[Posting for Tim Connolly – please direct comments to him]
The consensus approach to comparative philosophy draws on Rawls’ idea of “overlapping consensus,” in which adherents of different religious or philosophical worldviews reach an agreement on certain shared norms, though based on their own individual reasons which are not necessarily compatible with one another.
According to Rawls, the diversity of moral doctrines is an enduring fact of modern life. Since the different doctrines involve “conflicting and indeed incommensurable comprehensive conceptions of the meaning, value, and purpose of human life,” the only way to make one of them applicable to everyone is through the use of force. Overlapping consensus, on the other hand, achieves social stability through freely made agreement between adherents of the different doctrines.
A main application of Rawls’ view in comparative philosophy concerns human rights: Stephen Angle, Daniel Bell, Joseph Chan, Charles Taylor, and others have written on the consensus approach. This approach is thought to be superior because it tries to find support for human rights within other cultures’ philosophical traditions rather than imposing them from without. An example put forward by Taylor is Thailand, where social reformers have attempted to ground rights in the Buddhist tradition. Taylor himself sees promise for these attempts in the Buddhist belief that individuals must take responsibility for their own Enlightenment, as well as in the tradition’s advocacy of a doctrine of non-violence (ahimsa), which forbids us to coerce others. In working toward an “unforced consensus” on rights, he says, we end up travelling different paths toward the same goal.
A main philosophical objection to the approach is that consensus on a norm does not show that the norm is justified. To establish the validity of a norm, we must evaluate its foundations. But the consensus approach at most shows a chain of reasoning between the foundations and the norm; it takes the foundations for granted. Rather than showing that a norm applies to all rational beings, consensus establishes only that it can be found in particular traditions at a particular point in time. For this reason, as Andrew March sums it up, “The [consensus] approach is either anthropological or sociological (in that it may be of empirical or historical interest) or else political (in that it may represent a path to social stability or accommodation), but it is of no inherent philosophical or ethical interest.”
Is this objection plausible? What is the philosophical interest of consensus? For those of you who work on cross-cultural philosophy, do you see consensus as one of your goals?