Discerning the Good without Absolute Certainty: A Croat’s Journey to Needing a Serb

Professor James Taylor

Philosophical and Theological Perspectives on War and Peace

Čedomir, the Vukovarian Croat, thinks that removing the Slovonian Serb minority’s right to Cyrillic education would benefit the region by increasing interethnic relations. Sloba, the Vukovarian Serb, holds a perspective Čedomir is not aware of. Sloba supports keeping the right to Cyrillic education because it allows the Serbian minority to preserve Serbian culture. First I describe a problematic situation, then I will pose my thesis as a small step towards resolving the problems this type of situation presents. Here we have two people living together in Slovonia, and they hold to different positions about what makes for the highest good of the region. Their views conflict. And their political actions push against each other. With strong enough conviction and a willingness to use violence, Čedomir could push to violate the Sloba and his people. This conflict about what is best for a region happens everywhere people live together. How can Čedomir develop a value for Sloba’s perspective so great that Čedomir begins to seek out Sloba’s perspective? I propose one way is through philosophy. Given that Čedomir has a few qualifying characteristics, such as a desire for truth, justice, and a desire for some sort of life together with Sloba, and even a love for Sloba, if Čedomir accepts a particular philosophical understanding, he will begin to seek to understand the way that Sloba sees the educational situation. With this philosophical understanding, as Čedomir looks to develop his response such that it will realize the highest good, he will recognize that finding out what Sloba thinks will prove very helpful. As Čedomir understands Sloba’s perspective more and more, he, if willing to change, will modify, replace, or strengthen the convictions about education in Slovonia he held prior to seeing from Sloba’s standpoint. Furthermore, I take it as a given that objective good exists, and that people can discern with reasonable certainty which of their decisions will bring out the most good.

The philosophical understanding I pose is as follows: because of our finite, biased, and interpretive nature, we cannot achieve complete certainty that our judgments are true or that our responses are good. Accepting this will lead Čedomir to seek out Sloba’s perspective. However, without the tandem understanding that we can have ideas and plans that are closer to the objective good, Čedomir will become despairing, and lose motivation to seek truth. Although we cannot achieve complete certainty, we can achieve enough to form convictions and act. I will start by explaining Ricoeur’s understanding of our finitude, especially focusing on human capacity and the groundless ground source of life. I will develop Kearney’s conception of the alterity of others, Finally, with Volf I will develop the idea of the limit of our social location on our ability to objectively access truth, and I will relate each major idea back to Čedomir’s situation, and the way each idea will call him to realize something about his own understanding, and then the way that will lead him a step closer to seeking out Sloba’s perspective.

 I propose to introduce the certainty problematic which stems from our finitude as did Ricoeur in "Religious Belief: The Difficult Path of the Religious". How does our limited nature affect our search for truth? Let me analyze and interpret Ricoeur’s text. He starts by identifying the religious experience as a upsurge of goodness out of a person in spite of the limitations they experience living according to the moral or religious rule they take for themselves. He moves on to summarize Girard’s mimetic rivalry as an interpretation of the connection between violence and the sacred. Ricoeur critiques Girard by stating that Girard failed to adequately address the object over which religious people rival. "[T]he originary source of this upsurge of benevolence can be, as such, an object of mimetic rivalry" [i] . Ricoeur goes on to refer to this originary source as "the source of life" [ii] . The source of life is a God-like source, a being with existence which connects with people and empowers them to new capacities. This source is a "groundless ground" [iii] , which cannot be captured and held in entirety, but it can be received by people.

 Furthermore, Ricoeur employs the metaphor of receptacle and a source, where us, as finite, limited capacity humans, receive from the source, but cannot hold all of it by our very nature. Regarding the metaphor of the receptacle and source, I imagine a box in space, being poured into from a pitcher that has the capacity to continually pour and pour forever, like the story of the continually flowing oil pitcher in the Tanakh, however, each individual cannot hold the sum of what is being given to them. The religions are connected in their source, but divided in their receptacles. This implies that there is likely some truth and some error present in all religions. Ricoeur is using three Kantian levels to define religion: symbolic, belief, and community. Given this understanding of the source of life, and the nature of its giving to finite receptors, which confuse and mix the meaning and revelation they have received according to their different locations and shapes, they give birth to a plurality of religions.

 I critique Ricoeur by agreeing with him, yet disagree with one of his stated consequences of this limited reception capacity of humans. It does not follow from this that the idea of a "super-religion" must be given up on. Although we cannot have certainty, we can still sit within a religion that is superior to others, and a religion is closer to objective reality than another religion. Rejecting the possibility of having some idea of the possibility of being in the super-religion not only is false, but it also removes the motivation that drives people to search for truth – the possibility that they can land on a mental framework that does more accurately align with reality.

 Given that Čedomir were to appropriate these beliefs, he would need to recognize that "at the very depth of my own … confession [in the goodness of the increased social relations of Serbs and Croats that removing the Serb right to Cyrillic education], I recognize that there is a ground which I do not control. I discern in the ground of my adherence a source of inspiration which, by its demand for thought, its strength of practical mobilization, its emotional generosity, exceeds my capacity for reception and comprehension." [iv] Meaning, Čedomir could not be 100% certain that his conviction is good, due to his limited capacity. A limited capacity is not a feature of our nature that interaction with the source of life overcomes (and yet even this statement I am not 100% certain of, because of the groundless ground of the source of reality).

 Moving on to Kearney, in his Exclusion and Embrace, he has a chapter entitled "Aliens and Others". The relevant point he brings up is that the alterity of others is such that we cannot know all of it. Here I will offer a brief analysis of the chapter to offer some context for Kearney’s explanation of this idea. Kearney begins by framing the problem as conflating aliens and others as always the same, and always absolutely distinct from ourselves. Others, here, refers "to an alterity worthy of reverence and hospitality." [v] And "alien" refers to experiences of "discrimination … suspicion … [and] scapegoating" [vi] . Moving on, he begins by describing Derrida’s reflections on hospitality, which state that the other, when a judgment is cast against them, that is – when they are categorized, they are reduced, and thus violence is done to them. [vii] Kearney critiques this in light of the way it "undervalues our need to differentiate not just legally but ethically between good and evil aliens." [viii] Psychoanalysis is another region which has posited about our relationship to the other. Freud suggests that "the ‘alien’ is revealed accordingly as the most occluded part of ourselves" [ix] so much that we project it onto others, and so really, part of what we see in aliens is part of ourselves. Kearney finds the psychoanalytic approach to the other belittling to the alterity of the other, and suggests a way between. He suggests that we interpret the other, that we develop a way to determine whether or not the alien is good or evil, while also realizing that some of us may be in the other, and there may be other in the alien. I want to hone in on the idea about the other being other to us, as it relates to our ability to arrive at conclusions with absolute certainty. We cannot know the other in entirety.

 I want to draw this point out with my own understanding of its implications. Whenever we make a judgment, or an interpretation about someone, there might be something about them that we have not yet seen that contradicts our interpretation or categorization. We cannot know, by the nature of their self that is not knowable in entirety. This aspect of others as not knowable in full, means that even in part, when we do make a judgment about them, that aspect could be wrong. To go even further, harkening back to Ricoeur, people are connected to the infinite source of life, which gives them even greater capacity for changing away from what we determined they were initially.

 This has implications for realizing our potential error as we move formulate responses to realize the highest good for a group of people. Čedomir, as he makes decisions about what is going to benefit the people of Eastern Slovonia most, realizes that his judgments might be off, because his interpretations of the alterity bearing others may be too based on his understanding of himself. Perhaps Čedomir sees the increase in interethnic relations as beneficial to himself, because it will allow him more economic opportunities for his business – more potential customers, and say he assumes this would benefit the Serbs as well, that the Serbs would get more business opportunities, which would benefit them. But due to their alterity and otherness, they may not be as similar to him as he has originally posited. Growing economic opportunities may not benefit the Serbs most. The detriment to them caused by the removal of their right to educate in Cyrillic may outweigh the good of their expanded economic opportunities. Čedomir is more likely to imagine this, or to seek out to hear directly from Sloba if he realizes this – that he has no way of knowing with 100% certainty what is best for Sloba, or Serbs as an other to him.

   Miroslav Volf, in Exclusion and Embrace, insists in his chapter, "Oppression and Justice", that our understandings are "inescapably particular" [x] , and as such, I posit, limited to uncertainty, yet they can retain the quality of likelihood, of probably being true, of being true enough to with good reason choose one course of action over another. And Volf suggests a practice called "double vision", which is similar to the type of action I’ve been suggesting for Čedomir this whole essay. Here is the order of ideas as they run through the chapter: Varying conceptions of justice clash against one another. How do we deal with the problem of conflicting justices? Volf paints the universal conception of justice – that one justice is right above all, and that notion of justice is accessible to us. Volf problematizes this idea by pointing out the particularity of each Christian’s understanding of justice, as well as the conflicts that emerge between Christians about what is just. The conclusion of this recognition of our limited human notion of what we think God’s justice is leads us to take a provisional stance on our execution of justice [xi] , until we learn more in the future, recognizing that there is always more that we can learn in the future. People have massive amounts of individuality and difference from one another, and a full justice requires that these individual traits be taken into account. Volf’s portrait of the postmodern conception of justice acknowledges the particularities that come with each individual, and strives for justice that recognizes each of these, though it recognizes its task to be impossible. The problem with this principle of justice though, is that it also takes a universal maxim as a feature of justice – "all should respect all; none should respect those who do not respect at all." [xii] MacIntyre suggests we press our understandings into coherent traditions. Is that really possible though? We each stand in more than one place regarding our identities, and must recognize this. Sometimes we overlap and share certain commitments with others, and yet, "disagreements persist, however. And they are profound. We need to look for ways of resolving them without recourse to either the power of guns or the brute strength of the democratic masses." [xiii] Čedomir and Sloba may both live in Vukovar, and as such share commitment to the town’s well being, and to the well being of Slavic peoples in general, but they still disagree on the highest good for Slovonia’s education, and a seemingly good way for Čedomir to get his way is to rely on his being part of the majority. But simple reliance on numbers for one group to get their way fails to find agreement between disparate parties.

 Volf moves on to recognize that in order to correct and enrich our perspective we must discover the view of life from the others’ perspective. Volf calls this double vision, which has theological grounds in the "inner logic of the cross" [xiv] . So not only because we have a limited perspective must we seek to understand the view of the other, but also because "we are the perpetrators who crucified Christ … whose godlessness God exposed." Because we have sinned and been godless, we failingly know who the perpetrators are and who the victims are. God knows perfectly who these are. Perfect justice will not be achieved until the second coming of Christ, but the unity amongst differences, retaining those differences is now built since Pentecost. This runs counter to some of what Ricoeur says about Babel, as a limiting feature of reality now, that people cannot be joined together in any significant amount currently.

 I agree with Volf in his assessment that because of our inhabitation of particular situations, we cannot make judgments with absolute certainty, but I disagree on our limitations following from the logic of the cross. I posit that now we are set free from our limitations to a great extent, such that sin is not a factor in holding us back from knowing the goodness of a decision. It is other features of who we our, who God is, and who others are – our finitude and particularity, God’s groundless ground, others’ alterity, all that lead us to an inability to know absolutely. If Čedomir realizes his particular standpoint as a Croat, and the ways that that alters and biases his conviction on what is best for Slovonia, perhaps realizing that out of his desire for his family to be able to expand their business, and therefore he wants more interethnic relations, we will learn that some of his interest in this change is not out of real care and concern for the other, but out of concern for himself. He will have to practice double vision, and even intertwine somewhat his life with Sloba and other Serbs in order to gain the ability to make a judgment with more certainty as to its closeness what is objectively best for a group of people.

 In sum, there are particular features which limit our understanding. First, as selves, we are finite, and cannot receive all that the source of life offers us. Secondly, when we formulate a response that takes into account what is best for others, their alterity prevents us from knowing for sure that what we have chosen is really best for them, because there may be constituent to them a part that we do not see or know, and therefore our decision would be better if it had taken into account that aspect. Thirdly, as we live in particular situations, and have specific interests and relationships, we become biased, and our judgments about what is most just are influenced by this particular history of experiences. We do not have a complete sum of experiences, and as such can only see so much. Our viewpoints are limited, and our histories particular, which limit our certainty as well. If Čedomir can realize all this, and yet maintain conviction that he can discern ideas that are more or less true, he can retain motivation on his quest to honestly gauge whether the right to Cyrillic education is best for Slovonia or not. It will be a humbling experience, and even realizing these facets of self and relation to other are humbling. He will need to interact with Sloba or Sloba’s people to better understand what is good for them. Ultimately, realizing that we cannot know with complete certainty will lead us to seek out each others’ perspectives, and it will give us willingness to make provisional conclusions and responses, leaving us openness to receive new insights as time goes on, and seek to learn from one another.


Works Cited

Kearney, Richard. Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting otherness. Routledge: London, 2003. Print.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1996. Print.

Ricoeur, Paul. "Religious Belief: The Difficult Path of the Religious", an essay in A Passion for the Possible: Thinking with Paul Ricoeur. ed. Brian Treanor and Henry Isaac Venema. Translated by Boyd Blundell from "La croyance religieuse: Le difficile chemin du religieux" (2000). PDF of Print version.

[i] Ricoeur p.34.

[ii] Ricoeur p.35.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ricoeur, p.39.

[v] Kearney, p.67.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Kearney, p.69.

[viii] Kearney, p.70.

[ix] Kearney, p.74.

[x] Volf, p.198.

[xi] Volf, p.199.

[xii] Volf, p.204.

[xiii] Volf, p.211.

[xiv] Volf, p.214.

I wrote this paper for the European Center for the Study of War and Peace course, War and Peace: Philosophical and Theological Perspectives. Find the syllabus below.