Consensus and Comparative Philosophy

[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?


14 replies on “Consensus and Comparative Philosophy”

  1. Hi Tim; great topic! Just a response to the idea in the philosophical objection you mention: “showing that a norm applies to all rational beings.” I gather that would be, in the view of someone like March, of philosophical or ethical interest. (An aside: It seems like that could also overlap with a political goal of attaining rational leverage for political justification to take actions against or in support of some group or other). We might want to put some more complex flesh on the idea of norms that apply to all rational beings, given the variety of human experience and conceptual developments in the world (i.e. given what we know if we’ve done our philosophical anthropology well). One way to think about the value of a consensus analysis is that it could help us to gain some rational traction with the participants in another tradition, by identifying some common ground on which to discuss what the philosophical or ethical, normative commitments are that we can hold them to and that they can hold us to — given theirs and our other concepts and commitments. Such a discussion might help us to bridge background differences enough so that we can discuss substantively the norms that we and they, as beings who share the ability to reason, agree are binding on us and/or them, given our and their respective other commitments.

    So, for example, given our philosophical-anthropological understanding of the concept of rights in the West, we might wonder what common conceptual ground there is in East Asian tradition that can provide the necessary conversational framing for discussions about what binds us and them, rationally (given our other commitments), with regard to the types of things we regard as human rights.

    I don’t think philosophical interest only lies in finding out what binds us as rational beings in a vacuum, free of the baggage of tradition and the concepts that have developed over time within it. I could be wrong, but my guess is that no one thinks that (any more?).

    • Thanks for this very thought out response, Manyul.

      I think I understand the point about how the consensus approach can help give us “rational traction” with the other tradition to make the discussion possible. But I don’t see how this gets past the objection. As I understand it, the objector would still wonder what we have achieved if we can attain agreement on a mutually binding set of norms. Maybe it has political benefits, or shows the basic norms held by people around the world at this point in time. But how does it show that the norms are justified?

      Perhaps, though, I do not fully understand what you mean in the second paragraph when you refer to finding “common conceptual ground . . . that can provide the necessary conversational framing for discussions about what binds us and them, rationally (given our other commitments).” Do you mean that consensus is not an end in itself, but just something we must attain before we can talk about the things that are of philosophical interest?

  2. Adding to Manyul’s response regarding March: It seems to me all the philosophical efforts at finding (or constructing) foundations simply replicate the diversity of moral worldviews, and thus do nothing to resolve the question. I think we will find a norm that applies to all rational beings when all rational beings get together and agree on a norm they believe applies to them.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ken!

      The first half of your comment is something I hadn’t thought of yet. But why think that the consensus approach is better than these philosophical efforts? What would getting all rational beings together to agree on norms they believe apply to all of them achieve? Not all rational beings are equally adept at providing philosophical justification for the norms they accept. Further (I think it is Daniel Bell who makes this criticism) what happens if these norms condone unjust practices such as the oppression of women, as may have been the consensus among the major world religions not too long ago?

  3. Just to clarify, Andrew March is himself a defender of the consensus approach– he just has a nice way of putting the objection to this approach that I’m interested in discussing.

  4. Suppose there is a tower and we want to know its height.

    One person uses trigonometry to calculate its height. Another ties a rope to a balloon and then has the balloon float to the height of the tower and measures the rope. A third measures one brick in the tower, then counts the bricks with a telescope. A fourth consults the zoning ordinances and sees that the plans for tower designated a certain height.

    We will say that the height of the tower is less well known for having multiple methods by which we learn it? Is only one method of knowing the “right” way to learn the height of the tower?

    • Thanks, Carl!

      I feel your tower example is misleading, because there are definitely wrong ways of measuring the tower as well. Should we take the average of all the answers reached by all the methods, right and wrong, and say that it is the height of the tower?

      Also, overlapping consensus doesn’t refer to different methods converging on the same answer, but rather to incommensurable foundations freely agreeing to norms that allow for political stability. Presumable each group will still believe that it has “the right answer” in the case that consensus is achieved.

  5. Hi, Tim
    I appreciate your questions. A quick answer is that consensus is not indeed “better.” Rather, it does something different. It enables people to agree on fair terms of cooperation, without requiring them to agree on deeper values. (In one standard view, that’s what a free market does, too.) But you ask: what if the terms of agreement condone an unjust practice? Well, then there won’t be a consensus. Right?

    The more general point I had in mind was an observation that comes, I believe, from Steven Lukes, to the effect that relativism is a thesis about the past (the fact of moral diversity) and universalism is a thesis about a possible future (in which people come to agreement on common terms). What’s the process by which that happens? Well, however imperfect, it’s something like the process by which international conventions (e.g., the rules of war) come about. Not a philosopher’s constructed foundation.

  6. My two cents…

    You cite Rawls in saying that force is needed to make everyone follow the same norms and you say the consensus approach tries to find support for norms within other cultures’philosophical or religious traditions. I think neither approach shows that the norms are justified. After all, anyone can cherry-pick ideas from other cultures and use these in their arguments.

    And I think the latter approach is is an indirect application of the first. Some may say this could be considered underhanded or devious, though I am not going to make such a judgment. This is perhaps an example of Joseph Nye’s “Soft Power,” which, in contrast to the use of threats or rewards, gets people to want what you want. With the consensus approach, this is getting others to adopt your values by showing them others in their culture, religion, etc. have also had these values.

  7. Ken makes an excellent point that a consensus can enable a valuable kind of cooperation that is seen as justified from each individual perspective, without each party sharing the justifications. This cooperation is superior to coercion. There is truth in Tim’s original objection, though: since such a consensus does not provide a deeper or meta-justification, the consensus remains fragile–dependent, as Tim puts it, on what “particular traditions [hold] at a particular point in time.” For this reason, cross-cultural engagement (what I call rooted global philosophy), which may (but may not!) lead to deeper similarities remains a wise idea.

  8. Great post, able to show how comparative philosophy is not only possible, but desirable (since consensus is less likely to be only due to common prejudices if it occurs across state and culture boundaries).

    Readers might be interested in parallel discussions in these two blog about Western philosophy: (David Christensen is an upholder of “conciliationism”) (on how to philosophically explain epistemological disagreement)

  9. I think the underlining question is that, for what purpose do we do comparative philosophy? If the purpose is to “justify” such and such norm, then it will fail at the very starting point. For opinions cannot be justified simply by other opinions, whichever tradition they come from.
    So, it seems to me that the objection misses its target, since the consensus approach is not aimed at the justification of norms. That approach simply assumes that we are not able to completely justify such and such norms at this moment, so let us achieve some sort of the second best result, that is, to at least have an agreement.
    I might be wrong, but I think the objection attempts to force the consensus approach to answer a question that the latter is trying to avoid.

    • Why do you say that comparative philosophy “will fail at the very starting point” if the purpose is to justify the norm?

      Take Liberalism vs Confucianism for example. Their overlapping consensus on social harmony is the norm. Are the fundamental doctrines of these two ideologies based on incommensurable meanings of human life? Just how dissimilar are the moralities of the respective traditions? To say that consensus has no philosophical or ethical interest is a cop out. We need to try harder.

    • I agree with you that “we need to try harder.” Let me put it this way.
      My point is that “if the purpose” of consensus approach is to “justify such and such norms, then it will fail at the very starting point.”
      Simply recognizing consensus is not itself a justification of norms. To say that liberalism and confucianism may agree on X is one thing, and to say that X is morally right is another.
      If I understand correctly, that’s why the objection becomes relevant.

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