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5.3: From "Is" to "Ought," from Description to Judgment

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    Readers may have misgivings about the account of qualitative variation in practice of the different ways of being religious here offered. One source of misgiving is that it appears to conflict with conventional ideas about the phenomenological approach to the study of religion. A second is that it appears to conflict with the scholarly obligation to be strictly objective. A third is that it appears suspiciously to derive normative conclusions from factual premises. This section addresses these misgivings and offers justification for the apparent shift in this chapter from description to evaluative judgment.

    Being essentially a descriptive enterprise, the phenomenological approach to the comparative study of religion presumably should avoid drawing normative conclusions. The phenomenology of religion can report the nature of experience, practice, and understanding found in different religious traditions, can state what evaluative judgments are made about these matters by members of these traditions, and can explain the basis on which such evaluative judgments are made. All this is a matter of description. But to make judgments of value, to offer claims to the effect that some variations of practice are virtues and other variations are vices or degenerations, is to go beyond mere description, beyond reportage. It is to agree or disagree with the judgments made by others; it is not merely to report on the judgments of other persons. It is to step beyond the posture of an onlooking spectator. It is, so to speak, to take up residence in the same world as the persons whose religious life is being phenomenologically described. Consequently, an analysis of qualitative variation in practice of ways of being religious that claims to be phenomenologically based seems problematic on its face. Some would charge that this constitutes a transgression of the boundary of responsible phenomenological practice.

    The phenomenology of religion adopts a suspension of judgment (called the epoche) as an essential aspect of its method. It does so not as an end in itself, but as a means to accomplish certain purposes. Specifically, its purpose is to circumvent and counteract judgmental preconceptions so as to enable apprehension and representation of the phenomena being studied on their own terms, instead of force-fitting or reducing them to alien preconceptions. Thus phenomenological neutrality is not meant to be a permanent orientation to take toward religious phenomena, as if it were the only just or responsible posture to take. On the contrary, it is meant to be a temporary strategy to facilitate arriving at an undistorted, genuinely empathetic understanding of the phenomena in question. Once that understanding is reached, the need for the suspension of judgment is past. Indeed, to remain permanently in a posture of suspended judgment is to merit the charge of irresponsibility, of refusing to take a stand on matters that call for a stand to be taken. It is to pretend that one lives outside the common world all of us share, religious and nonreligious. Rightly understood, then, the phenomenology of religion does not reject normative evaluation and judgment as such, but only premature and insufficiently discriminating judgment.11 As stated at the beginning of this chapter, the solution to the problem of stereotypical judgments is not to cease making value judgments but to develop one's capacity for more discriminating judgment.

    A second source of misgiving about entering into value judgments is the widely held view that objectivity, whether in the study of religion or in any other subject, requires one to refrain from being subjective in any way, as is necessary in making value judgments, and to draw only those conclusions that would in principle be drawn by any other similarly objective scholar. Thus considered, value judgments can never be objective; they are only the expression of human subjectivity, which varies from culture to culture and person to person. Consequently, the analysis presented here of qualitative variation of practice in ways of being religious cannot possibly claim to be objective, unless it be construed merely as an objective report of the (subjective) evaluative judgments of insiders of religious traditions and how they happen to arrive at them.

    An adequate response to this misgiving requires challenging the preconception of objectivity on which it rests. As already discussed at the beginning of Chapter 2, it is very important to recognize that there is a second, no less legitimate notion of objectivity. That notion is fundamentally a matter of doing justice to the object itself, which lies at the point where the several perspectives relevant to determining the nature and meaning of the object intersect. Objectivity in this sense is a matter not of drawing away from but rather drawing nearer to the object, specifically in a manner appropriate to what it is thereby determined to be. Insofar as those perspectives involve discriminations of quality and worth, then drawing near to that to which they give access will necessarily involve some assessment of those discriminations and making them oneself. Thus conceived, the pursuit of objectivity in this second sense is inescapably an enterprise of discerning value judgment.

    A third source of misgivings is a long-standing controversy in philosophy, which can be traced back to David Hume and possibly even as far back as Aristotle's account of the practical syllogism, concerning the alleged impossibility of deriving a statement involving a normative claim (e.g., that something ought to be done or valued) from statements involving only factual claims (e.g., that something happens to be the case). The predominant (but by no means universal) philosophical opinion is that it cannot be done and that to presume to do so is to commit a logical fallacy. Applying it to the present case, the conclusion that certain variations of practice should be esteemed as virtues and others disesteemed as vices because this or that religious tradition happens to so esteem and disesteem them, would appear to be an inference of an "ought" from an "is" and thus a commission of the same fallacy.

    In response, I wish to stress that the analysis of qualitative variation in religious practice being offered is not presented as a conclusion derived simply from reports of the value judgments that religious insiders happen to make. It is based on an attempt to empathize sensitively with their struggles to realize excellence and virtue and avoid degeneration and vice in ongoing religious practice. It is the result of an attempt to see for myself (and to help readers see for themselves) what religious insiders see, to see what inspires and awes them, on the one hand, and to see what disappoints, frustrates, and discourages them, on the other. It is an attempt at a "meeting of our minds" over matters of practical importance, at making sense in common despite our differences. If so, then there is no fallacious inference of value statements from strictly factual statements involved.

    A strictly neutral empathetic phenomenology treats the insiders of any given tradition in a separate religious (or cultural) world from every other. In an important sense that is true, but only in a sense. Strictly speaking, the supposition that they live and think in a world apart is a methodological fiction-useful in its place and within certain limits, but misleading if taken literally in an ongoing sense. Religious insiders live and carry on their religious practices in the same commonsense world that other human beings live in. Moreover, to the extent that they appeal to common sense (as they very often do) in sorting out what is qualitatively more or less virtuous in religious practice, it is to a common sense that is in principle shared with persons who are not simply (or necessarily) insiders to their tradition but who are in a position to discriminate among the same sorts of things. Indeed, the very idea that there are generic ways of being religious that cross traditional lines is such a commonsense notion. It presupposes the possibility of mutual recognition by (thoughtful, reflective, knowledgeable) people of different religious traditions of practices, concerns, and values they share in common despite their many differences. It presupposes that commonsense virtues and vices in religious practice are matters that can be discovered and recognized between us. This of course does not mean that everyone will be able or ready to recognize them in just any circumstance, especially if recognition involves a readiness to undergo self-criticism. Nevertheless, in principle, on commonsense grounds, and if they have not closed their minds to it, people in any tradition are able to recognize, and commonly do recognize, for example, how pernicious religious practice can be that combines egoism with imbalance in the direction of infinitude (i.e., losing awareness of one's own finitude, say, by presuming one's own egoistic will to be "the will of God" or its counterpart in the tradition in question).

    If this is so, then, in addition to the norms of practice that are specific to a religious tradition, there are commonsense norms for assessing qualitative variation in religious practice as well-norms recognizable by both insiders and empathetic outsiders. There are likely other such norms as well, sufficient to constitute at least a minimal commonsense morality. On the basis of such a commonsense morality, representatives from different religious traditions (as well as nonreligious cultural traditions) can meet and find much in common, once they sort through the often greatly different ways they have for thinking and speaking about these things. Happily, that is largely what we fmd when people from different traditions come together in open dialogue and honestly seek what they might recognize in common.

    In his recent book, Global Responsibility: In Search ofa New World Ethic, Christian theologian Hans Kung has called for a concerted effort on the part of leaders of the major religions of the world to undertake a joint search for a new ethic of global responsibility. Significantly, his argument addresses, head on, both bystanders, who are skeptical that religions having been the source of so much conflict and ill will could possibly come together, and partisans of religion, who believe they have the answers. Here Kung appeals to the general sort of commonsense considerations I have offered (though not the specific formulations).

    Kung's argument would not have as much persuasive power had it not grown out of a major effort on his own part to enter into dialogue with other religious traditions and participate in international interfaith dialogues that have come to remarkable agreement on such matters as basic human rights. The sort of dialogue he envisions and attempts to practice aims to avoid the defects of both absolutist-exclusivist and relativist-inclusivist positions: "The aim can only be a critical or self-critical differentiation which measures any religion critically by its own origin and by a humane ethic, without claiming it [i.e., without claiming to possess or embody that ethic] for itself. We do not arrive at peace through syncretism but through reform of ourselves; we arrive at renewal through harmony, and at selfcriticism through toleration."12 For this self-critical differentiation in and through interfaith dialogue, Kung postulates three different criteria:13 (1) "According to the general ethical criterion a religion is true and good if and insofar as it is human, does not suppress and destroy humanity, but protects and furthers it." (2) "According to the general religious criterion a religion is true and good if and insofar as it remains true to its own origin or canon, to its authentic 'nature,' its normative scripture or figure, and constantly refers to it." (3) Each religion has its own specific criterion that directly applies to itself, its central criterion of value, and that indirectly, without any arrogance, may also be applied to the other religions, "to the critical illumination of the question whether and to what degree in other religions, too ... there is something of that spirit which we describe as [uniquely Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Confucian, Hindu, or Buddhist)."

    Quite apart from embracing these specific formulations, I consider Kung's book and the ongoing efforts at inter-religious dialogue of which it is a part as independent confirmation of the existence of a religious common sense of the sort I have been presenting (as opposed to the specific formulations I have offered) and of the possibility of mutual recognition between religions of generic virtues and vices in the practice of religion. I do not cite his book and argument as the ideal model for achieving a commonsense religious ethic. Nor do I embrace his position as a whole on inter-religious dialogue. I cite it as a significant, independent effort to achieve religious common sense in regard to ethics.

    Now that the misgivings have been answered, let us take up again the basic thesis of the chapter. On the basis of a kind of religious common sense, each generic way of being religious has a potential for characteristic noble and praiseworthy expressions and a potential for characteristic ignoble and blameworthy expressions. Within actual traditions where a given way is found, we should expect to find these potentials recognized and guidance given with respect to them-as largely in fact we do. Furthermore, such expressions of virtue and vice in the practice of.a given way of being religious should be recognizable as such to persons well acquainted with that way in other traditions, so far as these other persons are able empathetically to grasp what is going on. And this too we find largely to be the case. (Of course, they may in addition also praise or fault the expressions in the respect to which those expressions conform to the distinctive criteria of their own traditions.)

    This page titled 5.3: From "Is" to "Ought," from Description to Judgment is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.