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Saturday, November 30, 2002

Well, I’ve been catching up on reading other people’s blogs, and I note that both my “real life” friend Brian and my “in cyberspace only” friend Nick have both taken on the topic of discussing religion at the dinner table.

I think they basically have it right.

I prefer to argue ideas, since arguing about beliefs generally gets people nowhere. Thousands of years of civilization rest on arguments about ideas. (Never mind that it’s probably easier to get people to kill and die for beliefs than for ideas.) If you can't argue ideas with someone, it's hard to talk about much.

Philosophical arguments about religion can provide some basis for discussion, but faith (both general and specific) largely exists outside of the "prove/disprove" continuum in which I feel most comfortable carrying out discussion. You can't really make "points" in arguments based on faith, since such arguments lack parameters in which to operate. The usual ends of such a discussion are that either one party or both are offended or that each party simply ignores what the other has to say. (Of course this happens in political arguments as well, but I suppose people with legal training in particular know how to make arguments that have some basis in generally-recognized reality that have some chance of persuading others. There are plenty of people I know with whom I refuse to discuss anything remotely political.)

Some people treat their political beliefs as some kind of religion, as an article of faith, and in other cases, it's hard to know where one ends and the other begins. So many people shun all political discussions on that basis.

The interesting thing is that I'm much more comfortable treading on matters of aesthetics than on matters of morality. Having someone mock your deeply held religious convictions (or lack thereof) is far more unsettling than having your favorite band or television show mocked. (Well, maybe not, but if you take your favorite TV show that seriously...)

Moral arguments in general don't work in the legal world because everything then becomes about the decision maker's value system, and no one's particularly comfortable with that. (It does happen, sometimes, but we'd prefer it not happen.) Obviously there are moral roots to our body of laws (and, indeed, every body of laws that ever existed) but they are largely centered on conduct between individuals or between individual and society. In Western societies, we have largely decided that there are inherent epistemological problems with divining the will of the Supreme Being(s) in deciding individual cases.

And of course there's a certain discomfort among many, myself included, for making moral judgments of others, particularly given our imperfect knowledge of their specific situations. But even those who argue that civilization is worth naught if it is incapable of making universal moral judgments are challenged to provide a basis. All of the proposed ones thusfar have been found lacking.

Aesthetic arguments, when they occur in the legal world, are generally decided on matters of economics, a somewhat more concrete set of criteria on which to operate than aesthetics. Obviously there are differences between value and price, and such a fine distinction often eludes our dealings. (It may indeed be the great failing of the market economy, to conflate price, easily quantified, with value, not easily quantified.)

I’m sure my rambling has bored some of you, dear readers. Another reason I don’t discuss philosophy at the dinner table.

Yeah, I guess when it boils down to it, it’s a lot easier to talk about nothing.


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