Monday, July 26, 2010

#27: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse

In The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, author Steven D. Smith discusses a practice he dubs "smuggling." He explains the term thusly: "Our modern secular vocabulary purports to render inadmissible notions such as those that animated premodern moral discourse...But if our deepest convictions rely on such notions, and if these convictions lose their sense and substance when divorced from such notions, then perhaps we have little choice except to smuggle such notions in the conversation -- to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise."

Smith then purports to debunk classic modern examples of jurisprudence or governing philosophy as embodying just this sort of intellectual hijacking, or smuggling. Stating that "conversations in the secular cage could not proceed very far without smuggling," Smith then attempts to display how these logical implications play out in real-life applications.

Shining an inquisitive light on some of our more revered (e.g. the harm principle) and controversial (e.g. end-of-life decisions) principles, Smith works to show the ways in which their public expression has been abbreviated by the conspicuous lack of transcendental foundations (be they religiously based or otherwise). Unfortunately, while these embodiments of his theory are convincing at times, Smith is noticeably reticent to provide any neat solutions. In the book's last paragraph, he alludes to their absence, writing, "And so, in the end, it seems that the only general prescription that can be offered is, once again, the seemingly bland recommendation of...openness."

Openness in the lexicon of Smith means to allow those "inadmissible notions" to join their logical conclusions in the realm of public dialogue. However, even as he argues for their inclusion, he appears reluctant to embrace this broader conversation wholeheartedly. "There is a risk that a more open conversation may be acrimonious," Smith acknowledges. "Even so, that sort of conversation is ultimately more respectful of the participants. More respectful and also, potentially, more productive and substantial: that is because we will be talking about what we really believe."

Whether Smith is right remains to be seen. The left and the right appear to be diverging more quickly now than ever before, and this political dichotomy is only one of many fault lines dotting the mottled landscape of public conversation. Openness as a societal antibiotic, or as an unnecessarily opened can of worms? Let the debate begin, Smith would say, but at the very least let us be honest about how we choose our sides.