3: The Retreat

1. Another Look

The argument of the previous part can be further developed by considering an interesting thought experi­ment that throws additional light on its meaning. Suppose we’ve organized a retreat at some remote site—say a monastery in the foothills of the Himalayas—inviting people from all over the world representing different cultures, reli­gions, ideologies, and points of view about values and ways of life. Those attending are given the collective task of coming to some kind of understanding before the retreat is over about which point of view or way of life is the right one—or which are the right ones, should there be more than one.

This retreat reminds us of the World Parliament of Religions described in the last section. But there is more complication to it. First, it is meant to represent the modern world in all its plura­lism. Thus, it will not only include a mix of representatives of the various religions of the world, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Taoist, and so on. It will also include non-believers who think all religious views are misguided, as well as agnostics and persons repre­senting various secular ideologies, positivists (who believe that only science provides objective knowledge), secular humanists, social Darwinists, Marxists, Aryan supre­macists, Satanists, new age channelers, Nietzschean elitists, postmodernist relativists and numerous others—the world in all its pluralism, the learned and the unlearned, the wise and the foolish.

We include the foolish as well as the wise in the spirit of a legendary Texas politician who once remarked that “if there were no fools in the state legislature, it would not be a repre­sentative body.”[1]

Second, unlike the World Parliament of Religions, the goal is not merely to find some common ground among their differing beliefs, but to come to an agreement about which of their dif­fering world-views and ways of life is the right or true one.

Given this more difficult goal, we can imagine that many representatives of the various reli­gions at this retreat and some others representing secular ideologies will try to persuade the others of the absolute rightness of their respective points of view and the wrongness of all others. They will see the task of reaching agreement as one of proselytizing or converting others to their beliefs and will try their best to do this. For the point of the retreat, as they see it, is to seek the truth and they believe they already have the truth. Others may not place such a high priority on proselytizing or conver­sion, but they will also argue as vigorously for the rightness of their views when challenged.

Now let us assume what is the most likely outcome of this retreat, if many groups proceed in this way. After days of heated discussion, perhaps some people will be converted to this or that religion, and some religious believers will lose their faith in the presence of secu­lar and scien­tific challenges. But most people are likely to stand firm with their respec­tive world-views and beliefs, having failed to persuade others or to be persuaded by others. Would we expect any different outcome from even a little bit of experience of human beings? The collec­tive task of finding general agreement on the right way of life, or right ways of life, will have failed. What then?

Well, some people, discouraged by the fruitless bickering and cynical about the outcome, will simply leave. Let us assume that on one side, those likely to leave will include many of those who are certain they already have the truth—the certaintists, let us call them. Some religious people will be in this group. But it will not include all or only religious people. We should ex­pect no scarcity of dogmatists and ideologues, or their opposites, on all sides, if this is truly a representative body. Having failed to convert or persuade others of their views, these certain­tists will likely chalk up their failure to the irrationality, ignorance, perversity, sinfulness or down­right stupidity of the others, and will see no point in continuing.

At the other end of the spectrum, we can imagine those who leave will also include subjec­tivists, relativists, skeptics and postmodernists of various stripes, who do not believe there is any such thing as objec­tive or universal truth about the right way of life to be searching for or reach­ing agreement about. To them, the fruitless bickering at the retreat has another meaning. It is evi­dence that the objective good does not exist. This group is also likely to leave (though we might imagine that some of the postmodernists among them may stay around to make cynical comments on the proceedings).

2. The Searchers

Now imagine that all those who are inclined to leave have departed. Why would anyone stay? Because, we may suppose, there are some present at this retreat who have the following atti­tude. While they are not certain that their own point of view or any other is objectively or universally right, they have not given up believing there is such a thing as universal truth or rightness. And they desire to find what it is and whether their own view has it, as they may believe, or any other.

Those who take this attitude are neither dogmatists believing with certainty that they already have the truth nor rela­tivists or skeptics who believe objective truth about matters of value does not exist; and they have not given up the search for it. Indeed that search is what the retreat was all about; and those who remain choose to continue it. They are true seekers of wisdom, skeptical of dogma and yet not dogmatic about skepticism.

Suppose now, when all those who choose to leave have packed their bags and departed, some wise persons stand up and address those remaining. Their message goes something like this: “We have come here to search for the right and the good from every point of view. We failed to convince each other because we have been appealing to cherished and fundamen­tal beliefs and values that we may hold but others do not share. Yet we are not going to give up the search for that reason.”

“Let us try something new. Let us in our imaginations draw a large circle around all of us here present, as well as around all those others who have left and all other persons whatever. This circle represents our willingness to allow all to pursue their ways of life without interference to the degree that this can be done while departing as little as possible from a world in which all persons can be allowed to pursue their ways of life without interference by others.”

“By drawing this circle and acting in this way, we need not thereby concede that other ways of life besides our own are objectively good or right. We do not know that. Neither do we know that our own is the right one, though we would like to continue believing it is. That is what we are trying to find out. The point of drawing this large circle and acting in the way suggested is to shift the burden of proof from our particular points of view and distribute that responsibility equally to all persons, allowing them to show by how they plan to act and live that their points of view and ways of life are worthy of being allowed by others to be pursued. Let us draw this circle and act in this manner as a thought experiment and see what happens.”

This suggestion recreates the argument of the preceding part. The attitude being suggested to the partici­pants is openness. The circle drawn around those to whom the attitude of openness is to be initially accorded is the moral sphere. Those who stay behind at the retreat and proceed in this way (hereafter I’ll simply call them “the retreatants”) may then find that some persons will show themselves to be less worthy of being treated with openness by making it impos­sible for others to allow their ways of life to be pursued and at the same time to allow the ways of life of others to be pursued as well.

By reflecting on such results, these retreatants will thereby be led, in the manner of part 2, to ethical princi­ples—not to kill, lie, steal, etc.—that obtain within the moral sphere and to com­monly recog­nized exceptions to those principles. They will also be led to a version of the Golden Rule and to a recognition of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that are to be accor­ded to persons up to the point where they would break the moral sphere. These are substantial results for their efforts.

Moreover, those who stay at the retreat and proceed in this way are those to whom the argu­ment of part 2 was addressed. Troubled by pluralism and uncertainty, they can no longer be dogmatists, believing they already know with certainty what is objectively good and right. But they are not yet ready to embrace relativism or skepticism either. They have not given up on the idea that there is an objective good and right to be sought. Such persons live “after the modern Fall,” so to speak, having lost moral innocence, but not the love for wisdom. They are still searching for what is objectively true and good.

3. The Search and Universality

We can now see more clearly from this story of the retreat why the attitude of openness of part 2 is a choice and what kind of choice it is. It is the choice, represented by the retreatants who stayed at the retreat, to keep searching for the right and the good from every point of view despite condi­tions of pluralism and uncertainty. It is a choice to accept neither dogmatism nor skepticism as a final result in one’s search for the objective good, but rather to act out of a love of wisdom (philo­sophia) which is skeptical of dogma, yet not dogmatic about skepticism.

But once the matter is put this way, an obvious objection looms. Since those persons who stay behind and try openness are only a subset of all those who attended the retreat, many of whom have left, how can the results they attain be universal—true from all points of view? How could their results apply to everyone?

The first part of an answer to this question is that to find what is true from all points of view, all points of view don’t have to participate in the search. If mo­dern quantum physics should turn out to be a true theory about the physical world, it will be true for Chinese and Americans, Russians and Sudanese, Navajo Indians and Maori tribesmen, whether or not each of these participated in the search or would agree with its results.

Analo­gous­ly, in the case of values and ways of life, what counts for the universality of the re­sults is not whether all ways of life have participated in the search or whether those in all ways of life agree. What matters for the universality of the results is that those who have participated in the search have taken into account all ways of life. This is done by the retreatants by draw­ing the large circle representing openness around all ways of life whatever—not only of those still present at the retreat, but also of those who have departed and all others as well.

This point is a crucial. If those who stayed at the retreat had drawn the initial circle of openness only around themselves, their results would have been valid only for themselves. If they had chosen to make an agreement or social contract among themselves to respect only each others’ rights and ways of life, that again would have been valid and binding only for themselves.[2] But this is not what these retreatants are doing. They are engaged in a philosophical search for what is objectively right and good for everyone and should be recognized as right and good from all points of view.

If such a thing required agreement from everyone and from every point of view, the retreatants would have already lost at the point where so many left the retreat and would not even partici­pate. But if those remaining at the retreat gave up the search for that reason (because many had left), they would be mistaken about the nature of their goal, just as physicists would be mista­ken to give up their belief in quantum physics because they could not convince some primitive tribesmen or members of the flat-earth society that it was true. What counts for the universality of the results of the retreatants’ inquiries is that they are willing to take into account all ways of life, allowing each to be tested or experimented with, to the degree that this can be allowed.

The retreatants do this by drawing the large circle representing openness around all ways of life, inclu­ding the ways of those who have left the retreat and do not agree with them. That is the test of the sincerity of their attempt to find an objective truth that will have universal appli­cation to all persons and not just to those who agree with them or not just to their tribe or group.[3]

Such a requirement means in practice that the retreatants will say to one another: “In our con­tinuing search for the truth, we shall apply these ethical principles at which we have arrived, such as a version of the Golden Rule and rules not to kill or lie or cheat. And we will tentative­ly accord respect in the sense of openness to everyone, not merely to those who agree with us, allowing all to show us by how they plan to act and live that their ways of life are worthy of being allowed by everyone to be pursued.”

“This does not mean we will be helpless in the face of evil-doing by those who left the retreat or others who do not agree with these principles or do not follow them. For we are committed by these principles of openness respect only up to the point where others would break the mo­ral sphere. At that point, we cannot treat such moral-sphere breaking with openness and at the same time main­tain a moral sphere in which everyone can be treated with openness respect by everyone else; and we can take measures to restore and preserve the sphere in which the ideal of openness respect to all can be followed once again by all.”

“So if it happens that some persons who left the retreat—say, a group of dogmatists who do not believe in openness—subsequently persecute others or make war on neighbors in the name of their faith or ideology, or try to impose their beliefs on others forcibly, that is where the line on openness for their ways of life will be drawn. It will not be possible at that point for us to treat with openness the persecutors and those whom they are persecuting. Until that point is reached however, even dogmatists will be allowed to pursue their ways of life without interference, though they may not themselves believe in openness. And what applies to them applies as well to all others who left the retreat or stayed behind. If they should persecute others or try to impose their wills on others forcibly or by deceit or manipulation, that is where the line on openness respect to their ways of life will be drawn.”

4. Further Questions

But these claims lead to a further objection these retreatants must address. Suppose some aggressive group that has left the retreat does subsequently persecute, exploit, or make war on its neigh­bors. Suppose further that the retreatants have the power to intervene and do forcibly intervene to restore and preserve the moral sphere. Are the retreatants not then imposing their view forci­bly on this recalcitrant group, which does not happen to agree with the retreatants’ principles? And if so, would the retreatants not be doing precisely what they claim such recal­citrant groups have no right to do to their disagreeing neighbors? What gives the retreatants any more right to impose their (“moral sphere”) view on others who do not agree with them than any other persons or groups have to impose their views on others?

These are good questions and the answers to them provide further insight into the meaning of the retreat and the argument of part 2. When these questions are raised among the retreatants, after some reflection, they realize how they must reply.

“To believe as we do that persons have the right to forcibly intervene only when the moral sphere has broken down and only to restore and preserve it, is to believe that the only thing that gives any persons the right to impose their wills on others is that they have tried their hardest not to. The point where the moral sphere breaks down is the point at which one can no longer treat with openness respect every way of life, no matter what one does or no matter how hard one tries. To restrain oneself until such a point is reached is what is meant by the persis­tent striving to maintain conditions in which the ideal of openness respect to all can be fol­lowed by all to the degree possible in an imperfect world. So long as one is doing this, one will only inter­vene or force one’s will on others after trying to avoid doing so and finding it is no longer possible.

“Consider, by contrast, those groups who persecute their neighbors. They accept no such constraint. If they did, they would not impose their wills forcibly until they had exhausted other options. They would look first for an accommodation or a resolution of their conflict that they and their neighbors could agree upon before resorting to force.

“The persecutors of our example did not do this. If they had been among the certaintists who left the retreat, they may have believed they had a right to impose their views on their neigh­bors because their beliefs were the correct or superior ones. If they were relativists or skeptics, they may have believed there was no objective right or wrong in the matter, so that ‘might makes right’ or one can persecute one’s neighbors when it serves one’s self-interest. But, what­ever their motive, they would not merely be trying to restore the moral sphere when it has broken down. They would not have been trying to avoid imposing their wills on others until it was no longer possible to avoid doing so.”

So there is a difference in the retreatants’ actions and the persecutors’. What the retreatants believe is not that they have rights that others do not possess. Rather, they believe that the only thing which gives any persons the right to impose their wills coercively on others is that they have tried not to do so and found it is no longer possible, no matter what they do.

To try to treat all ways of life with openness respect and to fail to do so only as a last resort is a difficult ideal, to be sure, and it may be that we can only approximate it in everyday life. Is it always clear when we have tried our hardest to treat all ways of life with such respect before intervening—or even clear what this requirement means in every circumstance? Is it always clear when the moral sphere has broken down or whether it has broken down, or who is responsible when it does? These questions and others will be addressed in the next two parts (4 and 5).

5. Final Reflections on the Retreat

But before addressing these further questions, let us consider some additional lessons to be learned from this retreat. Persons who stay at the retreat to continue their search realize they have crossed a divide between the older way of seeking objective or universal values and a newer way of openness they have chosen. Those pursuing the older way, of positioning oneself in one’s own point of view and trying to convince others that it was right and all other views wrong, soon left the retreat. Their way led to endless bickering and dissension.

Yet it is important to recognize that the newer way of openness the retreatants had chosen did not require them to abandon their particular points of view and ways of life. Far from it. They realized that, as finite beings, they must inevitably search for the good from some particular point of view in which they find themselves. One cannot search for the good from no point of view whatever.

Nor did the atti­tude of openness require that the retreatants give up believing in the correctness of their own points of view. Most of them could scarcely do that and continue to live in accor­dance with those views after they left the retreat. What openness requires is only a recognition of the limi­tations of their own and other points of view. It requires recognizing the finiteness of their human condition.

To illustrate this point, consider that among those who remain at the retreat, many may be reli­gious people who will continue to adhere to the beliefs of their respective religious traditions after the retreat is over. Like others who stayed at the retreat to go on searching, including non-believers, these religious believers who stay are moved by pluralism and uncertainty. But it is not faith or belief they have necessarily lost, only certainty and innocence. They know that most of the religious traditions of which they are a part emphasize the finite­ness of the human condition and the need for faith. Given this human condition, they infer that they see only through a glass darkly, if they see at all. If this is so, they reason, then our finite­ness extends to our condition of knowers as well; and pluralism and uncertainty are not merely modern conditions, but human conditions.

When believers who remain at the retreat proceed in this way, they are doing what others who remain are also doing: They are trying to get beyond their own limitations, to overcome nar­row­ness of vision by opening their minds initially to other points of view and seeing what can thereby be learned. Taking such an attitude does not mean they must believe that other views to which they take this attitude will turn out to be true. It is even consistent with taking such an attitude of open­ness that they believe their own view will ultimately prevail in the search for truth or that their own view will be an indispensable part of the final truth. But they do not know this for certain; and initially according openness to all points of view is a way of ensuring that the competition to find out will be fair and open.

6. Openness and Respect

To take such an attitude toward others is thus to accord to them a kind of respect that many who left the retreat were not willing to accord to others. I have been calling this kind of respect “respect in the sense of openness” (or “openness respect,” for short) and defined it earlier (in part 2) as follows:

To accord respect in the sense of openness (or openness respect) to persons is to act toward them in such manner that they are able to pursue their plans of action and ways of life (“to live and pursue happiness as they choose”) without interference or subordination (without being prevented, for example, from doing so by the pursuits of others).

But importantly, the retreatants choose to accord this sort of respect to other persons only provisionally, up the point where others would break the moral sphere. And their goal in according such respect pro­visionally is to find out whether or not persons are worthy of continuing to be accorded such respect from themselves and from others in the future.

For these reasons, respect in this sense of openness is a distinctive kind of respect worth dis­tinguishing from other kinds of respect that have been discussed by philosophers and social theorists.[4] In particular, openness respect must be distinguished from a kind of respect that philosopher Ste­phen Darwell (1977) has called appraisal respect (and others call evalua­tive respect). Appraisal respect is the respect to be accorded to persons, deeds, ways of life and other things that are regarded as praiseworthy or excellent in some way and hence are deserving of such favorable attitudes as esteem or admiration.

Openness respect does not require such favorable attitudes toward other points of view and ways of life. But neither does it rule them out. Its point is rather to keep an “open mind” about the ultimate worthiness or unworthiness for appraisal or evaluative respect of other points of views and ways of life—allowing persons to show this through the living of their ways of life. (How one might go about determining which ways of life are worthy of apprai­sal or evaluative respect, and in what senses they are so worthy, is an issue to which we’ll be returning later in this section and also in later sections on Values.[5])

Openness respect of this kind may rather be viewed as a kind of respect which Darwell and other philoso­phers call recognition res­pect and which they distinguish from appraisal res­pect. But openness respect is recognition res­pect of a special kind. As generally defined, recognition respect is a disposi­tion to give appropri­ate weight or consideration in one’s prac­tical deliberations to certain facts about others and to regulate one’s behavior accordingly. By taking an attitude of open­ness respect to others, the retreatants are disposed to give weight or consideration in their prac­ti­­cal delibe­rations to the ways of life of others, and to regulate their behavior accor­dingly by allowing those others “to live and pursue happiness as they choose,” up to the point where they would break the moral sphere.

To act this way, is to give a certain “recognition” or “consideration” to the ways of life of others. But the recognition given is provisional. It’s goal is to find out by their behavior will whether others are ultimately worthy of the recognition or consideration initially accorded to them. So, while openness respect is a kind of recognition respect, it is a special kind, and hence deserves a special name.

What is worth emphasizing, however, is that it is a kind of respect, despite its differences from other familiar notions. To keep an “open mind” about the ultimate rightness or praise­worthiness of other points of view and ways of life—even provisionally—is to respect those views and ways in a manner that many of those who left the retreat were not willing to do. And being willing to do this, in order to find out what is worthy of being recognized as good from all points of view and what is not, has a wide variety of important ethical consequen­ces, as we see in the next two parts.

[1] Carl Parker, a long-time state senator from Houston, said this.

[2] As a consequence, I argue in Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom, Oxford, 2010, chapter 17) that the ethical theory presented is not a contractarian or contractualist theory of any kinds familiar to modern ethical theory.

[3] Analogously, the test of the sincerity of those who participate in the search for a theory of the physical world that will have universal application is whether those who participate in the search, whether they be flat-earthers or quantum physicists, are willing to allow all theories, including their own, to be put to an experimental test.

[4] This literature on respect is vast. Thoughtful overviews and guides to it, include Hudson 1980, Buss 1999, Dillon 2007.

[5] Notably, in Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom, Oxford, 2010, chapters 5-8, 11, 13 and 14.

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