A professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College says the three Abrahamic religions “give central importance to justice”.
“In each faith, there is a concern for protecting the vulnerable, for resisting greed, for healing the sick, for opposing injustice in one's family, community, and nation,” Charles Taliaferro tells the Tehran Times.
Following are the text of the interview:
Q: Why some scholars such as Amartya Sen and Rawls focused on justice?
A: Both thinkers came of age during turbulent times in global history: Rawls is the older philosopher, who served in World War II and was deeply moved by the savage destructiveness of war. Sen who was younger than Rawls was born in 1933 in India, when it was still a British colony: he had first-hand experiences of deep divisions in India, famine, the struggle for independence. So, I think that the answer to your question involves, in part, the story of their lives. Both thinkers came to occupy academic positions in the most prestigious universities in the western world, but rather than turning toward a leisured scholarship, both philosophers struggled to come to terms with global inequalities.
Q: What are the main differences between Rawls and Sen on justice?
A: That is a good question. Sen actually credits Rawls as being a key figure who influenced his thinking and he dedicates one of his most important books, The Idea of Justice, to Rawls. In a sense, both thinkers may be considered in the classical liberal tradition of seeking to protect individuals, especially the vulnerable, from powerful regimes. They differed in subtle ways, however. Rawls was more focused on rights and principles that would be agreed to from the point of view of an ideal contract between free and consenting, rational persons. In a sense, Rawls famous work, A Theory of Justice, was a historical in the sense that it invited readers to abstract themselves from their religious identity, their privileges and burdens, and to ask what sort of society they would choose to live in. If you did not know whether you were a male or female, chances are you will elect to live in a society with equal rights for gender, because if it turns out you are female you would not wish to be disadvantaged. One of the problems facing Rawls, however, is that we are in fact historical people, embedded in different traditions and communities with different concepts of the good. It may be doubted we can even achieve the kind of impartiality Rawls calls us to. Sen, on the other hand, is more concrete in addressing matters of justice in terms of the economic and social realities that define us. His key concern is with enhancing human capabilities to choose different, worthy ways of living. One of his big concerns is achieving a model for rational, coordinated action that would fight famine.
Q: Which kind of justice is useful for democratic societies?
A: Between Rawls and Sen, I think Sen's work is the more usable because it is more concrete, as is the work of Martha Nussbaum. I have been referring to Sen as a philosopher, but he is also an economist. There are various branches of a theory of justice: distributive justice (how should goods and burdens be shared or allowed to be disproportionate), retributive justice (when is it permissible for the state to punish), restitutive justice (if a harm has been done to a person or people, what sort of restitution is due?), and so on. I believe that the most practical theory of justice we need is one that is sensitive to the historical identity of the people within a democracy. We need a good historical and sociological understanding of the competing values that are in play, and work (in my view) not to an abstract ideal, but to find a way of getting along (in Latin this is sometimes referred to as a modus vivendi). I rather recommend the work of Michael Oakshott, a British thinker who died in 1990. Oakshott was not prone to abstract idealism, but to working out disagreements between persons and communities, finding common ground, drawing on both extant traditions as well as common sense.
Q: What is the approach of Abrahamic religions toward justice?
A: I believe that the three Abrahamic, religious traditions give central importance to justice. In each faith, there is a concern for protecting the vulnerable, for resisting greed, for healing the sick, for opposing injustice in one's family, community, and nation. This is evident especially in the late Hebrew prophets like Amos, it is evident in the teaching of Jesus and the theme of justice runs throughout the Qur'an. But another theme is also present in each tradition: mercy. I believe that occasions may arise when there can be a conflict between justice and mercy. It may be, for example, that a person has committed a crime that calls for severe punishment. But imagine the person confesses, repents, perhaps provides restitution for his crime (perhaps he returns the money not just that he stole but he gives triple the amount to the person he wronged). From the standpoint of justice alone, the person may deserve a severe punishment all the same --that is, he would have no right to complain in the matter. But a judge, ruler or magistrate who is a person of religious faith, may feel that mercy is called for. After all, we hope that Allah (God) will be merciful to us, and in light of that hope, those of us who share the Abrahamic faiths may rightly think and act in mercy, seeking to bring good into the world, when justice alone may be right but it also may impede such goodness.
Q: What are the roots of Enlightenment in the west?
A: The period of the history of ideas --and culture-- known as the Enlightenment can be dated, very roughly, from the 17th through the 19th century. It was a movement associated with such so-called free thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, and it is also linked with Locke and Hume. Kant's description of 'englightenment' is probably the best way to get at the core of this movement. Kant wrote that "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another.
This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without the guidance from another." As you might readily see in this, there is something of a repudiation of the past and relying on traditional wisdom. The great champions of the Enlightenment tended to think we should not rely on religious revelations for truths about the world, but we should think about life, meaning, and values for ourselves. Kant is famous for proclaiming 'Sapere Aude!' Latin for 'Dare to know' and he added: "Have courage to use your own understanding."
Q: Which views were legitimized and dominated by the Enlightenment in the west?
A: The Enlightenment had what many of us would think of as a positive contribution in terms of dispelling superstition, in terms of contributing to the free-flow of ideas, and founding institutions of education that allowed for dissent about current assumptions, including the assumption that humans could be enslaved. The Enlightenment served to pave the way to thinking universally about human rights, across cultures. It also took place in Europe, however, when European powers were busy building massive empires in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Kant was a splendid philosopher in so many respects, but some of the rhetoric about 'maturity' and 'immaturity' fueled the notion that 'the West is best' and encouraged both a good affirmation of the dignity of humanity in all places but also a kind of arrogance in thinking that what European intellectuals thought of as supremely good, was obviously better than the beliefs of what they saw as inferior cultures.
Q: When did critical criticisms of Enlightenment emerge in the west?
A: The Enlightenment goals have been criticized from all angles. Kant claimed that the heart of the Enlightenment is criticism, but eventually one needs to criticize criticism. Some of the Enlightenment figures were criticized for their failure to take seriously the different ways of coming to know about the world. So, the romantic movement (represented by such figures as Blake and Coleridge) insisted that the concept of 'reason' that was championed in the Enlightenment was too thin, and we need to take more seriously the passions, emotions, and religious experience. The rejection of tradition by Kant and others met with resistance by those who noted that the Enlightenment itself had its own tradition, stretching back to Ancient Greek philosophy. I think this is telling: a wholesale ignorance of the past is dangerous and thinking that you can 'dare to know' reality without the help of others is almost absurd. More recent critics of the Enlightenment agenda have argued that its pursuit of an objective, detached view of history is deeply questionable. Some critics thought that the only honest way to study history is to think in terms of particular historical currents and contexts. Some of those who oppose the ideals of the Enlightenment are called 'Communitarians' who believe that values, life, and meaning, needs to be investigated from the standpoint of particular communities, their traditions and beliefs.
Q: Is Enlightenment still alive in the West?
A: Well, it is alive in some respects: in the west there is still an enormous stress on impartiality, of the drive to achieve a non-biased understanding of human history and today's conditions, and a desire to see the dignity of every human being respected. But this is also the ideal of many religions that base this stress not on purely secular grounds, but for religious reasons. Some of us believe that among all the reasons to respect the dignity of every human being is both because of the innate value of each human person (something Kant would affirm) but also because we believe that we have a good Creator who made us to live in fellowship with each other and the divine.
Q: There are efforts in Iran to create a kind of reconciliation between religion and modernity. Is there such a move in the west as well?
A: That is the toughest question you have ever asked me! Iranian history and philosophy is so rich in detail and plurality. Some Persian - Iranian philosophers pre-date Kant in claiming to be able to prove or at least reasonably argue for deep truths without relying on revelation, the Qu'ran. But I suggest that Iranian or Persian philosophy is deeply embedded in the notion that true Enlightenment comes about through divine revelation or illumination. In a sense, Persian or Iranian thought has only occasionally secularized reason, but seen reason itself as a gift of Allah and reflecting Allah's supreme outpouring of goodness in creation. I believe that what may be called Enlightenment in the Iranian history of ideas reflects some of the best of the so called Enlightenment in the west, but without sacrificing the vital importance of tradition. I think Iranian philosophy would equally endorse the notion that we should 'dare to know' but (wisely) they would not rely only on themselves, but of the many wise thinkers, prophets, and sages, who came before us.
Charles Taliaferro, professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, is the author of Consciousness and the Mind of God Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, Evidence and Faith; Philosophy and Religion Since the Seventeenth Century, Dialogues About God, Philosophy of Religion, and The Golden Cord; A Short Book on Eternity. He has given lectures at Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia, the University of Chicago, Princeton, New York University, and elsewhere.
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