[lit-ideas] Re: Reason and Politics

  • From: Phil Enns <phil.enns@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 16 Oct 2006 16:02:32 -0300

Walter Okshevsky wrote:

"Surely not everything a great philosopher writes is great."

True, but here the Sage of Koenigsberg is spot on.  So let me try to unpack
that wonderous sentence.

'There is no true freedom of religion in a democracy if there is no freedom
to burn heretics and apostates as required
by our religion.'

If someone were to aver the above, it would appear to produce a
contradiction, namely, that the freedom of a [liberal] democracy must
include the freedom to rob others of their freedom.  This claim, however, is
problematic in two distinct ways.  First, the argument involves the
rejection of its own presupposition.  To burn heretics and apostates is to
deny the freedom of religion presupposed by the claim that burning heretics
and apostates is permitted by freedom of religion.  We have, then, a
misunderstanding of reason regarding what is entailed by freedom of

It would be good if pointing out this misunderstanding of reason were
sufficient for resolving the problem, but it isn't.  Reason becomes
preoccupied with its contorted paths and fails to step back and realize that
it aims for peaceful social relations.  In this case, reason ought to step
back and realize that burning those who fail to share ones own beliefs
cannot produce a peaceful and enlightened society.  The use of reason is not
a good in itself but is good when it aims towards the good society.  A use
of reason that includes the reduction of freedom for others produces a
disunity.  Recognizing that reason aims towards a lasting tranquility of
sense and understanding, one is forced to step back from the argument in
order to identify where reason went off the rails and then, hopefully, in
humility once again engage in reasoning to pursue ones proper goals within a
liberal democracy.

What makes this such an ideal defence of liberal democracy is the manner in
which orients reason within the political realm.  In a liberal democracy,
reason has its proper end and it is that end that guides the proper use of
reason.  A liberal democracy is not a Rortian 'anything goes' nor is it a
framework within which one pursues, according to a brutal rationality,
ideological outcomes.  Rather it is, borrowing from Oakshott, a ship at sea
that aims for a distant unseen shore, using reason to adapt to changing
conditions.  Reason is not for itself but rather a means for arriving at a
truly free and enlightened society, surely a message as relevant today as it
was over 200 years ago.


Phil Enns
Glen Haven, NS
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