Posted by Sen on April 4, 2010
This is in response to ‘Pluralist Society is an Unethical Rabble’ on another Bahai blog on WordPress, Owen’s Meanderings. Owen says he is
“increasingly reminded of that famous biblical story about Sodom and Gommorroh,” … the men and women who sit in government seats must take their share of the blame for the inequities within a nation. However increasingly I have realized that the person living in my street is likely to be twice a corrupt as a politician. … There seems to be very few people who have self-regulating ethical decision-making process. ..
They would say, “this is the way of a pluralist society, the secular society.” … so this rabble of millions of people require a watch dog over everything they do, … This rabble has no ethical education nor any commitment. They do not learn the lessons of yesterday’s generation, nor develop any new insights for today’s problems. … every time anyone of us need a watch dog to ensure we do the fair thing by others in our society, we are the fault for an inadequate governance in our democracy. If our need for a watch dog continues to increase as it seems to need, nations are eventually not going to be able to afford both progress and the watchdogs. At that stage, democracies will stagnate and fall. With luck, as dogs-eat-dogs amidst the chaos of nation-state failures, a transformed mind-set will be raised. But how many lives will need to be lost. ….There is no leadership out there in pluralist society, just a cacophony of voices asking, unfairly, for more for themselves.
I disagree profoundly.
Pluralism is here to stay: the alternatives required to eliminate it are too terrible to consider. That means that we have to think again about how the whole (‘society’) and its parts fit together, and where the ethics come from. If a society has one culture, as was once the case, that culture nurtures the virtues which the state needs. But no society now or in the future can have one culture, one set of common values, yet the state still needs most of its citizens to be law-abiding most of the time, it needs virtuous citizens. So how can we have virtuous citizens without common values?
I think we need to envision the sub-systems such as religious and ethnic communities and school systems (private, public, faith-based) as providers of virtuous citizens to the state. That means that the state has a stake in fostering those that do in fact produce virtuous citizens. But it doesn’t matter to the state what values produce the virtues. I think of ‘values’ as a ranking of virtues: for instance, Christian values give a high ranking to forgiveness, Sikh values give a high ranking to courage, the Boy Scouts movement gives a high ranking to helpfulness and preparedness, and so on. This diversity – the lack of common values – is an asset to the state, for in different contingencies different virtues need to be prioritised. An all-absorbing war does not demand the same set of social values to be practised as a deep recession, or a bouyant-to-bubbling surge of prosperity. Common values therefore are a liability, while a diversity of virtuous citizens are an insurance policy.
The lack of ethics Owen comments on is not due to pluralism in society, it is the legacy of the modern era in which the centralised and rationalised modern state itself tried to be a producer of virtuous citizens, by creating a common culture (national education, radio, a national language), by outright nationalism, or by making one or other ideology the state ideology.
All of these have failed, partly because mobility and freedom of choice mean that a mono-cultural society is now impossible, but more profoundly because the core business of the state is the security of all its citizens, which requires it to be the monopoly provider of coercion. I pay my taxes willingly – so long as I know my neighbour will also do so. He feels the same. We have established the state as a provider of coercion precisely so that we both know the other won’t cheat. So coercion is the core product, in the state’s core business, which limits the state to work according to a certain kind of logic. ‘Reasons of state’ really are different to “reasons of the heart” or “market logic” or “the logic of science.”
Now the product “virtuous citizens” — that is, citizens who are self-actuated to behave ethically, at least most of the time — demands the absence of coercion. Virtue, to be a moral virtue, must be freely chosen; and what the state needs is not just pliable citizens, but self-actuated citizens who freely choose to be ethical, and preferably altruistic. So we see that the path in which the state attempted to produce its own virtuous citizens was as much a dead end as the paths in which the state tried to manage the economy, or direct the workings of science. This has left us with the legacy of an “unethical rabble.”
It is the cultural providers, with ethnic and religious communities in the lead, who have the continuity to pass on the lessons of one generation to the next, who offer the role models and mores to elicit not just virtue but also altruism. To assist them, the state needs to see clearly why it needs them, and the state has to embrace multiculturalism, and see the leaders of civil society as its partners and the suppliers of its most crucial resource: virtuous citizens. It needs to work with the ethnic, ethical, and religious communities on the basis of that need; that is, not because one ethnicity is the leitcultuur and must be protected, or one religion is favoured for historical reasons, but for transparent and equally applied “reasons of state.” Something like the “lemon test” must be formulated for government partnerships with the communities in civic society. Such a model of pluralist partnerships between the state and civil society also requires that the ethnic and religious communities bury any hatchets there may be between them. And it requires an input from the various communities of interest to the legislative process.
“O people of God! Give ear unto that which, if heeded, will ensure the freedom, well-being, tranquillity, exaltation and advancement of all men. Certain laws and principles are necessary and indispensable for Persia. However, it is fitting that these measures should be adopted in conformity with the considered views of His Majesty … and of the learned divines and of the high-ranking rulers. Subject to their approval a place should be fixed where they would meet. There they should hold fast to the cord of consultation and adopt and enforce that which is conducive to the security, prosperity, wealth and tranquillity of the people. For were any measure other than this to be adopted, it could not but result in chaos and commotion.
(Tablets of Baha’u’llah, 92)
“The purpose of religion [in general, not one particular one!] … is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife. The religion of God and His divine law are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men. The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquillity of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God. … It behoveth the chiefs and rulers of the world, and in particular the Trustees of God’s House of Justice [i.e., the leaders of the Bahai community], to endeavour to the utmost of their power to safeguard its [religion's] position, promote its interests and exalt its station in the eyes of the world.”
(Tablets of Baha’u’llah, 129)
“Universal benefits derive from the grace of the Divine religions, [note the plural] for they lead their true followers to sincerity of intent, to high purpose, to purity and spotless honor, to surpassing kindness and compassion, to the keeping of their covenants when they have covenanted, to concern for the rights of others, to liberality, to justice in every aspect of life, to humanity and philanthropy, to valor and to unflagging efforts in the service of mankind. It is religion, to sum up, which produces all human virtues, and it is these virtues which are the bright candles of civilization.”
(The Secret of Divine Civilization, 98)
I should add one caveat about this pluralist model of state-community relations. It is not the same as the millet system which applied in the late Ottoman empire, and similar systems elsewhere, in which the state delegates some of its coercive and judicial powers to sub-communities. In those systems, Jews would enforce Jewish law on Jewish subjects, Christians on Christian subjects, and the various communities would also be taxed as communities, paying through their community leaders. The postmodern state has to treat citizens as individuals and not as members of a community, for two reasons: because people today can enter and leave communities and be members of multiple communities — a freedom they will not surrender — and because a non-ideological state exists to foster the development and serve the purposes of the individual.
One postscript to this:
The family was omitted above, but it is certainly to be included among the (potential) providers of virtuous citizens, so the state has an interest in fostering ‘productive’ families. By ‘family’ here I do not mean a man and woman bound in the sacrament of marriage (or equivalent definitions in other traditions): the state must define the family, for its purposes, according to its own needs : the family is the smallest level of association that produces citizens for the state. That includes solo parents, same-sex couples raising children, triangles and communes and polygonous arrangements – all weighed solely on their success in raising virtuous citizens.