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One aspect of Muslim culture that runs against the grain of Americans is the

One aspect of Muslim culture that runs against the grain of Americans is the lack of the acceptance of separation of church and state. Some (many?) Muslim sects, like the Taliban wish to institute a muslimocracy in which the religious leaders, i.e. imams and such, are also the state. Under Sharia law, it seems that religious texts determine justice in any kind of human disputes, with little regard to circumstances, and with broad interpretation by those who claim to be learned with respect to Koranic law; oh, and with rather crude sentences like stoning. This kind of society is quite different from one in which there is a civil code that can be invoked without bringing God into the equation explicitly. Certainly, some of the components of Western civil law have roots in parts of the bible, such as the ten commandments. But civil, i.e. governmental and commercial, interests pushed religion from the leading role in Western society and culture to a mostly minor footnote over the last several centuries. ...

Theocracy is indeed one of the most dangerous political phenomena the world faces today--especially Muslim, Christian, and Jewish theocracy. That having been said, what the Koran says or doesn't say isn't terribly important. Believers of all three of the Abrahamic religions commonly ignore or explain away elements of their Scriptures that contradict the norms of civil society. Ambrose Bierce famously defined a Christian as someone who adheres to the teachings of Christ to the extent they are not inconsistent with a life of sin. I think that's true of most believers. Having said that, there are plenty in all three religions who wish to import religious dogma into the business of government, and you are right to resist that. On the other hand, there may be special cases where civil law grants certain exemptions or latitude to deep matters of conscience. For example, US law grants conscientious objectors exemption from military service for reasons of religious conviction. Accommodations are often made in civil institutions of government like prisons for dietary restrictions--pork for Jews and Muslims, for example. Civil government often suspends is operations on religious holidays.

The philosophical problem with setting a religious basis to public policy and law in a pluralistic society is that religion appeals to reasons not available and not acceptable to non-believers. Moreover, in maintaining that they have apprehended absolute truths, religions commonly regard their opponents as absolutely wrong. Even worse, the religious not only regard those who disagree with or defy them as not only absolutely wrong but also as dangerous in the most profound way--threatening to lead believers not only into error but also into eternal damnation. As a result infidels, heretics, and dissenters warrant for believers the most extreme censure and punishment. Of course, it's by no means true that all or even most believers follow out the logic of their religions in this way. And it's important not to conclude that Christians, Muslims, and Jews present widespread threats to society. The hard work of civilization has thankfully made religion largely safe for civil society. Keeping it safe however t does require continued labor.

Should the freedoms of religion and speech be more strictly regulated if this

Should the freedoms of religion and speech be more strictly regulated if this freedom is used for such destructive purposes? If so, who has the power to decide what is acceptable?

Interesting that you single out religion and speech, and not, say, politics and speech or certain types of industry and speech or even treatments of the environment and speech. I believe that there is an assumption in popular culture (perhaps encouraged by Dawkins et al) that religion is more dangerous than, say, secular alternatives. This charge has been effectively challenged by a range of thinkers; I especially recommend Keith Ward's book, Is Religion Dangerous?

In any case, there are various reasons why the state may, even in a liberal, pluralistic democracy, regulate speech, religion, political viewpoints, industries, etc, in light of the wrongful infliction of harm or risk of harm and offense. Probably the best work on this is Joel Feinberg's awesome four volume work on The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law (Oxford University Press). The book is full of real and imagined cases that test current and future laws. Even if you disagree with him, Feinberg (who, sadly, died in 2004) has been a brilliant contributor to the debate that involves your question.

Bertrand Russell famously said "(1) that when the experts are agreed, the

Bertrand Russell famously said "(1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment." If I abide by these rules, what reason is there for me voting in elections, or even having a political opinion at all?

Not just political opinions but most opinions probably .... But anyway: who determines who the experts are, within any given field? and most of the self-proclaimed experts would repudiate (3) above: they feel there IS sufficient grounds for opinion, and that those grounds support their opinion, so acc. to most 'experts' #2 is generally the case ... But then the response is: why is "certainty" a requirement for having an opinion, esp re elections? why not say one should simply reach the opinion that seems most reasonable to one in light of the information available, and vote for the person/proposition which seems right or most reasonable, whether or not it's 'certain'?

If the Nazi government can be called evil for committing the Holocaust then

If the Nazi government can be called evil for committing the Holocaust then shouldn't the American government during the time of slavery be regarded as evil also?

The notion of evil is somewhat problematic in this context, since it is a very loaded term. Indeed, Hannah Arendt's influential Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, argued that Adolf Eichmann's actions aren't straightforwardly seen as evil (hence the subtitle of her book). One might extend Arendt's doubts to other members of the Nazi government as well, and, even, to members of the American governments that presided over and perpetuated.

I would, therefore, wish to reformulate the question as whether the Nazi and American governments are morally blameworthy for their actions, and to this question I would respond, unhesitatingly, that both are certainly morally blameworthy, and probably reprehensible, as well.

In political debate, I often feel that participants on both sides are

In political debate, I often feel that participants on both sides are "unprincipled" or "unscrupulous" - they deliberately downplay inconvenient facts and exaggerate other facts in order to promote their positions. I understand that politicians represent the interests of their constituents much as lawyers advocate for their clients. But are there any philosophical writings that at least encourage citizens to elevate their own level of political discourse so that it more resembles a search for truth as opposed to a clash of opposing interests?

There are several classical attempts to do just that. The two most influential, perhaps, are those Plato makes in his Republic and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's in Of the Social Contract. I have tried a somewhat different tack in regard to international politics in T. Pogge World Poverty and Human Rights (Polity 2008), ch. 5: "The Bounds of Nationalism," esp. pp. 126-30.

I am from a developing country, a poor country, a very populated country. We

I am from a developing country, a poor country, a very populated country. We live a hard life here. People often say westerners have a life while we only do the living, or according to one of my friends, we only do the breathing. I still remember a line from a popular song here: are we changing the world or changed by the world? And my friend gave me the answer: being an American means one is changing the world while being a non-American means one is changed by the world. So what is the meaning of life for a man living in a developing country anyway?

In terms of income, the panelists on this site by and large belong to humanity's top ventile (5%) -- where the average income is 9 times the global average. This is roughly 300 times more than what is available to people in the bottom quarter, where average income is about 1/32 of the global average. (The difference is still about 100:1 if one adjusts for purchasing power parities.) Moreover, people in the bottom quarter typically work longer hours in more exhausting jobs, and have about 20 to 30 fewer years of life. So, yes, those among whom you live do not enjoy anything like our opportunities to live a full human life, anything like our freedom to learn, think, enjoy, and be creative.

These huge discrepancies are profoundly unjust, and it would be good if many people in the more affluent countries used their much greater powers to change the world toward overcoming such injustice. Unfortunately, this is not happening, though some are trying. Those who have most power to contribute to change also have the least vivid sense of how urgently such change is needed.

So I think your friend is wrong, and wrong on both counts. Being affluent does not mean changing the world -- most affluent people make no effort to promote justice or any other greatly needed or otherwise important changes. And being poor does not mean not changing the world. Think of the Manchester dock workers who helped end slavery. Think of the millions who marched with Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Think of those who denied the US victory in Vietnam. Think of the garment workers in Bangladesh who just won an 80% raise in the minimum wage (from $25 to $45 per month), thereby lifting the spirits and in due time the wages of millions of grievously exploited workers in other poor countries. Ideally, of course, rich and poor should change the world together, toward reducing poverty and injustice, and toward preserving the health and beauty of our planet and its many species. Realistically, I would expect at least as much of a contribution to needed changes form the world's poor as from the world's affluent who, despite their much greater freedoms and capacities, typically find the status quo morally quite tolerable. I won't pass judgment on those who feel they are too poor to help change the world. But I do think it wrong, both empirically and morally, to count out the poor as important agents in human history.

What is the purpose of Government? If the purpose of Government is to take care

What is the purpose of Government? If the purpose of Government is to take care of its citizens? One would think that being well feed and sheltered is more important than being educated. So why is it that the government can provide free and mandatory education but not give free mandatory food, shelter, and health care to children?

I think part of the answer is that education can be well targeted on the children in need. By contrast, it's hard to provide food and shelter to children in ways that are not exploitable by their caretakers. So the worry is, for example, that, if we institute the mandatory provision of shelter for children, then adults who want a decent apartment will have children in order to be provided with one.

In my view, this problem is often overstated. A decent health-care minimum can be targeted (and in any case adults should enjoy it as well regardless of income), and targeting for food could also be improved (e.g. by providing good food in schools and kindergartens rather than food stamps that can often be traded in for cash or commodities from which children do not benefit). So my answer to your "why" is meant as an explanation, not a justification. The shortfalls in food, shelter and health care that children suffer, in the US and in the world at large, are horrific. They should be much reduced -- and could be, without much adverse effect from perverse incentives.

I was politicized early thanks to growing up in a war zone, and such a childhood

I was politicized early thanks to growing up in a war zone, and such a childhood imposes certain questions on a child's mind. After growing older and nurturing an increasing infatuation with socialism and anarchism, I am now at a new crossroads - totalitarianism. The reason for this is simple: I have no faith in humanity, nor in the so called 'rationality' of Mankind. In my opinion, people are overwhelmingly ignorant of what is best for them. How can they decide what is best for them without proper education? Furthermore, people are overwhelmingly selfish and short-sighted, how can a society function correctly if the majority of people are unfit to decide for themselves, and when they do so, they do so poorly (see George Bush). Another problem is media. Reading Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent" in my teens nourished in me a deep hatred of privately-owned media, and as we all know: propaganda is rife in all societies. Finally, we come to the financial crisis. If I have understood it correctly, economic...

Interesting! The idea of leaders having to undergo training in different professions (and even being a hobo!) is appealing (though whether it is practical is another matter). The case for democracy historically usually does go hand in hand with a case that human beings are indeed reasonable and are capable of rational debate and decision-making. This was the case in the founding of the democratic republic here in the United States, for example. So, if there are compelling reasons for thinking human beings are incapable of responsible, reasonable reflection and voting, a foundational basis for democracy would be problematic. But note that democracy is relatively recent. In 1900 the majority of political life consisted of Empires and not democratic, and while the majority of political states are (at least on paper) democratic today, it is only recently that voting barriers have been removed that restricted voting on the basis of gender or race or property ownership. Also, education (including civic education) is increasing around the globe (between the year 1900 and 1970 the number of universities throughout the world has doubled. So, I suggest: keep giving democracy a chance, and allow education to increasingly flourish and let us strive for fair, accessible sources of knowledge for people to make educated decisions about their society. Without reliable sources of information, democracy is (as you suggest) deeply impaired.

Some of your comments are a little puzzling, however. You seem to entertain (positively) some kind of totalitarianism but then complain that the USA is "largely totalitarian." I suggest that the legacy of totalitarianism (a term which I believe Mussolini introduced to refer to his Italian fasist regime) in the 20th century is sufficiently horrifying (think Hitler, Lenin and Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Castro, etc, etc) to insure that a constitutional democracy is the best (or least worst) political order.

I am an atheist fully in favour of a secular society. However I have recently

I am an atheist fully in favour of a secular society. However I have recently been alarmed by the burka ban recently put in place by the French government. This to me seems at best to be a draconian, knee jerk reaction to something that effects a very small number of people (apparently 1,900 women in France) and at worst thinly veiled racism. I am in no way in favour of the burka or any form of religious dress, but a carpet ban seems to me to be wrong. Surely it is better to live in a society in which such things are allowed, in the hope that one day the people wearing the burka feel they no longer need to. It is often cited as a reason for the ban that it stops oppression of muslim women, but it seems that taking away the option to wear something is a form of oppression also. As an atheist who wishes for as secular a society as possible, am I justified to be concerned about such a law and people lobbying for a similar ban in Britain?

It should be noted, first, that there is considerable disagreement even in the French Parliament regarding the ban on the wearing of the burqa; it has been suggested that the ban is a political ploy on the part of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. (For more on the internal disagreement regarding the law, see a recent article in The New York Times.) Despite the disagreement in the French Parliament, as noted in the Times article, it is likely that the bill will be passed by the French Senate in September and then become law. Does France thus risk, as Daniel Garrigue, the legislator who cast the sole vote against the law, said, slipping into totalitarianism? I think not; indeed, I think that the law is very much in keeping with France's secularism. The basic rationale for the law, which I think is untouched by the considerations advanced by Nussbaum and differs greatly from those considered by Andy in his response--although, to be sure, issues about security and the public space have been raised in debates about the issue in France and elsewhere--is that the burka itself violates the French conception of the dignity of the human being, which is essential to the French state. "Very simply," Sarkozy said, "we ought to affirm...the dignity of each person, regardless of their gender or the color of their skin or even their religious affiliation. It goes without saying that the wearing of the burqa is completely incompatible with such a conception of freedom." It surely doesn't go without saying. However, it seems to me very much in keeping with the spirit of France's constitution, and thereby reflects French law, with which Nussbaum herself fails to engage. (It is, of course, a further question whether the legislators have interpreted the French Constitution correctly; and yet another question whether this interpretation is morally correct.) As for whether there is reason to be concerned about lobbying for such a ban in Britain, the Times article referred to above cites a recent poll showing that 62% of British voters support such a ban. The question, however, is whether there are legal grounds for such a ban in Britain, and that I do not know.

Is there more to peace than the absence of war?

Is there more to peace than the absence of war?

that's a beautiful (and enormous) question! but is it just a semantic question -- ie how shall we use the word 'peace', should we apply it even to cases where there is merely the absence of war (eg relationship between Egypt/Israel) -- or is it something deeper? Pretty clearly (if not exhaustively) we could begin to identify any number of factors/aspect of 'peaceful' relationships -- starting with non-explicit violence, but then adding things like economic cooperation, cultural exchanges, inter-country travel etc. -- and decide (maybe arbitrarily) to restrict the word "peace" to cases where some of these are present, to some significant degree -- and say things like 'that's not REALLY peace between Egypt/Israel" -- but maybe not much is gained by decisions about how to use the word 'peace', once we begin identifying those factors which constitute genuine relationships between countries ....


Andrew Pessin