Secularism: Its Content and Context:

A different notion of fraternity

posted by Akeel Bilgrami

In his interesting and engaging essay, Uday Mehta addresses, with some genuine feeling of qualm, a large, concluding theme in my paper: the specific and non-standard form of humanism that I had proposed and the notion of fraternity on which it is based. But he gets wrong what I mean by both terms, “humanism” and “fraternity,” so I am glad to have this chance to repeat and amplify some points that I feel are important to make clear.

In my closing section, after having made a certain appeal to an historically constituted Hegelian subject, I had suggested that, for my purposes, such an appeal was insufficient. What is also needed is an ethical stance from which one sees history as necessarily allowing the possibility that internal reasons may in the future be efficacious in changing the minds of those whom one deeply opposes on some moral or political issue, but to whom one has not yet been able to provide any such internal reasons. What makes the adoption of this nested modality (“it is necessary that it is possible that…”) an ethical stance?

The answer, according to me, was that the stance reflected some aspects of an ethics of humanism, in particular its attitude of fraternity or brotherhood towards all human others. Mehta expresses some doubts about whether fraternity could possibly be what is at stake here, without some further supplement.

To understand the issue, one needs to situate the stance I was recommending in the context of what it was a stance against. I was rejecting a certain form of relativism about reasons. Such a relativism says: if there are, at a given time, two irresolubly opposed points of view, there are not sufficient grounds to think that history will necessarily throw up possibilities for either side to change the mind of the other in the future, by producing internal conflict (as Hegel might say) in the other’s point of view.  It may be that the most that history guarantees is that of another kind of nested modality, merely an iterated possibility—“it is possible that it is possible that such an outcome will emerge.” If that is the best one can expect from the appeal to history, a relativism may loom. We might have to say that each side in the moral or political dispute has the truth or the right on its side because there are no internal reasons that either can expect to provide to the other. It was this view, which I thought should be rejected. But my grounds for rejecting it, as I have pointed out in previous responses to comments, were not predictive, not based on some metaphysical understanding of history’s possibilities. It was an ethical stance regarding how to see history’s relevance for reason and for subjectivity.

In a somewhat ostentatious bit of rhetoric to make things vivid, I had expressed the point about humanism and fraternity that attaches to the position I was taking (against those who think we should capitulate in this way to relativism), as follows. When two parties are in a vexed moral or political dispute, there is something more ethically attractive about someone who says, “You must (where this “must” is not backed by sanctions or force or violence or any such thing, but rather is an expression of a deep desire to persuade the other via the providing of internal reasons) be my brother” than someone who says “You can never be my brother.” The relativist is happy to rest with the latter (“You can never be my brother”). I had thought one should insist on the former, that it was ethically the better stance.

As should be obvious, given the sort of philosophical issue that I’ve just expounded in which this rhetorical contrast was made, humanism and brotherhood (or fraternity) were intended very explicitly by me to mean something restricted. It meant that, in a dispute, each party wished to include (via persuasion on the basis of internal reasons) the other and indeed all human beings, in the truth. Like any humanism and ideal of brotherhood it was inclusive of all human beings but not in any other sense than that special and limited sense of inclusiveness that I’ve just italicized. (There are two points that should also be obvious and I will put them down in this parenthesis as asides. One, of course, the truth would be truth by their own lights, there being, for them, as for anyone, no other lights but their own. Two, the sort of truth involved would be something in the political or moral realm since those were the relevant examples for my concerns. So the “truth” I was concerned with was not something remotely theoretical or scientific but was interchangeable with “rightness” and I discussed examples such as the truth or rightness of free speech versus the truth or rightness of censorship, in the face of, say, a “blasphemous” novel.)  The idea is that it is a humanism, a form of fraternity with other human beings, because one cares for them enough to want to include them in something that is important in one’s life: the moral and political truth (of course, as one sees it, but that should go without saying). However, because one wants to include them in something like the truth, I went on to say this:

To many humanists, such talk of brotherhood—flowing as it does from an ideal of caring for something so abstract as truth, and wanting to share that abstract thing with others—will seem too intellectualized a way of talking compared…to the down-to-earth ways in which we talk of the humanist values of brotherhood…

Mehta thinks something like this too of my view, calling its sources of fraternity “thin” compared to the sources of ordinary notions of fraternity that have been with us for a long time. What I was doing in this passage was frankly admitting that this humanism, unlike other more familiar forms of humanism that we also value, is not the inclusiveness of felt solidarities with other human beings which come from, say, compassionate regard for them and supportive relations with them. It comes rather from wanting them to partake in something that one cares for (the moral or political truth). Someone might ask, and given what he says, it might be a question that is nagging Mehta too: Your view may involve a caring for the truth, but why is it any kind of caring for them to want to include them in the truth? The answer to this can be conveyed in many ways. Here is one. One can imagine a father saying to his daughter, who has just told him that she believes something that her friend in school has convinced her of—say, that being cutting and superior towards others will make her attractive to and respected by her circle of friends: “I don’t care what your friend believes, but I do care for you and so I care that you believe what is right, and it is right to be kind to people.” That thought, “I care for you so I want you to believe what is right,” when writ large, i.e., when applied to all of humanity (including those with whom one is deeply disagreed on important matters) rather than just to one’s own child, is the humanism that I am targeting. (The point is not phenomenological. It would be far-fetched to think that the feelings one has for one’s child must carry over to the writ-large ideal of including all of humanity, but we knew that already in the passage we frequently make from such feelings as we have for one’s siblings to talk of the “brotherhood of man.”) So, wanting to include others in the truth does reflect a form of regard and caring for them, in this sense I have just mentioned, but what I was admitting in the passage was that—because the caring comes from such an abstract or “thin” source (wanting them to partake in the truth)—it is very unlike having feelings of compassion for them or actions and relations of support shown towards them.

Mehta asks:

The question I want to raise is whether…his version of humanism can deliver the fraternal caring that he thinks it can without some additional warrant and supplementation.

I must ask in response: if I am to deliver this fraternal caring about which I had made this frank admission explicitly in my essay in the passage just cited, what else, what supplementary thing do I need to do that Mehta is asking of me? I don’t see that I need to do anything other than what I had done in my paper. I had posited a form of humanism that brings one’s caring for other human beings in integrity with one’s caring for something abstract like the truth, by wanting to include other human beings in the truth. So, when asked, how can my humanism deliver caring of this sort, I can only repeat that it is delivered by taking the ethical stance that I think needs to be taken regards how to see the relation between history and subjectivity. I see history as necessarily offering possibilities of opportunity to include in the truth those subjects whom I currently take to be subscribing to something false—unlike the relativist who sees history as not necessarily offering any such possibilities, and who therefore asks me to allow them their own and different truths which, by my lights, are falsehood. Nothing more can be required for its delivery. To take the ethical stance against relativism is to care for others in this way—as possible partners in subscribing to what one takes to be something of great importance, the moral and political truth.

What Mehta misses is that I am multiplying notions (or adding a further notion) of fraternity. I am not holding fast to the familiar (or, if you like, “thickly”-sourced) form of fraternity as the only form there is, and struggling to find a way of supplementing my idea (of caring for others in a way that wants to include them in the truth one cares for) so that I go from this idea to that familiar (or “thickly”-sourced) form of humanism by the further step that the supplement provides. No, I am asserting that my idea, this way of caring for others, is itself a form of humanism, though a distinct form of humanism, not to be conflated with the other more standard form of it that is familiar from a long intellectual history, some parts of which Mehta obviously has at the back of his mind, when he asks whether it is fraternity and caring that I am really tracking.

I think Mehta fails to see this because in some places he writes as if my humanism consists in merely saying that one should care for the truth. That, by itself, can’t possibly be the form of fraternity or humanism I recommend because I myself point out that someone can care for the truth and say, regarding this matter of including others in the truth, “I don’t include you in it and so you can never, in this specific sense, be my brother.” To say this is not necessarily to cease to care for the truth. It can be said with a view to hoard for oneself, the truth that one greatly cares for. That for me is a distinct possibility, a possibility that makes me philosophically anxious, and I take and urge an ethical stance against it. And it is that ethical stance which is a distinct form of humanism, a distinct form of inclusiveness of all human others. To take such a stance is to say “You must be my brother,” it is to care to include all others in the truth. So, as I said above, the humanism consists not just in the caring for the truth but in the bringing together into an integrity the caring for the truth and the caring for others such that one wishes always to include others (whom one cares for) into the truth (which one cares for). There is, therefore, no distance between the ethical stance and the fraternity. I need no supplement.

He says:

Bilgrami is quite clear that in the first instance the caring is for one’s own conception of truth.

I am not at all clear about that because I am not at all sure what these “instances” are supposed to be, such that there is a first and (presumably) a second. I certainly do say that one must care for the truth. But I don’t rest there. So there is no discrete “instant” at which I rest and say: caring for the truth is all of this humanism I am committed to. I repeat that I couldn’t possibly be saying that because it is I who point out that one can care for the truth and yet say “You can never partake of the truth and therefore never be my brother.” I present this as being the denial of the humanism I am commending in these contexts. So there are no two “instances,” one of caring for the truth and the other of caring for others, with the former coming first and constituting all of my humanism, and a supplement needed to get to the second. Both carings form an integrity (that is to say, they are integrated) and that integrity is the non-standard humanism or fraternity I am commending, over and above the standard or traditional or “thickly”-sourced one.

There is another flaw in Mehta’s way of formulating things. In the sentence I cited above, he uses the phrase “the caring is for one’s conception of the truth.” The idea I have in mind can’t be captured in that phrase. From within my point of view, when I speak or think of the truth, it is just the truth. It is not the truth from my point of view, or my conception of the truth. Thus, if it is I who am doing the caring, it is the caring for the truth (of course, “as I see it”—but this proviso “as I see it” should not be part of how the truth that I care for, is characterized). That part is what goes without saying and it is important that one not say it. To actually say it, to make it part of the formulation of the object of my caring, is to misdescribe what it is that I care for. I (like everyone else) care only from within a point of view. And what I care for is, from within that point of view, the truth simpliciter, not the truth as I see it or conceive of it.

It is perhaps this sort of mistake that leads Mehta to say that the truth can be held by someone in a narcissistic and dogmatic way and when it is, wanting others to be included in it, wanting to share it with others, does not reflect any caring for them. I don’t see that this talk of dogmatism and narcissism has any relevance to what I had to say. First of all, I say often in my paper that the truth that I want to share must be something that is a deep and important part of how I conceive of myself—as someone for whom these things are deep and important. It is not lightly held, not an indulgence or fancy, it is what I consider worthy and care for. I suppose that things that go deep in one’s belief and in what one considers worthy can, by some observer’s rational standards or quasi-psychoanalytic lights, be seen as bits of “dogma” or as “narcissistically” held. But from the point of you of someone who has them as deep and heartfelt commitments (something I had insisted on from the outset), they are not any the less his commitments. Take someone who believes deeply in the goodness of his religion’s great prophetic figure. By someone else’s lights (Richard Dawkins’s, say) it may be a very dogmatic belief, or it may be seen by someone (all dressed up in a Kohutian theory of religion) as serving some narcissistic need to project the self-image of his own heroism onto a distant figure of his inherited religious culture. But from within that person’s own point of view it could still be utterly genuine and sincere and deeply held. And if it is not, then it is not what I said it must be in the way I set things up for the humanism and fraternity that I was expounding. So, for one reason or another, all of this talk about the truth being subscribed to in ways that are dogmatic and narcissistic is quite besides the point for what I want to and did say.

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