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June 02, 2005

Snarkiest Thing I've Read Today

English literary critic Terry Eagleton on U. Va. philosopher Richard Rorty. From Terry Eagleton (1996), The Illusions of Postmodernism (London: Blackwell: 0631203230):

...postmodernism combines the worst of [liberalism and communitarianism].... It has, to begin with, an embarrassing amount in common with communitarianism.... The self for both doctrines is embedded in a purely parochial history, and moral judgements thus cannot be universal. Moral judgements, for [Richard] Rorty and his ilk, really say "We don't do that kind of thing around here"; whereas... to say "sexual discrimination is wrong" usually means that we do do that kind of thing around here, but we shouldn't.... [pp. 85-86]

One kind of postmodern skeptic of universality believes in culturalist style that moral values are just embedded in contingent local traditions, and have no more force than that. An egregious example of this case is the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who in an essay entitled "Solidarity" argues that those who helped Jews in the last world war probably did so less because they saw them as fellow human beings but becasue they belonged to the same city, profession, or other social grouping as themselves. He then goes on to ask himself why modern American liberals should help oppressed American blacks. "Do we say that these people must be helped because they are our fellow human beings? We may, but it is much more persuasive, morally as well as politically, to describe them as our fellow Americans--to insist that it is outrageous that an American should live without hope." Morality, in short, is really just a species of patriotism.

Rorty's case, however, strikes me as still too universalist. There are, after all, rather a lot of Americans, of various shapes and sizes, and there is surely something a little abstract in basing one's compassion on such grandiosely general grounds. It is almost as though "American" operates here as some sort of metalanguage or metaphysical essence, collapsing into unity a vast variety of creeds, lifestyles, ethnic groupings, and so on. Would it not be preferable for an authentic critic of universality to base his fellow-feeling on some genuine localism, say the city block? On second thoughts, however, this is still a little on the homogenizing side, since your average city block does of course contain a fair sprinkling of different sorts of people; but it would surely be a more manageable basis for social justice than some universal abstraction like America. One might demonstrate compassion to those in the next apartment, for example, while withholding it from those down the street. Personally, I only ever display sympathy to fellow graduates of the University of Cambridge. It is true that such credentials aren't always easy to establish: I have occasionally tossed a coin towards some tramp whom I thought I recognized as a member of the class of 1964, only to retrieve it furtively again when I realized my mistake. But the alternatives to such a strategy are fairly dire. Once one begins extending compassion to graduates of Oxford too, there seems no reason not to go on to Sheffield, Warwick, and the Lower Bumpstead College of Agricultural Science, and before one knows where one is one is on the slippery slope to universalism, foundationalism, Juergen Habermas, and the rest.

I have not, incidently, yet resigned from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, merely adjusted my reasons for belonging. I now object to nuclear warfare not because it would blow up some metaphysical abstraction known as the human race, but because it would introduce a degree of unpleasantness into the lives of my Oxford neighbors. The benefit of this adjustment is that my membership of the campaign is no longer the bloodless, cerebral affair it once was, but pragmatic, experiential, lived sensuously on the pulses. If my bit of Oxford survives a nuclear catastrophe, I really couldn't care less about the University of Virginia.

Rorty, commendably enough, really does seem to believe that getting rid of pointless abstractions like "universal humanity" would actually allow us to be more morally and politically effective. He is not so much opposed to them because they are false, a kind of judgement he does not much relish making in the first place, as because they are distractions from the true tasks in hand. He would need, however, to find grounds for distancing himself from the kind of anti-universalist who believed that murder was wrong for everyone except for aristocrats who were above the law, benighted heathen who knew no better, and those whose time-hallowed tradition happened to sanction it. It is this kind of privilege which the Enlightenment was trying to counter, and it is surely a case with strong intuitive force. In theory if not always in practice, it provided you with a powerful counterblast to those paternally-minded colonialists who thought that the natives weren't up to moral virtue or simply had ideas of it which failed to mesh with their own. The idea of human emancipation is part of the progeny of Enlightenment, and those radical postmodernists who mobilize it are inevitably in debt to their antagonists. In a similar way, the Enlightenment itself inherited concepts of universal justice and equality from a Judaeo-Christian tradition which it frequently derided. Universality just means that, when it comes to freedom, justice, and happiness, everyone has to be in on the act... [pp. 114-116]

Posted by DeLong at June 2, 2005 12:11 PM