constraints on their public discourse.  They might do this, however, for any number of reasons -- religious, philosophical, or otherwise.  Each citizen's particular reasons for being reasonable do not matter nearly as much as their basic commitment to reasonable discourse.  Dann implies, though, that these constraints follow from the end of metaphysics and the corresponding turn to post-modern views of reason.  Of course, they could -- for thinkers like Dann. 

We should be wary of a creeping foundationalism here, however.  The lack of philosophically neutral grounds for testing beliefs does not itself constitute a philosophical foundation for liberal democracy.  To posit it as a foundation not only repeats the mistake of foundationalism.  It also saddles us with a support structure that is not nearly as sturdy as the more commonly held beliefs that the structure is supposed to support.  Arguably, we do not need (any particular) philosophical foundation at all, much less a highly controversial one.

Another concern is that Dann repeats a Rortian false dilemma that Rorty himself tries to avoid in some of his later writings and more careful moments.  That is, either a) we locate an ahistorical, neutral "view from nowhere" from which to assess our beliefs and ideals or b) we are so stuck in subjectivity and contingency that philosophical examinations of our views are pointless.

In fairness to Dann, Rorty himself reiterates this very questionable disjunction in his lecture.  He notes, "it is futile to look for a demonstration that one has turned in the right direction," when one has converted to atheism or vice versa (10).  But what is meant by a "demonstration" is a logically rigorous proof that appeals to an entirely "neutral court of appeal" (17).  Now, ever since Socrates, philosophers have been aware that our ability to have convictions greatly outstrips our ability to support rationally the convictions that we have.  This hardly implies, however, the extreme conclusion that "neither reason nor experience can do much to help us decide whether to agree with Benedict XVI or with Santayana, James, Mill, Dewey, and Habermas," as Rorty claims (17).  It's as if, for Rorty, all the intersubjectivity in the world does not yield even a midly useful scrap of objectivity.  This view can seem as infantile as the original impulse to fixate on needing something larger and much greater than ourselves on our side, backing our ideals.

So what about Rorty's lecture?  Does he break new ground in sketching out an "ethics for today" that locates common ground between religion and philosophy?

As far as I can tell, the best candidates for "common ground" here consist of the following points:

1. Philosophers and religious believers alike are unable to prove in any

definitive way the central tenets of their belief or unbelief.  Both groups,

epistemologically, are in the dark, unable to escape finitude.

2. Philosophers and religious believers alike are averse to pain and enjoy

the satisfaction of their desires.

3. "Everyone with moral convictions is as absolutistic as everyone else,"

as Rorty puts it (19).

The ethical vision Rorty presents in his lecture mostly is nothing new.  His favorite moral philosopher still is John Stuart Mill.  Rorty continues to believe that liberal democracy is the best thing we have going right now in terms of facilitating on a societal level each person's pursuit of happiness.  Human happiness is our "only absolute" (20).  Moral progress occurs, moreover, when we enlarge "the range of those whose desires are taken into account" (15).  Rorty sketches out this position in more detail in an essay published a decade ago: "Justice as a Larger Loyalty" -- the final chapter in Matthew Festenstein and Simon Thompson's Richard Rorty: Critical Dialogues.

What is new -- to me at least -- is Rorty's suggestion that we think of spirituality in a different way.  We ought not to think of it as a "yearning for the infinite" (14).  Instead we should measure a person's spirituality roughly by the degree to which she embraces life in all its wild contingency and flux.  This is a Nietzschean notion that jibes well with Rorty's view of self-creation and the role that irony plays in it.

I take from this that we might also want to think more about the role of irony in the cultivation of spirituality, thus defined.  Here I am with Rorty and Dann.  This is a promising path for further reflection.

In the foreword, Robbins praises Rorty's famous "philosophical nonchalance."  This is the healthy sense of irony that Rorty displays as much toward his own views as those of others.  We would do well to follow his lead here, too.  Philosophers and believers alike could stand to take themselves much less seriously.

There is a crucial difference, however, between ironic nonchalance and intellectual sloppiness.  Unfortunately, Rorty veers into the latter at times in his lecture.  For instance, he uses the overwrought terms "fundamentalism" and "relativism" to designate the two most basic "visionary poems" between which we must decide.  To compound the problem, he defines a fundamentalist as anyone who believes ideals are valid only when grounded in reality, and a relativist as anyone who rejects this view (11).  This is so unhelpful and misleading as to be exasperating.  After repeatedly and painstakingly distinguishing his subtle position from relativism throughout his career; after steadfastly refusing to equate his antifoundationalism with a totally arbitrary "anything goes" perspective, he capitulates here to a simplistic dualism proposed by (then) Cardinal Ratzinger.  This is not Rorty at his best.

Still I recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore what we might call a Rortian philosophy of religion.


© 2012 Brad Frazier


Brad Frazier is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wells College in Aurora, New York.  He recently published Rorty and Kierkegaard on Irony and Moral Commitment: Philosophical and Theological Connections (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).  He also has published essays in Philosophy and Social Criticism; Journal of Religious Ethics; International Philosophical Quarterly; History of Philosophy Quarterly; and The Daily Show and Philosophy


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