Wednesday, November 18, 2015

on "universal values"

Today is one of those days when I write something more intelligent on someone else's blog than I do on my own, so today, I'm going to copy and paste a comment I left over at Malcolm's fine blog. Read Malcolm's post first for background before you read what I've pasted below. (NB: The text below was ever-so-slightly edited for style.)

[Malcolm, you] might be very interested in philosopher Nicholas Rescher and his notion of "orientational pluralism," which is what your post seems to be hinting at or leaning toward. I've blogged about Rescher in the context of religious pluralism; his ideas were appropriated by conservative religious thinker S. Mark Heim, who wanted to offer a conservative answer to religiously liberal thinker John Hick's classic notion of "convergent pluralism" (i.e., all religious traditions are equally legitimate paths up the mountain to the same summit/fulfillment). Heim's "divergent pluralism" is a deeper pluralism that doesn't converge on any transcendent One, but Heim also affirms that it's rational for anyone from a given perspective to view the world through the filter of his religious or philosophical position.

One theme I harped on, back when I wrote often about religion and religious issues, was the idea that core religious notions and religious truth-claims are hegemonic in nature: what is declared or professed is automatically meant to apply to all. Christ didn't die only for Christians' sins: he died for everyone. Buddhist sunyata (emptiness) isn't a metaphysical truth only for Buddhists: it's an objective truth about the nature of reality. Shiva doesn't exist merely for Saivites: he exists for, and is knowable by, us all.

Heim's pluralism relies on an analogy that's similar to your fish/cat image above: he uses a "travel" analogy. Imagine that you're in DC and you have to go to Alexandria, VA (my hometown), only 14 miles away. What's the best, most expedient, most sensible/rational way to get there? Now imagine you're in Bogota, Colombia, but you have to go to Oahu, Hawaii. The two paths are nothing alike in terms of their start and end points; they're also nothing alike in terms of the means we use to reach each respective destination. True: these are both forms of travel, but to say that these two paths are therefore exactly alike is to ignore the fact that "mere details" cannot be swept aside in our rush to embrace abstract similarities: the details are, in fact, constitutive of each path and cannot be glossed over as if they were beneath consideration.

Being enveloped in water makes sense for the fish; being surrounded by air makes sense for the cat. Taking a plane to Hawaii makes sense if you're in Bogota; driving to Alexandria makes sense if you're in DC. This is a sort of natural incommensurability (you can't expect the cat to live and flourish under water) that Heim/Rescher's pluralistic paradigm considers, but Hick's convergent paradigm does not.

I'm not saying I totally agree with either Heim or Hick, but there we are. Worldviews are rationally incommensurate and hegemonic by nature.

All this has implications for Dr. Vallicella's claims. We can speak of universal values because, from the perspective of anyone with any values at all, that person's values are seen as universal. But this fails to solve the objective problem of whether one overriding set of values actually takes precedence over all the rest. Hick would say that one set does, in fact, take precedence, and it's the set toward which we're all converging (in his own way, Steven Pinker seems to acknowledge the possibility of a Platonic moral realism); Heim would say that it's rational for everyone to think that his own value set is the one that takes precedence, and the best we can do is to acknowledge that other axiological perspectives are both possible and rational as well.



Kevin Kim said...

Bill Keezer emails the following comment:


It immediately strikes me that Helm’s position must necessarily lead to multiculturalism. Your statement of his position would allow any religious system that is “both possible and rational.” One has to stretch the idea of possible very wide to allow any religion into the definition, and in so doing includes religions that seem inimical to Western values. Hick on the other hand fails to include religions that die out rather than converge.

Widening the scope, we can take the same view of societies/cultures. I think that the reality of a “best” set of values is seen in its consequences. Granted that some groups, e.g. Muslims, do not value many of our western values, but what is their true condition? Shariah is a rule system that is based on nomadic Arabic culture and rigidly tries to enforce it. In its complete expression, there would be the high mortality of the first millennium, which required the high fecundity to keep the culture growing. On the other hand, Christianity and Judaism both reread themselves and re-invent themselves as time goes on. They allow the secular world to change and in so doing we now have low mortality rates and far less labor to produce the necessities, as well as wealth left over to use in a discretionary manner. I don’t think Buddhism comes into this discussion, because it really is not about this world but ones progress through to Nirvana.

I think Malcolm conflates the expression of values with the values themselves, just as Hume conflated the discovery or statement of law with the law itself.

“Values are different. They are inseparably bound to the entity whose values they are. Values manifest themselves as preferences, dispositions, affinities, and aversions.”

Malcolm then uses and argument from interests of the individual to support his claims. The only problem with that is that the individual is not living in a vacuum. He/she will express the values that provide the best survival whether she/he likes them or not. Thus the individual may have interests that he/she does not support, and values that are contrary to culture around her/him. Additionally, the values a person holds would have been inculcated by upbringing.

I think the values that are truly universal are the ones that improve humankind’s lot. As such the western world has a good hold on some of the values. Within the last few years, it would seem that other values have come into play, and the western world no longer provides improvement.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for your insights.

I tend to see Hick and Heim the other way around, so maybe I need to explain Heim's perspective a bit more for you to see what I'm talking about. Heim is an evangelical Protestant who is nevertheless sympathetic to the pluralistic point of view. At the same time, Heim, like a lot of his fellow religious conservatives, isn't about to renounce the supremacy of the Christian vision: he still believes that Christ died for all our sins, is the summum bonum, and that the cosmos is sustained by the trinitarian God envisioned by traditional Christianity. Orientational pluralism allows Heim to continue to make his hegemonic truth-claims without descending into a mushy relativism or a watered-down version of his essential faith. Heim's paradigm is also a response to Hick's "convergent" pluralism, which Heim thinks isn't pluralistic enough because Hick's paradigm fails to respect the constituent details of other religious traditions: it's not right to say "God equals the Tao equals Buddhist emptiness equals Allah." Hick's fuzzy convergence turns all these ultimates into "the Real," an ineffable, inexpressible transcendent. So, if we map this language onto current American political discourse, it's Hick who's the multiculturalist: Heim wants to preserve the differences of different traditions, whereas Hick seeks to make everything seem essentially the same and equally valuable/legitimate.

One other comment: I think your take on Buddhism is more applicable to its older, Indian form than to the Mahayana form that dominates East Asia and Vietnam. East Asian Buddhism, taking its cue from the naturalism in Taoism, is very this-worldly in orientation. Especially Zen.