Monday, January 30, 2006

A Critique of Richard Rorty's Ethical Skepticism.

Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (London & New York: Penguin, 1999), $15.00.

"Most of us can no longer take either Christian or Marxist postponements and reassurances seriously. But this does not, and should not, prevent us from finding inspiration and encouragement in the New Testament and Manifesto. For both documents are expressions of the same hope: that some day we shall be willing and able to treat the needs of all human beings with the respect and consideration with which we treat the needs of those closest to us, those whom we love."


Richard Rorty is one of the most influential contemporary American philosophers. He is read and quoted by academics working in the humanities as well as by theoretically-minded persons in law and government. He has been invited to the White House, a rare privilege for a philosopher who has spoken publicly and bravely on controversial issues, such as the debate concerning "political correctness" in our schools. Rorty writes for popular magazines and scholarly journals, and has now achieved the ultimate success for a philosopher in the contemporary world -- pop icon status. He is often misquoted by scruffy young men and women in Bohemian coffee houses, usually located in the proximity of New York University (NYU), who insist that Rorty proves that all values are relative, "so nothing is, like, really right or wrong."

Professor Rorty is routinely mentioned in the same breath with the Left Bank "Masters of Thought" deemed fashionable at any given time. When I was a law student in the eighties, the phrase was "Derrida, Foucault and Rorty"; these days it may be "Derrida, Lacan and Rorty"; or maybe a more politically correct combination of names that, say, features a gay French psychoanalyst; or perhaps some other bespectacled hero who is this week's glitzy Parisian genius.

I was not surprised to read in Paul Berman's book about the sixties of a popular slogan in Paris during May, 1968: "Marx, Marcuse, Mao." Maybe some day, in the U.S., it will be "James, Dewey, Rorty." To the extent that such a thing is possible, Richard Rorty and Cornel West are the "cool" philosophers in American universities. Both are well on their way to being pictured on t-shirts. Whether such a fate is a curse or blessing is unclear.

Although some of my opinions may be characterized as quite radical, I disagree with many of Rorty's philosophical arguments, which seem deeply flawed to me, even as I reject many of his conclusions. I wish to examine one brief essay by Rorty, which is fairly typical of his work, and yet is sufficiently concise to serve as a target for an Internet comment and critique.

I should note that Rorty has made his patriotism and commitment to America very clear. That is something on which we do agree. Neither of us defines "patriotism" simplistically. My criticisms should not be regarded as in any way a denial of the richness in Rorty's work, which is always well-written, scholarly, provocative, elegant, learned and well-worth studying, especially by those of us who disagree with him. I have read sections of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and many of Rorty's collected essays. I am now reading his major work, again, straight through, along with critiques and commentaries by scholars.

My fundamental disagreement concerns Rorty's epistemological skepticism and his metaethical stance. There is very little disagreement between us, I suspect, concerning the resolution of specific issues in politics and applied ethics, since both of us will probably arrive at results in keeping with the liberal positions on most of these controversies. The exception may be the terrorism issue. I am probably more of a Hawk than Rorty, which may be a result of my proximity to the tragedy in New York on 9/11 (though I cannot claim the status of a direct victim), as well as resulting from other biographical factors that are not amenable to philosophical analysis. For present purposes, anyway, I will leave all "applied" ethics aside.

I will also try to keep citations down to a minimum, since this is the Internet and my readers, if there are any, are likely to be those same scruffy young men and women in search of material to "borrow" for their term papers. Help yourselves, folks. ("What is it like to be plagiarized?" and "'Brideshead Revisited': A Movie Review.")

Finally, most of what I say has been said by others, sometimes at excruciating length, in the unending quest by academics for publications leading to tenure. I make no claims to originality nor to being "on the same level" with Rorty, as a philosopher, except that we are both human beings interested in very difficult abstract questions. Unlike Professor Rorty, it has been made very clear to me that philosophy is not for the likes of me, usually such "instructions" are provided by very young people who may not appreciate that they are playing with fire. I am quite sure that philosophy is for the likes of me and you.


I now turn to the essay entitled "Ethics Without Principles," in Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. 72. I favor an ethics of duty or principles, a deontological ethics; Rorty does not. The philosophers whose work has meant the most (to me) in thinking about ethics and ethical dilemmas are, first of all, Immanuel Kant; and also the more recent American thinkers developing Kant's insights, including John Rawls, Robert Nozick and Ronald Dworkin.

Although these men have been influenced by many more philosophers than Kant and there are great differences among them, my views concerning ethics would probably be placed with theirs, in the same philosophical category. On other foundational issues, my positions tend to be identified with phenomenology and the "hermeneutic" tradition.

No one accepts all of Kant's writings as "dogmatic" or some such nonsense. I certainly don't. The absurd caricature of Kant as a sort-of philosophical Torquemada is nowhere to be found in Rorty's highly sophisticated work. I doubt that many philosophers, including Kant's critics, would wish to deny the unique importance of Kant's Critical philosophy for the modern world and his great influence in contemporary ethical theory. I am sure that Rorty would be the first to admit this. In fact, it is precisely this influence that he is reacting against.

I have always believed that Kantian moral thinking needs to be supplemented with a morality that is more aspirational and social, less focused on the individual rights-bearer and moral agent, leading to a communitarian fulfillment. Paul Ricoeur has been described as a "Hegelian Kantian," which sounds about right to me. Rorty opens his essay by reminding us of his general view of truth:

"Pragmatists, in contrast, treat inquiry -- in both physics and ethics -- as the search for adjustment [emphasis added] and in particular for that sort of adjustment to our fellow humans which we call the search for acceptable justification and eventual agreement [emphasis added]: I have argued that we should substitute this latter search for the traditional descriptions of the quest for truth." (p. 72.)

For most of us non-philosophers, however, truth is not a search for "acceptable justification and eventual agreement." Even fellow pragmatist philosophers have problems with this claim. For instance, Susan Haack writes:

" 'True' is a word [that] we apply to statements about which we agree; but that is because, if we agree that things are thus and so, we agree that it is true that things are thus and so. But we may agree that things are thus and so when it is not true that things are thus and so. ... So true is not a word that truly applies to all or only statements about which we agree; and neither, of course, does calling a statement true mean that it is a statement we agree about."

We critical- or phenomenological-realists believe that truth has something to do with the way things are, "out there" or "objectively." We insist that what makes some justifications acceptable and procuring agreement from others likely, is that their experience of reality confirms our own, suggesting that something not merely about language or ourselves, but also about reality itself is at the center of the concept of truth. This need not commit us to forms of metaphysical realism, but it may lead to more modest positions, such as Professor Hilary Putnam's "internal" realism.

I was at a Barnes & Noble bookstore recently and found it necessary to visit the bathroom. I asked the salesperson, "Where is the bathroom?" I did not pose this question hoping that the response would be "true" only to the extent that the statement was "justifiable," that is, to the extent that we might agree to call it "true." If the salesperson had asked whether I wanted a "spiritual" bathroom or suggested that the section of the store devoted to psychology books might be appropriate, this would not have been a satisfactory answer. (On second thought, relieving myself in the psychology section of the store could be highly "therapeutic.")

I walked to the section of the store to which I was directed and found the bathroom. Reality said "yes" to the salesperson's statement, fortunately, given the state of my bladder. Hence, there was a subsequent likely agreement between us on the accuracy of the following statement: "The bathroom is on the second floor."

This accuracy was not merely the result of the meaning of words, but had a little something to do with the contents and distribution of the store, with the fact that there was indeed a bathroom where the salesperson said that there would be one.

My scruffy friends in the coffee shop will object at this point and say (as I used to say, in my callow youth): "Hey, 'bathroom' is a concept, man, and it all depends on how you define it." They may also object that I merely brought my pre-understood definition of the exact "words" in the salesperson's statement to my "experience" of the actual bathroom, which I then "interpreted," so as to adjust to my reality.

I am not convinced by this. My encounter with objective or empirical reality allowed me to determine the accuracy of a statement used by someone who understood the word and concept "bathroom" pretty much as I did, in a way confirmed by our mutual acquaintance with the geography of the real world. We did not conjure the bathroom, the bookstore, or the world into existence by the use of words; but came to understand and navigate empirical reality better by our shared creation of linguistic realities linked to and measured against, that prior external world (noumenal reality).

Our statements were "coherent" in themselves because they fit our experience of the world -- or at least of the Barnes & Noble "Superstore" at Lincoln Center, where I made some "super" purchases after visiting the "super" bathroom. Derrida's pronouncement that there is "nothing outside the text" depends on the crucial word "text." In addition to empirical reality, of course, we also inhabit social realities. This means, like it or not, moral realities. Suppose the salesperson had said:

"I hope that you explode. I am not going to tell you where the bathroom is because you are an evil absolutist, who believes not only that there is such a thing as truth, but even good as opposed to evil."

I might ponder the ethics of the situation, refrain from violence or insults and come to the conclusion (after meditating) that Professor Rorty's theory may not be all that helpful after all. Professor Rorty claims: "there is no distinction in kind between what is useful and what is right." (p. 73.) Furthermore, moral obligation is strictly a matter of self-interest and convenience, so that the requirement to "adjust one's behavior to the needs of other human beings" is only a matter of self-interest in the final analysis. (p. 74.)

We Kantians -- especially those of us who are warm-hearted and fun at parties -- think that this confuses duty with self-interest, a point which Rorty acknowledges. We think that there is such a thing as altruism and that it is sometimes rationally commanded or required of us to behave not simply in a neutral manner, but altruistically. In other words, we may have to behave in a disinterested fashion. We may have to sacrifice our desires to the requirements of duty. I may consider not self-interest, but duty, as the essential ethical criteria, thereby placing the interests of others ahead of my own.

This is to say nothing of love, which entirely supersedes the strictures of morality. Duty (Kant) is what we are required to give to others; love (Jesus) is a total and unconditional giving of the self, far beyond what anyone has a "right" to expect from us, or what may be required of us. The first, to borrow Lon Fuller's terms, is a minimal standard of sociability (the morality of duty); the second is an ideal of humanity (the morality of aspiration). In any conflict between love and ethics, for me, love wins. ("The Allegory of the Cave.")

What would Jesus or Kant do in this situation? Perhaps both would counsel understanding of the unhelpful salesperson and a universal principle of concern and respect for a fellow human being obviously suffering from an unfortunate immersion in postmodernist discourse. Perhaps the salesperson has read one too many of Professor Rorty's books, failing to notice the good professor's smile in his cover photographs and his warning that "cruelty" is the worst accusation that can be made against any of us. Patience and compassion would be my response, together with a more diligent search for the men's room, which attests to my pragmatist sympathies.

But Professor Rorty says that "there was no point at which practical reasoning stopped being prudential and became specifically moral, no point at which it stopped being merely useful and started being authoritative." (p. 74.)

I wonder if someone were to offer the salesperson a fee for saying that there was no bathroom and if it were clear to this salesperson that such a self-interested act would not be discovered, then would it be right, "pragmatically," for the salesperson to lie to me? -- because there would be a selfish "gain" and no disadvantage in doing so? Is something other than "usefulness" the criterion by which to judge the quality of the salesperson's actions in such a situation? How do we define this "usefulness"? Game theorists always agree that it is best to take the money and run, especially if they are from New Jersey.

My guess is that we will end by re-introducing morality into the analysis under the rubric of "usefulness." I conclude -- I know that this is controversial -- that such a self-interested falsehood might be in keeping with pragmatic wisdom about the most practical (i.e., self-interested) solution in any given case. This is what the Hegelian-Kantian cannot accept.

The disagreement between Professor Rorty and many of his critics centers on the usefulness of the concept of what is "universal" or general human nature. Rorty rejects the notion. I like it and find it highly plausible. ("Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

I think that there are aspects of human beings that are pretty universal. We are all going to die, so that is a good place to start looking for the universal. This dispute also concerns the need for rationality in moral deliberations. Maybe the universality of morality and moral experience in human lives has something to do with that grim reaper we will all get to meet, eventually, and who may be a nihilist. This is to say nothing of our possible encounters with IRS agents. OAE?

Compassion and not rationality, according to Schopenhauer's development of Kantian ethics, is the basis of morality. Professor Rorty suggests that imagination (literature) and not reason, sentiment and not cogitation, is the key to the moral faculty. To which I answer: Why believe that what we call "thinking" is separable from such things as "sensibility," or that feeling is ever really distinct from calculation and reasoning? How do we define "intelligence"?

Imagination is simply a part of what we call reasoning, practical rationality or judgment. After all, we are not (thank goodness!) accountants of the spirit, equipped with moral calculators at birth, and such a possibility -- an army of philosophical moral auditors -- is certainly not a Kantian ideal. "Use them after their deserts, and who shall escape whipping?" Who indeed. OAE lawyers? Stuart Rabner? Hardly.

Persons who are religious do not believe in a God who is an auditor of moral lives. None of us would survive such scrutiny. A loving God's concern, or a conception of love as the key to human self-fulfillment, is transcendent of all such rules, which are designed for the messy reality we inhabit in this world of suffering and loss. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus explains that heaven is right here and now, so is God, both are love.

When confronted with these issues, pragmatists will go into contortions seeking to define "self-interest" to mean "selflessness," or "long-term self-interest for the species," or something else that looks a lot like altruism in the first place. The Kantian says simply "no, you must behave ethically -- even when you don't want to, but would much prefer to be evil."

Being "evil," as Milton's Lucifer might attest (how do we swear him in?), may be more fun (for some persons), or even addictive, but it will never be productive or helpful in any meaningful effort to improve the real quality of our lives. Truth-telling is a duty which we must not, in principle, deviate from on the basis of self-interest, though many of us will often do so, myself among them. Would you agree, Dr. Terry Tuchin of the C.I.A.? My torturers and thieves -- a Jew who became Mengele -- all disapprove of my "ethics." ("Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture.")

The reality of human fallibility does not undermine ethics; rather, it confirms the need for ethical thinking. Time, place and manner become crucial considerations when it comes to truth-telling, for example, though Kant would disapprove. When truth is sought from you publicly, when it matters, then tell it, no matter what the consequences may be. When you're trying to get a date for Saturday night, a little embelishment is permissible. (See Woody Allen's "date scene" in Play it Again Sam.)

I would not go as far as Kant does on this point. Nonetheless, I agree that something more than self-interest will determine the rare occasions on which it may be morally permissible and even altruistic to lie. Never lie for twenty-one years, Terry! For instance, when the KGB enters my home asking for my loved-ones who are hiding in the closet, it may be O.K. to lie (despite Kant), but not necessarily for self-interested reasons. Out of love or compassion, perhaps, and at great personal risk -- for reasons that are the opposite of self-interested -- it may be peachy-keen to lie. ("On Bullshit.")

I am suggesting that there is a kind of "moral reality" like empirical reality existing "out there," objectively, arising from our interactions with other people, that tells us when we have screwed up. Not so, says Professor Rorty: "... the temporal circumstances of life are difficult enough without sadomasochistically adding immutable, unconditional obligations." (p. 76.)

Yet we do not "add" those obligations; they are simply "there" in our lives, as a matter of being human and living with other humans, whether we want them to be there or not.

Death is also "there" for us pretty involuntarily. And this is not unrelated or irrelevant to the presence of moral concerns. We cannot decide that, because things are "difficult enough," we should be permitted to escape death. We will die soon enough, so that it is a matter of concern to us now what sort of character we build in the world and how we leave things for others when we depart the scene.

Love is also something that is simply felt or experienced, like the proverbial boulder in our path. Love is something which often has nothing to do with feeling pleasure or with what is convenient. Woody Allen makes the point briefly: "The heart wants what it wants." It is sometimes anything but pleasant loving another human being. Yet such a feeling -- and much more than a feeling -- is inescapable, when it is real, also overwhelming. ("David Hume's Philosophical Romance.")

Morality does not exist because it is easy nor because it is difficult for that matter. To use Rorty's analogy, humans cannot avoid developing and using language in order to live socially. By the same token, they will develop or discover and use morality as part of the rationality of sociability, in order to live with other people as fully human beings in large communities.

Development of a conscience is something that happens -- or should happen -- early in life. Great trauma may deform a person's capacity for moral development, but then much else will go awry with that unfortunate individual. With moral awareness, even powerful hatred and disgust -- rage at the exploiters and monsters of this world -- can be kept at bay. A challenge for many young men, especially in American urban centers, is coping with a monster within the self greedy for violence and bloodshed, slouching towards Bethlehem. ("What a man's gotta do.")

All of this implies that morality possesses an inherent objectivity or an internal logic. A comparison to the work of Lon Fuller on the logic and morality of law comes to mind. Right action remains "right" whether it is difficult or easy, whether we like it or not, whether we "agree" to it or not. An entirely amoral creature would be a kind of monster, not what we think of as a fully human being. A morally flawed person is what I call "normal" (human) as opposed to "beyond morality" (inhuman). Think of Adolf Eichman, who was certainly beyond morality as we understand the word, only in his own mind (based on a misreading of Kant), where all obligations ended with rule-following. In Cool Hand Luke the guard who explains that he's just doing his job, is told: "Calling it your job don't make it right, boss." Abu Ghraib? OAE? Robot bombs? All such horrors must remain unacceptable regardless of who is responsible for ordering such actions. Persons are never "collateral damage," never a means rather than an end. ("Drawing Room Comedy: A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script.")

Professor Rorty will respond that there is no such thing as "a fully human being," in a transcendent sense, and that we can dispense with this concept anyway. I disagree. I would invite Professor Rorty to a little chat with someone like Eichman, having no doubt at all that Professor Rorty will quickly conclude that something important to human beings is "missing" from such a person's mind and heart. I believe that in Rorty's best work he disagrees with himself on this issue:

"Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity [emphasis added] to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people." Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: 1989), p. xvi. ("The Wanderer and His Shadow.")

Why create solidarity? Is it not because we identify with the plight of others based on our rational recognition of sameness, which then allows us to imagine ourselves into the plight of another person? Is there not a crucial loss of humanity in a person who is incapable of such identification? There are such people. I've met a few of them. They enjoy inserting "errors" in the writings of others, especially persons whose intellects and talents are envied by these monsters. Rorty's discussion of solidarity often relies on a tacit appeal to an assumed understanding of human nature, a notion of what people are like, which is the very concept that he wishes to deny.


Rorty has a tendency to introduce value terms into his analysis without justifying their use or providing an adequate basis for them. Thus, he says: "We would not wish to be well-fed while our children [or our parents?] go hungry; that would be unnatural." (p. 78.)

Why not be "unnatural"? How is this word understood? Is there such a thing as "unnatural"? Does "nature" tell us what is unnatural? If so, then how does this fit with Rorty's claim that we decide such things on our own?

If it turns out that reality or nature says "yes" or "no" to our descriptions, to our language constructions, so that what works has as much to do with "the way things are" as with the ways in which we "use language," then as Simon Blackburn suggests, Rorty's own position is undermined.

Many of the same doubts can be expressed when Rorty speaks of "better justificatory ability" (p. 82.) What makes it "better"? This is not clear. If the answer is that it helps us to "cope," then the question becomes: Why does it help us to cope? What helps us cope is what comports with the requirements of an independent and objective world that is stubbornly resistant to our efforts to tame or control it. Yet this independence and objectivity are what Rorty wishes to deny.

At the deepest level of his analysis, Rorty is concerned to challenge "the picture of the self which philosophers have expressed in terms of the division between 'reason' and the 'passions' ... Ever since Plato, the West has construed the reason-passion distinction as paralleling the distinction between the universal and individual, as well as between unselfish and selfish actions." (p. 77.)

At least in the contemporary re-workings of the Kantian-Hegelian tradition, as transformed by Freudian psychoanalysis (the "id" is associated with the "noumenal self," while "ego" is associated with the "phenomenal self"), it seems possible to speak of a coincidence of passion and reason, conscious and unconscious in one self -- which exists both "inside" and "outside" of the subject (socially), as Rorty wishes. It is one, and only one self that feels and thinks while also being an agent in the world. Granted, there can be no absolute division between the two aspects of the self. Nevertheless, the self may have multiple aspects, becoming a shape-shifter in our circus-like social settings today. Derrida?

Our "this worldly" existence is not all there is to us. We also live in a shared world of ideas and aesthetic values. You may call them "systems of meaning or meanings." There is some life yet in those ancient metaphors derived from Plato, by way of Kant. And if Rorty is correct to say that no, metaphor is all there is; then you pick your metaphor, Professor Rorty, and I will stay with mine. In fact, one way of thinking of postmodernist culture is in terms of a forced choice among metaphors. ("Metaphor is Mystery.")

I will continue to think of an objective external world that contains such things as bathrooms. I will also think in terms of a valid and independent (in the sense of objective) and shared moral order that tells me when things are right or wrong, that lets me know quickly enough when I have made mistakes, sometimes quite painfully. Perhaps what I am getting at is related to what Roger Scruton describes as "culture."

To admit that our reasoning is always only "ours," is not to deny that some reasonings are better than others; some maps are better than others; some interpretations of a text are better than others -- whether the text in question is a traffic signal, or a clock, or the U.S. Constitution, and this is not only a matter of how language is used, but mostly it is the result of "how things are."

There is more than agreement to the concept of truth. The same applies when it comes to moral truth: Reality will say "yes" or "no" to us. I am not willing to give up just yet on the possibility of transcendence. Accordingly, I prefer to direct myself towards the "yes" rather than the "no," towards love and not hate, while always insisting on justice.

Rorty raises doubts in this essay about the philosophical or rational plausibility of a generalized or universal moral concern for humanity, as opposed to loved-ones or those who are close to us.

Why should we care about the homeless person on the corner? Professor Rorty writes: "It is neither irrational nor unintelligent to draw the limits of one's moral community at a national or racial, or gender border. But it is undesirable -- morally undesirable." (p. 81.)

The best answer that our civilization has given, concerning the rationality -- the key difference between us, I surmise, concerns the scope of "rationality" -- of universal moral empathy is derived from the Hebrew Bible, and later from Plato by way of Christianity and Kant. It is simply that this homeless person on the corner is you. He is Christ, for the Christian, just as you are, made of the same star-stuff, burdened with the same sorts of guilt, pain, joy, fear of death, and potential capacity for love and achievement. ("Is it rational to believe in God?" and "Arthur Schopenhauer's Metaphysics of Art.")

"I tell you solemnly," as President George W. Bush's favorite philosopher once said, "in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:34-40.)

It is not all that great a distance from this truth to: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all [persons] are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights."

Or "From each according to his ability to each according to his need." (Karl Marx)

Abu Ghraib? Robot bombs? Are we torturing and killing Christ every day? ("Cornel West On Universality" and "Would Jesus be a Christian?")

If this humanism is naive, foolish or gullible, then I will be happy to be those things, too. My guess is that I will have lots of company, including Professor Rorty.

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