Disagreeing Virtuously

Religious Conflict in Interdisciplinary Perspective

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Olli-Pekka Vainio
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , April
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Olli-Pekka Vainio’s book, Disagreeing Virtuously: Religious Conflict in Interdisciplinary Perspective, treats the topic of disagreement in an accessible, yet fairly comprehensive way, using the resources of analytic philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary science. However, despite the book’s title and the author’s claim that when disagreements are genuinely solved “the resulting reconciliation is always an act of virtue” (xviii), his book offers a significantly less in-depth treatment of virtue as it relates to disagreement than this reader expected. The strength of the book lays in its approach to disagreement, but regretfully the richness of resources developed in the first three chapters isn’t synthetically and robustly integrated into its approach to the presentation of the virtues. Thus, the book leaves the impression that the recommended solution to the problems articulated in the first three chapters is simultaneously trendy and somewhat anemic.

Vainio construes disagreement as an empirically verified challenge to the individual, in what is now commonly called “the ethics of belief,” and as a public problem for political philosophy in the increasing pluralism of modernity. He does not discuss disagreement as a practice that functions interpersonally, and his communities of disagreement remain frustratingly abstract. His discussion of disagreement focuses on responding to religious disagreement as a problem for coming to a belief or sustaining a belief. He only briefly touches on the problem of religious disagreement for the logic internal to the beliefs themselves (97-99), and mostly ignores the practical or pastoral implications of how to handle concrete disagreement with other people (in contrast to disagreement with their ideas or point of view held in the abstract). 

The book’s turn to virtue is motivated by what Vainio calls “the accommodation of the religious disagreement question” (91). That is, given that religious disagreements are a natural, ineradicable part of the life of all human communities, how should religious communities manage their internal and external disagreements? Vainio’s response to this question seeks to be universal. He explicitly disregards the soteriological discussions of virtue in the predominantly historically Christian communities that form the majority of his likely audience. He controversially implies that the commonality of virtue vocabulary to all cultures is an argument for the universal appeal and applicability of the particular virtues and deliberative norms that he considers relevant to disagreement, namely open-mindedness, epistemic humility, intellectual courage, and tolerance (141-42).

Vainio’s answer to the accommodation of religious disagreement can be summarized as follows. Conflict resolution is the result of extended engagement between the practically wise members of a group who have the developed skills and habits that enable them to move back and forth between their own point of view and the point of view of those with whom they are in dialogue. These wise people become the center of the dialogue process for their respective communities, and are responsible for translating between the communities they represent. The virtues of the practically wise person are highly intellectual, requiring intellectual differentiation and integration, persistent attention to transcending one’s own biased beliefs, the ability to judge one’s own epistemic abilities and position and appreciate the value of the epistemic virtues and positional advantages of others, and so on. 

Vainio’s discussions of each of the virtues important for the wise person facilitating community disagreements includes assessments of the individual and communal limitations for appropriating these virtues, especially highlighting empirical research. While Vainio’s discussion is not overly optimistic, it remains positive and stresses the value of de-biasing, framed by the work of Miranda Fricker and Richard Larrick, and the role of good moral examples, such as those that play a key part in Christian Miller’s “Developing Character Project.” Nevertheless, the account of the virtues in the culminating chapter of the book instrumentalizes the virtues and thereby risks distorting them. Vainio’s solution lacks the richness that might have come from acknowledging the restricted Western philosophical audience and the Christian and Enlightenment roots of the account of virtue he articulates. Acknowledging such limitations, while it would disclaim universality, would simultaneously open up the possibility of engaging a substantive account of the good, which as the proper end of such virtues would orient the practices and character traits named here to the value of truth and a thick description of the love of knowledge.

With the limitations already noted, Disagreeing Virtuously is recommended for interested laypersons and advanced undergraduates for its easy style and argumentative clarity. It would be well-suited to framing a discussion of religious disagreement in a philosophy of religion course, although its laudable use of empirical disciplines may render it dated more quickly than other books, since interest in research on disagreement, stable character traits, and the moral psychology of religious persons continues to grow. Its interdisciplinary discussion of disagreement might be well-paired with selections from a book devoted to virtue epistemology such as Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood, Oxford University Press, 2007).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Kara Shields is a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
June 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Olli-Pekka Vainio is university lecturer of systematic theology at the University of Helsinki, Finland.

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