Episode 29: Lawrence Torcello
Dr. Lawrence Torcello is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Micah and I learned about him through his article “Is The State Endorsement of Any Marriage Justifiable?” in Public Affairs Quarterly. Having said that, we barely touched the idea of marriage privatization. Lawrence had listened to the entirety of The Conversation before we spoke, so this is the first meta-conversation in the project: we spent much of our time discussing how one can bring conversation about in a pluralistic world. To tackle the idea, Lawrence takes us through the thought of John Rawls, Enlightenment liberalism, and his own argument that “coercion demands justification” is the transcendental idea beneath rationality itself. There’s a lot more in here, but you get the idea.
This was an incredibly fun conversation to record and a tremendously frustrating one to edit. Because Lawrence knew the project so well, our conversation covered more diverse themes than I could fluidly integrate into a single episode and a lot of material hit the editing room floor. To keep the discussion manageable, I have focused our conversation narrowly on liberalism and education. I made this choice for obvious reasons: liberalism hasn’t appeared in the series yet and it opens up new ideas about conversation and diversity, while education has been woefully under-discussed. Listen for a memorable response to Andrew Keen.
While I feel that this episode works as a coherent unit, there is more I want to include and I may post a few short MP3s on the site for those of you who are curious to hear our discussion of scientism, transhumanism, and climate-denialism. Since you’re already here, I suspect you’re the kind of person who, like us, wants to geek out more.
I had a great time speaking with you, Aengus, and continue to be massively impressed by how you and Micah are putting together this project. In your outro, the two of you correctly identify that the essential challenge is whether or not political liberalism is just another comprehensive doctrine among others. You also correctly understand my position that liberalism assumes the necessity of reasoning with one another, just as philosophical discourse does. Consequently, we are left with the choice between violent conquests (i.e. “might makes right”), or reasoned discourse. However, this brings us back to the question of circularity, in that we now must ask whether or not reasoned discourse is itself a circular value. I want to say that it is a transcendental value we must assume in order to engage with each other in a civilized way. In other words, it is a condition of the very possibility of civilized social interaction. At the risk of offering dramatically stark alternatives, this means we each face the choice of treating each other barbarically, or participating in the civilizing community of reason. Unfortunately, one cannot force people to reason (even if it were possible to do so), which itself seems to be part of the necessary condition of being reasonable. This does not mean it is unreasonable to protect ourselves from those who want to hit us with their doctrinal or literal chairs. One of the conditions of a just and reasonable society, I would argue, is that appropriate laws and procedural systems are maintained to sustain such protection.
I am providing a link to some of my published writings below. Of particular relevance to my conversation with Aengus is an entry for the Encyclopedia of Global Justice on “Liberal Pluralism,” as well as an article, “Sophism and Moral Agnosticism: or How to tell a Relativist from a Pluralist.”
Again, thanks for the opportunity to be part of the conversation. I continue to look forward to your future interviews.
This was a fantastic conversation. I don’t even know where to get start with it, honestly. It was indeed very dense with stuff, but I definitely felt a notable difference in tone. Professor Torcello set a pretty good precedent in having a lot of prior knowledge of what conversations we’ve already had — he was the first one since David Miller attempted such. It was definitely really fresh to have that feeling of self-awareness in the grander scale of the project. It also spoke very well to the thesis of this project too, maybe even being a great example of it. I’ll savor this while I can, since I doubt we’ll get another interview subject like this for a while.
For the longest time, I’ve been known as a technical person. This is an occupational hazard, being identified as a computer programmer and all. It makes speaking with people quite difficult, as virtually any language I want to use that I am familiar with is a “nonstarter,” because very few other people I’ve met in person share the same knowledge that I do. As a result, I’ve become more accustomed to trying to communicate with people using a language that the other person is more comfortable with than I am. By now, I think it is merely good manners to talk to bibical literalists using as much of the poetic language from the Bible that I have available to me, instead just saying “for a system as resource-demanding as reality itself, I highly doubt the boot method you describe would’ve been as time-efficient as first estimated.”
Of course, always playing on someone else’s home field does get a little disheartening after a while. For one, you are always at a disadvantage, especially if you think something important is at stake. There is also the fact that there is some other languages that I just don’t speak very well and I’m still left struggling to understand. Plus, if the other person is using a comprehensive ideology as their basis of example, and if it is an ideological language which I either do not sufficiently understand (or detest), then there is a large chance – as Professor Torcello described – that nothing I do or say will be able to sway them in any direction other than their version of “forward”. Not only do I start that conversation at a significant disadvantage, but the nature of that comprehensive ideology ensures that my puny place in things is already presumed. I’ve lost the game from the moment the game began. This will happen no matter how much research I prepare with, as long as I do not have sufficient faith in the other party’s ideology, either from a neutral or oppositional perspective.
This is not entirely a political ideology matter, either. You, Aengus, must’ve had a similar feeling when you mentioned that the only way to have support for the continued existence of a classical humanities education is to already have undergone a classical humanities education. The same thing is at work here.
I face this issue in regards to marketing and branding. I find the practice of mediated branding incredibly unsettling. Because of these (perhaps irrational) fears, I’m constantly on the lookout for any research or practical cases where I can call the commonplace methods of marketing and branding into ethical question, and perhaps make the world a safer place in the effort. However, the language and practice of branding is so developed and so comprehensive that my opposition to it has already been accounted for inside its own model. Even discounting my not coming at it from the popular or favoured angle, there is no going against the current. It is, like any computer program, designed and bulletproofed against all possible user error to ensure its further function. While I’m still looking for that proverbial security exploit to hack it with, the possibly crushing reality is I can’t win against it, no matter how much I want to.
This still makes me wonder if the conversation can truly happen under ideological circumstances like this. If you feel like something important is at stake, there simply is just much more advantage to subsume yourself into an affiliated ideology. We here at this project might *admire* the people who take the opposite approach, but it comes with a lot of necessary weakness. This is why I asked if the questioned existence of the conversation is merely a result of bad sportsmanship between opposing players, or if the conversation is not there because it is contrary to the very nature of the game itself.
Besides, if we all just give up and start throwing chairs at eachother, what will happen when we grow tired and want to sit down?
I think it’s weird that Prof. Torcello would blame so many problems on stupidity. It’s an odd one-sided view, with some people just too dumb to ‘get it’. It’s more accurate to admit that there’s an argument about all these topics (let’s go back to global warming) and people who don’t believe in global warming aren’t stupid, they’re just persuaded by a stronger argument.
The science is clearly on the side of global warming, but there’s more to winning an argument than facts. Where do those facts lead? Environmentalists talk about shaming big business and increasing government regulation. If you’re opposed to these implications, against that kind of world, then global warming doesn’t work for you. That’s motivation to side with arguments that obscure the facts.
Journalist Dave Weigel said ‘Nothing proves something like success’. If some communities are successful at increasing their sustainability or resiliency to climate change, and demonstrate that this makes life better for themselves, others will want to imitate them. It’s a way to win the argument without the argument taking place.
Murph seems to have pointed out that blaming stupidity is throwing the chair. Taking the “3,000 year” quote into consideration with global warming, rationality can say that given our limited history of comprehensive environmental records, proponents of global warming are living hand-to-mouth in their response and should be wary of dismissing challengers, lest they throw the chair and prove they are idiots. Rationality has plenty of room to disagree on science, which is often marred by a misreading of the data, sometimes even intentionally, not to mention incorrect or partial data. To say people are persuaded by a stronger argument is not enough if we cannot also question how, what, and why we think, interpret, and respond.
I think doing this comprehensively well is exceedingly difficult, to which I can attest as a man married to a strong-willed woman. However, as long as we are still throwing chairs, even in our stupidity, there is hope for the conversation and our stupidity because we are still conversing – only quitting the conversation draws the curtain. Fighting will eventually result in affirmation of commonalities and concessions, just as many conservative Christians I know who are still conversing have rationally concluded that state-issued marriage must end and become legally administered civil unions.
This is a tangent, but this is complicated in politics because it’s marred by a media that prefers throwing chairs and politicians who believe they need to appeal to chair throwers. In this, longtime running opponents Ron Paul and Mitt Romney highlight the stark contrast of conversing vs appealing. I’d like to mention Ralph Nader and Ron Paul together here, because I think their dedication to the conversation rather than appealing or throwing the chair massively impacted the positions of their respective parties.