Friday, February 12, 2010

Religion as a "Bifurcated Essentially Contested Concept": Part II

In a comment on my last post, about the “bifurcated essential contestability” of religion, Burk wrote: “So what’s the point? The fact that some concepts are slippery enough to be re-defined to one’s taste, or one’s argumentative predilection, hardly speaks well of the original referent, does it?”

This betrays a misunderstanding, insofar as essential contestability is not merely a matter of a concept being slippery enough to allow one to define it as one pleases or to serve one's argumentative agenda. But I suspect the misunderstanding here is likely to be sufficiently widespread that I want to have another go at the idea of essential contestability. However, so as to avoid having to repeat what I’ve already said, I invite you to read or reread the previous post—as well as my clarifying comments offered as comments to it—before digging into this one.

First of all, essential contestability does offer parameters for the proper use of a term (one can’t simply define it however one pleases). But these parameters are looser than those offered by a strict definition in terms of genus and difference. The purpose of that looseness is to facilitate an ongoing normative dispute--to prevent those who, say, want to apply the term "terrorism" to domestic battery from being shut down by "definitional fiat", without having the chance to make their case for why domestic battery deserves to receive the same sort of condemnation that we attach to, say, the Oklahoma City bombing.

The worry here is this. Suppose someone tries to make the point that domestic battery is a species of terrorism, and thereby argue that the public moral outcry against terrorism (and concomitant political capital and economic resources devoted to its prevention) should extend with equal force to domestic battery, inspiring a comparable devotion of public resources. The worry is that this essentially moral argument will be unfairly silenced by essentially ad hoc definitional conventions. Someone will say, “That’s not terrorism, so shut up and go back to your NOW meeting.” The essential contestability of “terrorism” aims to prevent the invocation of such conversation-stoppers.

Some concepts have a precisely defined set of referents. Some admit of grey areas ("vague concepts")--and as I've argued elsewhere (in an article on the essential contestability of "rape"), essential contestability offers a useful way of understanding what can make a concept vague. Whether a concept has a precise meaning or is vague/contested tells us something about the function that the concept serves in the language. If the function is to regulate a certain kind of descriptive project, then it will have a precise meaning. If its function is to regulate an ongoing normative dispute, then it will be essentially contested.

But here's the thing. There would be little point in making linguistic space for normative disagreement if normativity were conceived reductionistically in terms of nothing but subjective attitudes. If the distinctive wrong of rape were just a matter of taste or nothing but a projection of psychological predilitions ("a rorsach blot," as Burk puts it in his comment), then there'd really be nothing to disagree about between those who say that a husband's cavalier disregard for his wife's disinclination to have sex makes his act rape (even though she's been socialized to quietly submit to his demands), and those who deny this. There'd be no disagreement between them because the former would be simply saying something about their tastes (they just happen to have a certain kind of distaste towards the husband’s behavior) and the latter would be simply saying something about their tastes (they lack the relevant negative attitude). But varied tastes towards the same phenomenon do not constitute disagreement. A disagreement is possible only if both parties mean to say something about the husband's behavior--the former is asserting something about it that the latter denies.

In short, real normative disagreement is possible only if there is more to the normative status of activities, projects, etc., than just the diverse attitudinal projections of different individuals.

It follows that, in order for the essential contestability of concepts to serve the function it is supposed to serve, there must be something more to normative discourse than just expressions of taste and projections of preferences onto the range of entities to which the contested concept actually or potentially refers.

The precise character of the "something more" is going to be a matter of some debate, but at the very least it will require that normative judgments be such that it is possible to offer legitimate reasons in their favor--legitimate in the sense of rendering it rationally fitting for someone to change their mind in the light of it.

Since I am convinced that there is something more to normative judgments than mere expressions of subjective preference, I am likewise convinced that essentially contested concepts serve an important linguistic function.

I am less convinced, however, that the bifurcation of an essentially contested concept--of the sort I see occuring in the case of "religion"--is helpful. Rather, while I think it may be inescapable, it creates problems for clear communication and divides the normative discourse into two communities who then have difficulty communicating their respective normative insights to the other community without being consistently misunderstood.

So, with respect to such concepts, the task is to understand how they operate so that we can better transcend the impediments.

In sum, I think the essential contestability of the concept “religion” has value, but I think that the bifurcation of it limits that value by preventing the normative insights achieved in one linguistic community (which focuses on religion’s paradigms in a purely negative way so as to identify what it is about them that justifies the negative normative judgment) from being effectively communicated to the other linguistic community (which focuses on religion’s paradigms in a purely positive way so as to identify what it is about them that justifies the positive normative judgment).


  1. Hi, Eric-

    I agree that arguments of this kind involve more than taste. Yet that "more" doesn't make them less subjective. "Normative" is by its nature subjective- a claim of social control, by which even though a person fails to share/abide by the majority (if the norm is majority-based ... it could also be scripture-based, or algorithm-based, or reality-TV based, or despot-based, etc.) view of an act, his behavior is controlled by the majority since that majority (or church, or whatever) has taken a coercive position vs deviants. Where does the majority position come from?

    Your example of rape is excellent. The majority position comes from considerations of harm- of our innate empathy with the victim, and our more reasoned desire to live in the kind of society in which we and our loved ones never have to deal with this kind of brutality- i.e. our empathy with our own loved ones. There is nothing absolute or objective about all this, simply our feelings about other people's feelings when faced with victimization.

    Our attitude towards animals is symptomatic here. Do they not feel pain? Surely they do. But does that stop us from killing them and abusing them? Rarely, because our actions and views flow from our empathy, which is subjective, not objective. Some we care about (pets), some we don't (pests).

    On your main point of bifurcation, one can urge participants to tot up the virtues and harms of each side as objectively as possible, to come to an ethical and conceptual middle ground. Is religion operationally good or bad? But that is like asking whether homeopathy is good or bad. Well, it might, on balance, have good effects, through an extensive placebo and human contact effect. But if its very premise is completely fatuous, wouldn't that make the enterprise, and the utilitarian hair-splitting, beside the point? Who wants to live in such a ends-justify-the-means world?

  2. There is nothing absolute or objective about rape being wrong? Hume is right in saying that there is nothing contrary to reason in preferring the destruction of the world to the scratching of one's finger? I find it hard to believe that you really think that. I'm not sure what your point about animals is supposed to prove--surely we should say that people who abuse animals are acting wrongly, whether or not they have societal sanction for their actions? A statement about how people actually behave might be a statement about how they should behave on your view, but it isn't on mine. But anyway all this is a bit besides the point.

    As for your last paragraph, you will not be surprised to find that I do not think religious belief is vacuous. Given your apparent utter unfamiliarity with sophisticated religious thinking and utter lack of respect for opposing views, it will take more than dogmatic assertions from you to make me rethink this belief.

  3. Hi, Dustin, all-

    First off, I'd recommend an excellent podcast episode on pragmatism, that speaks to Eric's overall position, and how it is viewed by others.

    What Eric seems to be saying is that, whatever one thinks of the underlying truth claims of religions, (when there are any), the existence of religion has excited intense bifurcation of attitudes, both for and against. The contesting communities reside in large part in their own echo chambers, without productive interaction, shouting at each other with their fingers in their ears. I am one example!

    So far, so clear. I believe that is all that Eric was saying in the original post, and that was uncontroversial enough, even elementary, if couched in his "technical" language. The disagreement extends to what might be covered by the word/concept religion- whether Avatar might be, or Einstein-ism, etc.

    I didn't mean to really comment on that topic, since it is hardly controversial. I wanted to approach reasons behind this intense bifurcation, alluding to a bill of goods that is at the heart of conventional religious dogmas that inspire both intense devotion and disbelieving mockery. That is all.

    I guess that creationism might be an example of an essentially contested concept, which morphs according to need, based on the intellectual acuity of the user, and on court cases which impair its usefulness in prior guises, necessitating periodic reformulations. It does not have the moral freight as some of the other examples, but similar protean behavior. This shows especially in the conflicting conceptions that pro- and anti- discussants have. The same facts can be viewed completely differently, due to radically different backgrounds and assumptions, some with normative characteristics.

    On the Hume issue, I do really believe that, and think it clearly represents the reality of our moral landscape, however dressed up it has been with talking snakes, genocidal floods, racial covenants, and emotional certainties of "rightness". But as you say, that is another discussion.

  4. Oh- I see that "essentially contested concept" is more thoroughly explained over at wikipedia.

    Please ignore my ravings about creationism, etc.

    By these criteria, it seems unlikely that religion itself is the contested concept (discussions about religion could be confined to particular denominations or sects if necessary, with hairsplitting about their acceptability or relevance to discussants). But it seems more likely that the contents of religious thought fulfill the criteria, with radically different / irreconcilable evaluations and attitudes to dogma, etc.

    Note especially:

    Psychological and sociological causes influence the extent to which any particular consideration is:
    (a) salient for a given individual,
    (b) regarded as a stronger reason by that individual than by another, and
    (c) regarded as a reason by one individual and not by another.