Is There Anything We Can Take for Granted (that All Americans Agree about)? A Challenge
Call it nostalgia if you wish, but I remember a time when there were at least some beliefs one could take for granted—some beliefs that one could express and expect agreement. At least in America. True, some of them were false and badly needed correction. On the other hand, I worry about a cultural condition in which no such consensus exists about anything.
One of my favorite cartoons is the always insightful “Non Sequitur.” A recent one illustrates my point pungently if sardonically. To avoid any infringement on the cartoonist’s or publisher’s copyright I will not repeat it here, but you can find it by going to: http://www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/2017/01/30
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
My question is this: What is a culture, especially a community, in which nothing can be taken for granted except this: Whatever one says, if it goes out to a sufficiently large audience, will find serious disagreement and even contradiction?
Over my approximately six years of blogging, I have experienced the following: There is nothing I can say here that will not be contradicted by someone. A few years ago I explored this phenomenon here and asked if anyone seriously would contradict the proposition that “Two plus two equals four.” Predictably, it was contradicted—by an academic mathematician. (He did not say it is necessarily false but that “it depends”—as I recall.)
Let me be clear and specific. The philosopher David Hume (d. 1776) distinguished helpfully between two kinds of propositions: analytic and synthetic. An analytic proposition is an expression of a definition such as “All circles are round, not square.” A synthetic proposition is any that makes a truth claim beyond matters of definition—about the “world outside the dictionary.” Hume claimed there can be no synthetic propositions that are true a priori; all synthetic propositions are at best true a posteriori. This claim awakened philosopher Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) from his “dogmatic slumbers” and launched his project to discover synthetic propositions that are true a priori.
Here I am not concerned with whether there are synthetic propositions that are true a priori but only with whether there are synthetic propositions one can express in America that one can reasonably expect to find agreed to by all sane adult Americans.
Of course, I am especially interested in this question with regard to ethics—in the broadest sense possible (as opposed to, say, “garnishing” as in the “Non Sequitur” cartoon).
My challenge to you, my faithful and serious readers, is this: Think of a synthetic proposition, preferably having to do with right and wrong, that you think would not draw serious disagreement from any sane, relatively reasonable adult Americans. (By “sane” I mean not suffering from a clinical mental or emotional disability as, for example, listed and described in the DSM-V. By “relatively reasonable” I mean qualified to serve on a jury.) Please keep it to one sentence.
Footnote: If anyone wonders why I am raising this now and suspects it’s only because the “Non Sequitur” cartoon piqued my curiosity and interest, let me explain. It is not only or even especially because of that cartoon even though, I admit, the cartoon did pique my interest. This is a question that has troubled me deeply for a long time. I have lived most of my life now in American academia and much of my adult life in moderate-to-progressive religious communities. The theme of “diversity” was and continues to be an enormous one in those sectors of American life and I now see it being expressed in entertainment, journalism, politics, etc. The theme of “diversity” (e.g., multiculturalism) is good; I agree with it whole heartedly—but only up to a point. I worry that it needs to be balanced by unity. And that unity needs to be more than “We are all Americans” where “being Americans” means “embracing our diversity.” I worry that a culture and a community cannot survive on diversity and tolerance of difference alone. There needs to be an underlying consensual ethical vision that goes beyond tolerance and diversity. Otherwise, eventually, the most powerful voice(s) will win out in the public square debates about ethics (including politics). And by “powerful voice(s)” I mean those that are capable, by whatever means, of enforcing their particular ethical vision on everyone.
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