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Fr. 910

July 8, 2019

In his Gifford Lectures, Stout digs into the relation of ethical religion to the ideas of language and standpoint. He remarks that to adopt a standpoint is to accept its commitments as true but warns that accepting a commitment as true does not make it true. One should ever remain open to that standpoint’s limits, to the possibility that its commitments will not be borne out as true.

The perspective of an ethical religionist might also be considered a standpoint of sorts. Just as each person is caught up to some extent in vice, fallibility, sinfulness, etc., ethical religion has not escaped the snares of love as niceness, liberty as license, etc. The ethical religionist may find herself, in contemporary political society, caught between the dangers of resistance and domination. When facing up to the danger of domination, the ethical religionist must ask who benefits from the fantasy of domination as ubiquitous and shapeshifting, in the knowledge that each wager against domination is defeasible and subject to the conditions of faith and hope, limited time and uncertainty.

The ethical religionist might put us a thought experiment of two sorts of concrete power relations, one in which dominance is meekly accepted because domination is ineliminable, another in which dominance is resisted, albeit imperfectly, because defeasible. In preferring the latter to the former, there is no need to appeal to the moral arc of history, whether to motivate or to explain resistance to domination. That would be to make too much of domination which remains a common relational ill in need of case-by-case diagnosis and remedy. In this way, the ethical religionist shares with the genealogist a desire to map and manifests contingency’s relation to values.

That said, the ethical religionist should diverge from the genealogist on one important matter. The inquiry should not be pursued to the point of incoherence, i.e. that point at which the genealogical view becomes self-undermining insofar as its lacks the means of explaining its own acceptability. Otherwise, it would be so arbitrary as to be incapable of explaining both what it purports to track and why its genealogical account should be preferred to another.

The ethical religionist, on the contrary, seeks a language for describing social ills, and such a language need not be arbitrary. Since the measures for domination are plural (Weberian, objective, ethical), ideals of non-domination may be expressive of rational dissatisfaction (over vitiated relations) or couched in value-free, probabilistic terms. For the ethical religionist, the important point is that that language be the homespun one of everyday evaluative language which enables the formation of coalitions around specific attributions of sacred value and which hinders the formation of a privileged class entitled to decide on behalf of others.


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