Affections and Ethics Seminar

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Prof Sebastiano Maffettone,  University Professor and Dean of Political Science at Luiss ‘G. Carli’ University of Rome

Title: "Religious Affections and Reasonable Liberalism: A Reconciliation"


In his keynote address to the conference “Rebuilding the Dialogue with the Arab world” (Rome, December 2008), the Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis focused on two points. Monotheistic religions—being based on affections rather than reason—would be unable to understand non-believers and would claim to have the monopoly of truth. The main consequences of this thesis are easy to grasp: science and socio-economic progress are heavily threatened by the Weltanshaung of the homo religiosus.

In the West, a similar problem has been at the heart of classical or traditional liberalism. From Bayle to Locke to John Stuart Mill, traditional liberalism has aimed to realize toleration among people with different religious beliefs. Traditional liberals do not attack religion directly, even if they see religion as a threat for peace. They distinguish instead between private and public use of religion. Religion operates freely within the domain of the private, whereas neutrality among religions must reign in the public domain. This is, albeit in different ways, the core of the general attempt by traditional liberalism to solve the problem of pacific coexistence among people that believe in different religions. What is protected here is the public domain. Or—if you prefer—citizens are defended from any form of state coercion in name of religion.

On the other hand, within contemporary liberalism the relation between politics and religion is different from the traditional liberal one. Traditional liberals see the relation between politics and religion in terms of potential conflict. For historical reasons, they feel that religion threatens stability and think that liberalism is the appropriate antidote to this risk. From this hermeneutics of suspicion comes the idea to put some restraints on religion. That is why—for a traditional liberal— religion is and must be kept private. Such an ethics of restraint is essentially different from a liberal ethics of reciprocal respect like Rawls’s. For the contemporary liberal ethics of respect, the problem is not that religion threatens stability, but rather that we need a cement of society based on a universal consensus in a pluralist society, a consensus that can be recognized by both religious and not religious persons. The liberal ethics of respect, to be universal and to preserve pluralism, must be based on shared institutional premises. Rawls’s “public reason” aims at offering this institutional morality of an ideal meta-community. It is, in his words, the most significant “part of society’s political capital.”

In my paper, I discuss the positions of Habermas and Rawls on this problem, the implications for secularism, and the way in which religious affections and liberal politics can find a theoretical reconciliation.

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Affections and Ethics

Audience: Open to all