History

It Usually Begins with Roger Williams

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Roger Williams is one of the all-time greats when it comes to truly liberal (read: libertarian) thought: the articulator of fully secular government; humane and equal treatment of Native Americans; and toleration of all—Jews, Muslims, atheists, even Catholics!—in a time when none of that was in fashion.

Now the apostle of peace is at the center of a very entertaining imbroglio. Frequent Hit & Run commenter and blogger and movie critic extraordinaire Alan Vanneman reviews Martha Nussbaum's recent New Republic review of a new collection of Williams' writings (take a breath to catch up) and comes out swinging:

Like Martha, I'm a big fan of Roger Williams, and her article, which largely consists of quotes from Roger, makes good reading. (It's also a great way to pad your word count.) Martha also has some very good things to say about the categorical imperative, of which I am a very big fan. So where's my beef?

Well, first of all, Martha starts off with the observation that "the struggle to create societies that protect religious liberty and show respect for religious difference is never-ending." I can agree with that, but then she starts pushing. "When we consider the current uproar over Muslim immigration, particularly in Europe, we can see that the allegedly enlightened societies of the West still have a lot of learning to do."

Really? The problem is with the "allegedly enlightened societies of the West"? How about the aggressively unenlightened societies of Islam, societies that are deliberately seeking to emulate, and even exaggerate, the ruthless intolerance of the medieval past? Martha coyly does not say exactly what "we" are doing wrong. She doesn't say whether we should allow Muslim men to have seven wives, whether she's down with stoning adulterous women to death, whether Salman Rushdie should have been handed over to Iran for execution, whether we should ban Dante for speaking ill of the prophet, or whether we should execute living translators of the Comedy. She doesn't say anything other than that it's "our" fault….

I don't like the idea, which Nussbaum is pushing, that anything "religious" or religiously inspired is in fact sacred, because I don't believe in "the sacred." Nussbaum is pushing this idea, of course, because she wants to use it as a stick to beat us Enlightenment types who tend to turn up our noses at, well, medieval fanaticism. I doubt very much if Nussbaum is supportive of the proposed "freedom of conscience" regulations being sponsored by the Bush Administration that would allow employees of pharmacies, hospitals, and other institutions the "right" to refuse to provide contraceptives to those requesting them.

Well worth reading in full.

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  1. Martha also has some very good things to say about the categorical imperative, of which I am a very big fan.

    Double mega yuck!

    Kant can suck my left nut after he sells the Jews in his house out to the Nazis because they asked nicely and said “no cheating!”.

  2. Martha’s account of the founding of Rhode Island, where a shocking amount of religious tolerance was available, and where slavery was outlawed, is excellent, but she soft-pedals the fact a lot of the Rhode Islanders were irreligious rather than tolerant, looking for easy money and good times rather than searching for heaven. While Williams was writing his beautiful, passionate books, they were selling booze to the Indians.

    Damn fucking right we do. As a guy born and raised in the Land of Williams, I can say we are very, very proud of our contempt for stultifying piety, as we light on fire anything that vexes us (boats, authority figures, etc.) and don’t think so hard about how it makes us look.

  3. Ele,

    There were Nazis before 1804? Interesting. Those fuckers were around forever.

  4. I’m sorry, LMNOP, but Providence is a boring as shit city. Yeah, I said it.

  5. No, NutraSweet, those men were nihilists. They were nothing to be afraid of.

  6. I can say we are very, very proud of our contempt for stultifying piety,

    Pretty much the same reason those before us hated Jews, Catholics, Mormons, etc.

  7. Epi-
    Imagine a place where one goes to Providence (and Hartford!) for a good time.

    That place is Groton, CT.

    That said, Providence in the 90’s had some pretty cool places. “Lenny’s Hotel California” or somthing like that was a good place to catch live acts, it was about as big as the 9:30 club in D.C.

  8. That place is Groton, CT

    My friend was a submariner and was stationed there for years, so I have heard all about it. Why wouldn’t you go to New Haven? It’s right down 95 and is a hell of a lot better than Hartford or Providence.

  9. LOVED him in Mork and Mindy and some of his movies. Not so much his stand-up.

  10. There were Nazis before 1804? Interesting. Those fuckers were around forever.

    Indeed! 😉

    No, but seriously, you’ve studied Kantian Deontology I assume (you did say at point that you were a philosophy major/minor, IIRC). The Nazis-at-the-door example is stock of the general *practical* problem with the Categorical Imperative, namely that there are no behaviors that are always in all circumstances ethical and/or appropriate. One can always come up with powerful exceptions, such as lying to Nazis about the Jews you’re hiding even though truth is supposed to be a universally ethical behavior according to Kant.

  11. I’m sorry, LMNOP, but Providence is a boring as shit city. Yeah, I said it.

    No, that’s OK. It’s no Boston, I’ll admit. But, if you know where to look there are interesting things to do/see/eat.

  12. Man, that essay went all over the place with very little coherency, although I do like the idea of public figures dueling with dung-filled socks. I nominate Alan Vanneman and Naomi Wolf for the first round, with the winner to go up against some other pseudo-intellectual to be named later.

  13. Ele,

    The moral imperative was always flawed because when the morals of two parties conflict it gives no guidance to resolve that conflict.

    But the imperative is not as bad of a rule of thumb as you make it out to be. At least it forces you to consider the other party in a relative moral calculation.

    (This is not to mean that I endorse the fanciful common delusion that such a thing as “morals” exist.)

  14. Epi-
    Good question. Not really sure, but probably an instinct to hang out with the urban professional crowd rather the the college and college-hanger-on crowd.

    And then they openned Mohegan Sun almost within sight of the base, and travelling ‘abroad’ got a little less common. (Still would hit New York, Boston, or even Montreal for the long weekends.)

  15. Providence is a boring as shit city.

    Is all of RI really boring? My cousin lives there and I was going to visit her (mostly for the semi-convenient access to Boston). Maybe I should go straight to Boston instead.

  16. Dagny,

    RI is a place to relax. Boston is a place to “do things”. So, it really depends on what you’re looking for.

    Sugarless,

    I am being a little unfair to Kant’s CI mainly because there are still apparently people (such as the authors of the two articles in question) who take it seriously.

    I always thought that Kant’s insight was that treating people as ends in themselves is infinitely preferable to treating everything and everyone instrumentally. Only, that point was made, and better, by virtue ethicists, like Aristotle, Hume, Nietzsche (a controversial placement, I know), and MacIntyre, and for completely different reasons.

  17. Is all of RI really boring?

    Depends where you are and what you’re doing. When I was at the beach in Little Compton it was great, but that’s because it was the beach. If your cousin lives there she will probably have things to do.

  18. Providence is good for one thing and one thing only. Bars that open and close monthly because they serve underage people. Also, i think they have a mall.

  19. Nietzsche (a controversial placement, I know)

    It’s OK to love Freddy. I do. He finally wrested philosophy away from its 2000 year-old role as stealth Christian apologetics. People who dismiss Nietzsche as unimportant only reveal their complete ignorance of his work.

  20. It’s OK to love Freddy. I do. He finally wrested philosophy away from its 2000 year-old role as stealth Christian apologetics. People who dismiss Nietzsche as unimportant only reveal their complete ignorance of his work.

    Rock on. Nietzsche (and Whitehead, oddly enough) informed a lot of my work. I like what Tillich said about Nietzsche (paraphrased) that he was the most important thinker to modern Christianity because the challenges his thought presented must be faced honestly or else we must call into question the validity of the faith.

    The best friends are critics, sometimes.

    It would still be a controversial placement, though, only because many scholars place Nietzsche in the “moral nihilist” category, whereas a minority (including me) would place him in the Aristotelian school, such as it is in the modern world.

  21. “moral nihilist”

    Nihilists believe in nothing. Morals don’t exist. Sounds like a cosy relationship to me.

    People who believe in morals believe in nothing.

    (Yes, I know what they were really getting at. Nietzsche railed against nihilism constantly, of course his detractors accuse him of being one.)

    Did you ever read anything about the South American Nietzsche cult his sister and that asshole Forster set up?

  22. I assumed he was talking about things like the silly-assed law in France banning Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in school.

    Which, it should be noted, is a direct result of that enlightenment, anti-religious strain of thought that Vanneman references.

    Also, the fact the Providence is boring is a great improvement from the 1980s, when it was downright terrifying.

  23. Vee believe in nozing, Lebowski, nozing!

    Lady, you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing my whole life. *swipes leg*

  24. Fred Sed:

    “He who thinks a great deal is not suited to be a party man: he thinks his way through the party and out the other side too soon.”

    He might have fit in this group rather nicely.

  25. BTW Aspartame: You were in jest when you said there are no morals? Else, from whence come the principles you espouse in your posts?

  26. To follow up on joe’s though:
    Enough of this Kant and Nietzsche crap!
    What would the Dude say?
    (And say what you want about the tenants of National Socialism. At least it is an ethos.)

  27. I disapprove of Nietzsche’s negative ads against Kant. Check YouTube if you don’t know what I mean.

  28. Kant feel Pietzsche, my Balzac is Ietzsche,

    I adhere to this simple construction:

    Ethics are the rules you live by, morals are the rules you think other people should live by. The only definition of morals that makes a distinction from ethics is one that ascribes their validity to an outside authority. I don’t accept that anyone, supernatural or temporal, has any authority over me that I don’t grant them. Therefore, ethics generates only a “pseudo-morality” through thousands of daily human interactions that should not be mistaken for an external morality with any objective truth. The rational consequence of rejecting the metaphysical existence of an objective reality is to conclude that all ideas generated through an appeal to objective truth are inherently false.

  29. way to get me to wikipedia “categorical imperative”. at first blush i read it as something which would be referenced in a rejection of “moral relativism”, a version of “some things are always right or wrong”. I can see how the caveat “regardless of circumstances” could be problematic.

    I haven’t studied philosophy much at all. Obviously, I am not a bowler.

  30. The rational consequence of rejecting the metaphysical existence of an objective reality is to conclude that all ideas generated through an appeal to objective truth are inherently false.

    Actually it requires even less than that. I believe that Kant’s imperative would *still* fail in an objective universe, because of Hume’s Is/Ought distinction. In such an objective universe, it is possible that normative statements may still be underivable.

    Pietzsche Iietzsche —

    Good ol’ Freddy wrote lots of Libertarian-y things. I don’t think he would have much appreciated the dogmatism that has become associated with it, however. 😉

  31. Wow. I haven’t RTFA’d yet, but Vannemen caught me off guard and blew me away. Great post.

  32. were irreligious rather than tolerant, looking for easy money and good times rather than searching for heaven.

    Sounds like a typical weekend ’round my house.

  33. the line is:

    “obviously you are not a golfer.” Its funny because the guy is holding a bowling ball.

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