Twenty-five years
ago, Neil Postman wrote an incisive book entitled Amusing Ourselves to
Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. It argued that in
modern America communication must be cast as entertaining and amusing in order
to be heard. This imperative applies to news, politics, education and even

With information
reduced to sound bites and punch lines, obviously something of value is lost.
Public discourse is trivialized. If anything, of course, the new information
technologies have accentuated the problem.

Earlier, Alasdair
MacIntyre had written After Virtue (1981), a great book on moral
philosophy, which argued that disagreement about moral principle is endemic to
modern life, and that people no longer speak a common ethical language. Our
moral discourse is impoverished, as we talk past each other. He says we need a
new, doubtless quite different, Saint Benedict to construct new forms of
communities that can sustain civility and the tradition of the virtues. The
barbarians are not just at the gates. “They have been already been governing us
for quite some time.”

Now Steven D.
Smith, Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego,
has written The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, published by
Harvard University Press (2010), which is a critical examination of much that
passes for public discourse in the wake of John Rawls’ influential 1971 Theory
of Justice
, also published by Harvard University Press. Among other things,
Rawls argued that “public reason” requires citizens to “refrain from
invoking or acting on their… deepest convictions about what is really true—and
consent to work only with a scaled-down set of beliefs or methods that claim
the support of an ostensible ‘overlapping consensus.’”.

Smith’s thesis is
that “on so many matters of importance, the general quality of discussion does
indeed seem disappointingly shallow.” Even in legal disputes decided by the
Supreme Court, “the actual quality of reasoning is almost invariably thin,
conclusory and disappointing.” So much for the US Supreme Court being an
exemplar of John Rawl’s “public reason”! “In sum, if our public discourse on
matters of political morality seems degraded, that lamentable condition is not
limited to the sort of ‘sound bite’ talk that we encounter in a presidential
campaign or on Fox News or MSNBC. The problems runs deeper.”  

According to
Smith, Reason (the ruling ethos of the Enlightenment era in which America was
founded), “is displaced by ‘reasonableness’—which in effect amounts to a
willingness not to ask too much of, or to assign too much responsibility
to, reason.” Rather than blame “poor schools or profit-driven media or
evangelical religion” for our shallow discourse, “we can notice the way in
which shallowness… is actually prescribed by some of the most
influential political thought of our time” (Rawls and Dworkin & Co).  

Enlightenment. Hello, stripped-down secular chatter. Natural sciences and maybe
economics, with its utilitarian assumptions, may flourish in this universe —
though the recent economic meltdown gives one pause — but normative
commitments (eg, to God, virtue, objective morality, country, marriage and
family) translate poorly into the secular discourse of economics or rational
choice theory.

Of course,
practical issues arise that need to be resolved. Often, they are framed as
issues of freedom and/or equality, which are deeply shared constitutional
values in our society. While feigning neutrality, the recurring temptation is
to smuggle into arguments about liberty and equality deeper presuppositions and
commitments that were supposedly left behind. Smith contends that
“conversations in the secular cage could not proceed very far without

This is what he
means by the disenchantment of secular discourse. When there is no real, robust
confidence in Faith and Reason, we are left with shallow public arguments which
constantly smuggle in unacknowledged premises.

Most of the book
illustrates Smith’s thesis. His idea is to “realistically try to show smuggling
on the part of particular modern thinkers or movements.” He considers the
debate over “assisted suicide”, the famous “harm principle” of John Stuart Mill,
religious freedom and the “wall of separation between church and state”, and
Martha Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” to human rights. Read the book for
the compelling detail.

I think Steven
Smith is substantially right. Just recently Judge Tauro of the US District
Court in Boston declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) says that marriage under federal law—federal
tax, immigration, military, and social security matters—is only between a man
and a woman. Tauro says that’s unconstitutional because it violates equal
protection of the laws. In other words, DOMA treats “married” same-sex couples
in Massachusetts, for purposes of federal law, differently than married
opposite-sex couples.

But as Professor
Hadley Arkes aptly noted, “Tauro simply begins by presupposing the legitimacy
of same-sex marriage and the ‘irrational prejudice’ of anyone who would deny
it. As Bertrand Russell once said, presupposing has every advantage over
demonstration that theft has over honest labor.”

Arguments over
abortion or assisted suicide or same-sex marriage usually revolve around some
claim of liberty or equality. But in all honesty there is no side-stepping the
issue of what constitutes human life, or what makes a marriage. If human life
consists in some form of higher consciousness, then abortion and euthanasia are
acceptable. If marriage is nothing more than some kind of friendship recognized
by the police (to use Robert Louis Stevenson’s phrase), then people of the same
sex can get married to each other.

But first you have
to smuggle in those controverted (and deeply mistaken) premises. If, as both my
reason and my faith indicate, human life begins at conception and ends at
natural death, then anti-life practices are simply homicidal. If marriage is
(as it always has been understood to be throughout history until quite
recently) a complementary commitment between a man and a woman which is
intrinsically ordered to the procreation and education of children, then
same-sex couples cannot be married.

As Abraham Lincoln
once said, even if you call a calf’s tail a leg, the calf still has only four
legs: calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.

In the area of
religious freedom and the separation of church and state, Smith shows how the
original notion of the secular arose in a Christian context of distinguishing
between the two realms of the sacred and the secular, what pertains to God from
what pertains to Caesar, which is a jurisdictional issue.

But lately, it has
come to mean “not religious,” and “the sorts of theological or biblical
arguments that once dominated discussion of the proper relations between church
and state will now seem suspect or inadmissible.” The result? “What has
deteriorated, it seems, is not so much our commitment to church-state
separation and freedom of conscience as our ability to justify and expound
those commitments in public discourse. Nomi Stolzenberg observes the ‘modern
cultural deformity that finds expression in frightening levels of mutual
incomprehension between “the religious” and “the secular” that we see today.’”

In his concluding
chapter, Smith disputes the commonplace view that “meaningful public discourse
must be confined to the secular domain, and that non-secular contributions—in
particular religious contributions—would necessarily operate as a ‘conversation-stopper.’”
His view is that artificial constraints on discourse stifle conversation. The
real conversation-stopper, then, other than religious fundamentalism, is the
disenchanted discourse of secularism.

Pope Benedict XVI made a similar point in his famous Regensburg address in 2006
(a day after the fifth anniversary of 9/11). There he said, “In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic
reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the
world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the
universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A
reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm
of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”

Of course, if we can’t
talk about the issues that divide us, then the only way left to resolve them is
force. Which would be (has been) bad.

Dwight G. Duncan
is professor at the University of Massachusetts School of Law Dartmouth, where
he teaches courses in Constitutional Law, Religion and the Law, and Bioethics
and the Law.

Professor Dwight Duncan teaches courses in Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, Religion and the Law, and Bioethics at University of Massachusetts School of Law Dartmouth. His interests include legal...