For the final post in this month’s issue of the Forum, Richard B. Miller (University of Chicago) responds to the six scholars who commented throughout the month on different chapters of his book, Friends and Other Strangers: Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2016).

The May issue of the Forum featured Friends and Other Strangers, Miller’s most recent book, which argues for expanding the field of religious ethics to address the normative dimensions of culture, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships. Professor Miller urges religious ethicists to turn to cultural studies to broaden the range of the issues they address and to examine matters of cultural practice and cultural difference in critical and self-reflexive ways.

Friends and Other Strangers critically discusses the ethics of ethnography; ethnocentrism, relativism, and moral criticism; empathy and the ethics of self-other attunement; indignation, empathy, and solidarity; the meaning of moral responsibility in relation to children and friends; civic virtue, war, and alterity; the normative and psychological dimensions of memory; and religion and democratic public life. Miller challenges distinctions between psyche and culture, self and other, and uses the concepts of intimacy and alterity as dialectical touchstones for examining the normative dimensions of self-other relationships. A wholly contemporary, global, and interdisciplinary work, Friends and Other Strangers illuminates aspects of moral life ethicists have otherwise overlooked.

The first post in the May issue included the introduction to Friends and Other Strangers, “Alterity and Intimacy.” Over the month, scholars responded to different chapters of the book. We invite you to continue the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.


On Religion, Ethics, and Cultural Criticism: A Reply to Six Critics

by Richard B. Miller


Friends and Other Strangers explores and expands the field of religious ethics by making a “cultural turn.” The motivating idea is to take seriously our lives as mediated by cultural contexts within which we form, express, and revise our values and commitments. Rather than speak from an artificially constructed vantage point or with a pre-ordained doctrine or method of analysis, I encourage readers to take up the practices of interpretation and social criticism. Readers are thereby invited to enter into practical reasoning about cultural practices and beliefs along with theoretical frameworks that enable us to do so, and to think in an interdisciplinary way. Religious ethicists are generally uninterested in culture and thus overlook a vast terrain of religiously, philosophically, and ethically relevant material for critical investigation. They thereby leave underdeveloped the cross-cultural, comparative, and global potentialities of practicing their craft. They also risk overlooking aesthetic and psychological features of the moral and religious life. Seeking to correct for these facts, the book invites scholars to draw insights from religious studies and cultural studies to examine the routine culture of ordinary life—e.g., customs and codes, desires and loyalties, socialization processes, kinship relations, friendships and loves, political engagements, and the contested ways in which these personal and social forces interact.

Although the book resists drawing a sharp divide between theoretical and practical matters, for heuristic purposes I will organize my responses to the Religion and Culture Forum’s commentaries in those terms. The comments by Thomas Tweed, Caroline Anglim, and Cristina Traina address theoretical matters as I develop them in chapters 2-4, and I will address them first.

Thomas Tweed identifies himself as a fellow traveler in the study of religion, culture, and ordinary life and suggests a more precise organizing idea, the notion of habitat or cultural niche, for thinking about such matters. If we think normatively in light of these concepts, Tweed observes, we could then ask if such niches “are peaceful, equitable, and sustainable.” I agree that such questions are appropriate and I would add that taking up such concerns might well cut against the grain of culturally inherited values. It would put the scholar in the position of speaking as a religious, moral, and/or cultural critic.1 Friends and Other Strangers offers one way of thinking about how properly to carry out moral/social/cultural criticism (more on that below). In Tweed’s view, moreover, the concept of habitat or cultural niche enables us to reflect about human and non-human environmental factors that shape human existence, factors that call for ethical interrogation about our responsibilities toward environmental matters. It also requires us to draw upon scientific and other empirical information to inform our ethical reflection. I take Tweed’s suggestion as a constructive way to broaden the book’s frame of reference—to expand upon the ideas that I invite readers to consider. I welcome it.

But I would insist upon two caveats. The first would be to return to a point I make when describing a cultural turn, namely, that such a turn opens fresh ways of understanding the synergistic interactions of self and society, of psyche and culture, in subject-agent formation. Making a cultural turn is not only about widening the frame of reference for exploring matters of cultural and social analysis. It is also about identifying sources on which human beings depend for their lives and well-being. On this point, as well, Tweed’s proposal has much to suggest, for our sources of dependence surely extend to environmental factors in the broadest sense. The second caveat would be to be cautious about how to order, interpret, and apply empirical data when thinking normatively. All too often we tend to presume that facts will settle matters of desirability or undesirability when we think, say, about the human condition or about environmental policies. As I argue later in the book on the science and ethics of empathy, there are times when it is appropriate to first theorize about normative matters (e.g., about the concept of virtue) and to then refine such theories in light of what we can learn about human capabilities from scientific inquiry.

Tweed asks how scholars of religion and culture can carry out normative critique. In the spirit of the book, he opposes reductive tendencies in the humanities and social sciences. Here, as elsewhere, Tweed states that we all engage in normative work and says that we do well to make such commitments explicit. Again, I agree and welcome Tweed’s interventions on these matters.2 If no scholarship is value-neutral, as Tweed and others avow, then scholars who leave untouched the religious beliefs and practices they describe only lend credence to them given how such matters are themselves saturated with claims to truth, beauty, and value.3 I would add we must also justify the normative claims that we deploy when assessing religious and cultural matters in order to put those claims up for critical scrutiny. Otherwise our judgments are no less parochial than the ones we commend or criticize.

Caroline Anglim addresses matters of normative judgment and justification and rightly grasps that I am arguing about the ethics of moral criticism when I develop my list of virtues to guide the work of social critics. She asks whether such virtues should guide the work of historians as well as ethicists. My answer is yes. I frame my argument by addressing a worry widespread among historians, philosophers, and cultural critics—the idea that moral criticism might be ethnocentric. What I propose aims to get us past that worry so as to liberate critical reason to carry out normative assessments in ways that are respectful of those whose agency and actions we find laudable or subjects of disapproval. This liberation pertains to the work of scholars across the board.

Anglim notes that social critics worry not only about sounding ethnocentric but also about being viewed as outsiders, alien (and heteronomous) to the subjects they evaluate. She references the work of Michael Walzer, who has written insightfully about such matters in his account of social criticism. According to Walzer, social criticism means applying standards “we share with the others to the others, our fellow citizens, friends and enemies.”4 Walzer thus champions the idea of “connected criticism”—the idea that, as a general rule, good social critics have historic, cultural, and affective ties to the communities they criticize. On that view, “critical distance is measured in inches.”5 I agree with Walzer that “opposition, far more than detachment, is what determines the shape of social criticism.”6 But I depart from Walzer insofar as I want us to think about social criticism in terms of epistemic and moral virtue. Those concerns operate apart from, indeed transcend, concerns about proximity and distance when it comes to securing moral authority to practice social criticism.

In my mind, the key issue for social critics is not whether one is an insider or outsider, but how one rightly acquires the credentials to speak authoritatively. One can acquire those credentials by (1) giving reasons to explain and justify one’s assessment, (2) possessing (general) moral and epistemic probity, (3) exercising due diligence, (4) aspiring to render a judgment informed by judicious perspective-taking and (5) expressing oneself with a style and grasp of social location that is context-sensitive. Related to these ideas is the importance of speaking with integrity. A social critic acquires the credentials to speak authoritatively on the basis of the virtues she exhibits in the practice of critique, not on the basis of her proximity or distance from the subjects she’s assessing.

Anglim takes this insight and presses further. Referencing examples such as Black Lives Matter Movement or the Black Girl Magic Campaign, she asks “how does the scholar virtuously address social distance in her moral critique when the issue of social distance is itself a defining issue for the group that she is criticizing?” These examples could be expanded to include a number of socially charged issues and movements. My answer to Anglim would be to insist upon an appropriate degree of contextual sensitivity and to recommend thinking by way of analogy to consider other, similarly charged contexts and controversies. The aim would be to espy parallels in other realms of experience for thinking comparatively about the controversy under consideration. Ethicists need not defer uncritically to others’ defining terms. Sometimes those terms are matters that themselves invite critical scrutiny. They are not sui generis or incommensurable, and we can humanize them by thinking comparatively about analogous circumstances. In that way we can navigate the terrain between similarity and difference. I take that method to be one of the chief premises in the academic study of religion and for the practice of social criticism as well.7

Cristina Traina likewise grasps that the insider/outsider distinction is a red herring when considering matters of social criticism, yet worries that I might set the bar too high for establishing credentials to speak with moral authority. “The complexity of global economic and political relations entangle us all in complicity, hypocrisy, and baiting,” she writes, referencing ways in which moral critics can forfeit their claims to authority. Perhaps she and I disagree about the extent to which critics can be judged as culpable for the conditions in which they operate. In any event, my position about securing moral authority sets the bar more realistically than Traina states. The virtues necessary to acquire proper credentials as a moral critic presume that all critics operate within compromised historic, social, and cultural circumstances—that no moral criticism operates from a position of innocence. To repeat: what I ask is that the critic exhibit (general) moral and epistemic probity and speak with integrity about matters under her scrutiny. Those expectations aim to strike a middle way between requiring moral purity, on the one hand, and having despair about our lack of innocence, on the other. My view thus aspires to be sober and realistic without relinquishing the need to establish moral standards when considering the ethics of social criticism.

The commentaries by Courtney Campbell, David Gottlieb, and Luke Bretherton generally pick up practical concerns, focusing on indignation, empathy, and solidarity; the ethics and politics of memory; and religion and public reason, as those matters are taken up in chapters 5, 9, and 10, respectively.

My chapter on indignation, empathy, and solidarity focuses on political emotions and the human connections they can help to create. I launch that chapter by citing the case of a union workers’ strike in the Chicago area. The case illustrates challenges that outsiders (those not in the union) face when allying with victims of injustice (those in the union) and joining cause with them. At the heart of my argument is the concept of empathetic indignation. Sharing feelings of indignation, empathetically, enables us to become friends with strangers who are morally aggrieved by the experience of injustice. Bound together in such affective ways, outsiders can join cause in political solidarity with victims of wrongdoing.

Courtney Campbell and his class at Oregon State University tested my ideas within the context of campus discussions of President Trump’s effort to impose an immigration ban on citizens from largely Muslim countries. Campbell states that his students’ moral concerns and political emotions were animated by the polarizing policies of the Trump administration. Standing opposed to that divisiveness, students found themselves drawn to ideals of an inclusive vision of solidarity and, with that, values that could justify Oregon State as a sanctuary campus for victims of discrimination.

Campbell and his students recognized that, on my view (as Walzer writes), the social critic “takes sides in actual or latent conflicts; he sets himself against the prevailing political forces.”8 For social critics, political solidarity with the disempowered and disenfranchised involves drawing lines. This fact chafes against accounts of solidarity, such as those espoused by Richard Rorty and Pope John Paul II, that are radically inclusive. I judge those morally idealistic views to be politically naïve. Students at Oregon State espied a fundamental tension: am I not playing into the same politics of division and polarization that they oppose?

The answer is yes and no. Drawing lines pits those in solidarity with the disenfranchised against those who polarize the public sphere with discriminatory and other unjust policies. How else can unjust divisiveness be named for what it is? But such opposition doesn’t put one on the same moral plane with those who foment exclusion and division. In politics, no less than elsewhere, there are just and unjust warriors. Hence I claim that political solidarity worthy of the name must include what I call “moral sovereignty,” the willingness to be ruled by egalitarian principles. Campbell and his students discovered a paradox: aspiring to express a universalist, egalitarian vision of solidarity cannot but position oneself against those who sow division and encourage discrimination. A commitment to inclusivity must, of necessity, exclude those who reject that commitment. As Campbell and his students discovered, those same insights shaped the social criticism and political activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King not only argued against racial discrimination. In so many words, he also asked moderate white Christian ministers, “Which side are you on?”

Campbell presses further by noting that taking sides and feeling empathetic indignation nonetheless carries political risks. Taking sides can exacerbate “incivility, polarization, and the chasm of political divide.” He is correct to identify virtues that ought to guide the expressions of indignation among those who stand in solidarity with victims of injustice. I take his proposal of “cultivating the skills of discernment, philosophic charity, intellectual humility, and civility so that we can differentiate between . . . ‘moral grievance’ that is connected to the desirable solidarity from grievance that issues in incivility, polarization, and the chasm of political divide” as offering a constructive way of establishing the moral credentials necessary for taking action in the name of political solidarity. Justifiably expressing moral grievances in public life, no less than expressing social criticism, means acquiring certain credentials. Campbell and his students were not satisfied with what I offered them and, as exemplary social critics, proposed ways of improving the ideas I put to their scrutiny. I thank them for that.

David Gottlieb addresses my chapter on the moral and political burdens of memory, which I wrote on the view that we routinely recall the past in order to assess the present and envision the future. The fact that memory can be, in part at least, an exercise of agency renders memory-work a fitting matter for ethical analysis. We not only “have” memories, we make them. Noting a general lack of scholarly interest in the topic, I provide a taxonomy of mnemonic practices and review several pioneering studies of the political, ethical, and religious aspects of memory-work.

Gottlieb calls for a more careful analysis of memory on two counts. He notes, first, that my analysis suggests “that memory is stubbornly individual, and that it is not the memory per se but genetic, historical, cultural, and physiological situatedness that determines which memories are collectively held—by individuals.” That is to say (if I infer correctly), I understate the effects of involuntary factors on the mnemonic practices of individuals and groups. Second, he observes that contemporary forms of memory production, namely, electronic and social media, are left out of my account, and that these can have worrisome, indeed toxic, effects on practices of memory and public life today.

To Gottlieb’s first concern, I grant that involuntary factors exert great power on the formation of memory. But it is easy to overlook the fact that cultural memory exists in the plural, not in the singular. We inherit and inhabit diverse forms of cultural memory, which compete for our attention and allegiance. Individual agency explains how those diverse sources are sorted out and how they find a home—sometimes briefly, other times more extensively—in the psyche. Moreover, over-emphasizing the effects of cultural memory should not omit the intimate (yet at times alienating) dimensions of memory, the fact that memory has intense first-personal aspects. We cannot overlook memory’s “reflexivity”—the fact that I am remembering and am mindful of that fact.

Gottlieb’s second concern asks us to expand the cultural data for thinking about memory to include electronic and social media, an insight that I accept as an important addition to the examples I offer. He notes that these agencies of memory can be toxic. In social media’s “crowd sourced” memory, Gottlieb suggests, the first-personal aspects of memory are manipulated and congealed into expressions of group-think. Matters of alterity, acknowledgment, and difference are thereby eclipsed, fueling the polarizing cultural and political practices that Campbell and his class worried about. Gottlieb is quite correct in alerting us to such dangers. Here, again, we see why and where features of our cultural lives call out for normative analysis in light of the dialectic between intimacy and alterity.

Gottlieb’s example of “Hate Man” illustrates ways in which the experience of difference can prompt real conversations on a number of topics, including matters of political importance in democratic public life. Luke Bretherton draws on agonistic political theory and takes issue with the liberal assumptions that underlie my chapter on religion, democratic authority, and public reason. Focusing on my proposal that civic empathy can explain how citizens might take up the view of other citizens’ interests and circumstances, and noting the value of reciprocity that informs normative considerations of democracy, he spots an apparent contradiction in my account. Bretherton asks: “why does civic empathy demand that everyone become good liberals but not, based on reciprocity (a key value in both [Miller’s] and [John] Rawls’s argument) require liberals to become more religiously literate?”

The doctrine of public reason places no barriers on learning the vernacular languages, values, and thought-forms of the other in civic discourse and debate. Bretherton states that liberalism is a secular, comprehensive doctrine, one that seeks to impose a totalizing vision on others and whose adherents are loath to learn about and speak the languages of other citizens when engaging in public discourse about political controversies. It may also be the case, he observes, that tradition-specific practices of, say, the Gandhian conception of ahimsa, may well be better at generating an ethic of alterity than liberal thought.

Readers of the book will quickly see that I go to some length to theorize about public reason as a political doctrine, not a comprehensive (and secular) doctrine. When viewed politically rather than metaphysically, liberalism has us focus on how diverse comprehensive doctrines can achieve an overlapping consensus about matters of basic justice rather than rely on one comprehensive doctrine. Political liberals have good reason to take up opportunities (as Bretherton states, citing Jeremy Waldron) “to converse with others on their own terms, . . . to see what we can understand of their reasons, and to present our reasons as well as we can to them.” Those conversations are appropriate in the “background culture” or “the culture of civil society” and they should be guided, as I have argued elsewhere, by the principle of intellectual charity or “benefit of the doubt respect.”9 Matters regarding public reason focus our attention not on those domains, but on the formation or revision of policies in “the public political forum.” That forum is narrower than the realms of “background culture” or “the culture of civil society.” It is a discrete sphere within the wider domain of political life, co-existence, and conversation. Those engaged in public reason do not aspire to find a “neutral” vantage point, as Bretherton states, but a common one. Nor is it necessary to claim, as Bretherton seems to think, that political liberalism must prove itself superior to other beliefs and practices at generating an ethic of alterity. What is necessary according to public reason is that tradition-specific practices attempt to align themselves with basic democratic values when commending one or another public policy to citizens who live by their own and other tradition-specific practices. My core point is that, for public policies to be democratically legitimate—for them to have the proper authority to affect the political freedoms of all citizens—those who avow them should make a good faith effort to justify them according to common democratic values, e.g., liberty or equality. Democratic power—including the power to coerce—is a matter to be shared equally. Public reason guides us in exercising that power equitably in relation to other citizens.

Critics of public reason routinely enlarge the target to insist that public reason puts a damper on free speech in public life. They typically claim something to the effect that public reason “precludes real democratic dialogue and encounter in which both differences and commonalities constitute an emergent arena of mutual (not neutral) ground.” My argument insists that critiques of public reason must be more discriminate and focus on the moral demands of establishing democratic authority. Bretherton reveals how far his analysis misses the actual target when he contrasts liberal ideas from tradition-specific practices. He offers us a false set of alternatives. One can avow tradition-specific practices and be a political liberal when deliberating about matters that will affect the political freedoms of fellow citizens in a democracy. My argument shows how that possibility is both normative and realistic.

* * * * *

I hope that my comments, in dialogue with these six critics, help to sharpen, deepen, and expand the directions taken up in Friends and Other Strangers. I’m deeply grateful for the time and thought each critic devoted to the Religion and Culture Forum and to Joel Brown for organizing it. I also hope that the conversation that the Forum provides will stimulate further, critical attention to questions and intellectual opportunities that arise at the intersections of religion, ethics, and culture.

Richard B. Miller, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Religious Ethics at the Divinity School, is a scholar of religion and ethics, which he explores in an interdisciplinary, critical, and comparative way. Professor Miller’s interests include political ethics, theory and method in religious ethics, social criticism, and practical reasoning in ethics. Working with sources both classical and contemporary, Miller examines how normative claims that are generated by religious thought and practice provide guides to human conduct in personal and public life, and he does so in critical dialogue with moral and political philosophy. He is the author of Interpretations of Conflict: Ethics, Pacifism, and the Just-War Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1991); Casuistry and Modern Ethics: A Poetics of Practical Reasoning (University of Chicago Press, 1996); Children, Ethics, and Modern Medicine (Indiana University Press, 2003), and Terror, Religion, and Liberal Thought (Columbia University Press, 2010).  In addition, he has edited War in the Twentieth Century: Sources in Theological Ethics (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992). His new book, Friends and Other Strangers: Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture charts and expands the field of religious ethics by exploring the implications of taking a cultural turn in the humanities and social sciences (Columbia University Press, 2016). His essays have appeared in the Journal of Religion, the Journal of Religious Ethics, Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Ethics and International AffairsHarvard Theological Review, and Theological Studies.

 * Photo image: “Touching Strangers” by Richard Renaldi. Since 2007, photographer Richard Renaldi has worked on a series of photographs for which he asks complete strangers to physically interact while posing together for a portrait. 

  1. I do so in a previous ethnographically informed study; see my Children, Ethics, and Modern Medicine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).
  2. I take up such questions from a different angle in “Normativity and Social Criticism in the Study of Religion,” at
  3. See Kevin Schilbrack, Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), chap. 7.
  4. Michael Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 50.
  5. Ibid., 61.
  6. Ibid., 55.
  7. I take up these ideas in Casuistry and Modern Ethics: A Poetics of Practical Reasoning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), chap. 1 and, when thinking about political religion and terrorism, in Terror, Religion, and Liberal Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), chap. 2. Yet thinking analogously is not without perils. See my “Normativity and Social Criticism in the Study of Religion” (n. 2 above).
  8. Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism, 55.
  9. Terror, Religion, and Liberal Thought, chaps. 5, 7.
Skip to toolbar