Covenant and Democratic Consensus in Pluralistic Society

Covenant and Democratic Consensus in Pluralistic Society
Supplement to earlier paper Covenant Community in a Divided World
by Dr. Ng Kam Weng

How can the covenant principle be extended to wider society that is pluralistic in nature? In this regard, a covenant way of life demands participation in building of democratic consensus in modern democratic societies. That is to say, the challenge of any covenant religious community is to nurture citizens who are able to transcend their religious and ethical framework and adopt what Hannah Arendt calls ‘enlarged mentality’ or ‘representative thinking’. Seyla Benhabib describes this as “the capacity to represent to oneself the multiplicity of viewpoints, the variety of perspectives, the layers of meaning which constitute a situation.” In other words, good and acceptable moral judgments arise from an exercise of reversibility of perspective either by actually listening to all involved or by representing to ourselves imaginatively the many perspectives of those involved.

It is granted that participants in public deliberation working out democratic consensus operate with different conceptions on what constitutes a sufficient context for dialog. In this regard, Benhabib offers some valuable insights on different conceptions of dialog situations (or public space). She begins with Hannah Arendt who notes that the public space becomes agonistic when participants in a morally homogeneous and politically egalitarian society compete for recognition, precedence and acclaim. In contrast, an associational public space emerges whenever “men act together in concert” whether as pressure groups in a democracy or as dissidents under a tyranny. Constructive collective action arises when men of good will converse together in the associational public space. However, Arendt has been criticized by Liberals like Bruce Ackerman and John Rawls for failing to be attentive to the institutional preconditions that must be fulfilled for genuine dialog to take place. Such a recognition will make evident and address the connection between power and legitimacy by proposing a procedural solution.

Rawls argues,
Just as a political conception of justice needs certain principles of justice for the basic structure to specify its content, it also needs certain guidelines of enquiry and publicly recognized rules of assessing evidence to govern its application. Otherwise there is no agreed way of determining whether these principles are satisfied, and for settling what they require of particular institutions, or in particular situations. . . And given the fact of pluralism, there is, I think, no better methods of, and the public knowledge available to common sense, and the procedures and conclusions of science when these are not controversial.

One recourse is to work towards thin and overlapping consensus. This is typified in many communiqués and media statements which follow conferences that have attracted media attention. Such thin consensus are not without value, insofar as they encourage further dialog and possibly call for more inclusive social policies.

It is unfortunate that the Liberal procedural solution envisages a posture of ‘conversational restraint’ where participants in the interest of neutrality avoid raising concrete differences. They should each seek to identity normative premises that all political participants find reasonable. But does this requirement not amount to an amputation of political deliberation from the other dimensions of social life from which political action draws its significance, such as life in voluntary associations? Benjamin Barber remarked that the move appears to be “an antipathy to democracy and its sustaining institutional structures (participation, civic education, political activism) and a ‘thin’ rather than strong version of political life in which citizens are spectators and clients while politicians are professionals who do the actual governing.”

Seyla Benhabib argues that the liberal principle of dialogic neutrality “is too restrictive and frozen in application to the dynamics of power struggles in actual political processes. A public life, conducted according to the principle of liberal dialogic neutrality, would not only lack agonistic dimensions of politics, in Arendtian terms, but more severely, it would restrict the scope of public conversion in ways that would be inimical to the interests of oppressed groups. . . . liberalism ignores the “agonistic” dimension of public-political life” As such, dialog must highlight the inherent difference that we must accept and incorporate into social policies.

A more critical and inclusive model of public space and dialog is found in Jurgen Habermas’ proposal of ideal speech situation and discourse ethics. Habermas suggests,
“The goal of coming to an understanding is to bring about an agreement that terminates in the intersubjective mutuality of reciprocal understanding, shared knowledge, mutual trust, and accord with one another. Agreement is based on recognition of the corresponding validity claims of comprehensibility, truth, truthfulness and rightness.”

Habermas’ ideals demand that participants come in good faith and lay out clearly the grounds of their assertions, backed with rational argumentation with the expectation that the validity of these claims will be tested critically. Habermas insists that views that prevail under such conditions are those that are more rational – arguing, persuading and winning consent without coercion. By the same token, views that prevail exemplify and promote positive social conditions such as genuineness, integrity, fairness, equality and democratic consensus. These outcomes are more than pragmatic expedience since they flow from rational consensus with its immanent normativity. Habermas, however, rejects that these norms become normative because they spring from an overarching metaphysical framework. Instead, they prevail if they create free space that resists instrument, system rationality that “colonize of life-worlds” while promoting good life of individuals through democratic means.

Habermas adopts a cognitive approach, confident that moral problems can be solved through rational and cognitive means. He is confident that norms derived from his discourse ethics will be accepted since the discourse merely universalizes moral principles embedded in dialog situation and is impartial in its implementation. In other words, a norm is valid only if “all affected can accept the consequences and the side effects its general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction for everyone’s interests (and these consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities).”
Notwithstanding the rigor of Habermas’ analysis, I cannot help but feel that his confident expectation of moral agreement through a universalized rationality and his ideal speech situation have an unreality about them if we bear in mind the interminable disagreements among the best minds in the academia. Further weaknesses become clear. First, focusing on universal rationality leads to insufficient attention given to the role power plays in dialog especially in dialogic situations which bring together partners with unequal resources. It is only too easy for the assertive participants to overwhelm the weaker ones under the guise of more winsome articulation, or for the majority to impose their views on others.

Nevertheless, Habermas’ requirements serves as an effective regulative ideal which effectively unmasks majoritians who are more interested in manipulation rather than dialog. Benhabib builds on these Habermasian ideals by formalizing a procedure of “historically self-conscious universalism” which among others include a set of procedural rules that reflect the moral ideal that “we ought to respect each other as beings whose standpoint is worthy of equal consideration (the principle of universal moral respect)” and that “we ought to treat each other as concrete beings whose capacity to express this standpoint we ought to enhance by creating, wherever possible, social practices embodying the discursive ideal (the principle of egalitarian reciprocity).”

Second, the dialogic selfs envisaged by Habermas lose their moral concreteness given his focus on abstract criteria and rarefied universal rationality leading to a neglect of the positive resources embodied in the moral traditions of participants. In fact, we doubt if there are unencumbered selfs with universal rationality. As Mary Midgley once quipped, no one speaks universal languages. In contrast, dialog promises depth and fruitfulness only if participants are able to bring maximum input in the first place. Therein lies the dilemma: inclusion of moral diversity enriches the dialog. But this also increases the likelihood of irresolvable conflict. Perhaps Habermasian dialog seeks to avoid such conflicts as it only serves to confirm the essentially contestable nature of concepts like good life, justice and diverse primary goods of democracy.

On the other hand, acknowledgement of the essentially contestable nature of dialogic issues will encourage a more tempered acceptance of pluralism which need not be subsumed under some universal criteria or rationality. Still, dialog must address the issue of pluralism without succumbing to relativism. After all, is it not the fear of relativism that leads some participants to resort to power manipulation? The insights of Alasdair McIntyre and Charles Taylor on evaluating traditional bound rationality offer some promising alternatives to coercive universal rationality on the one hand and sentimental and subversive relativism on the other.

McIntyre agrees that we cannot appeal to ‘neutral’ criteria to adjudicate between competing traditions. Nor should we compare rival positions against independent facts so much as to lay out how the new conclusion must be accepted on premises which both sides accept. As Taylor explains MacIntyre’s position, “What may convince us that a given transition from X to Y is a gain is not only or even so much how X and Y deal with the facts, but how they deal with one another. . . In adopting Y, we make better sense not just of the world, but of our history of trying to explain the world, part of which has been played out in terms of X.”

Taylor modestly suggests that the claim is not that Y is absolutely true, but that whatever is ‘ultimately true,’ “Y is better than X. It is, one might say, less false. . . .: whatever else turns out to be true, you can improve your epistemic position by moving from X to Y; this is a gain.” Taylor emphasizes that such a move does not amount to a claim to have arrived at the final rational explanation. It is rather a choice for the best explanation so far. More important than merely being more rational is a concomitant requirement to be morally responsible for our epistemological choices.

Being tradition bound, we acknowledge then that moral discernment and responsibility never occur ex nihilo. Our choices and ethical justification are inherently the outcome of the moral resources that we draw from our religious and cultural tradition. We must therefore address the reality that there are different ethical tradition in our pluralistic society. That being the case, the challenge then is for each religion in a pluralistic society is to demonstrate that it has the resources necessary to build an inclusive society that is just and moral.

Covenant Politics in Society
The Christian tradition has historically favored the following criteria for ethical valuation of competing moral choices. Any ethics will have to display: 1) power to release us from destructive alternatives; 2) ways of seeing through current distortions; 3) room to keep us from having to resort to violence; 4) a sense for the tragic – how meaning transcends power. It should be noted that the criteria recognize the dark side of human moral existence which is not addressed by proponents for universal rationality. The criteria are not meant to be applied mechanically for the sole purpose of rational valuation. Instead the very adoption of these criteria must be seen as a commitment to a way of life, a determined effort to embody the moral vision in a community.

Such an outlook suggests that bringing one’s religion into the project of building a shared society does not necessarily result in dominance and coercion. It is granted that some people hesitate to bring in religion because religion has been exploited to legitimize unjust social orders. However, religion per se is neither intrinsically conservative or revolutionary. Religion is only part of a complex of social factors, which usually includes race and economics, leading to any exploitation and conflict. On the other hand it can be argued that a healthy polity is dependent on values sustained by religion. The challenge is to find an appropriate placing of religion in society in a social covenant, a democratic constitution. The following proposals should be worthy of consideration:

1. Religions must renounce abuse of power
I think the appropriate response from all religions is to reject publicly any abuse of religion for political gains and to avail their ethical resources for the building of a consensus that makes common life possible in a multi-religious society. We welcome the humility of religious leaders reported in the New Straits Times 2 Sept. 1993)on the “Declaration of a Global Ethic” from the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. The Declaration says, “Time and again we see leaders and members of religions incite aggression, fanaticism, hate and xenophobia — even inspire and legitimize violent and bloody conflicts. . . . We are filled with disgust.” The Parliament further recommended four ethical imperatives: 1) A culture of non-violence and reverence for all life, 2) a culture of social solidarity with a just economic system, 3) a culture of tolerance and honesty and 4) a culture of equal treatment for, and partnership between, men and women.

2. Religions must offer their ethical resources vital for building consensus and harmony in society.
The studies of Robert Bellah and his team of researchers highlight that the problem of contemporary society is not merely the precariousness of the bonds of citizenship but a more fundamental problem of people’s inability to bond and build relationships. Obviously such bonding needs to be stimulated by primal patterns of association exemplified by religion. Religious social functions need to go beyond individual therapy (self-actualization, fulfillment) and contribute directly to the common life of society.

It is precisely when individual needs are adequately met that religion is put forward as a foundational tool for social projects. That is to say, religion contributes its best in the nurture of robust moral individuals. These individuals will in turn bring morality into the public square and the market place without harboring an illusion of religious aggrandizement by religious clerics who see themselves as harbingers of social progress. The apt phrase coined by Reinhold Niebuhr, “Moral Men in Immoral Society”, succinctly captures the positive function of religion. Religion then promotes healthy national life by ensuring that it is underpinned by “communities of character”.

Democracy has emerged as the unchallenged political ideal in the third world. But democracy requires disciplined citizens in order to function properly. John Wogaman explains,

A democratic society is well served by a citizenry not fanatically attached to single issues or causes but capable of rounded judgment and a careful weighing of ambiguous alternatives. That maturity is grounded, first, in a secure sense of personal worth. And it is at this point that the personal faith of Christians is a distinct contribution to democratic disciplines.

It is vital that each religion spells out how its beliefs specifically contribute to the building of a common society where human dignity is respected and where the only force accepted is the force of truth in a fair and equal dialogue. The purpose is to set up a social and political mechanism that promotes virtue and compromise. Public democracy is sustained by private virtues that enable individuals to set aside personal interests. A sense of transcendent authority typified by the Christian God of grace will encourage politics to be conducted by rules of courtesy, mutual respect, fair dealings and personal integrity that cross communal lines. With such democratic disciplines potential conflicts are more likely to be resolved and demagogues will find it more difficult to exploit ‘primordial sentiments’ for their personal gain.

3. We need a public philosophy that allows for diversity in unity
Social conflicts arise when different communities fail to practice tolerance and mutual acceptance that recognizes differences. All too often national integration is implemented on terms set by the dominant community because it is assumed that unity requires homogeneity. Should we not instead accept plurality within unity as a given reality in the contemporary world even though we want to place plurality within a wider framework of transcendent values? Speaking on behalf of Christianity (and I shall assume that such a defence is also a possibility for other religions) I want to suggest that democratic pluralism is a practical consequence of the Christian doctrine of Trinity. Max Stackhouse offers a pertinent Trinitarian grounding for democratic pluralism.

For those of us who believe that the Trinitarian God is the true God, pluralism is a normative theological belief as well as an ethical or social belief. The metaphysical-moral grounds for dealing with pluralism are at hand. Pluralism within a dynamic unity, understood in terms of persons in community and the community of persons, . . . it gives metaphysical-moral articulation to the proper foundations and limits of pluralism. Christians oppose monolithic definition of ultimate reality, but their pluralistic beliefs are governed by a broader belief in unity. The triune God is integrated. Thus polytheism, the theological form of pluralism without unity, is condemned as strongly as is imperious singleness without differentiation. In using these terms, we see that both pluralism and unity can become blessings or curses, depending on whether our view of pluralism has an ultimate coherence, or whether our view of unity has a place for diversity.

We must accept diversity will go a long way to encourage genuine debate and exploration of new perspectives. This ensures a people remain capable of adaptation and development. Rather than relativizing the search for truth, the challenge of competing faiths promotes an understanding of the complexity of truth in personal beliefs and social life.

In conclusion we should recognize that each one of us enters the public sphere as people shaped by our prior commitments that are pre-political. The public sphere is a place for dialogue, bargaining and compromises. Compromises as such should not be seen as a dirty word, or a reflection of moral timidity. It is a responsible act necessary for fallen men to live peacefully with one another, without which democracy will be replaced by the law of the jungle.


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