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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