The May issue of the Forum features Divinity School Professor Richard B. Miller and his most recent book, Friends and Other Strangers: Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2016). Friends and Other Strangers 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 includes the introduction to Friends and Other Strangers, “Alterity and Intimacy” (below). In the coming weeks, scholars will offer responses to different chapters of the book. At the end of the month, Professor Miller will close out the series with a final response. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.
- Chapter 2, “On Making a Cultural Turn in Religious Ethics” (Thomas A. Tweed, University of Notre Dame)
- Chapter 3, “Moral Authority and Moral Critique in An Age of Ethnocentric Anxiety” (Caroline Anglim, University of Chicago)
- Chapter 3, “Moral Authority and Moral Critique in An Age of Ethnocentric Anxiety” (Cristina Traina, Northwestern University)
- Chapter 5, “Indignation, Empathy, and Solidarity” (Courtney Campbell, Oregon State University)
- Chapter 9, “The Moral and Political Burdens of Memory” (David Gottlieb, University of Chicago)
- Chapter 10, “Religion, Public Reason, and the Morality of Democratic Authority” (Luke Bretherton, Duke University)
- Author’s Response, “On Religion, Ethics, and Cultural Criticism: A Reply to Six Critics” (Richard B. Miller, University of Chicago)
The following is excerpted from Friends and Other Strangers by Richard B. Miller. Copyright (c) 2016 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Alterity and Intimacy
The principle of mutual love admonishes people to constantly come nearer to each other; that of respect which they owe each other, to keep themselves at a distance from one another. —Immanuel Kant
One of the dramatic intellectual discoveries in the last several decades is the idea of otherness and, with that, a more expansive grasp of what it means to be human. The other experiences the world in light of particular symbols, lore, ideas, and commitments, thereby revealing distinctive possibilities of identity and agency in pursuit of the good life. Otherness makes a declarative statement: “I am; this way of life can be.” The other’s existence is thereby a form of address. Alterity exists not as some mute or neutral fact of life; it has the quality of an expressive speech-act. It is both a manifestation and a proclamation. We learn from the other that what it means to be human does not fit into a single, preestablished mold. Indeed, viewing humanity as fitting into a uniform model is one idea that the late twentieth century enabled us to do away with.
Given these developments, we increasingly view ourselves in dialogical terms. One’s own way of being is constituted in no small part by one’s responses to an other’s utterances and, for that matter, to the many [p. 2] expressive speech-acts that address us. The other thereby reveals how one’s own outlook is partial and contingent. This is not to say that we approve of or endorse the views of an other. But it does say that one’s picture of a good life can be disrupted, broadened, and deepened by possibilities that others bring to one’s imaginative repertoire. Alterity can be a promissory note, perhaps a utopian one.
The discovery of otherness along with this fact of being addressed has various implications. One implication is epistemic: the other provides occasions for an increase in knowledge by informing me of a different way of life, a different conception of personhood, a different way of identifying one’s self in relation to others—and different ways of conceiving these organizing concepts of “ways of life,” “personhood,” and “self in relation to others.” Presented with alternatives of these kinds, I can grasp my parochialism as a predicament to be overcome. In my encounters with others my knowledge can be deepened, my interests exposed, my ignorance remedied. I can now see things differently, from an other’s point of view.
A quite different implication points not so much to opportunities that arise in an epistemological sense as to being-in-relation with others. This implication has to do with normative aspects that inhere in the experience of otherness itself. The idea I have in mind is Stanley Cavell’s notion of acknowledgment, or acknowledging others, which is distinct from knowing them.1 Acknowledgment is a matter of responding to something you are exhibiting—specifically, a matter of revealing a set of feelings or interests in response to your speech-acts. Here the idea is that an other’s address speaks in the imperative mood. The statement, “I am; this way of life can be,” is an expression that arises from an other’s normative commitments, in response to which one’s acknowledgment exhibits a moral stance. Acknowledging an other, then, immediately involves one in a dialogue of address and response. But that dialogue presupposes something else—something more fundamental—about acknowledgement, namely, that I expose something about myself in my response, something that is deep and abiding. Acknowledgment, then, is not so much an occasion or an event as it is “a category in terms of which a given response is evaluated.”2 To acknowledge thus presupposes existing in relation to an other, in response to whom I disclose something fundamental about myself. [p. 3]
Seen in these terms, my encounter with an other is less about my predicament-as-parochial than about how my life is normatively conditioned by alterity. The core idea is that the other petitions me to account for myself. My relationship is not a matter of knowing the other but of responding to the other as someone to whom I am responsible.3 This is not to say that the other is someone for whom I am responsible; responsibility is not the same as the morality of justice or care. It rather indicates that the demand to respond to the other requires grasping how our relationships are inescapably ethical. I can respond to an other only in a certain way. How I do so reveals something about my orientation and reactive attitudes, about how I grasp the demands of social existence.
Otherness thereby exposes deficient and donative dimensions to our commerce with the world. We can see this when we think about failures of knowledge and acknowledgment, respectively. Our failure of knowledge denotes an absence, a form of ignorance, an epistemic deficit. Our failure of acknowledgment is, in contrast, “the presence of something, a confusion, an indifference, a callousness, an exhaustion, a coldness.”4 Seen in this way, knowledge is to ignorance as acknowledgment is to apathy.
To acknowledge is not necessarily to endorse another’s way of life or vision of the good. It rather makes plain that we do not come to each other on neutral terms. Otherness not only speaks; it requests a hearing. It thereby reveals an ethical asymmetry between me and an other insofar as I am beckoned by another’s address.5 My success or failure to respond to an address reveals something about me in a deep sense. The other challenges in ways that are as epistemic as they are moral. The experience of difference includes the demand for respect, if not recognition, “from the ground up.” Alterity requires a reckoning.
Difference, strangeness, and alterity, then, are not only facts that describe others in the world; they are also, obviously, matters of relationality. Difference is relative to the person or persons to whom the other is positioned as near or far, commonplace or exotic, familiar or strange, and so forth. That is to say, alterity is itself contingent on specific circumstances and conditions. Those who are strange to me might be familiar to you and vice versa. Equally important, difference cannot be a matter of indifference. As a nonneutral summons to me, the other implicates me [p. 4] in her address. She reveals the quality of my reactive attitudes and thus becomes a matter of singular importance.
The experience of alterity, with its epistemic and normative dimensions, contrasts with another feature of existence according to which, or around which, we carry out our reflections and exercise our concerns. This second feature pertains to matters that are intimate, connected, and familiar. “The shapes of knowledge are always ineluctably local,” Clifford Geertz writes, “indivisible from their instruments and their encasements.”6 This statement pertains to more than sources of knowledge alone; it captures the value of intimacy as important to our identity, self-knowledge, and subject formation. Who we are is constituted in no small way by our intimate relationships—by our friendships, loves, and attachments. This matter of our constitution, moreover, extends beyond what we know and acknowledge to ways in which we are intimately known and acknowledged—to our webs of interlocution and intersubjectivity.
The concept of intimacy as it bears on personal identity thus complicates the epistemic and normative dimensions of alterity to which I just referred. How we respond to difference depends on our more explicit and intentional attachments that strongly contribute to our self-under- standing. This is not to say that we are sealed into, or closed off by, our intimate relationships. But it is to say that we do not respond to others as if we are blank or empty slates. We come to the world with a stance, an attitude, a set of partial preferences and a sense of location—with what is called, following Donald Evans, an “onlook.” An onlook, Evans writes, is a matter of looking “on x as y.”7 Such looking differs from having opinions or abstract conceptualizations toward x, and it is more than having a “perspective” on x. Onlooks involve us by way of feeling, posture, commitment, vision, and intentionality. “In saying ‘I look on x as y,’” Evans writes, “I commit myself to a policy of behavior and thought, and I register my decision that x is appropriately described as y; my utterance combines an undertaking with a judgment. . . . One undertakes to do certain things, viewing them or interpreting them in a certain way.”8 Talking about an onlook, in other words, is a way of referring to things [p. 5] that matter to us, to our basic normative commitments—commitments that involve us at the very root of our identity and our nonneutral stance toward others and the world. Moreover, our onlooks are hardly monological. Those things that matter to us, that help to constitute our identity, can be a form of alterity to others. I, too, exist as an address that includes the demand for respect if not recognition.
Seen in this way, our lives ineluctably oscillate between experiences of intimacy and otherness. Our sense of what is near and dear is a source of what matters to us. It also conditions how we respond to what is different, strange, and unfamiliar. But the conditioning is hardly one-way. Our experiences of otherness expose our intimacies as contingent and thus dependent on social and historical sources. That is to say, our experience of otherness exposes near and distant sources of the self. This fact of contingency, moreover, is more than first-personal; it bears on more than me alone. What is evident about my own contingency is true for others as well. Accordingly, what is near and dear to others is revealed as contingent and dependent in their encounters with their others—others that might include oneself. When generalized in this way, the ethical asymmetries that shape our relations with others are inescapably reciprocal. Contingent and mutually conditioning, they oscillate in countless and unpredictable ways over time.
Self, Society, Politics
Kant’s account of the principles of love and respect provides an appropriate point of departure for this book.9 Viewing these principles on analogy with the physical laws of the universe, Kant saw mutual love and respect as opposing forces of attraction and repulsion that hold our moral lives together. The principles of mutual love admonish us to come closer and to be more intimate; those of mutual respect require us to maintain some distance and respect for difference. His description, like mine, views attraction and distanciation, intimacy and alterity, in a paradoxical and dialectical way: they are opposed yet mutually interdependent. Yet, unlike Kant, I do not view these polarities as only describing what he calls our “external relations” with one another. They also [p. 6] pertain to, and penetrate, the emotional quality of our experience and interpersonal ties.
In the chapters that follow I aim less to explore intimacy and alterity as topics of concentrated analysis than to use them as touchstones for examining normative dimensions of self-other relationships as they are implicated in social life, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships. My overall aim is to explore ethical dimensions of intimacy and alterity in personal and pub- lic affairs, focusing in particular on insights made possible by attending to the category of culture as an organizing rubric. Culture is an obvious forum for considering the coeval experiences of intimacy and alterity: cultures bring a range of different individuals together and make possible a distinct, common life. Moreover, cultures often distinguish their customs, traditions, and habits—sometimes dramatically, other times less stridently—from those of other cultures. That is to say, in one stroke cultures instantiate the experience of intimacy and otherness. They make plain the dialectic of attraction and distanciation to which Kant calls our attention. Scholarship in the humanities has pursued these concepts of alterity and intimacy in isolation from each other, typically in the form of theorizing about heterology or theorizing about friendship and special relationships. My premise in this book is different. Rather than quaran- tine the experiences of intimacy and alterity from each other, I view them in dialectical terms and will thereby seek to illumine features of cultural and moral life that we otherwise leave unnoticed.
Seen not as isolable but as dialectical, the ideas of otherness and intimacy offer a set of ideas that together inform how we should think about a range of questions in philosophy, religious studies, cultural studies, and political theory. Those questions, as I will take them up in this book, concern culture and identity; social criticism; moral authority; empathy and solidarity; family relationships; friendship, death, and self-sacrifice; memory; and political obligation. Critical reflection about these matters, I want to show, draws its sustenance from our engagements and attach- ments, our experiences of disruption and desire, our outlooks and our onlooks, our openness to utopia and accountability. Along the way we will see how friends and intimates come to us—and remain for us—as strangers in interpersonal and political affairs. [p. 7]
The chapters that follow are first and foremost a contribution to religious ethics, a relatively new area of scholarship that examines the variety of ways in which religion and ethics are interrelated. In chapter 1 I describe religious ethics and how this book seeks to widen and dimensionalize that guild’s self-understanding. Yet I hasten to add, again echoing Geertz, that this volume is, more broadly, a project “of intellectual deprovincialization.”10 While the ensuing chapters address issues in religious studies and moral philosophy, they also intervene into a wider set of conversations in the humanities, especially in cultural theory, ethnography, and political thought. They offer a vision of knowledge production that resists efforts to support ignorance and apathy about others—efforts that homogenize cultural identity, dichotomize cultural differences into invidious “us-them” contrasts, and generate intractable wedge issues surrounding one or another social controversy.11 My view, reflected in the arguments herein, is that we do well to trespass established disciplinary territories and break down the intellectual silos along with the cultural barriers that they may covertly or overtly protect. The chapters of this book, individually and taken together, are meant as exercises of scholarly transgression.
Chapter 1, “What Is Religious Ethics?,” situates Friends and Other Strangers within the wider field of religious ethics, a field that is still trying to define itself. I provide a brief history of the rise of religious ethics and offer an account of how religious ethicists should understand themselves. One of my aims is to provide a clear statement about the emergence and current habits of thought in the guild. Another aim is to clarify how the substantive and methodological arguments in this book are intended to unsettle those habits. Drawing on and revising the overview of religious ethics by James Gustafson, I describe four patterns of inquiry in religious ethics. I then introduce and defend a fifth pattern for religious ethics, arguing for a turn to cultural studies with an eye toward advancing a study of intimacy and alterity in religious ethics and the humanities more generally. Chapter 2, “On Making a Cultural Turn in Religious Ethics,” explores resources and reasons for the study of culture in religious ethics, paying special attention to scholarship that provides what I call an ethics [p. 8] of ordinary life. One of my goals is to show how discourses that seek to explore otherness provide tools for uncovering the intimate details of, and relationships in, everyday life, along with their moral implications. Another goal is to disrupt established patterns of work in religious ethics by calling attention to experiments and arguments in cultural anthropology that have been more or less ignored by scholars in religious ethics. The aim of bringing these discourses into conversation is to open up a wider range of interlocutors and issues for genuinely interdisciplinary work in religion and ethics, work that engages scholars who work in anthropology, psychology, cultural theory, and aesthetics. That hope has a dialogical impetus as well. It aspires to open up pathways along which those who work in cultural studies might find opportunities in and challenges from scholars who work on topics in ethics and religion. I conclude the chapter by discussing exemplary works by Wayne Meeks, Margaret Trawick, and Charles Taylor on the way toward making some prognostications about future directions in religious ethics.
Chapter 3, “Moral Authority and Moral Critique in an Age of Ethnocentric Anxiety,” addresses a question that emerges from the previous chapter regarding the ethics of ethnography and social criticism more generally: Can it be right for an outsider to morally criticize practices or beliefs that are indigenous to another cultural group or tradition? On what terms, if any, is it possible for social criticism of other cultures and practices to avoid charges of moral chauvinism? I tackle these questions by arguing that they are undertheorized, the frequent effect of which is to tar social criticism in cross-cultural exchanges with charges of ethnocentrism. With that problem in mind I split my question into two parts. The bifurcation turns on distinguishing between having the right to offer criticism and being right about one’s critical judgments. I address each of these parts of my question by showing how it can be answered in the affirmative. My aim is not to discredit concerns about ethnocentrism tout court, only to sharpen how and where they properly apply to the practice of social critique. I aim to dispel some anxieties about ethnocentrism and to clarify when criticizing others is a genuine moral problem (and when it is not). Clarifying that idea makes it possible to then identify proper norms for expressing social criticism or, more precisely, nonchauvinistic social criticism in multicultural contexts. [p. 9]
Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Empathy,” picks up a thread from the previous chapter by focusing on the idea that social criticism of others should be in some way empathic. The general idea—echoing arguments by Dilthey, Collingwood, Polanyi, and Gadamer—is to get beyond putatively value-neutral and detached forms of knowing—knowing on the model of disembodied scientific reasoning. The underlying complaint, stated broadly, is that disembodied forms of knowing fail to grasp how our knowledge is situated and interpretive. A related complaint is that disembodied, scientific reasoning fails to capture the lived, psychological features of the moral life. These two complaints have conspired to generate a demand in the humanities and social sciences for scholarship that is motivated by empathy. I take up reasons that champion empathy and subject them to healthy skepticism. I want to move beyond folk notions of empathy that naively espouse empathic knowing as a necessary remedy to egotistical, chauvinistic, or culturally insensitive forms of knowing and acting. One commonly overlooked problem is that empathy can be mobilized for all kinds of undesirable reasons or in ways that blunt the requirements of true other-regard. I sharpen this line of argument by analogizing the ethics of empathy with Augustine’s ethics of love. Perhaps more than any other Western thinker, Augustine was keenly alert to love’s potential to advance self-serving motives and ends. In his mind love can be either good or bad, depending on the object loved. Augustine theorized about the virtue of love, and its potential to assist both friends and strangers, in ways that can help us think comparatively about empathy as a desirable moral trait. I thus explore Augustine’s effort to redeem love as a step toward constructing norms of empathy that can meet ethical expectations that are often naively assigned to it.
Chapter 5, “Indignation, Empathy, and Solidarity,” asks how and on what terms friends may enter into solidarity with strangers who are aggrieved by their experience of injustice. Often we ask ourselves how we might join the cause of others who are victims of wrongdoing and political corruption. I address that challenge first by distinguishing my view of solidarity from the universalist, irenic, inclusivist notions of solidarity as avowed by Pope John Paul II and Richard Rorty. On my account solidarity is not a notion that suggests we overcome differences; on the contrary, it describes an intersubjective social union that is partial and preferential, [p. 10] primed for struggle, and held together by political emotions such as resentment and indignation (among other sentiments). Solidarity draws lines between comrades, on the one hand, and agents of wrongdoing, on the other. We enter into solidarity with others who are victims of injustice, I argue, through feelings of empathic indignation. We can imagine ourselves in others’ shoes and thereby grasp what lies behind their feelings of resentment toward regimes of power and inequality. Empathic indignation, moreover, can benefit from religion. Prophetic religions can help cultivate feelings of resentment and indignation—and partisan fellow-feeling—by drawing on the literature of social criticism from their sacred writings and by recalling the history of prophetic voices in their respective traditions. In that way religions can help their members become friends with other strangers to build solidarity and advance the cause of social justice.
Chapter 6, “On Duties and Debts to Children,” shifts our attention to a particular case that arose from ethnographic fieldwork I carried out in pediatric health-care settings in the 1990s. I focus on an insight I gained in that research by exploring normative features of our relationships with those who are loved as ineradicably and simultaneously other and intimate—namely, children. That dialectical fact about children cannot but affect the ethos of a family and implicate its cultural traditions in response to the challenges of childrearing. I take as my touchstone the insight that caring for people who are young can be revelatory for the adults who do so. That revelation takes the form of disclosing something to the caretakers about themselves that they otherwise would be unlikely to discover. Children enable us to discover our own hidden alterities. I develop my argument by noting that love and care for children are typically justified as exercises of moral duty toward those who are vulnerable and at-risk. But carrying out such duties is only one dimension of our relationships with young people. Another dimension is an oddity regarding our relationships with them—the idea that children generate debts for us to acknowledge. I examine this oddity by noting that such debts arise as a result of the effects that children can have on adults: challenging us, requiring us to do good owing to their needs and vulnerabilities, and, in the process, enabling us to discover things about ourselves that we would otherwise not know. Children make plain to us that we do not come to one another on neutral terms. That fact invites us to examine basic features of [p. 11] moral responsibility that standard approaches to practical ethics routinely overlook.
Chapter 7, “Evil, Friendship, and Iconic Realism in Augustine’s Confessions,” begins by noting that children often become friends with their parents and other family members, care providers, and fellow children in important and enduring ways. Friendships during and after childhood are attachments that can disclose something about us to ourselves and others. Here I examine how one of Augustine’s childhood friendships performs precisely the sort of work I identify in the previous chapter, namely, manifesting something to Augustine that he would otherwise not know—something about his priorities and ends. I show how friendship in Augustine’s understanding entails a set of broader metaphysical commitments on which the quality of our intimate relationships depends. Indeed, Augustine views good friendship as a form of intimacy that relies on a fundamental grasp of alterity. We need our friends to be truly other lest they become reflections of our own needs and desires. But our friends and intimates, Augustine avows, are not obviously or readily available to us in their reality and otherness. In his view our intimates too easily become objects for selfish control without an organizing interpretive framework that secures their alterity within a wider, objective order of being and love. Augustine develops his particular organizing framework—what I call a theocentric imaginary—to develop an ethics of desire and heterology, one that helps us see that true friends are those with whom we hold intimacy and alterity together in a dialectical tension.
Chapter 8, “Just War, Civic Virtue, and Democratic Social Criticism: Augustinian Reflections,” begins by noting that, for Augustine, the problem of viewing others according to our self-serving desires and pro- jections informs political life no less than more local and intimate relationships. Here I take that insight into a discussion of the ethics and social psychology of war. My aim is to expand the normative framework for thinking about the moral and psychic effects of nationalism and violence. War mobilizes allies, friends, and citizens in opposition to a perceived military and political other. In that mobilization war arouses deep pas- sions and patriotic desires, which often obtrude on moral reasoning and self-criticism during war and in subsequent commemorations. Put differ- ently, war can be the occasion of disordered passions, otherwise known [p. 12] as vices. Frequently those vices find expression when we extol ourselves and our friends and demonize others, especially (but not only) in times of military conflict. The practice of applying ethical criteria—for example, just-war criteria—to assess war must be regularly interrogated given their vulnerability to being hijacked to rationalize wrongdoing and to sanctify disordered public sentiments. I defend these ideas through a close reading of Augustine’s writings on killing and war. Augustine reminds us that the morality of actions must consider not only how one’s conduct affects the welfare of others but also how one’s conduct affects oneself. Equally important, Augustine provides valuable resources for evaluating cultures that encourage violence and killing for whatever cause and that calcify cultural differences in order to valorize one’s own. Such behavior often takes the form of demonizing the other and imagining ourselves as morally superior to our enemies, both during war and afterward in our practices of civic memorialization. That fact of public life, he suggests, opens up cultures to normative evaluation and critique.
Chapter 9, “The Moral and Political Burdens of Memory,” takes up more general matters regarding memory and justice along with the practices of memorialization and bearing witness to the past. I focus on the question, Do we have an obligation to remember people and past events? I use that question as a starting point to critically examine several recent works that ask whether, and on what terms, we have an obligation to remember, whether memory is linked to neighbors distant and near, how memory is connected to justice and forgiveness, and whether memory sits easily with the kinds of relationships that characterize life in democratic public culture. I pursue these problems on the premise that memory work migrates across fields that we typically sort out in terms of psyche and culture. Memory is doubtless one of the most intimate of our cognitive and affective activities and provides occasions for deep and intense encounters with our intrasubjective alterities. It is expressed in various ways, including deliberate practices of memorialization. Given that memory work can be a deliberate act, the topic of memory opens up a range of normative questions regarding the proper exercise of moral agency in relation to acts of memory work and related practices of self-interpretation, community formation, and public justice. An analysis of memory invites us to consider our duties and debts, our cultural habits, and our relationships with [p. 13] others both near and far. I examine these ideas in dialogue with recent contributions to the ethics and politics of memory by Avishai Margalit, W. James Booth, Paul Ricoeur, Jeffrey Blustein, and various scholars in American religious history.
Chapter 10, “Religion, Public Reason, and the Morality of Democratic Authority,” broadens the book’s compass by taking up matters regarding religion and public policy in democratic societies. In particular, I discuss the extent to which religious ideas may operate within the canons of “public reason,” an idea developed by John Rawls and a version of which I describe to set the stage for determining whether or how religious reasons should inform the creation or revision of democratic public policy. Public reason establishes a normative framework for assessing arguments that may be introduced in democratic deliberations and decision making in the discourse of lawmakers, jurists, and ordinary citizens. Following the work of Corey Brettschneider, I argue that public reason’s normative dimensions are properly understood in light of the democratic values of political equality, political freedom, and reciprocity. I argue that those values must be met in democratic reason-giving and policy making for a policy to have democratic authority. The values of equality, autonomy, and reciprocity constrain how we are to debate about other values and, more generally, how we are to comport ourselves in relation to fellow citizens who share a commitment to equality and social cooperation. To theorize about religion and public reason is to theorize about power and authority—specifically, whether and how appeals to religious authority align with the moral demands of democratic authority given democracy’s normative understanding of how political power is to be properly shared. To clarify these ideas in concrete terms, I illustrate how constraints on reason-giving enable us to evaluate religiously informed efforts to contribute to public policy deliberations regarding same-sex relations, reproductive cloning, and racial justice.
In the epilogue, “Signposts of the Past and for the Future,” I turn to a number of works that traverse the fields of religion, ethics, and culture that were published during the decade in which I drafted the chapters that make up this volume. I examine hybridizing scholarship that interrogates matters of medical ethics, gender relations, the cultural politics of religious revivalism, grassroots political activism, and subject-formation—works [p. 14] that depart from mainstream scholarship in their respective fields by coordinating different research traditions in the study of religion, culture, and ethics. I comment on each monograph with an eye to the promise they hold for future work religious ethics, cultural criticism, and public life.
Taken together, these chapters make an extended case for expanding the field of religious ethics to include critical attention to normative dimensions of culture, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships. It bears repeating that culture is an obvious forum for considering the coeval experiences of intimacy and alterity. Cultures bring different individuals together and make possible a distinct, shared way of life and set of habits. Indeed, as James Clifford observes, “to say that the individual is culturally constituted has become a truism. . . . We assume, almost without question, that a self belongs to a specific cultural world much as it speaks a native language.”12 And cultures typically distinguish their practices, modes of expression, and values from those of other cultures. In that way cultures instantiate the experience of intimacy and otherness in one fell swoop. With that fact in view I will argue for a reconsideration of the field of religious ethics and suggest new directions for future work. One aim will be to identify a cluster of concepts that can catalyze experimental directions of research; another will be to revisit now-familiar ideas and discoveries and theorize about them from new angles. The underlying idea is that cultures generate manifestations and proclamations that reveal something about others’ organizing habits, as well as our own onlooks, desires, and attachments. The vision that animates this work is that the field of religious ethics is anything but one that should seek purity in its understanding of morality.13
Attending to the themes of intimacy and alterity (with corresponding attention to the concept of culture) will likely seem odd to many scholars of religion and religious ethics insofar as these themes invite us to consider new topics and methodologies for the field. Understanding how such matters might disturb patterns of thought in religious ethics requires us to know something about the subject matter and practice of the guild, along with how religious ethics has come to be a scholarly specialty. With that fact in mind let us turn to an examination of the habits and potential future directions of religious ethics as a way of orienting us for the chapters that will follow.
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 Affairs, Harvard 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.
- Stanley Cavell, “Knowing and Acknowledging,” in Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays, updated ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002/1969), 238-66. ↩
- Ibid., 263-64. ↩
- For a discussion of these ideas within Jewish philosphy see Robert Gibbs, Why Ethics? Signs of Responsibilities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). For a review of the concept of otherness in American literature see Giles Gunn, “American Literature and the Imagination of Otherness,” Journal of Religious Ethics 3, no. 2 (1975): 193-215. ↩
- Cavell, “Knowing and Acknowledging,” 264. ↩
- Thanks to Kevin Houser for helpful conversations about these ideas. See Kevin Houser, “Suffering, Acknowledgement, and the Ethical Space of Reasons” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2015). ↩
- Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 4. ↩
- Donald D. Evans, The Logic of Self-Involvement (London: SCM Press, 1963), 125. ↩
- Ibid., 128. ↩
- Thanks to Michael Rings for calling my attention to this feature of Kant’s ideas. ↩
- Geertz, Local Knowledge, 3. ↩
- I am indebted to Matt Miller for this insight. ↩
- James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 92. ↩
- See Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 194-95. ↩