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Europe's Christian roots?

I read Without Roots alongside Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism because they seemed to exemplify two common responses to the problem of cultural intolerance and violence. Appiah's book describes the familiar liberal response: we can avoid violence by recognizing that most differences between people aren't as serious as they seem, and by treating the differences that remain as irrelevant to the practical problem of living together. The book by Pera and Ratzinger promised to argue for some version of the cultural conservative's response: stable toleration requires that we all recognize some fundamental "moral essence" of humanity; the Christian tradition of Europe recognizes this moral essence; therefore the foundations of a stable, nonviolent society must somehow embrace our Judeo-Christian roots.

I'm not very sympathetic to the accretions of right-wing opinion that cling to the religious traditionalists like barnacles, but on one point at least, they're more effective than the liberals. The conservatives say that there are moral values that we must recognize as universal and superior to all others. Otherwise, our efforts at peaceful toleration will allow hideous evil to flourish. Toleration based on relativism rather than on absolute moral standards cannot recognize the evil of regimes like Mao's or Stalin's.

Liberals, of course, recognize that murder can't be tolerated, much less genocide. The problem is that liberal arguments aren't usually very good at explaining why. A morally crippled person, reading Kwame Anthony Appiah's arguments, might easily fail to see why a society or regime like Stalin's ought to be one of the "losers" when it conflicts with a regime or society that prohibits torturing political opponents in gulags. Appiah certainly doesn't give compelling reasons; he simply says that there will be winners and losers when irreconcilable values conflict, and that the losers won't be happy about it. The closest Appiah comes to actually giving a reason is when he says that some values (like not hurting others) are actually shared almost universally; the defenders of Hitler are not very numerous. But even if this is empirically true, Appiah can't give a reason why it's a good thing that this is true.

The problem that most liberals face, no matter how morally upstanding they may be, is that reasoned arguments are the most subtle and difficult means of distinguishing good from evil. I don't know whether there's a philosophical consensus about whether it's even possible to reason about the concepts of good and evil without resorting to non-rational discourse, such as the language of faith. But one thing's for sure: it's much, much easier to talk about good and evil in the language of faith and religion than it is to talk about these things using rational arguments. That's why most people who aren't moral philosophers in fact look to things other than reason when they make judgments about morality. Something's evil because the Bible or the Koran or their priest or their mother says it is, or beause it just is, period. No reasoned arguments necessary (or possible?).

This is why the conservatives are more effective than most liberals, at least on this question. Joseph Ratzinger can explicitly appeal to faith in order to say "this, my friends, is evil." Appiah perhaps ought to do this too, but his attachment to reason and fear of un-reason lead him to make hand-wavy gestures at the point when he wants to argue that some things just shouldn't be tolerated.

Ok, so on that much I think Without Roots is a better book than Appiah's, because it's more straightforward and honest. But what about the rest?

Pera and Ratzinger: Saving the world by invading Iraq and outlawing gay marriage

Joseph Ratzinger is, of course, the Pope, but he wrote these materials when he was merely one of the most influential thinkers high up in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Pera is an Italian politician, and one of the most interesting things about this book is to see how Ratzinger keeps his distance from politics, preferring to discuss ideas and issues in the abstract or in historical terms, while Pera is more willing to apply these ideas to practical policies. This dynamic is fascinating. Ratzinger alone is very measured, interesting, and even compelling. One can't help but admire his historical knowledge, and his tone is scholarly and pleasant. It's easy to simply think along with Ratzinger, but when you read Pera's contributions, you can no longer be a curious spectator. With Pera, you have to declare yourself as an ally or an enemy. And since Ratzinger nowhere says that he disagrees with Pera and often claims to agree with him, you realize that if ideas have consequences you'd better be either for Ratzinger or against him.

Here's what Ratzinger says: the history of Europe is a long, slow process of moving religion out of the public sphere -- Ratzinger wants to bring it back. The initial moves of this long process were good ones. In the Western Roman Empire, temporal power was divided from spiritual power, with the former resting with kings and the latter resting with the Pope. This was good because human pride makes absolute power too dangerous. It's not clear where along the road to the modern secular state Ratzinger thinks Europe ran off the tracks, but he certainly thinks it has done so by now. Today, Ratzinger says, Europe's "broad Christian consensus" is threatened. The modern European state has succumbed to a "hollow" belief in technology and progress as a secular substitute for spiritual values. Totalitarianism and dictatorship remain a real threat because the relativism that permitted the regimes of Stalin and Hitler is stronger than ever.

The proper response to this sorry trajectory is to ensure that any future European Constitution protects fundamental human rights as "values that take precedence over the jurisdiction of any state." Modern abominations such as cloning, "trafficking in organs for transplants," and gay marriage would be stopped in their tracks.

I'm sympathetic to Ratzinger's worries about an unbounded faith in technological progress. And he's surely right that without some absolute moral values that limit the permissible uses of new technologies, we will again have to confront massive horrors of the sort that we saw in the 20th century. I'm thinking here about, you know, mass genocide and nuclear annihilation. That's why it's so lame to end, as too many conservative screeds against secularism do, by trotting out organ transplants and gay marriage as the sort of horrors that should motivate us to change essential aspects of modern state power. Unless you're a believer in a very particular interpretation of a very particular bit of religious scripture, the threat of gay marriage is not going to chill you to the core.

It only gets worse when you read Marcello Pera's pieces. As a practicing Italian politician sympathetic to Ratzinger's views, Pera allows himself greater license to talk about specific political controversies. The war in Iraq is the best example. Pera praises the Bush Doctrine generally as a shining example of what a leader with moral convictions can do, and he praises the invasion of Iraq specifically as something Bush and the U.S., but not the hollow and hopelessly secular European states, had the courage to do. If it's true that Ratzinger's brand of moral absolutism would be reliably translated by politicians like Pera into policies like George W. Bush's, then I know where I stand. I'm against it, full stop.

Kwame Anthony Appiah's liberalism leads him to belittle people's cultural and religious convictions, but Pera and Ratzinger's religious convictions lead them to all but explictly reject toleration. We can believe in whatever we want, so long as we submit to the authority of leaders espousing the Christian (and specifically Catholic) religion. What else can Ratzinger mean when he chooses such a particular "evil" as gay marriage to condemn? It would be fine if, like Appiah but without Appiah's hemming and hawing, Ratzinger had espoused absolute moral values that could at least pretend to be universal.

Reading both of these books, I get the sense that any solution to the toleration problem is a fine balance between Appiah's toleration and Ratzinger and Pera's convictions. But I'm not optimistic that any one author or theorist will get it right. If we manage to achieve it in practice, it's going to be because both sides check each other's excesses.

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