A bit of conversation, overheard

You know what your problem is?

No, but I’m sure you’re about to tell me.

I am, indeed. Your problem is that you are incoherent. Or inconsistent. Or inconsistently coherent. Or something like that.

Well, I’m glad you cleared that all up for me.

I’ll demonstrate: What are you, conservative or liberal?

Do I have to be one or the other?

See what I mean?

Isn’t there a third (or fourth) choice?

Like?

I’m a nonarchist.

No you’re not.

Yes I am.

Nope. That’s just a word you made up because you simply couldn’t decide what you are.

A nonarchist believes in no first principles (archai). He differs from the anarchist in that the anarchist thinks there are no first principles. But that is his first principle, so to speak. It is not mine. I believe in no first principles, not even that one.

Isn’t that just saying there are no first principles?

No, it’s not the same. The reason anarchy is so often tied to violence is that the anarchist is usually a true believer. He believes that whatever is going on is bad and that blowing it up is a moral imperative. I do not believe that.

All anarchist are bomb-throwing maniacs?

No. In fact, I very much object to that characterization because it’s the one used by The Powers-That-Be to make anarchistic thinking seem “beyond the pale.” However, because there are in fact anarchist principles, it is possible for there to be true believers, and true believers can be very dangerous.

Is non-archy like casuistry? Are you a casuist?

Okay, yes, I suppose I am. I think there are only events, cases, and that each case has something that uniquely distinguishes it from every other case.

You know the knock on casuistry, right?

Something about inconsistency or incoherency or even hypocrisy…something like that?

Right.

Right, well the thing is, if you aren’t a casuist, then you think there are real governing patterns, forms, principles, or whatever, that take precedence over persons, places, things, and times. To me, that is hypocritical—literally, not critical enough. For the sake of your blessed consistency (the hobgoblin of tiny minds, it has been said), you are willing to neglect or deny the uniqueness of persons, places, things, and times. I am unwilling to be so sub-critical.

But if you nonarchist casuists were to win the day, then would we be absolute relativists? And if we were, wouldn’t morality go right out the window? All we’d be left with is “what’s right for me is right for me, and what’s right for you is right for you and there is nothing we can really say to each other.”

Do you think so? I don’t. Or at least, I don’t think it would turn out like that. I think we human beings have a lot in common—a whole lot, in fact—even though each of us is unique.

Well, then, are these commonalities the first principles of ethics?

Not like some people think. You can’t just read off these commonalities and develop an algorithm to solve all our problems once and for all. But we are real people with real commonalities in real situations, and from within them we can try—no guarantees—to solve our problems. Or maybe even find that what we think are problems really aren’t problems at all.

What do you mean?

Well, for instance, “religion” seems to have been a longstanding problem for us human beings. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.

How so?

If we didn’t have to be so consistent and coherent and all that, maybe each person could be religious (or not) in his own way without that seeming such a scandal to others. And, at the same time, the person living out this “religious” expression won’t be so damn certain (coherent, consistent) that he lets it bring him misery or to wreak misery on others.

That’s a lot to hope for.

I am a religious man.

You are a nonarchist, casuist, religious man.

Yes, for starters. I am also a man who likes pizza. Consistently, you’ll be pleased to know.

There’s hope for you….

I’m all about hope!

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