Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Religion, a Utilitarian Ethics of Belief, and the Public/Private Distinction

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Towards the end of his life, one of Rorty’s favorite passages to quote from Dewey was, “democracy is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature….”[fn.1] The earliest, clearest expression of what Rorty took this passage to mean is his “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy.” In that paper, Rorty sought to defend Rawlsian liberal philosophy from liberal theorists like Ronald Dworkin and communitarian liberal-critics like Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor by urging that Rawls, like Dewey, is putting democracy before philosophy—democracy does not need philosophical justification (nor a fortiori has philosophical presuppositions), but it can, if people would like one, have philosophical expression. A few years after writing that paper, Rorty wrote the centerpiece of his lifework, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. This book famously erected the public/private distinction that so many liberals have found troubling. Rorty, however, meant no more and no less than what Jefferson meant by the separation between church and state—keep your private life out of the government, and the government will stay out of your private life.

The formulation of “man’s metaphysic,” the philosophical expression of the democratic ethos, that Rorty favored when talking about religion was as a “utilitarian ethics of belief.” The staging point is Jefferson’s incarnation of Mill in his swerve from Locke—the point of life is happiness, and let all be free to pursue it as they choose, just so long as their pursuits don’t infringe on the pursuits of others. Because we all have a right to our own private pursuits, just so long as they do not infringe on each other or public projects, Rorty argues that James formulates a new philosophy of truth and knowledge to suit the new cultural ideal created by the signing of the Declaration of Independence. A utilitarian ethics of belief suggests, first and foremost, that the only claims that should be met are the claims made by actual people. A generalized update of Peirce’s disposal of Descartes’ fake doubt, this assertion doesn’t mean we can’t use hypotheticals or the examples of literary texts in our deliberations, but simply that their occasion must be, in James’ words, “live, momentous, and forced.”

Of course, what is as up for deliberation as any decision we may face is whether a particular choice is genuine, whether it is live, momentous, and/or forced. Abstract philosophizing, such as it is above the fray of life, must be careful not to pronounce too sharply on the denizens below, though it is tempting. James found this temptation in Clifford’s demand that the religiously pious give up the charade of warranted belief in the face of science’s advance. James and Rorty push back: the scientistically pious are as bad as the religious—perhaps everyone should hand in their clerical collars.

In Rorty’s efforts to fend off scientific reductionism and intellectual rationalism, however, he employs a mishandled strategy in several of his papers. The general strategy is this: by deploying the public/private distinction, we may separate out two kinds of demands respectively. Public demands are those we find when making laws, setting tax code, or when a nation struggles in the face of a neoconservative induced economic depression. For these kinds of demands, we need a thin level of discourse with which we can argue out disagreements. We may not always agree that the terms of debate are the best ones, but what is only required is that they are thin enough to not be too disagreeable to anyone. For private demands, on the other hand, disagreeability of terms of expression are grounds for considering the demand to be unforced. Unhappy with your boyfriend’s constant demand for attention? Get a new boyfriend. Don’t like the fact that women can’t be priests? Become a Methodist. Don’t like the Monopoly guy’s stupid face? Play Sorry. One doesn’t always have to set up a new shop somewhere else, one can alter their tradition from the inside (just look at poor Gary Wills), but unlike one’s government, switching private allegiance can be a bit easier.

Rorty’s strategy with religion, then, is to privatize it. On the one hand, we have the thin level of public discourse with which to debate public policy. On the other hand, we have as many modes of private discourse as we have private communities made up of like-minded, happiness pursuers. Something might seem initially wrong with this—when did science become a private path towards happiness?—but it is imperative that the pragmatist approach at this high level of abstraction construe science as such. Science is a private path because it is not political discourse. It is a job, for one thing, and then, on occasion, it is a source of intense private pleasure for some, with no end of scientists who enjoy waxing poetic about the relationship of science to the universe. Most importantly, however, science—though it may inform public discourse—is not itself the mode in which we interact with our fellow democratic citizens on issues of joint societal determination.

“Private projects versus public discourse” is not, however, the way Rorty often construes the distinction, most prominently in “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance.” Rorty there construes “the supposed tension between science and religion as the illusion of opposition between cooperative endeavours and private projects.”[fn.2] This is a mistake, and we can begin to see the road it takes us down by noting the fact that most religions (or, at least, most people involved in a religion) are still by and large traditions of group worship. Those atheists among us might not see the connection between what a scientist does with other scientists and what a pastor does with his parishioners, but we can’t make the mistake a wresting control of the religious believer’s right to self-description (not at this level, at least). A utilitarian ethics of belief is the philosophical formulation of a democratic citizen’s ethos qua citizen. It is a high-falutin’ way of putting the right to privacy. As a citizen, just so long as the other citizens’ projects of self-creation, pleasure, or redemption do not conflict with your ability to pursue your own, there should be no objection. As we put on different hats, however, or start distinguishing between the short-term and long-term effects of various options, legitimate objections might start being raised.

This might be just a slight mistake on Rorty’s part here, a kind of over-assertive preference for the Protestant turn against creed towards a personal relationship with God. And we might take Rorty’s preference for Tillich over Barth as a misguided intervention by an outsider. Rorty certainly has a right to these preferences, and to articulating them in the hopes of persuading others to reject creed, but not as part of the overall package of a utilitarian ethics of belief. Rorty leads himself this way because of his earlier identification of the issue between science and religion as “cooperative v. private,” but this leads to a formulation that is just empirically false on its face for any self-respecting Wittgensteinian. After noting that the heart of classical and contemporary pragmatism is the notion of a “holistic view of intentional content,” that “beliefs have content only by virtue of inferential relations to other beliefs,” a Sellarsian move which effectively substitutes objectivity-as-intersubjectivity for objectivity-as-correspondence, Rorty wonders rhetorically, “what becomes of intersubjectivity once we admit that there is no communal practice of justification – no shared language game – which gives religious statements their content?”[fn.3]

Rorty rightly supplies the answer in our ability to “use the attribution of such beliefs to explain what is going on,”[fn.4] but this is an outsider’s view, the external view of Davidson’s radical interpreter, the field anthropologist dropped in the middle of an alien society, trying to understand their language and culture (which one does holistically and at the same time). Certainly there might be no shared language game for enthusiasts (as Rorty is) of Whitehead’s definition of religion as “what the individual does with his own solitariness,”[fn.5] but traditions of group worship, let alone theological articulation, fly in the face of “no communal practice of justification.” An internal view of the language game used by Southern Baptists or Anglicans, if we are Wittgensteinian and Sellarsian enough, would most certainly include practices of communication and understanding intelligible to its practitioners.

I don’t think this does a whole lot to Rorty’s overall point, however, in regards to pragmatism, religion, and the requirements of democracy. It simply means that when Rorty redescribes “intellectual responsibility” as “simply responsibility to people with whom one has joined a shared endeavour”[fn.6] we take that to include religious communities. Rorty, in his defense of private projects, says that the religious believer legitimately lapses intellectual responsibility with regards to her religious beliefs because all we need do is make “a distinction between what needs justification to other human beings and what does not,”[fn.7] but what we really need are more nuanced, contextual distinctions between different types of communities to whom we owe responsibility, and when and how. Rorty is entirely right to construe intellectual irresponsibility as “the wrongness of pretending to participate in a common project while refusing to play by the rules,”[fn.8] he just needs to be more sensitive to the desire of others to spend their alone-time with others.


[1] From his “Maeterlinck’s Philosophy of Life” in The Middle Works, vol. VI.

[2] Philosophy and Social Hope, 149

[3] Ibid., 159

[4] Ibid.

[5] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, (New York: Macmillan Company, 1926), 16

[6] PSH, 151

[7] Ibid., 154

[8] Ibid., 151


  1. “democracy is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature….”

    It seems to me that you could just as easily substitute religion in that statement.

    What is it that makes something necessarily private, vs. necessarily public. Certainly there are religious topics that don’t enter into the normal everyday religious discourse as some beliefs are certainly (even relative to religion) private. In other words he pastes this Public/Private distinction at a 30,000 foot level, but it seems to go all the way down. In religious circles there can be said to be, “thin levels of discourse with which we can argue out disagreements.” Or in the least we can see that there is a need for one.

    So again, even in religious circles there is, “what we all generally hold to”, and “an individuals personal belief”. Even St. Paul comments that Christians should not argue over disputable matters – perhaps even he recognized the difference between public and private beliefs.

    I’m struggling with the distinction a bit, where it fits, and how to use it.

  2. You could substitute in "religion" for "democracy" in what Dewey said, but it certainly would eliminate his whole point (which in Rorty's formulation is the priority of democracy to other "metaphysics," such as those found in philosophers and theologians).

    In CIS, Rorty deploys the public/private distinction in a basic, liberal theory kind of way, the way Mill did and the way Rawls did when he said that the principle of justice was neutral to conceptions of the good. It isn't so much "public" like when I go out in public at the mall, but political discourse, debates about policy on the Senate floor or in the Oval Office. Certainly there might be some useful analogies between the kind of philosophy of language espoused by Wittgensteinians (what with the whole private-language argument and everything), but when Rorty went to draw one in his James commentary, he overdrew it because, just as you say, in religious circles there can be said to be a thin level of discourse. The distinction Rorty needs at the level he was working at was between "political discourse" and "all other discourses."

    Rorty was working with fuzzier tools, and got caught going in the wrong direction. And once we formulate the distinction that way, it does force us into more difficult reflections about the relation between science and religion since both fall into the same, non-political side of things. And when us secularists want to say science is okay to insert itself into political discourse and religion not, we need a little bit more of a nuanced view then we oftentimes get, something more sophisticated. We need a new rhetorical shorthand for handling these issues.

    The use of public/private you seem to have been using in what you wrote might be like the relevant/irrelevant distinction. For instance, in relation to St. Paul, we might say he was suggesting that some beliefs are irrelevant ("private") to a Christians religious life. This is like a relevant-to-discourse-X and irrelevant-to-discourse-X kind of thing, which indeed can and should be applied everywhere. Relevancy is an important watchword for pragmatism. The overall strategy that pragmatism has always seemed to take with regards to religion is that religious views/experience are, if anything, irrelevant to public policy--democracy first. And hey, Jesus said it first: "Render unto Caesar...." Maybe not democracy first, but he made a distinction between politics and religion.


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