Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Aengus Anderson: So, we’re in dif­fer­ent cities again, but at least report­ed one con­ver­sa­tion out­ro the same place. But now you’ve you flit­ted off to California.

Micah Saul: I had to get to a wed­ding. I’ll be back tomorrow.

Anderson: And I’ll be gone tomor­row. But In the mean­time, Lawrence Torcello, a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Do you want to tell every­one how we found him?

Saul: Sure. So, when we were first con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing the project, we came up with a bunch of thinkers that we want­ed to talk to. But we also came up with a bunch of themes that we want­ed to try and find some­one to address. And one of those who was rethink­ing mar­riage. Turns out we found an essay by Lawrence Torcello which def­i­nite­ly rethinks the idea of mar­riage. He was sort of fed up with the rhetoric used by those against gay mar­riage, and he decid­ed to give them, in his mind, to the one rea­son­able argu­ment that you could use against gay mar­riage which, even­tu­al­ly ends up being the state shouldn’t sanc­tion any mar­riage at all

Anderson: Right, a con­trac­tu­al thing that’s done social­ly in any num­ber of ways. And he knew that by offer­ing that, he’d give oppo­nents of gay mar­riage a solu­tion that they absolute­ly hat­ed, even more than gay marriage.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: So, it was a nice lit­tle obser­va­tion to point out their log­i­cal hypocrisy. And while that idea led us to him, it actu­al­ly isn’t going to come up in this con­ver­sa­tion much at all. And there are a lot of rea­sons for this. One is that Lawrence has been lis­ten­ing to this entire project. So this con­ver­sa­tion real­ly is very dif­fer­ent than any oth­ers you’ve heard in The Conversation thus far. 

Saul: Yeah, this is real­ly the first meta con­ver­sa­tion in this project. He’s inti­mate­ly aware of where the con­ver­sa­tion will go. He knows the struc­ture. And so he antic­i­pates that. And we get to those real­ly inter­est­ing parts far ear­li­er than we have in others.

Anderson: Yeah, and this actu­al­ly made for a real­ly chal­leng­ing edi­to­r­i­al job, because there’s so much con­tent in here. We talked for about two and a half or three hours and addressed tons of dif­fer­ent indi­vid­ual con­ver­sa­tions. Now, when I sat back down to edit it, I could have giv­en you a very sprawl­ing con­ver­sa­tion that went kind of inter­vie­wee by inter­vie­wee, address­ing dif­fer­ent themes, but there was one cen­tral idea that Lawrence brought up which I decid­ed to focus this edit down on. So we’re going to be talk­ing most­ly about lib­er­al­ism, and what that means. 

Saul: We should also note that well, he’s a pro­fes­sor. He start­ed the con­ver­sa­tion with lay­ing out the ground­work. And a good por­tion of that ground­work was talk­ing about John Rawls. Much of that has been edit­ed out or edit­ed down. But if you are inter­est­ed, it might be worth going to look up John Rawls on the inter­net to see a lit­tle bit of of where where Torcello is jump­ing off from in terms of his philosophy.

Anderson: A lot of this does begin Rawls, but it moves into Tortorello’s own ideas. I was real­ly present in this con­ver­sa­tion, but I’ve large­ly edit­ed myself out just because I was ask­ing sort of prompt­ing ques­tions, and you don’t need me there. It’s dense. It’s hard. You may have to lis­ten to it twice. I’ve lis­tened to it many times, and I think I’m start­ing to get my head around it. 

And then we move into, how do you bring all these dif­fer­ent voic­es, the very sorts of peo­ple we’ve heard in this project, how do you bring them togeth­er in a real­ly prac­ti­cal way? Like, what do you need to do to have a con­ver­sa­tion there? And that’s where he feels that lib­er­al­ism is real­ly impor­tant, but also that you can­not delve into the dan­ger­ous realms of moral rel­a­tivism. So we end up with sort of grap­pling with this philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem of, how do you embrace plu­ral­ism, all of these dif­fer­ent peo­ple, all of these dif­fer­ent view, and yet how do you still put your foot down and say, Some things are wrong?” So—

Saul: We’re going to shut up now, and give you Lawrence Torcello.

Anderson: Yes we are.


Lawrence Torcello: A lot of what I work on is lib­er­al the­o­ry. And one of the things I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in is how do you defend lib­er­al­ism? And what I mean by lib­er­al­ism is the philo­soph­i­cal notion of lib­er­al­ism. In oth­er words, here’s a polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy that we’ve inher­it­ed from the Enlightenment, and it’s a polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy that could best be defined very sim­ply as a phi­los­o­phy that empha­sizes indi­vid­ual rights above and beyond any notion of the good. 

Liberalism in gen­er­al then, is a phi­los­o­phy that real­ly allows for a lot of notions of the good. Rawls decides that he’s going to offer a ver­sion of the social con­tract that’s abstract enough to sur­vive tra­di­tion­al attacks against it. So he begins with a hypo­thet­i­cal experiment,a thought exper­i­ment. What kind of soci­ety would you want to live in if you won’t know where you’re going to be in that society? 

One of the things Rawls wants to address is what he calls a nat­ur­al lot­tery and what he calls a social lot­tery. I have cer­tain phys­i­cal traits. I might have cer­tain apti­tudes; maybe I’m good at math­e­mat­ics. That helps me to do well in soci­ety; I’ve won the nat­ur­al lot­tery. I’m healthy, per­haps; I’ve won the nat­ur­al lot­tery. I’ve been born into a poor fam­i­ly, I have a lot of strug­gling ahead of me; I’ve lost the social lot­tery. Now, that’s not a moral call, to say you’ve lost the social lot­tery, it’s just a recog­ni­tion of the whim­sy of fate, right.

So Rawls is tak­ing seri­ous­ly fate, in a way that I’m not sure philoso­phers have tak­en seri­ous­ly since the ancient Roman times. And the idea is that the social con­tract is meant to pro­tect us from all sorts of things. It ought to pro­tect us against the whims of fate, and for­tune, too. So, if you had to choose, what kind of soci­ety would you choose?

You want to have a soci­ety that is going to pro­tect you wher­ev­er you fall. So choose as if you’ve lost the lot­ter­ies. So, what kind of soci­ety do you want? You want a soci­ety that treats you as free and equal. Regardless of your race, regard­less of your sex, regard­less of your sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion. That’s the lib­er­ty prin­ci­ple, he calls it.

But what does the lib­er­ty prin­ci­ple real­ly mean? You’re free. So what? So, what do you need to be in a soci­ety where you real­ly are free? Well, the sec­ond thing you want, to the degree that there is inequal­i­ty in soci­ety, that inequal­i­ty has to be part of a sys­tem struc­tured so that there’s upward mobil­i­ty in the soci­ety. He’s offer­ing this robust defense from a very abstract point of view of a lib­er­al democ­ra­cy where every­one is free and equal, every­one has equal oppor­tu­ni­ty. It’s woven into the sys­tem and safe­guard­ed and pro­tect­ed. In the­o­ry if you lose the nat­ur­al lot­tery, you have a chance to make the most of your tal­ents. And that’s some­thing that is impor­tant to Rawls. 

Now, Rawls admits, then, that this is what he calls a com­pre­hen­sive doc­trine of lib­er­al­ism. What’s a com­pre­hen­sive doc­trine? A com­pre­hen­sive doc­trine is any val­ue sys­tem that pur­ports to explain the world. So Catholicism is a com­pre­hen­sive doc­trine. We’re going to come up with all sorts of dif­fer­ent belief sys­tems. That’s just the way life is. Your con­ver­sa­tions are the best exam­ple of this. So, you’ve talked to Reverend Fife, Max More…all these peo­ple that have very dif­fer­ent val­ue sys­tems. And that’s exact­ly how it’s always going to be as long as peo­ple are free to dis­cuss and think.

Whenever you make an asser­tion, it’s just an asser­tion. If you try to defend your asser­tions, your jus­ti­fi­ca­tion demands anoth­er jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. How do you get out of that? You get dog­mat­ic. And at some point, you put your foot down, you dig your heels into the ground, and you say, I’m not gonna ques­tion this any­more. This is what I believe.” And then you begin to con­struct a sys­tem on that belief.

But what’s wrong with that sys­tem? It’s com­plete­ly cir­cu­lar. It’s pred­i­cat­ed upon assump­tions that have nev­er been defend­ed. If we can’t solve our eth­i­cal dif­fer­ences, we need to fig­ure out how to do this polit­i­cal­ly. But that begs the ques­tion, why isn’t our polit­i­cal doc­trine cir­cu­lar, too, right? So this is the prob­lem that keeps me up at night. This is what I wres­tle with. But this is what Rawls was wrestling with, too.

His argu­ment is impor­tant in that it makes a dis­tinc­tion between ratio­nal­i­ty and rea­son. And very often, we use those two words inter­change­ably. But it’s impor­tant, I think, to keep them sep­a­rat­ed. Rationality is content-ful. In oth­er words, you start with a cer­tain assump­tion, maybe it’s a reli­gious assump­tion maybe it’s a sec­u­lar meta­phys­i­cal philo­soph­i­cal assump­tion, and you build a sys­tem based upon it. All the parts of the sys­tem makes sense, in a com­pre­hen­sive way, and it’s ful­ly ratio­nal. I may begin with a dif­fer­ent assump­tion, and I build anoth­er sys­tem, and it’s ful­ly ratio­nal. And per­haps we dis­agree with each oth­er. Comprehensive of doc­trines are often equal­ly ratio­nal, and also equal­ly incom­men­su­rable. They they won’t come back togeth­er. We can’t mesh them. We’re always going to be at loggerheads. 

What is the rea­son, then? For Rawls, rea­son comes in when you become savvy to all of those epis­te­mo­log­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions that you suf­fer from as a human being and it occurs to you that you can be wrong. The per­son who’s not rea­son­able is the per­son who is con­vinced that they’re right, can’t imag­ine that they could be wrong. Well, they might be extreme­ly ratio­nal, but they’re not being reasonable.

Okay, so in polit­i­cal lib­er­al­ism, how do we bring this all togeth­er? Rational com­pre­hen­sive doc­trines that are rea­son­able, Rawls wants to argue, will come to an over­lap­ping con­sen­sus on the prin­ci­ple of equal lib­er­ty. He then wants to argue that they’ll come to an over­lap­ping con­sen­sus on what it takes to make that prin­ci­ple of lib­er­ty mean­ing­ful. And because we have to live togeth­er among all these dif­fer­ent doc­trines, a very impor­tant part of polit­i­cal lib­er­al­ism in this Rawlsian view that I work so much from is the idea of pub­lic reason. 

When we’re dis­cussing in the pub­lic sphere, the ques­tions of basic jus­tice: mar­riage. Questions of the struc­ture of soci­ety: how do we vote? These things we have to approach by mak­ing argu­ments that those who are in oppos­ing moral camps, if they don’t agree with them they’ll still under­stand them.

So let’s go back to the issue of mar­riage. If I was against same-sex mar­riage, I couldn’t make an argu­ment that quotes from the book of Leviticus. Because no one’s going to take me seri­ous­ly who doesn’t share my com­mit­ment to the book of Leviticus. That’s a non-starter in a soci­ety marked by lib­er­al plu­ral­ism. So I have to learn to brack­et those. I could admit that I believe the book of Leviticus tells us that this is wrong. I could be hon­est about that. But I can’t expect any­one to leg­is­late from that, right. So I have to then make some oth­er argu­ment. I have to say, Well, per­haps the state ought not to be in the busi­ness of defin­ing and sanc­tion­ing a par­tic­u­lar def­i­n­i­tion of mar­riage.” That would be an argu­ment from pub­lic reason.

To bring this again back to the Conversation because it keeps com­ing up in all of your con­ver­sa­tions, right: def­i­n­i­tions of the good. What is the good?

Anderson: Right.

Torcello: And you’re always ask­ing this point­ed ques­tion in a very good way. Well, what is the good? Why is that good?” And peo­ple try to explain in var­i­ous ways. And they fail. And it’s not their fault, right, because this is just the nature of of ratio­nal argument. 

Anderson: You mean that you always do bot­tom out at some belief.

Torcello: Yes. The non-rational belief at the heart of your your sys­tem is always there.

Anderson: Right. We cer­tain­ly crunched into that very ear­ly with Max More. 

Torcello: Exactly. Now, some peo­ple will argue you can’t be a lib­er­al and still be a moral plu­ral­ist. Why? Well, because in being a lib­er­al you’re putting for­ward a content-ful com­pre­hen­sive doc­trine: lib­er­al­ism. You embrace the val­ues of the lib­er­al. You might say, But this is inclu­sive. It allows for plu­ral­ism.” But you’re miss­ing some­thing. You’re mak­ing a hid­den assump­tion in your argu­ment as a lib­er­al. And the assump­tion is that coer­cion demands jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. And assum­ing that coer­cion demands jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is a moral prin­ci­ple that needs to be defended.

So, this is the prob­lem of mod­ern lib­er­al the­o­ry. How do you defend lib­er­al­ism, and also take into account plu­ral­ism? Now, some­one might ask why do you want to defend lib­er­al­ism. Given that we don’t have the lux­u­ry of liv­ing on an island with only peo­ple who agree with us, and giv­en that we have to be able to leg­is­late in a diverse plu­ral­is­tic soci­ety, what we do? The rea­son you want to defend lib­er­al­ism, the rea­son I want to defend lib­er­al­ism, is because it’s the sys­tem that allows for plu­ral­ism. And that’s impor­tant because that’s what we’re stuck with.

That’s all…I say all of this to give you an exam­ple of the prob­lem here. This is where I depart from Rawls, but still very much inspired by his work. My answer to this idea that well, isn’t that still assum­ing that coer­cion demands jus­ti­fi­ca­tion? Isn’t that still com­pre­hen­sive, right? And what I want to say that that is yes, it is. And we have to. That’s the implic­it moral posi­tion that’s part of phi­los­o­phy itself. In oth­er words, inso­far as we decide that we’re going to have a philo­soph­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion, we’ve implic­it­ly agreed that we’re not going to fight it out phys­i­cal­ly if we have dif­fer­ences, we’re going to rea­son togeth­er. Coercion does demand jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. And if we can’t find that jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, I can’t force you to do any­thing, you can’t force me to do any­thing, we’ll have to work it out some way.

Now, is it ara­tional assump­tion? I sup­pose you can call it ara­tional. But I want to say that when the alter­na­tive is sheer nature red in tooth and claw” sort of vio­lence, and maybe you might think this is split­ting hairs, but rather than say­ing that that’s just ara­tional, you say, No, that’s the tran­scen­den­tal foun­da­tion of ratio­nal­i­ty itself. That’s the assump­tion we have to make to get off the ground there.” But it’s the most min­i­mal assump­tion that we can make.

Now, that doesn’t mean that just hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion solves every­thing. But it’s a start. And we can get pret­ty far just rec­og­niz­ing that we have lim­its. Where do we go from there? Why isn’t that rel­a­tivism? Why isn’t it just admit­ting that well, you don’t have any answers, I don’t have any answers, let’s talk about it, but in the end who real­ly cares?

Anderson: And we could play that sce­nario out to a lot of scary conclusions.

Torcello: Yes. So, here’s the big dif­fer­ence that I think’s worth point­ing out that I real­ly want empha­size a lot, and it’s that moral plu­ral­ism is a nat­ur­al out­come of free­dom of intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits. But it’s not rel­a­tivism. As a moral plu­ral­ist, I can’t cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly defend any one moral posi­tion in a way that would com­pel you to have to, by the sheer ratio­nal­i­ty of my argu­ment, go along with it. But I can con­demn, unequiv­o­cal­ly, var­i­ous actions, var­i­ous belief sys­tems. And I think we real­ly need an exam­ple here.

Richard Rorty is a good exam­ple of a con­tem­po­rary philoso­pher that every­one picks on as being a rel­a­tivist, and I think they’re right to do so. He has this lib­er­al hope, right. This very pro­gres­sive side, but he also will say that there’s no way to judge between kind­ness or cru­el­ty. It’s maddening.

Here’s why I think he’s wrong. If we start with this assump­tion coer­cion does demand jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, the only way that cru­el­ty could ever be jus­ti­fied is if you can pro­vide some ratio­nal argu­ment as to why it’s nec­es­sary. And the thing about cru­el­ty is that it’s nev­er nec­es­sary. When we see some­body being cru­el to anoth­er per­son, we know that that’s some­thing that they can’t ratio­nal­ly jus­ti­fy in a way that would even pos­si­bly be able to be enter­tained by the per­son who’s hav­ing this cru­el act put upon them. And because of that fail­ure to be able to jus­ti­fy your actions, that action is con­demnable moral­ly. You’ve removed your­self from the realm of philo­soph­i­cal dis­course, and you’re now in the realm of might makes right. And again, you might say that, Well, so you’re still being cir­cu­lar because you’re assum­ing that phi­los­o­phy and ratio­nal con­ver­sa­tion, that that’s the way to go,” and so I say, Well, make your argu­ment against it.”

And you can’t. If you chal­lenge me on this point, how do you chal­lenge me? Well, you either throw some fur­ni­ture at me. That doesn’t seem to be a con­vinc­ing argu­ment by any means. I may be blood­ied, but then I think I win that argu­ment. Or you engage in an attempt to con­vince me that I’m wrong. But in doing that, you’ve already accept­ed my premise that coer­cion demands jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. So, I can’t cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly jus­ti­fy any par­tic­u­lar eth­i­cal doc­trine, but there are all sorts of things that I can con­demn. Murder…all of our stan­dard things that we want to con­demn in civ­il society.

We can get real­ly far, eth­i­cal­ly speak­ing, through cri­tique alone—

Anderson: This is real­ly great. We’ve gone through— We’ve built the clock in terms of what lib­er­al­ism is, and rea­sons that plu­ral­ism is sort of inevitable. But we’re talk­ing about a dis­course that is to some extent based in rea­son with peo­ple actu­al­ly want to have a dia­logue, right.

Torcello: Sure.

Anderson: And it seems like the big flaw on this is that, in real­i­ty we have a lot of groups who won’t actu­al­ly rec­og­nize that plu­ral­ism is inevitable. And they’re play­ing a meta­phys­i­cal game, and they’re play­ing to win.

Torcello: Yeah.

Anderson: …and just can­not accept the idea that they would ever need to real­ly talk to these oth­er groups of people.

Torcello: Yeah.

Anderson: And so if you have groups like that as part of your plu­ral­ism, is there any hope of of even hav­ing a rea­soned conversation?

Torcello: Well, right. So that’s a great ques­tion. It’s a ques­tion I strug­gle with. How could you not strug­gle with this ques­tion as an ethi­cist? Because I’m a plu­ral­ist, I see that there’s a cer­tain lim­it to how far we can go in terms of per­suad­ing with each oth­er. Perhaps we can share at least some, some, con­cep­tions about the need to talk, the need to communicate.

Now, the ques­tion you raise is how do we com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er when you have peo­ple who are so adamant that they’re right? How do we talk to them? There’s real­ly no good answer to that. Nevertheless, we ought to try. This brings back the ques­tion of edu­ca­tion, I think, perhaps.

Anderson: Actually, that’s where I want­ed to go, because it seems like if you can’t per­suade them, then I have to ask what is the dif­fer­ence in terms of these ways of thought that are open to per­sua­sion or not open to persuasion?

Torcello: This is a prob­lem that our gen­er­a­tion isn’t going to nec­es­sar­i­ly solve, because you have to start very ear­ly with peo­ple. Which isn’t to say you have to pro­gram them. But if you teach chil­dren ear­ly to think crit­i­cal­ly; to val­ue rea­son; to under­stand the impor­tance of back and forth; con­sid­er­ing the oth­er in a way that allows you to see what you have in com­mon with one anoth­er; to rec­og­nize each oth­er as being part of the same very very broad, cos­mopoli­tan, glob­al moral com­mu­ni­ty, even though you might have a sep­a­rate indi­vid­ual pock­ets of more tight plu­ral­is­tic com­mu­ni­ties, it real­ly does go back to education. 

Now, Andrew Keen would say, Ha ha, you admit you don’t have a good answer. And here’s what you’re say­ing. You’re say­ing edu­ca­tion.” Guilty, but I’m right. Because that real­ly is the key. It’s edu­ca­tion. And so what’s the best way to get over xeno­pho­bia? Eradicate the xeno” por­tion of it, and then the pho­bia” part will evap­o­rate. You have to learn about the oth­er. You have to make them not the oth­er any­more. It’s edu­ca­tion. We have to be exposed to each oth­er. And not so that we could all be paper copies of one anoth­er, but so that we learn to appre­ci­ate the diver­si­ty in the world. 

Anderson: And is bro­ker­ing this sort of under­stand­ing… You know, I like to ask peo­ple, If you were to name one,” and of course this is so sim­plis­tic, what is the cri­sis of the present?”

Torcello: Stupidity. The cri­sis of the present in stupidity. 

Anderson: [laugh­ing] That’s great.

Torcello: It leads to every oth­er cri­sis. You know, I’m so tempt­ed to say cli­mate change. And I think that how it’s man­i­fest­ing. But bot­tom line is that we have a great poten­tial as a species that we squan­der, right. We don’t take edu­ca­tion seri­ous­ly. Okay, so in the United States, the wealth­i­est nation on the plan­et. We have the largest econ­o­my. We’re the most pow­er­ful. But we bounce between thirty-five and forty per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion even acknowl­edges that cli­mate changes is some­thing that’s hap­pen­ing. Fifty per­cent of peo­ple don’t rec­og­nize that evo­lu­tion is reality.

When you have that much igno­rance, how is it that we’re going to solve prob­lems? It comes down to learn­ing how to think. We don’t learn how to think… I almost said in this coun­try. I don’t know that we learn how to think ear­ly on any­where.

Anderson: I won­der, is it some­thing where, to artic­u­late why you need the human­i­ties you almost need an audi­ence that is at least well-versed enough in the human­i­ties to be persuadable?

Torcello: Yes. And—

Anderson: That’s terrifying.

Torcello: Yeah, it is ter­ri­fy­ing, because… So, we have to begin with edu­ca­tion, right. We have to incor­po­rate the human­i­ties. We real­ly have to start incul­cat­ing a cul­ture of edu­ca­tion where we take facts seri­ous­ly. That we under­stand how to think sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, how to think crit­i­cal­ly. We under­stand that in cer­tain cer­tain ques­tions it’s not enough to split the dif­fer­ence and just have oppos­ing views. In the world of sci­ence, for instance, we don’t set­tle any­thing by debate, we set­tled it by research. And you have to learn to appre­ci­ate that ear­ly in life. That’s a nec­es­sary thing to equip us to live in a world as adults.

I am real­ly big sup­port­er of a clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion when it comes right down to it. The more we try to teach to tests, the more we try to embrace this rhetoric that teach­ers are some­how to blame, that teach­ers have failed in oth­er ways which is why they teach… It doesn’t mat­ter what sort of com­put­ers that we have, what sort of com­put­ers we put in our our heads, alright? Bring the tran­shu­man­ism thing into this. No mat­ter how geared up we are, so what if we can’t think? Access to infor­ma­tion isn’t the same as being able to think. And that’s the prob­lem, right. That we don’t val­ue thought.

Anderson: And that leads to a huge num­ber of prob­lems. We’ve talked a lot about the idea of con­ver­sa­tion being good. If that doesn’t hap­pen, if we con­tin­ue on with the sta­tus quo and we’re not talk­ing about these ideas with each oth­er, where does that take us?

Torcello: The worst-case sce­nario would be that the sort of prob­lems that are on the hori­zon that we can see full well just con­tin­ue to get worse. And I’m not con­vinced that the human race is going to dis­ap­pear. Other peo­ple on The Conversation have point­ed this out, that we’ll sur­vive in some way. It’s going to be tough going through it. But as I say that, I real­ly want to bring back this point that I think is still impor­tant that hasn’t been talked about on The Conversation enough. It’s that it’s easy for me to spec­u­late on prob­lems in the future, in the United States. I’m doing okay. Throughout this con­ver­sa­tion, a lot of peo­ple I’ve been hearing…very opti­mistic about the future, very con­vinced that tech­nol­o­gy is mak­ing us all so well off. But seem­ing­ly unaware that 80% of the world gets by on less than ten dol­lars a day. The approx­i­mate­ly twen­ty thou­sand chil­dren die of pover­ty daily. 

So, these are very…what I would say indus­tri­o­cen­tric sort of views about the indus­tri­al­ized world and how we’re ben­e­fit­ing from all these things, while ignor­ing those on the oth­er ide of the wall. The worst-case sce­nario, we need to just leave the bor­ders of our nation. And anoth­er thing that hasn’t… So here’s my point—

Anderson: It’s just you and Cameron Whitten.

Torcello: Squeeze in all the things that haven’t come into The Conversation. It is also oth­er species. We should carve out some space for them in he Conversation, too. In many ways, I’m not opti­mistic. Because I know this is some­thing you often ask, too. Are you an opti­mist or a pessimist?”

Anderson: Yeah, and I mean, you’ve heard through­out this project peo­ple gen­er­al­ly are optimists.

Torcello: I’m ter­ri­bly pes­simistic. Really. But, I love Don Quixote. And I take a per­verse plea­sure in sort of…tilting at wind­mills. Perhaps this is a char­ac­ter flaw, or maybe I’m just being self-indulgent. But the more bleak I think it is when I rumi­nate on these things, the more almost…the ridicu­lous joy I get from try­ing to com­bat it. So maybe that’s what you need you need. You need pes­simism tem­pered with a lit­tle mad­ness. Which is far bet­ter than naïve opti­mism, I sup­pose, or a reli­gious sort of hope in tech­nol­o­gy, or any­thing like that. Yeah. So.

Anderson: This con­ver­sa­tion has tak­en some real­ly inter­est­ing steps. We sort of start­ed by defin­ing a lib­er­al plu­ral­is­tic good. It’s almost like we got the endgame first. And then we went back and talked about the cri­sis of stu­pid­i­ty, and in a way that… I think this is fas­ci­nat­ing and this is actu­al­ly some­thing that I’m sur­prised hasn’t been in this project more, but some­thing that has cer­tain­ly been on my mind a lot. What you’re kind of dri­ving towards is, in a way, an abil­i­ty to agree that there isreal. There is some­thing that is actu­al­ly real out there. Which seems like an absurd thing to have to over­come. And that we can talk about it with­out killing each other.

Torcello: Yeah. So, I want to call for an adult con­ver­sa­tion. Yeah so, that’s right. And even though I’m an incred­i­ble pes­simist tem­pered with this quixot­ic mad­ness, as I said before, I’m a cham­pi­on of the Enlightenment. And so to get back to this ques­tion, is this an impor­tant point, a tip­ping point? 

The last three thou­sand years have been an impor­tant point in human his­to­ry, prob­a­bly going back far­ther. I’m very fond of…I can’t remem­ber the exact quote, but this is a very close para­phrase from from Goethe. If one can’t reach back over at least three thou­sand years, one’s mere­ly liv­ing hand to mouth.” The prob­lems that we’re deal­ing with now in terms of learn­ing how to rea­son togeth­er, how to over­come our dif­fer­ences… Again, this is at the begin­ning of moral phi­los­o­phy in the West with Socrates and his antag­o­nism against the Sophists. 

And we’re still hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion. It’s still play­ing out. Sophists are still alive and well. They’re not just his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. And we’re still bat­tling it out. It’s rhetoric ver­sus love of wis­dom, which is phi­los­o­phy. Which isn’t to say that you have any it but that you take it seri­ous­ly enough to want to pur­sue it. It’s not to say that you know what the truth is, but there is a truth and you care about it. And you under­stand that you could be very wrong about it, just like every­one else could be wrong about it, and that’s…fun. It’s fun because it’s an occa­sion to come togeth­er to talk about it and have the Conversation, have the dis­course. That’s the good. It’s a tran­scen­den­tal good, the conversation.


Aengus Anderson: It’s the great Socratic ver­sus the Sophists battle.

Micah Saul: Yes. Of which appar­ent­ly we are warriors. 

Anderson: [laughs] Oh, we didn’t know we’d wad­ed into this three thou­sand year con­flict, did we.

Saul: No, we cer­tain­ly didn’t.

Anderson: There’s so much to talk about in this conversation. 

Saul: There is.

Anderson: Let’s start with a real­ly big dis­tinc­tion, that between ratio­nal­i­ty and reason.

Saul: Yeah, I think that’s the best place to start. Because I think in some ways it’s the most rel­e­vant to us, and the most rel­e­vant to this project. We’ve been talk­ing a lot about, here’s this group of peo­ple who seem like they’re just com­plete­ly not able to talk to each other.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: And Torcello sort of makes this argu­ment that you can be per­fect­ly ratio­nal, and yet unrea­son­able, and I think that might be his argu­ment. That many of these peo­ple we talk to our unrea­son­able. They are so set in their ideas that they can’t chal­lenge them. 

Anderson: And at the same time— So, that gets us on one hand to the sort of ara­tional assump­tions we’ve been find­ing every­where, and it also gets us to the very log­i­cal step by step con­ver­sa­tions that have grown out of them—

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: —that seem so…well seem and are, ratio­nal. And yet can­not talk to each other.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: So who is rea­son­able. You know, it seems like he gives us a def­i­n­i­tion of rea­son­able which sounds very rea­son­able. People who are essen­tial­ly will­ing to doubt them­selves, and in embrac­ing their own uncer­tain­ty in a way, can come to more of a com­mon ground. And can say to oth­er peo­ple, Look, this is prob­a­bly the com­mon lan­guage that we can use. These are argu­ments that I know will res­onate with you. To some extent we’re both going to have to suck it up to get our com­mon polit­i­cal goals accom­plished.” Is that even pos­si­ble, though? I mean, is that very def­i­n­i­tion of rea­son­able” just the def­i­n­i­tion of some­one who is sort of an Enlightenment-style liberal?

Saul: Right. I think that was one of my big con­cerns here, is… To use the exam­ple he gives, right. He says to say that gay mar­riage is wrong, you can’t use Leviticus; that’s a non-starter. Well, that’s only a non-starter if you’re more of a lib­er­al than you are a Biblical lit­er­al­ist, right?

Anderson: That’s tricky, right? So, for any any per­son from any sort of ide­o­log­i­cal back­ground, if you’re going to be rea­son­able, ulti­mate­ly it seems like you have to be more of a lib­er­al than you have to be of what­ev­er that oth­er thing that you are is.

Saul: Because by the very nature of ques­tion­ing the tenets of that thing, you are in some ways chal­leng­ing your mem­ber­ship in that thing.

Anderson: And this is it. Maybe if you have any true belief, there’s no way to be rea­son­able on some issues.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: There’d be no way to keep them as what they are and have them be rea­son­able by his definition.

Saul: Mm hm.

Anderson: So, does that get us back to the very prob­lem he described that he was wrestling with? Is lib­er­al­ism just anoth­er com­pre­hen­sive phi­los­o­phy? And I think he would prob­a­bly argue that it’s more fruit­ful to accept the tran­scen­den­tal idea that coer­cion requires justification.

Saul: Right, because if you don’t, you throw a chair at him.

Anderson: Because we’re stuck with that plu­ral­ism of ideas, and no one’s going to win, right. And I think that’s anoth­er real­ly impor­tant assump­tion that actu­al­ly I wish we’d got­ten into a lit­tle bit more. Because if you accept that we’re always going to have a plu­ral­is­tic world with free thought, then yes that tran­scen­den­tal idea does make sense. But, if you don’t accept that, and you throw the chair at him because you think you’re going to win the argu­ment that way… Well… He says if you throw the chair at him you’ve lost the argu­ment. Do you buy that?

Saul: You’ve lost his argu­ment. But you’ve won some­thing else because you just hit some­body with a chair. I mean… Yes—

Anderson: I do love that we get to talk about throw­ing chairs at peo­ple in this heav­i­ly philo­soph­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion. It’s like, what do you get when you get all this phi­los­o­phy? You just start throw­ing chairs at people.

Saul: The places we go in this this project are just…they nev­er cease to amaze me. But no, so I think the the ques­tion of who wins that argu­ment depends on how you define the debate. If you and I are hav­ing a dis­cus­sion and you say that coer­cion requires jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, and I say, Well, con­vince me of that.” Okay, then like he says, I’ve entered into your frame of ref­er­ence. If I throw a chair at you, I’ve lost your philo­soph­i­cal debate. There’s no ques­tion there, because you’ve defined how one wins or los­es that debate. I, how­ev­er, won my debate because I just hit you with a chair, and I define how one wins my debate.

Anderson: When we were talk­ing about that and I was lis­ten­ing to in ret­ro­spect I was think­ing, Boy, the big issue here is the awful plat­i­tude that his­to­ry is writ­ten by the win­ners.” And I think a lot of the win­ners are the ones throw­ing chairs. And if you are in the com­mu­ni­ty of philo­soph­i­cal dis­course and you’ve agreed to oper­ate with­out unjus­ti­fied coer­cion, and then you have some guy com­ing in throw­ing chairs at you, it only takes one guy to do that. And if you get blud­geoned by enough chairs at some point you’re going to want to pick up a chair your­self and go back and hit him.

Saul: And so that brings up a ques­tion. If any­one in the world is will­ing to throw a chair (and I think there’s always going to be a chair-thrower out there) is this entire Enlightenment project that he’s defined…is it attainable?

Anderson: At the end of th— I mean— I don’t know. Maybe this is just my own bias, but it feels like there is part of me that goes, Well, might kin­da does make right, sometimes.”

Saul: Inasmuch as might often forces the poten­tial oth­er right to just shut up, go away, die, or—

Anderson: Or turn to might itself.

Saul: Or turn to might itself.

Anderson: Yeah, that’s some­thing that I’ve been think­ing about a lot as I’ve been going through edit­ing this con­ver­sa­tion. It just feels…so idyl­lic. And maybe that’s why he is so…pessimistic. I mean, there’s part of him that’s so ide­alistic. And I mean, that’s part of the Enlightenment project, right? There real­ly is this belief in us being a rea­son­able and good and sen­si­ble. And yet maybe by send­ing out a vision of how we could be that’s so good, that doesn’t seem to con­form to any his­tor­i­cal record any­where, maybe you end up inevitably dis­en­chant­ed, or pessimistic.

Saul: And he even says, you know, What is the cri­sis fac­ing us right now? It’s stu­pid­i­ty, and non-reason.” He does make the argu­ment that we can we can solve that with edu­ca­tion. Improving edu­ca­tion, help­ing peo­ple become more reasonable. 

Anderson: God, that was a fab­u­lous beat­down of Andrew Keen, wasn’t it?

Saul: Oh, that was…yes. That was great.

Anderson: I have been wait­ing months for that to hap­pen, and I was just thrilled that it final­ly did. And he did it so elo­quent­ly. That’s get­ting side­tracked, though. When you’re talk­ing about edu­ca­tion and stu­pid­i­ty, there is a nice sense— And I real­ly like this because it still gives peo­ple agency, right. When you say edu­ca­tion is a pos­si­bil­i­ty, we can do it bet­ter, you’re hold­ing out hope that some­how we can get to a more sen­si­ble, rea­son­able, humane, state of things.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Hell, he says it so well him­self when he says it’s the pes­simism mixed with the mad­ness, right? It’s both. He feels both ways about it. And I do, too. It feels some­times like God, the Conversation is just an utter impos­si­bil­i­ty. And yet here we are pur­su­ing this project. 

Saul: We’ve both felt that at var­i­ous times and prob­a­bly increas­ing­ly so over the course of the project, and yet here we are still con­tin­u­ing it, plan­ning on going sev­er­al more months on this. Because…well, the Ragnarök idea. Here it is again.

Anderson: Yup.

Saul: You just have to try.

Anderson: Right. Who wants to say, Well, biol­o­gy has con­demned us to a world where we’re just kind of awful bar­bar­ians and we real­ly can’t do it any bet­ter.” I mean, that’s a lev­el of of fatal­ism that’s kind of…well, suf­fo­cat­ing. And it gets you nowhere.

Saul: Turns out I don’t want to hit peo­ple with a chair. I like think­ing that we can talk to them. I may be com­plete­ly wrong. but, damnit it I’m gonna keep talk­ing to them. And if I get hit with a chair, maybe I’ll rethink it. But you just have to believe that con­ver­sa­tion gets you somewhere.

Anderson: I guess so, man. I’ve always been more the type to real­ly just want to beat peo­ple with chairs. [laughs] I don’t real­ly know why I’m doing this project.

Saul: Yeah, seri­ous­ly it would’ve been a hell of a lot eas­i­er just to stock up on some cac­tus and throw it at people.

Anderson: You know too much about my childhood.

Saul: I do, indeed.

Anderson: Well, let’s wrap this up here. There were a mil­lion oth­er parts of this con­ver­sa­tion that were amaz­ing and just didn’t fit into this edit. I think I’m going to go through and maybe post one or two MP3s on the site for you. Boy, this is one I wish we could have done more jus­tice to, but it’s just a fab­u­lous addi­tion to the project and I’m thrilled to have Lawrence in here. And also, because he is lis­ten­ing right now, I know he’s going to write in a smart and elo­quent response telling us why our syn­op­sis was just bar­bar­ic and we didn’t get it at all. We missed all the nuances.

Saul: And I’m real­ly look­ing for­ward to get­ting that. So, Lawrence, if you are lis­ten­ing, please do tell us how we screwed up.

Anderson: Because already know that we did. We just want the details.

Saul: And any­body else that’s lis­ten­ing. We’d love to hear how you think we screwed up, too. 

Anderson: And that doesn’t go just for this episode, that goes for all of them. Alright, I hear you’ve got a din­ner to head off to, so let’s close this thing out. 

Saul: Sounds good. 

Anderson: I will catch you at some point on some coast.

Saul: Excellent. Vaya con Dios.

Anderson: That was Lawrence Torcello, inter­viewed August 25, 2012 in Hammondsport, New York.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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