The Myth of Pure Objectivity: A Retrospective from 2011

Richard Rorty is famous for his notion of religion or religious reasons as “conversation stoppers.”[i] Suppose that an individual, during a discussion about some policy issue such as provision of universal healthcare or the permissibility of abortion or assisted suicide, argues that certain policies ought to be enacted because they are required by God’s will. What are the other participants in the discussion to say if they do not share similar religious convictions? Rorty’s answer seems to be that the other participants can say nothing, and it is for precisely this reason that religion ought to be confined to the private sphere. We can only make progress in discourse, Rorty argues, by examining shared premises that would allow us to continue the argument.[ii]

Rorty’s characterization of religious belief is not new. Religious believers have long been told that since their belief is personal, since they believe what they believe about God not for objective reasons but due to a subjective choice, that religious convictions can play no role in making public decisions. The only reasons that count in the public arena are those that do not reflect any specific ideology or religious affiliation. Reasons, in this sense, must be “neutral.” The secular response to the invocation of God is often, “I understand that your personal beliefs about God imply that [position x] is wrong. But those are just your beliefs. And since I do not accept your beliefs about God and there is no way to prove them, we must rely on objective facts, on reasons that do not come merely from faith.” My objective in this article is not to address the mischaracterization of religious faith or to give examples of religious thought that has, far from stopping the conversation, enriched it. Instead, for the sake of argument, I would like to grant the premise that the only reasons that can count as such in public discourse are those that do not reflect any specific faith commitments. The question then becomes, are there any reasons that meet this standard of neutrality?

A logical starting point for trying to find such reasons would be to monitor current political discourse. And indeed, people offer reasons for various positions all the time. A policy might promote equality, preserve freedom, ensure tolerance, etc. But, as Steven Smith points out in The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, these abstract notions are just that, abstract. [iii] Equality, freedom, tolerance—all must be filled in with substantive criteria if they are to do any evaluative work. For example, notions of equality do not imply that we must treat all things equally, but rather that we must treat those things which are relevantly similar equally. It is these substantive criteria, the identification of what things are relevantly similar in a given case, that make arguments which invoke equality persuasive or not.[iv] To borrow an example from Smith, students taking multiple choice tests may well argue that considerations of equality prevent their teacher from penalizing an incorrect answer because we should treat all answers the same.[v] In this case, we feel that the appeal to equality falls flat because the answers are not relevantly similar; one is correct and the other is incorrect. The point is, though, that we do not know whether considerations of equality apply until after we have filled in the notion with some substantive criteria.

Ideals of tolerance and freedom are similarly empty. As Smith writes,

Moreover, an expansion of one person’s freedom often means a contraction of other people’s freedom: if we recognize and protect the freedom of the pornographer to market pornographic materials, we simultaneously reduce the freedom of people to live and raise their children in a pornography-free community. Hence, appeals to “freedom” can easily be—and often are—question-begging.[vi]

Thus we see that arguments which invoke freedom are, like those which invoke equality, only persuasive to the degree that one favors the substantive criteria underlying the concept. Freedom can be invoked on behalf of virtually any cause: freedom to discipline one’s children as one sees fit, freedom to abuse addictive drugs, freedom to steal cars, etc. The appeal will only be persuasive, however, to the degree that one favors the cause being defended. Most often, these appeals to freedom are shot down, with opponents invoking another ubiquitous but empty principle: harm.

“Of course you do not have the freedom to discipline your child in any way you want,” these opponents argue. “Certain discipline causes harm to the child and thus limits your freedom.” Appeals to harm as a limit on freedom are prevalent and intuitively appealing. But filling in harm with a substantive definition is tricky. The most straightforward way would be a sort of subjectivist approach to harm: you are harmed if it is the case that you sincerely believe you were harmed, if one or more of your preferences or desires are frustrated. However, we run into problems with this rationale almost immediately. Suppose I have a desire to restore and drive old automobiles, but I live in a town that is extremely environmentally conscious and so has forbidden cars that fail to meet certain gas mileage standards. How does the harm that results from the frustration of my desire to drive a certain car compare to the harm that would result from the frustration of my community members’ desire to prevent harm to the environment? From a purely subjectivist perspective, both groups suffer harm. If we still want to appeal to harm to adjudicate these matters, then we must have some system of deeming certain harms more legitimate or more important than others. But what authority could we claim to establish such a standard without fundamentally begging the question?

Even if we grant that freedom is a value, there is no clear way to determine just how valuable freedom is relative to other political goods. No way, at least, that does not smuggle in a presupposed and unsubstantiated hierarchy of values. We might feel that freedom is valuable in itself but can be restricted to promote some other, more valuable, state of affairs. The freedom to act as one pleases is valuable, but not as valuable as living in a society without murder or theft, and so we restrict individuals’ freedom to promote these higher goods. But here, too, it is unclear what standard we use to rank political goods and where such a standard could come from (other than God) and not be, in a certain sense, arbitrary.

At this point, I think, we have reached the central problem of secular ethics. If notions such as harm, or freedom, or equality are to do any evaluative work, they must be filled in with substantive criteria. In other words, evaluative judgment assumes an evaluator, a person or group of people or document that can provide the substantive criteria that give “secular” values meaning. In light of this problem, there are those who favor a subjectivist approach. Such a person might say, “We do not need God or anyone else to tell us what is good or right. We can determine those notions for ourselves.” But in essence, this approach just replaces one God with many (about six billion, actually). Each individual is his or her own God, with the ability to determine for himself or herself what the relevant substantive criteria are in fleshing out normative concepts.

Two things are important to note about this approach. The first is that it fails the secular test of what kinds of reasons can be included in public discourse.

Secularists want to argue that only those reasons that did not reflect any specific faith commitments could be included in our discussions. At this point, the religious believer can reply that no such reasons exist. All substantive normative claims rest on assumed first principles about what is good and what constitutes “the good life.” Whether these first principles are received from God or determined by individuals, they are certainly not objective empirical facts. There is no scientific experiment from which we can derive values. As Stanley Fish puts it,

While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it. No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.[vii]

Appeals to reasons derived from any kind of values would no longer be allowed, as these reasons come from faith. While the values asserted may not reflect Christian faith commitments (or the faith commitments of any other organized religion), person X’s values do reflect X-ian a priori faith, a reliance on X’s assumed first principles.

The second important consequence of a subjectivist theory of the good is that it is wholly unworkable in a world in which people interact and inevitably disagree. Suppose we return to the example of environmental standards. If my asserted values permit more harm to the environment than yours allow, what are we to do? Why should I listen to you? After all, I determine what is good for me and you determine what is good for you, and if our visions of “the good life” are necessarily contradictory, then what recourse do we have? We might appeal to some other authority, but again, it is not clear why I (or you) should listen to him or her. Various solutions to this problem have been promoted, from relying on the wisdom of the majority to invoking acceptance of a social contract. But there is no natural connection between a majority of the citizenry affirming a proposition and that proposition’s validity. The only way the majority has power is if we cede power to it, and again, there is no reason for me to do so. After all, I am the master of my own values, and the only way for me to lose the power to determine those values is to abdicate it.

But this decision to abdicate and the resulting validation of any non-supernatural substantive criteria is necessarily arbitrary. There is no standard, other than one we receive or baldly assert, by which we can judge competing visions of “the good life.” Purely secular discourse has no choice but to be question-begging. A discussion relying on secular reasons cannot even get off the ground unless the parties involve happen to agree on the same, ultimately arbitrary, notion of “the good life.” Conversation stopper indeed.



i. Richard Rorty, “Religion as Conversation-Stopper,” Common Knowledge 3 (1994): 1.
ii. Ibid.
iii. Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010) 25.
iv. Ibid. 29-31.
v. Ibid. 29-30.
vi. Ibid. 27-28.
vii. Stanley Fish, “Are There Secular Reasons,” The New York Times Opinionator, 5 Mar. 2011, 22 Feb. 2010 <http:// are-there-secular-reasons/>.

Lee Farnsworth ’12 is from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He majored in Government and Philosophy.

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