Posts Tagged ‘John Locke’

January 27th, 2017

Civility, toleration, and “human rights as empathy”

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Mere CivilityAs part of her argument in favor of mere civility, Bejan decisively rejects contemporary “civilitarian” claims that mutual respect and affection for one’s opponents are the minimum necessary for civil discourse. Her critique rests on her reading of John Locke. Although political scientists usually describe Lockean toleration as ethically minimal, Bejan contends that Locke actually imposed significant ethical demands on members of a tolerant society.

Locke’s demanding theory of civil charity may not provide the most practical solution to our current crisis of civility. However, Bejan’s reading of Lockean toleration as civil charity does have important implications for the histories of human rights and humanitarianism. Historians have recently begun to examine historical moments in which humanitarian concern for the victims of bodily depredation fused with rights talk, creating a type of liberal human rights politics that Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann calls “human rights as empathy.” The early eighteenth century was one such moment. Between 1690 and 1750, Britain began to engage in humanitarian diplomacy to prevent Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in other European states from being punished for their religious beliefs. In what follows, I will suggest that Bejan’s reading of Locke helps to explain why and how this politics—which fused natural law arguments with appeals to humanitarian sentiment—developed in early eighteenth-century Britain.

October 28th, 2014

Minding the other modernities

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Let me start with a confession. I am not particularly keen on stories of modernity in which “modernity” figures as a character and in which the plot—surprise—entails a “fall” or “break.” Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern is a long telling of this tale, containing some wonderfully astute scenes and bringing on stage two of my favorite thinkers, John Locke and Theodor Adorno (the first appearing as a culprit and the second as an ally). I am not unmoved by Pfau’s convictions and arguments that what appears to be human advancement is actually decline (325). Nonetheless, I find myself appreciating the worldliness and ostentatiousness of Adorno’s miniaturized version of this story: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” Pfau frames his argument as an exploration of and possible solution to the crisis in the humanities. For him, that crisis is not the devaluation of humanistic study in a context of the corporatization of higher education and intense competition for scarce and unstable employment. Rather, it is his sense that we are suffering through a case of amnesia.

May 28th, 2009

Obama as public theologian: Old wine in new wineskins

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Although comparisons between Obama and Lincoln are surely overstated—our current president has not yet shown either the rhetorical or intellectual brilliance of Lincoln—they both stand in a long and distinguished tradition of public theology.  President Obama seems acutely aware of this tradition in his own Inaugural Address.  Like Lincoln he uses theological discourse to gesture toward our common hopes and aspirations, and he invokes the divine not as the one who charts our “manifest destiny,” but as the one “who calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”  Obama’s public theology combines a sense of cautious realism with measured hope, as he calls the nation to greater maturity (“the time has come to set aside childish things”) and to a renewal of “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”  Biblical cadences and theological arguments are used not to advance American exceptionalism but to sketch an America in which “the old hatreds shall someday pass…and our common humanity shall reveal itself.”

April 28th, 2008

Islam and authority

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In his new book, Abdullahi an-Na`im argues that Muslims need a secular state to live their religious lives. Alongside his immensely informative account of modern developments, he makes a sustained argument against state enforcement of Islam along two major lines. First, it makes no religious sense for a state to force Muslims to follow God’s will, because Muslims should act from conviction and choice. An-Na`im makes a second argument that is parallel to the first: not only is it futile and religiously counter-productive to enforce Islamic piety, but doing so also distorts and impoverishes religion.