Workshop 1B social

Prof. Dr. Michael Heyns – Social Ontology and Social Strategy


Thinking on and from the African continent should take the African perspective serious. It is generally accepted that this perspective gives high priority to a view that embeds being human fundamentally in society. Some thinkers from the African continent therefore link with the notion of communitarianism.

The communitarian debate itself seems to elaborate an old problem, namely the question whether the community or the individual should be seen as the primary building block of society.In this question one suspects the assumption of two overemphasised and disengaged entities, or at its best two dialectically but difficult to integrate entities, and thus a dualism between individual and community.

This paperwill explore the thinking of some-one who leans towards communitarianism. More particularly, the focus will be on Charles Taylor’s distinction between the categories of ontology and policy to overcome this seed of dualism.


The ontology – policy distinction

To contextualise the argument will start with a short elaboration of a recent but typical liberal view. For Richard Rorty the hero of a liberal culture is the individual self-creator. But this hero is only good for innovating and not for the normal functioning of society where reducing suffering is the all-important aim. In fact, Rortyseems to be in need of some antidote to the potential cruelty of the self-creator. He finds this increating a disengaged relation (dualism) between a creativistprivate sphere (individual) and an anti-cruel and anti-elitist public sphere (collectivity).

In order to hold onto both the horns of the individualist – collectivist dilemma, Taylor therefore proposes a distinction between the ontological and policy levels of social imaginaries.Various combinations of these two categories are possible with the most natural positions that of atomist individualism and holistic collectivism. Yet, atomist collectivism (Rorty) and holistic individualism (Taylor) are according to Taylor also possible.

Holistic liberalism

Taylor’s holism implies a self embedded in a larger social whole. Taylor’s position is nevertheless not simply that of a collectively inducedpolicy of individualism. He foresees a dialogical relation between society and individual,which makes partial individual self-creation stillpossible.He describes the self as not in full control of the web in which it is embedded. Taylor thus still gives the impression of being somewhat stuck in a tension between the self-creatingindividual and the slightly higher position of the community in which she is embedded.

A non-reductionist ontology and policy

In the final section of the paper the notion of using the distinction between the ontological and policy levels will be revisited from a reformational or non-reductionist point of view.

Taylor’s distinction is valuable but should come with the understanding that the policy level cannot be of a fixed nature; it should focus on the issues important in local circumstances. If, for instance, in Africa the individual is downplayed and society receives more than it’s due, this needs critical attention. Rorty and Taylor, probably rightly so, suggest that the reverse is the case for North-America.

But it should equally be clear that such a focussed emphasis cannot be repeated on the ontological level because this would induce the fixed skewed practices that can be found in ideologies.

Moreover, atomism and holism could not be our only ontological options. The non-reductionist approach suggests a third way namely to uphold both sphere-sovereignty and sphere-universality.It already proposes the well-known emphasis on both particularity and universality when we deal with societal spheres as well as human ways of being.This way of thinking can probably be extended to also explain the relationship between our senses of self, and of belonging to a larger world.

Some important sources:

RORTY, R.  1993.  Contingency, irony, and solidarity.  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

STRAUSS, D.F.M. 1999.  ‘Atomism and holism’ with special reference to a key issue in social-political philosophy.South African journal of philosophy, 18(1):74-89.

STRAUSS, D.F.M. 2009.Philosophy, discipline of the Disciplines. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Paideia.

TAYLOR, C.  1985a.  Philosophical papers I: human agency and language.  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

TAYLOR, C.  1985b.  Philosophical Papers II: philosophy and the human sciences.  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

TAYLOR, C.  1989a.  Sources of the self: the making of the modern identity.  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

TAYLOR, C.  1991a.  The malaise of modernity.  Concord, Ontario :Anansi.

TAYLOR, C.  1991c.  Cross-purposes: the liberal – communitarian debate.  (InRosenblum, N., ed.Liberalism and the moral life.Cambridge : Harvard University Press.  p.159-182.)

TAYLOR, C.  2004.  Modern social imaginaries.  Durham & London: Duke University Press.

TAYLOR, C.  2007. A secular age.  Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

VAN DER WALT, B.J.  2003.  Understanding and rebuilding Africa: From desperation today towards expectation for tomorrow.  Potchefstroom: Institute for Contemporary Christianity in Africa.

WIREDU, K. (ed.) 2006.A companion to African philosophy.Malden, MA : Blackwell.

Dr. Jan van der Stoep – Professional Practices and the Sacred

It takes a lot of effort to become a professional nurse, a professional journalist or a professional teacher. A university diploma is just a first step. You have to learn the job by trial and error, in real-life situations. You cannot become a professional without discipline, courage and dedication. Being a professional is not just a job; it is a vocation.

What keeps professionals going, especially in stubborn situations? In this paper we will argue that professionals are driven by a sense of duty. One needs to have a sense of duty in order to develop a professional ethos. It is this sense of duty that connects professional practices to the sacred. A longing for truth, justice and beauty drives professionals. Those transcendent values are not just abstract principles, but express a longing for the good life, a life of peace and harmony.

Nowadays, many scholars acknowledge that normativity is an integral part of professional practices.Some scholars, like Ulrich Beck and Bruno Latour, even go a step further. They doubt the modern demarcation between science and religion. This opens the way for a new dialogue about professional practices and the sacred. The opposition between secular and religious thinking evaporates and people take new positions.

We will take advantage of the new openness towards religion in order to explore the relation between professional practices and the sacred. At the same time we will critically reflect on our own Christian philosophical tradition. Quite often the notion of the distinction between structure and direction was used to defend the religious dimension of professional practices. In our paper we will investigate if the relation between law and subject is not a more useful idea in the current debate on professional practices and the sacred.

Some bibliographic sources:
  • Beck, U. (2010). A God of one’s own. Religion’s capacity for peace and potential for violence. Cambridge, Polity Press.
  • Dooyeweerd, H. (1969).A new critique on theoretical thought. Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.
  • Jochemsen, H. (2006). ‘Normative practices as an intermediate between theoretical ethics and morality’, PhilosophiaReformata71(1), 96-112.
  • Latour, B. (2011).On the modern cult of the factish gods. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner. How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.

Liza Lansang – In Search of the Christian Imperative in Bioethical Policy Formation

The paper will focus on the advocacy work of faith-based organizations (FBOs) engaged in influencing the formulation and adoption of bioethical policies on the national level. It will look at the beliefs and actions of a select list of well-known FBOs to see if there are ways to create political opportunities within their respective societies to enable them to implement strategies which can work beyond the usual combination of engagement and confrontation currently undertaken.

The main question posed is this: What is the Christian imperative in the public sphere on the issues of contraceptives, abortion and euthanasia? By Christian imperative I posit how one can participate in the public square respecting differing comprehensive beliefs while at the same time rejecting relativism. By asking this question I adhere to the long tradition of classical prudence developed by Aristotle in his work Ethics and expounded by the Aristotelian scholar Harry Jaffa  who proposes that activism must have a healthy respect for constraints in the fallen world and an acute insight into their nature and effect. In this regard, promoting or voting for legislation (or any bill or amendment) intended to limit unjust laws or conditions is not a question of illicit cooperation, formal or material. Moreover, when a prudential framework is accepted for political decision-making—and assuming no cooperation in an evil act is involved—difficult strategic and tactical questions remain as a challenge to conscientious activism. The following four considerations need to be addressed, according to Jaffa: (1) worthiness of goal(s); (2) wise judgement as to what is possible; (3) choosing effective means; and (4) avoiding future preclusion of improvements.

The paper will look at the strategies of FBOs in these three cases: 1) to amend the Reproductive Health Act of 2012 in the Philippines; 2) to limit abortion through the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in the USA; and 3) to prevent the legalization of euthanasia in the Netherlands. First, in terms of goals of their advocacy: Is the Christian imperative in the given society to influence morality and argue that life and not viability should be protected by bioethical policy?  Is it to emphasize religious freedom and focus on identity-building?  Is it to look for common ground with secular organizations by reframing these issues from Christian vs. secular morality issues into medical issues? Second, what is and what is not possible given the context of their advocacy work? Third, are the means selected apt to produce the intended results? Finally, this question is also posed: whether what has already been done can hinder future action that can more perfectly attain the goal when altered conditions bring more of that goal within the range of possibility?


Timothy Laurence ed. (2014) Good News for the Public Square: A Biblical Framework for Christian Engagement
Clarke D. Forsythe (2009) Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square
Colin Harte (2005) Changing Unjust Laws Justly
Clifford Hill (2004) The Wilberforce Connection
Harry V. Jaffa (1958) Crisis of the House Divided : An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates