Those who bemoan (or tune out) that American tower of Babel known as 'public discourse' should certainly tune in to these reflections on why such conversations are either deplorably shallow, degraded or at best inconclusive. Smith dismisses the usual suspects (technology, education, religion in the public square) to focus on the pervasive 'loss of faith in the capacity of reasoned discourse to provide cogent resolutions of controversial political and moral issues.' In a pluralistic, post-Enlightenment society, we've quit trying to talk to one another 'because no one expects that anything called 'reason' will . . . [lead] people to converge on a unified truth.' Freed from classical assumptions of an intrinsically purposeful cosmos, we live inside the 'iron cage' of secular rationalism. While popular wisdom considers some notions 'inadmissible' or even, in the case of religion, 'conversation-stoppers,' Smith locates the problem in secularism itself. By diminishing our capacity to speak from deeply held beliefs, secularism forces us to resort to vague principles like freedom and equality, or to 'smuggle in' undisclosed premises and assumptions. Various chapters explore how these shortcomings hamper the resolution of assisted suicide, church and state, and other issues where law and politics intersect with morality and justice. Smith concludes by urging us to 'open the cage,' in the hopeful possibility that 'however much we disagree with another person's worldview, something in that view [may] connect with something in our own that results in constructive engagement.'
An Eighth Day View:
Prominent observers complain that public discourse in America is shallow and unedifying. This debased condition is often attributed to, among other things, the resurgence of religion in public life. Steven Smith argues that this diagnosis has the matter backwards: it is not primarily religion but rather the strictures of secular rationalism that have drained our modern discourse of force and authenticity.
Thus, Rawlsian public reason filters appeals to religion or other comprehensive doctrines out of public deliberation. But these restrictions have the effect of excluding our deepest normative commitments, virtually assuring that the discourse will be shallow. Furthermore, because we cannot defend our normative positions without resorting to convictions that secular discourse deems inadmissible, we are frequently forced to smuggle in those convictions under the guise of benign notions such as freedom or equality.
Smith suggests that this sort of smuggling is pervasive in modern secular discourse. He shows this by considering a series of controversial, contemporary issues, including the Supreme Court s assisted-suicide decisions, the harm principle, separation of church and state, and freedom of conscience. He concludes by suggesting that it is possible and desirable to free public discourse of the constraints associated with secularism and public reason.