Just little old me…

Dennis Prager’s post at NRO today is literally a series of conservative talking points on Islam and terrorism.  All pretty much familiar fare, from identifying a persecution complex in their opponents (the irony!) to blaming the Left for encouraging them to their acts of violence, to just stopping short of calling Islam an ideology of indecency.  But it’s with the last line of thought  that Prager has an interesting line of argument.  He holds that “Any religion or ideology that is above good and evil produces enormous evil”, and then he plays to make a contrast.

Unfortunately, most religious and secular ideologues find preoccupation with human decency boring. The greatest moral idea in history, ethical monotheism, doesn’t excite most people.

First, there are factual things in question.  One is that most of the ideologies run on making the case that they are the last and best hope for decency.  They wouldn’t be convincing otherwise.  Liberalism is posited on the appeal of decency, by the way.  Second, is ethical monotheism really “the greatest moral idea in history”?  Solve the problem of evil before you say that, buddy.  Moreover, I don’t even seen ‘ethical monotheism’ as really a moral idea — it’s more a meta-ethic, that God is the source of moral norms.  That’s more a metaphysical idea.  And aren’t there actual moral ideas that seem to be considerably more powerful than ‘ethical monotheism,’ anyhow?  Deontology?  Eudaimonistic ethics?  Consequentialism? (It’s one thing you can say for Roger Scruton is that he’d never write anything this stupid.  NRO and The American Spectator will miss his intellectual heft for sure.)

Finally, I suspect Prager’s got a very specific monotheism in mind when he says this… but, you know, his favorite ethical monotheism doesn’t have a particularly good track record, either.   Would we want Christianity judged by the decisions made by George W. Bush?

Factual questions aside, Prager’s case is interesting argumentative strategy.  It’s a kind of downplayer, but on his own side. As if to say, “Well, nobody pays attention to little old me… I just try to do my best to be moral and upright and stuff…”  The implicature of the speech act, of course, is to make the contrast — so as to say that popularity is a kind of negative authority of what’s right and true.

I’ve started calling strategies like this ‘persecution strategies,’ those that set up the dialectical board in a way that makes it inappropriate to overtly challenge the view.  It runs:  this view has had a long line of critics and rejections, and most folks think it’s crazy.  But it hasn’t had a fair hearing.  The strategy, then, is to identify most of the going criticisms of the view as mere expressions of the standard knee-jerk rejection of the view.  Now, for sure, some views haven’t had a fair hearing, and it’s worth making the case they should be given it.  But, as we’ve noted with the iron man, not all views need to be fully developed before we can see they are losers. And sometimes, it’s not worth our time and effort to do the work.  Recently, in my survey of informal class, I’ve started calling this tactic the little view that could.

5 thoughts on “Just little old me…”

  1. Finally, I suspect Prager’s got a very specific monotheism in mind when he says this… but, you know, his favorite ethical monotheism doesn’t have a particularly good track record, either. Would we want Christianity judged by the decisions made by George W. Bush?

    The point is a good one, but I find the course of your argument somewhat baffling here. Dennis Prager is Jewish, not Christian; the phrase ‘ethical monotheism’ should have tipped you off, since it’s primarily associated with the Neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen and his work Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism. Prager’s version of it seems to be less developed (and much less rigorously Kantian) than Cohen’s, but like Cohen’s it would also involve rejecting the equation of ethical monotheism with monotheistic religion that you are assuming here (poking around a bit finds this by Prager, which clarifies a few things about his particular version).

  2. I’m puzzled by your comment, Brandon. Prager’s version, in the citatation you provide, seems susceptible to Scott’s criticism (especially with regard to the “specific monotheism”).

    But indeed you’re right to call Prager’s view, “less developed” than Cohen’s. It might have been more accurate to say, “not really thought out at all.” From what I can gather from reading his explanation, “ethical monotheism” is naive divine command theory.

  3. Hey Brandon, Thanks for the correction and pointer. Arguments are less baffling when it’s clear they have a false premise.
    Now, to the issue about Cohen-style ethical monotheism. As far as I can see, the line from any good neoKantian should be to put the emphasis on the *ethical* and less on the *monotheism*. Without that, it’s the same dopey divine command theory I suspected it was. I’ll look more carefully into Cohen’s version (a real thanks, again, for the pointer there), but unless there is more evidence of Prager’s neoKantian commitments, it’s hard to see the term ‘less developed’ being little more than a euphemism for ‘fatally flawed’.

  4. John, Scott,

    I don’t know how Neo-Kantian Prager is (I don’t really know much about him at all), but Neo-Kantianism was a very major portion of early twentieth century Jewish philosophy, and has remained one of the major influences on liberal Judaism, extending well beyond those who are Neo-Kantians themselves. And there are threads that still exist that don’t go directly through the Neo-Kantians in a strict sense, although they are broadly Kantian and are included under the label of ethical monotheism: the Ethical Culture or Ethical Humanism of Felix Adler, for instance.

    The idea of ethical monotheism is thoroughly opposed to divine command theory; divine command theory is a positivist theory of obligation based on the idea that obligation presupposes imposed sanction, and it combines that with the idea that the only possible acceptable source of sanction in a moral course would be something with unlimited scope for imposing it, i.e., God. God is thus the explanation for morality.

    But ethical monotheism is entirely inconsistent with this, having its roots in Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone: God is not the explanation for morality; rather, God is postulated as what makes it so that morality is practically feasible in some way as part of general human life: either by unifying virtue and happiness, as in Kant, or by guaranteeing that nature is not ineliminably opposed to moral obligation, as in Cohen, or something else. God makes moral law feasible for us. It’s not a theory of obligation, and it presupposes the idea that any such theory couldn’t be positivistic. It’s the standard broadly Kantian idea, even in its transformed versions: God is not the explanation for moral obligations but the latter require the former in the indirect way that the idea of God is what makes it possible for the widest possible group of people to live lives of progress in light of moral law without demanding of them anything superhuman.

    Thus you do on rare occasions even find ethical monotheists who are atheists — God doesn’t actually exist, in their view, but God is a unitary ideal that allows ordinary people to structure their lives in ways that will most fit their moral obligations, and religion provides the way for them to use it in this way by putting it in human form, i.e., in the form of stories and rituals. This atheistic version is, again, rare, but it’s neither unheard of (I’ve met a few myself) nor inconsistent: all it requires is belief that at least most people, for whatever reason, need the idea of something very like God to live according to their moral obligations, whether God exists or not. The only way one could be an atheist believer in divine command theory, however, is to hold that there are no moral obligations. Also, in general, divine command theorists have to commit to a particular history of divine commands and thus the superiority of a particular religious tradition: but those who accept the idea of ethical monotheism don’t, and usually are religious pluralists: all religious ways of life with an ethical component have something of it, and the more purely ethical the religious way of life is, the more it has it. Very different positions.

  5. Hey Brandon,

    Thanks for that clarification. I think this supports what Scott is saying: Prager has a specific form of “ethical monotheism” in mind, one that doesn’t really accord at all with your description.

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