Critiquing consumerism

John HaldaneJohn Haldane is a leading British philosopher
who has written extensively on the relationship between religious faith
and reason in the contemporary world. In this interview he shares with
Rafael Serrano his ideas on how to communicate convictions more

Professor Haldane is the author of several books and is the director of
the Centre For Ethics, Philosophy And Public Affairs, at the University
of St Andrews in Edinburgh. His most recent book is Faithful Reason.

Serrano: Nowadays people in the West are looking for shared
principles which define what we can and what we cannot tolerate. What
should this be -- a secular ethic, perhaps?

Haldane: There are two kinds of pluralism that we find today in
Western countries. One is a lifestyle pluralism, a variety of ways of
living. That can be quite superficial, simply like cakes, clothing or
furniture or whatever. And there is a deeper diversity or plurality, a
pluralism of philosophies or ideologies.

Now in fact when people point to the deeper pluralism, typically the
examples that they offer have much more to unite them than to divide
them. In fact the deeper pluralism they’re pointing to tends among
themselves (Judaism, Christianity, Islam and so on) to be united in
condemning superficial pluralism...

So if you take, marriage, for example, Jews, Christians and Muslims
tend actually to share, broadly speaking, the same views about this.
The diversity comes among people who don’t have an ideology... But
these are really not expressions of deep philosophies. These are
expressions of consumerism, of the desire to have more choices.

Serrano: What would you like to see?

Haldane: I think that two things need to be done. One is the
need to make a negative critique of superficial pluralism. We should be
ready to show that although there is a great deal of diversity there,
it doesn’t reveal deep philosophy, it’s rather shallow. That’s the
negative side. And then the positive side is that the advocates of deep
ideologies —- and these days, the only deep ideologies tend to be
religious, because Marxism has gone -- need to work together to think
about what exactly they share.

An example: I recently have called for the establishment of a National
Bioethics Committee in Britain and written a proposal for this. This
has the support of the head of the Catholic Church, the cardinal
archbishop of Westminster, the Chief Rabbi, the head of the imams and
mosques and so on. So the Muslims, the Jews and the Christians, and now
the Archbishop of Canterbury are supportive of this. It is interesting
that we see that in a way, society is out of control. This is not
because it’s in the hands of people who have a deep philosophy and
another anthropology… It’s just the hand of the marketplace, which is
not a principle at all, except the principle of protecting choice...

We have to create a thoroughgoing, extensive and perceptive and
rhetorically effective critique of the superficiality of consumer
choice in society. And at the same time we have to try to among
ourselves to develop a coherent, deeper account of how you might try to
think about things like the human life, human reproduction, death and
so on.

One thing that I would point to as a looming crisis -- which is also an
opportunity --is the disintegration of the family... In Italy by 2050,
halfway through this century, 60 percent of Italians, almost two thirds
of Italians, will have no brother, no sister, no first cousin, no
uncle, no aunt. In 45 years time... people will just be isolated atoms
with no familial relationships. When that happens it will be a disaster
and a tragedy, and we should be preparing ourselves, trying to warn
people, trying to say that “Look what you’ve chosen, your lifestyles,
haven’t enriched your lives. It has impoverished your lives. You’re
poorer than you were, not richer than you were, and the only richness
that you cannot recover is the richness of deep personal relationships,
of family, intergenerational relationships and so on...

Serrano: In your book Faithful Reason, you speak about the natural law. Can you defend natural law nowadays?

Haldane: Yes, I think you can. In the old tradition a
distinction was made between dialectic and rhetoric. The dialectic is
about strict argumentation and rhetoric is about presentation. I think
that advocates of traditional ethics, natural law and so on have
sometimes been very good on dialectic, but not so good on rhetoric. It
is very dry and theoretical and it needs to become alive. The skeleton,
the framework of arguments is fine, but it needs to have flesh and skin
and blood put into it.

It’s not so much that we need to do more philosophy. I think we need to
recover a more natural and simpler style of explanation, less
scholastic, less technical, more natural. Also we need to promote that
in effective rhetorical modes, using imagination, examples,
illustrating, rather than just giving people arguments. That’s why I
think things like films, journalism, novels, music are much more
important in our world. That’s where people are, that’s what people
react to... I think that a 1200 word journalistic essay is a much more
effective way of engaging, even educating people, than a long piece of
work. We need to keep the arguments fairly simple, but to clothe them
in examples, illustrations, and engage people’s imagination.

Serrano: Can believers contribute to today’s debates?

Haldane: They can, but they have to be careful about how to do
so. There are two stances or positions that you find among believers,
neither of which is helpful… One is a sort of sour, embittered,
resentful condemnation -- it’s all evil, it’s corrupt, it’s terrible --
and this isn’t going to be helpful. If that’s all you have to say then
it’s better to just stay out of it really, because that only confirms
people’s impression that religion is about darkness and depression and
negativity and so on. And the other kind of unhelpful contribution
comes from the wildly silly evangelicals who think that it’s all happy,
happy, happy.

Neither dark Calvinistic condemnation nor happy sunshine evangelism can
really be taken seriously in contemporary society. I think that
religious believers have to establish their intellectual credibility.
They need to show their intellectual standing...

The Church needs more intellectuals. In Britain… in the first 30 years
of the 20th century the Catholic Church attracted a very large number
of converts... Why? Because they were attracted by the intellectual
rigour of Catholicism. So we have to establish our intellectual
credentials with the world and show that we’re intellectually rigorous
and not condemning the world or going around in a sort of happy trance…

Rafael Serrano is an editor of the Spanish magazine Aceprensa. This
interview has been edited and abridged from the original published in


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