Friday, May 13, 2011

The Richard Rorty Exchange Part III

The philosopher writes:

I may be thinking of this whole thing in more Kantian terms than Aristotelian, which I'm not too happy about. But, maybe not.

I think, for starters, we have to define that Protean term, "useful." It's so easy for that term to be used in a myriad number of ways. Useful for what? Useful to whom--and for what purposes? It was, useful, for whites to regard blacks as property for centuries. It was useful for males to regard females as inferior. The list goes on. Once you ask these sorts of questions, it seems to me that the question of some sort of supra-cultural norm becomes inevitable.

If one denies the existence of such a norm, then culture becomes the default court of appeal--and, as the old sociologist (whose name I have forgotten!) once said, "In the folkways, whatever is, is right." The "folkways" then call the moral shots and slavery and male superiority are "true" because they have been deemed "useful" to those in power.

In the absence of any supra-cultural, transcultural norm(s) for deciding what is "useful" Rorty's philosophy sanctifies the status quo, however that is defined by the majority or the dominant cultural voice. This is what I find so dangerous about Rorty. In his own way, he's not so radical or liberal but really rather depressingly conservative.

How are we to critique unjust social or political or moral practices in the absence of any normative notion of truth or the good? If he does offer such a critique, from where can he possibly stand?

Rorty may reply that it's just his claim that this or that is wrong or unjust, but why should we take his perspective seriously since he's just articulating his individual or cultural preference?

Well, I wrote more than I thought I would! Anway, I'm not sure I'm thinking about this correctly or adequately. I may have to come back at this from a more Aristotelian perspective, arguing more for the adequacy or inclusiveness of a moral tradition than the search for a transcultural moral norm, but for now I do think that if there is no transcultural good there can be no theoretical grounds for critiquing injustice--other than, of course, individual assertion--which I take to be inadequate because there are no rational grounds for distinguishing justice from injustice. Rorty may think he needs no rational grounds for his assertion, but then there is no ground for me to take what he is saying seriously.

And I reply:

I hope I have some good replies. Otherwise I'd have to change my mind and I'm very attached to my beliefs. Interestingly, we use rational argumentation to decide what is right in the secular, rational, Enlightenment tradition and so we shouldn't really care if we have to change our minds as long as the view we adopt is the better argued. Yet we are attached to our views for extra-rational reasons and these, I think, are the foundations of our moral views and it is why we cannot make a rational argument to convince all inquirers that one view is most correct, or is the objectively best moral view. Beyond the reasons that we give for believing as we do are also the other reasons we believe: because it feels right, our heart tells us it's true, it would violate our being to believe the opposite, it just seems right, we get choked up when we see certain norms enacted, etc.

Yes, "useful" is only useful if we have some goal in mind. If one of my goals is the flourishing of human beings and one norm is that they must be treated equally when it comes to certain basics such as justice and having the material necessities and if I apply this norm to all human beings then I am applying my norm to all. It's being held, by me, supra-culturally, but can I ground or prove it with rational argumentation to convince those who differ - white supremacists, religious fundamentalists, American-firsters, libertarians - that mine is the objective right, supra-cultural norm? I think not, because our norms, ultimately, are not held for rational reasons. So I tend to use my norms as if they are supra-cultural (even though I can't prove that they are).

What is the difference between the person who believes there are supra-cultural norms or objectively right norms and the one who may apply their norms supra-culturally but doesn't think they can be convincingly demonstrated using reason to be the objectively superior supra-cultural norm? That is, between you and me. You can't, and no moral philosopher can, demonstrate to the satisfaction of his colleagues that he has the best norms and yet believes such an objectively best norm exists. I hold norms that I apply supra-culturally, but don't think that ultimate rational demonstration of them will occur and see no need to cling to the belief in their objective rightness. We all still have our array of moral beliefs of varying degrees of coherence and incoherence which we apply in consert and conflict with others using reason, action and force.

Perhaps the difference here is between the belief that norms are wholly human made and the belief that there is some other origin for norms. Or, perhaps that is how I've interpreted the issue when you had something more like universal norms vs. ethnocentrism in mind.

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