Akeel Bilgrami’s essay is important and ambitious. Its importance lies in part in making clear what secularism is and should be—its philosophical foundation one might say; its ambition, in its ability to link these foundations with a wide range of issues that include the implications of giving priority to political ideals; a subtle understanding of the grounds of Islamic fundamentalism; the way in which context might deflate the all too often overextended reach and significance of secularism; the role of reason in history and its link with the moral and epistemological psychology by which even deep convictions are subject to change; the challenge of a relativistic conception of truth; and an understanding of humanism that permits a firm commitment to one’s own view of the truth, while nevertheless embracing a fraternal attitude towards those who deeply disagree with it.
It is on the last couple of these issues that my comments will focus. This is a small window through which to enter into Bilgrami’s broad-ranging and powerful arguments. The precise extent to which this point of entry connects with other aspects of his edifice is not entirely obvious to me, though given the tightly connected analytical tissue he presents, it is likely to have some implications on other parts of his argument. The question I want to raise is whether, given Bilgrami’s endorsement of internal reasons as the basis of “one’s truth” as it is relevant to secularism, his version of humanism can deliver the fraternal caring that he thinks it can without some additional warrant and supplementation. This question relates to the issue of the significance of the neutrality of the state and to why Bilgrami thinks the impasse of relativism does not follow from his view of secularism and why it does not disable it—both issues on which he disagrees with Charles Taylor.
Bilgrami sees the special value of humanism in its inclusiveness in the face of “bitter and vexed” disputes, where each party claims internal reasons as the ground for its own truths. When faced with such disputes, and with no external reasons to which to appeal to settle them, humanism as an evaluative position, Bilgrami claims, permits one to embrace one’s bitter foe as a brother. The significance of this fraternal idea is that it allows one to insist on one’s own truth, thus not being hobbled by relativism and its political cognate neutrality, while offering that very insistence on one’s own truth as a mark of one’s care for one’s fraternal foe. Bilgrami is quite clear that in the first instance the caring is for one’s own conception of what is true. There are no fraternal feelings being insisted on towards others beyond the firm conviction that I have in my truth, which I wish him to accept.
The question I want to raise is: Does this form of caring for my own truth imply any other form of caring for my bitter foe, now designated as my brother, or does the conception of caring need to be thickened with something beyond a love of truth that wishes the other to see things my way? Put differently, does caring for my own version of the truth necessarily produce a form of fraternity that deserves the name? Bilgrami admits that his form of humanism and inclusiveness stems from a rather abstract source, namely a commitment to truth based on one’s own internal reasons. But he does not think this invalidates the point he makes and by which he seeks to go beyond relativism and neutrality. I am not entirely convinced. It is not the abstractness of the position that troubles me. Rather, it is the thinness of the resources by which fraternity could in fact be engendered. I think humanism and fraternity require something beyond a conviction in one’s own truth, though I admit such a conviction adds something profound, and perhaps even essential, to both ideas.
My main reasons for not being convinced is that it seems to me there are all sorts of ways in which one could be utterly convinced of one’s own truth, and wish to have it accepted by others, without entailing any care for those who do not share those truths; indeed, in a good many such cases the very basis of one’s subjective certitude makes an uncaringness and moral indifference towards others highly likely. One could, for example, be utterly dogmatic in one’s insistence on one’s truth or one might have a narrowly narcissistic self-certainty, or just be unable to imagine another point of view, but none of these ways of holding to one’s truths is likely to engender a form of caring that deserves the name of fraternity, even though they might all be moved to be wholly inclusive toward others. The epistemological confidence that marks dogmatism or narcissism is not typically leavened by patience, humility, forgiveness, or openness—the sort of values that must make up the content of care and fraternity. Indeed, such confidence often thinks of itself as having reasons for being aggressive and dominating. Those reasons, barring perverse situations where the person is aware of their own dogmatism or narcissism, are likely to be justified by their insistence on or care for the truth. But the fraternity of such ways of holding to the truth gives nothing of itself to others in the putative gesture of inclusion, i.e. its insistence on the truth one wishes the other to hold to. Even when dogmatically or narcissistically held views change on account of incoming information or the broad effects of Hegelian dialectics, that change need not produce an attitudinal change that brings them closer to a genuine care and respect for others. After all, dogmatism and narcissism are both characterized by self-serving forms of forgetting that allow one to overlook the fact that one’s views have in fact changed. It seems to me that this point has a broader application, beyond the instances where the truth is held dogmatically or narcissistically. Self-certainty by itself needs to be leavened by at least humility for it to be able to produce respect for the other, especially if the other is a bitter foe. When Bilgrami, in the concluding pages of his paper, refers to non-dominating and non-coercive forms of state behavior as following from his quasi-Hegelian humanism, this strikes me as an add-on, for which his thin form of humanism gives little internal warrant.
The point I am making can be illustrated by way of considering Mahatma Gandhi’s attitude towards truth and fraternity. Gandhi insisted on the truth—his truth. This was the singular yardstick by which his actions and those whom he led were to be governed and judged. Such an attitude often produced deep conflicts with those who disagreed with him—conflicts with the imperial authorities, Indian nationalists, and various individuals, including members of his own family, such as his wife and sons. In these conflicts Gandhi hardly ever relaxed his commitment to the truth as he took it; nor did he typically invoke an external or neutral vantage point from which to settle these disputes. Moreover, he did not as a general matter advocate resorting to a framework of toleration such as that offered by a neutral state, which he knew could lead to mutual indifference.
Instead, he insisted on the truth and on fraternity. He yoked the two ideas by giving something of himself, which was not simply an extension of his firmness regarding his view of the truth. Gandhi’s response to deep differences went well beyond the avowal of epistemic and moral certainty. He fasted, he gave up cherished foods, he served in wars where the primary threat was to his opponents and not to himself, he welcomed and courted imprisonment, he abjured the use of physical and other forms of violence and domination, and he was prepared to be endlessly patient and take on suffering. In brief, he vouched for his truth in a way that gave a thicker content to the idea of fraternity, which therefore went beyond just vouching for his truth and the inclusiveness that resulted from that alone. It was such acts that allowed him to think that public concerns could still be navigated though a familial ideal such as fraternity. And similarly it was such forms of behavior—some of which were self-referential, such as fasting, others in which he threw in his lot with his opponents, and yet others where he stood his ground and accepted the consequences—that made Gandhi’s humanism genuinely inclusive and more plausibly caring and fraternal. He made himself, as Bilgrami has compellingly argued in another essay, exemplary and through that generated a convivial, one might say fraternal, radiance, which often moved his opponents. Why did it so often move his opponents? I suspect in large measure because they saw in these acts a firmness of conviction that could not plausibly stem from dogmatism, narcissism, or cognitive myopia and because such acts exemplified some additional quality on account of which his opponents were prepared to reconsider their own firmly held truths. By wagering something of himself, he created the ground on which truth and fraternity could both be sustained. This was also Gandhi’s way of going beyond the impasse of relativism and neutrality without having to rely on Hegel’s reason in history to sustain, as in the case of Bilgrami’s humanism, his confidence in secular liberal outcomes.