Archive for the ‘Morality’ Category

What’s Empathy Got To Do With It?

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on May 8th, 2009

It’s quite astonishing that President Obama’s mention of empathy as a virtue he seeks in Supreme Court Justices has caused such a cotmpphppmpmrf1.gifmmotion. The reason for the commotion is a commitment to a conventional, however preposterous, jurisprudential paradigm, namely, that law, or rules generally, must be understood simply in terms of the text they’re written in or if going beyond the written word is alright, one must go no further than a narrow extra-constitutional context of “original meanings.” According to this paradigm, the interpreter needs to understand language or an extraordinarily narrow context in which the original language was constructed and nothing more.  How rules might be affect individuals to whom the rules applies is simply out-of-bounds.  Why? Because such inquiries might require the interpreter to generate feelings for these individuals and when feelings are generated all Hell breaks loose.  We’re just not capable of devising principles, standards, and rules and at the same time permitting human emotions to enter into their application. Empathy? Whose empathy? Empathy toward whom? How deep should the empathy go? These are simply intractable problems.  The better approach is not to start down this road at all.

The problem, of course, is that it is only down this road that our humanity can be found. Rather than add empathy to the conventional jurisprudential model of emotion-less rules, we should start out with empathy and with other emotions and formulate the rules to express the import of these emotions. Reversing this order would require Justices to empathize with the parties to a law suit first, and try to determine which rules will best satisfy the real-world needs and feelings of these litigants and of society. This is superior to trying to avoid the feelings and humanity embedded in any important controversy that law is designed to resolve. In conclusion, empathy should be a permanent condition of judging. It should be expressed through the Constitution to apply meaningfully to the lives of Americans.

Preserving the Historical Record of the Bush-Cheney Administration

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on February 13th, 2009

For a nation to maintain its honor it must be true to its morality, its politics, and its history. Its morality requires taking responsibility for wrongdoing. Politics requires holding those culpable of wrongdoing accountable for their specific crimes. History requires preserving the record of the nation’s wrongdoing in order for future generationtmpphpreyq501.jpgs to avoid repeating them. Although the dark days of the Bush-Cheney regime are beyond us, its shadow persists. Indeed, it may not be possible to emerge from this shadow without responding as a nation to whatever crimes were committed on the Bush-Cheney watch. The Obama administration seems inclined to be “forward-looking,” which means unless irrefutable proof of illegality is established to focus on how the United States can return to its principles and values, for instance, by eliminating torture. Others want to subject the Bush-Cheney years to critical investigations and prosecute where warranted. The first approach virtually turns a blind eye to the atrocities of the past eight years. The second approach conceivably will consume the Obama administration with congressional and judicial inquiries deflecting the administration from attending to the other egregious problems–such as the Iraq War and an economy in free fall–bequeathed to the nation from arguably the most irresponsible and incompetent administration in the nation’s history.  Neither approach is very attractive.  Senator Leahy, (D-Vermont) has suggested a third possibility. To preserve the historical record without requiring the current administration to engage in complex prosecutions, Leahy has suggested the formation of a “truth commission,” which would offer immunity to anyone who truthfully testifies to the facts of the debacle in Iraq. Anyone accepting immunity that lies would be subject to prosecution for perjury. Whatever the drawbacks of this proposal it satisfies the most important overriding value, namely, it preserves the historical record on possible war crimes committed by the Bush-Cheney administration.  Without such a record, America’s honor is severely compromised.

America, the World, Require a Reckoning

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on February 3rd, 2009

Is it morally conceivable that the Obama administration will fail to pursue some institutional mechanism for determining whfinal1.jpgether George W. Bush is responsible for war crimes? The moral core of American values requires a reckoning. Even if the former president is never tried, the United States must take it upon itself in whatever venue possible to set the historical record straight on whether torture was authorized at the highest levels of American government.  The understandable instinct to move forward especially in light of the intractable problems facing the new president must be resisted for the sake of the nation’s honor.  We can more forward only after we take account of our past misdeeds, and we should never forget that George W. Bush’s misconduct is our misconduct. The precise character of the reckoning is far less important that thee fact of a reckoning. Call the endeavor “truth and reconciliation concerning possible war crimes committed during W.’s presidency.” Rule out criminal sanctions in advance. But something needs to be done for the moral character of the nation.  For an informative article on this matter click here.

TO BEGIN THE WORLD A NEW

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on January 20th, 2009

The American Revolution and its constitutional expression—at least in the Constitution’s Preamble, the Bill of Right, and the Civil War Amendments–represent a commitment to the critical political values story-1.jpgof liberty and equality. Ours was the first nation to be committed to an idea, to popular sovereignty.  This involves requiring the allegiance to the people not to Kings, theocrats, and such.  Instead, the people governed would also be the governors. This idea would sweep away other forms of political commitments. It is an idea that anyone could adopt, anyone committed to self-government. In theory, one didn’t have to be a member of a particular nationality or religion.  It was a new beginning that one chose to adopt, not one that was imposed by other people or traditions. The beauty of this polity was that each generation, if it chose, could begin the world anew. This was the theory, but it often fell short in practice. The power of domination to which other nations adhered also had expression in American political and social practice.  The most onerous form of domination was slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and presently, subtle forms of discrimination. Could America’s aspirations every truly be realized?

That question has now the beginning of an answer and that answer is yes we can.  Today, after forty-three white presidents, Americans will swear in their first African American president. We will begin our world anew. This, of course, does not mean racism will be extinguished in America today or even in this decade.  But now we see the beginning of the end of virulent racism.  Committed racists are now a severely endangered species and like the dinosaurs are headed for extinction.  Other forms of racism will take longer to extirpate.  But the dye has been cast. With the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama we have turned a new chapter in the American narrative. No longer will an entire group of Americans be cast out of America’s highest office because there skin color is not “correct.”  No longer will other minorities be similarly shut out.

What is genuinely inspiring, for me, about America’s greatness lies, not in its attainment of perfection whatever that would be like, but rather its capacity for change, its commitment to remediating wrongs, and perhaps most importantly and most relevant today, its penchant for expanding the idea of who counts as a full and equal citizen. The new president represents the promise of transformative change, of righting its wrongs and expressing its revolutionary and constitutional aspirations in a new birth of freedom.

But President Obama represents more than simply the first African American to win the presidency. He brings to the presidency a new political philosophy. The commitment to liberty and equality, as important as it is, fails to complete the idea of self government. Added to the fundamental values of liberty and equality, must be an aspiration to community.  Consider his own words:

Communities had never been a given in this country, at least not for blacks. Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men—and [in the civil rights movement] I saw the African-American community becoming more than just the place where you’d been born or the house where you’d been raised. Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned.  And because membership was earned—because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself—I believe that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.

President Obama’s commitment to community is illustrative of what this extraordinarily intellectual, and morally grounded, man will contribute to the idea of America.  We must attend to our commonalities; we must strive to seetmpphpvr8i5n.jpg ourselves in others. The poison of factionalism, special interests, and demonizing our opponents must give way to respecting our opponents in the hope of achieving principled compromise with them. But a sensitivity to community is not a given; it is not easy.  Each American, in his or her own way, must contribute, must sacrifice, must exude patience to bring forth a transformation in American political culture. No, this will not be easy, but then again, it is never easy to begin the world anew. It is, however, our legacy, a legacy that empowers and invigorates like no other legacy can. The challenges facing America are enormous and grave, and we must give the new president a chance. Welcome to the age of Obama, where we can begin the world anew by revivifying our precious values of liberty and equality, and add to these values the value of community. Within the vast diversity in the American nation, the new president challenges us to recognize our interconnectedness. We are one people, not because our religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity makes us one people, but rather because our commitment to American ideals, to the better angels of our nature; that’s what makes us one.  Congratulations, Mr. President! Congratulations America!

What Do Bill O’Reilly and the U.S. Congress Have in Common?

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on December 17th, 2007

CBS reports that “[f]our Jewish subway riders who wished other people ‘Happy Hanukkah’ were pelted with anti-Semitic remarks before being beaten, police and prosecutors said. The incident was being investigated as a possible hate crime. . . . The four were on a train in lower Manhattan on Friday night, during the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, when they were approached by a group of 10 people who offered holiday greetings. The victims responded, ‘Happy Hanukkah,’ and then were assaulted by the larger group, police said Tuesday. . . . Police caught up with the train one stop later, in Brooklyn, and arrested eight men and two women, ages 19 and 20. They were arraigned Saturday on charges of assault, menacing, riot, harassment and disorderly conduct, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office said. The case was being handled by the office’s civil rights bureau, and charges could be upgraded to hate crimes, prosecutors said.

A Muslin student, Hassan Askari, came to the defense of the four Jewish subway riders. Mr. Askani attempted to fight off the attackers giving the Jewish students time to call 911. What provokes unstable or malevolent people to engage in such anti-semitic behavior? One answer might be a perverse, out-of control, cable-driven media. Watch and listen to the Bully-In-Chief, Bill O’Reilly, whose anti-semitic role in “defending” the so-called “War of Christmas” poisons an environment already pregnant with anti-semitic attitudes just barely hidden beneath the surface of American culture.

[youtube]90KVt2NzYQI[/youtube]

Then consider whether the United States Congress contributes to this climate of anti-semitism by issuing a non-binding resolution stating:

Resolved, That the House of Representatives– (1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world; (2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide; (3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith; (4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization; (5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and (6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world.

Benign, you say. Maybe. While it is true that Congress has issued similar non-binding resolutions concerning other religions, where in the Constitution is Congress authorized to engage in issuing non-binding resolutions of any sort? The text? The intent of the framers? The structure of the Constitution? Where? Congress plays politics with our normative environment–what ordinary citizens regard as acceptable to say and do–and ordinary citizens pay the politics for such pandering. Both the Jewish victims and their attackers ultimately (if only indirectly) pay this price. American political culture needs a comprehensive cleansing of O’Reilly-type bigotry and congressional pandering. American citizens need to take back control of both our media and politics.

Credit for Subway Image

Three Cheers for 1967: The Summer of Love

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on August 20th, 2007

The summer of 1967 marks the coming of age–sexually, politically, and socially–of a generation. Perhaps, more than any year in that turbulent decade, the summer of love suggested a novel, more authentic, way of interacting with others. Sexuality became a common–some say promiscuous–form of interaction, sans marriage, sans love, sans commitment. Of course, sexuality could be included in these practices, but, according to “the new explanation,” none of them are required for sexual relations to be appropriate. The first blow at calcified social traditions was to identify sexual repression. Once doing so, peculiar, Victorian “hang-ups” about sexuality could then be abandoned. A freer, more open, view toward sexuality served as a paradigm for dealing with other calcified traditions having little to do with sexuality. If sexuality can be re-evaluated rationally, so could everything else. And this rationality included, but was not exhausted by, deductive reasoning. It was more the rationality of reflective and pragmatic commonsense.

During the sixties a much greater imperative lay beyond the freedom of sexual gratification. In addition to its primary commitment to end the war in Vietnam, the sixties’ nation shown the light of revelation on the ubiquitous darkness of excluded and marginalized people living and suffering among us. How can the richest nation in the world–ostensibly dedicated to freedom and equality–ignore the well-being of so many of its own citizens? (“Whatever you did to the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”) Focusing on these people became, for the sixties’ nation, both personal and a political imperatives. As Edward P. Morgan put it, “Sixties movements, were grounded in a democratic vision that is as compelling today as it was then: a belief that all people should be included as full members of society, that individuals become empowered through meaningful social participation, and that politics ought to be grounded on respect and compassion for the individual person.” In short, the sixties’ imperative was the expansion of the moral and political community in order to include those deliberately and subliminally excluded. After the drudgery of the 1950s, 1967 was the time when the sixties reached its most hopeful pinnacle and an explosion of colorful possibilities in social and personal development burst on to the American landscape. Underlying Haight-Asbury and the hippie-yippie generation lay the imperative to take others–African-Americans, women, gays–seriously, playfully seriously, but seriously nonetheless. Freedom too was embraced as both a personal and political goal. It was something to be to be practiced daily. It was, as they say, “the age of great dreams,” though some of these great dreams, as might have been expected, for some people became nightmares.

Reactionary commentators, chief among them Robert Bork, tar the sixties as a time when permissively raised, rich and middle class kids engaged in greedy hedonism and nothing more. More insidiously, these commentators delight in tarring the period as filled with violent weather-underground radicals, the Port Huron statement, and Chicago Seven, in an attempt to hide from sight the essence of an ennobling process. Sure there was excess, but often in cultural revolution excess plays mid-wife to creativity and nobility that harkens back to our constitutional founding. Blaming “liberalism” for America’s decline is right on the money, but only if you select the right liberalism. Trying to expand the actual moral community to include the excluded is not the culprit. Rather, it is the materialist, radically individualistic culture that deadens American values. Moreover, blame lies equally with such critics as Bork who believe in dedicated social structures, ones that should resist change. This “dedicatedness” flies in the faith of the Jeffersonian commitment to deliberation, reflection, and change. Jeffersonian, and even Madisonian, constitutionalism is as antithetical to Bork’s cartoon depiction of American constitutionalism as simple majoritarianism. Yet, dedicated constitutionalism would prevent from taking seriously the question Hamilton puts to his contemporaries in Federalist No. 1 and to all succeeding generations of American about the possibility of self government: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, to decide by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Hamilton might have add to “accident and force” a third element in dedicated cultures “unreflective customs or traditions.” Judge Bork is thus out of step with Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton. It’s difficult to identify which founder, if any, reflects Judge Bork’s conception of constitutionalism. Majoritarianism was never even considered at the constitutional convention. So Judge Bork’s conception of original meaning seems to preclude the theory of democracy he so willingly embraces.

Indeed, the sixties represent a social and political revolution virtually synchronized with the most progressive period of constitutional change in the nation’s history. In brief, what’s typically lost about the sixties was the underlying deliberative attitude which finds its source in the Founding. To locate this attitude one should steer clear of hippidom or yippidom. Look instead into the lives of young intellectuals and reflective people who, in the sixties, sought to be the source of change, a new “founding,” if you will. An old approach to practical reasoning–forgotten after War II–was revivified. Deliberation captured the imagination of the young. This underlying attitude embraced the tradition of providing reasoned arguments, not merely an appeal to unreflective customs no matter how entrenched, for personal, political, and social policy. Moreover, the reasons given in these arguments could not ultimately be idiosyncratic. For my reasons to convince you, they must touch you and affect and influence your ratiocinative powers. When I insist that you abide by my reasons whether you’re convinced or not, I impose my reasons on you and I violate one of the basic conditions of rationality. I consider my reason to be beyond deliberation; its truth is absolute and uncompromising. I’m duped to thinking that imposing my reasoning upon you is not only justified, but required. If you cannot apprehend absolute truth for yourself, concern for you, if not respect, requires making sure that absolute truth controls you life whether you want it to or not. Moreover, you violate one of the basic conditions of deliberative rationality when you acknowledge that my reasons have some merit but ultimately should be rejected even when you have nothing better with which to replace it. Accordingly, deliberative rationality includes reciprocity or mutuality. We must seek reasons together–all the while arguing respectfully with one another–until we find a reflective consensus or realize that such a consensus, at least at this time, is not possible.

On a personal note, the summer of love, 1967, is responsible, at least in part, for forging intellectually, the person, for good or ill, I later became. My one regret is that I believed, at that time, that although progress toward a more rational and reasonable society might come temporarily to a halt, the gains made would be permanent. That is, there would be no political or social backsliding. In that conviction I was probably mistaken. The sixties’ nation made promises it couldn’t be kept. What prevented the sixties’ nation from keeping these promises is a critically important question. Perhaps, social and economic circumstances prevented their fulfillment. Subsequent and especially current, developments prove that political and social back sliding is inevitable. We just can’t seem retain political and social advances without cultural changes that support these advances. But perhaps our culture has changed significantly and permanently. We no longer think it permissible to harbor racial prejudice. Our views about sexuality have changed permanently perhaps. Even political conservatives, in committed relationships, opposed to most of the promises made by the sixties’ generation, think nothing of cohabiting without marriage. (They have the sixties’ nation to thank for that.) Women no longer are excluded from entering the professions, academia, and just about whatever avocation they desire. Gays and lesbians, for decades made invisible by mainstream society, now publicly seek to enter mainstream society through the institution of marriage. Each one of these cultural changes finds its source in the sixties. So perhaps the gains made during that fecund, if turbulent, era have become part of America’s cultural heritage.

However, in contrast to these achievements, we have become a more cynical society where our domestic opponents are viewed not merely as respected adversaries, but rather as hateful enemies. Unfortunately, the past seven years have provided a pellucid demonstration that republican democracy does in fact have domestic enemies, usually just those public officials and pundits who are busiest trying to demonize their opponents. Not since Watergate have we seen an administration so clearly opposed to American constitutional values. It’s difficult to appreciate just what the antidote to our impoverished politics might be. Perhaps, the current cynicism will cause an even greater fragmentation in the body politic. Or maybe, a new wave of realistic optimism will wash the slate clean. As with many other elements in the evolution of the American republic and the culture that supports it, only an intelligent, determined, tough, and idealistic new generation of young people can begin this cleansing. Only when such a generation arises will social hope of the intoxicating sort experienced during the summer of love be a possibility.

Karl Rove: The Sociopathic Advisor/ George W. Bush: The Sociopathic President?

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on August 19th, 2007

Check out this report about Rove’s departure. Then take a look here at Rove’s influence in the “macaca” incident, which effectively destroyed Senator Allen’s bid for re-election. Here’s a taste of the latter: “This incident had resonance well beyond Virginia and Mr. Allen for several reasons. First, it crystallized the monochromatic whiteness at the dark heart of Rovian Republicanism. For all the minstrel antics at the 2000 convention, the record speaks for itself: there is not a single black Republican serving in either the House or Senate, and little representation of other minorities, either. Far from looking like America, the G.O.P. caucus, like the party’s presidential field, could pass for a Rotary Club, circa 1954. Meanwhile, a new census analysis released this month finds that nonwhites now make up a majority in nearly a third of the nation’s most populous counties, with Houston overtaking Los Angeles in black population and metropolitan Chicago surpassing Honolulu in Asian residents. Even small towns and rural America are exploding in Hispanic growth.” Cleansing the nation of the last vestiges of the de facto (at least) commitment to white (Republican) supremacy will take a new generation of Republicans, the members of which are Republicans because . . . .?

Karl Rove has been touted as the third most powerful man in the country, Although he has made some tactical mistakes or blind spot , which may have ultimately brought him down, it seems as if he simply has no capacity for feeling shame or guilt. In running presidential campaigns, Rove has clearly revealed he simply has no conscience. Rove was an equal opportunity demonizer; he trashed Democrats and Republicans alike. In the 2000 run for the Republican nomination for president Rove trashed Senator John McCain just as brutally as he trashed and demonized any Democrat. The Bush-Rove political strategy is this: Do anything at all–except get caught–to win an election or to make sure that one’s policy proposal prevails. Neither has any concern for the rights or feelings of those politicians that stand in their way. Neither empathy nor statesmanship is possible. within their pigmy moral characters. Winning at any cost is not only permissible but is required when the result is to save the nation by electing its savior, George W. Bush or whoever rove is supporting at the time. With a savior like Mr. Bush, who needs Satan? Mr. Bush did. Satan in the form of Karl Rove–“Bush’s Brain” or as Mr. bush himself called him “the architect“–stood, pitch fork in hand, at Mr. Bush’s side until now when after seven years under Satan’s tutelage, Mr. Bush can properly do the job himself. Until Americans understand sociopathology and its cousin psychopathology can afflict even those wearing suits and praising God, the moral character required by the electorate will continue to amount to such prohibitions as not cheating one’s spouse and other such “categorical imperatives.”

Impeach Bush-Cheney!

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on July 9th, 2007

What will history’s verdict be on United States citizens and their governmental representatives in Congress if we do not at least try to remove Bush-Cheney from office? Two fundamentally important reasons exist for impeaching Bush-Cheney and removing them from office. The first reason emphasizes the importance of getting Messrs. Bush and Cheney, in Keith Olbermann’s words “two men who are now perilous to our Democracy, away from its helm.” The second reason favors impeachment because only by doing so do we preserve (or reclaim) the moral integrity of the American character. Now, with a majority of Americans in favor of impeaching Mr. Cheney and a virtual tie between those who favor impeaching Mr. Bush and those opposed, it is time for the Democrats to act.

Impeachment is not merely a political means of saving this country from over 500 more days of the worst executive branch in American history; it is a moral imperative if citizens of other nations and more important, future generations of Americans are to take this current generation of Americans seriously. Our integrity–the very moral fabric of present day Americans–is on the line. We must reclaim our character for its own sake and because if we naively demur, attacking Iran is almost certain. Seeking accountability from the President and Vice-President will prevent such an attack from taking place. But moreover, it will show that the United States Constitution provides mechanisms for ridding the country of incompetent, dangerous, and malevolent “leaders.” The Constitution’s impeachment provision will prove to be completely vacuous unless we at least try to impeach Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney.

Iraqi officials are already advising their constituents to arm themselves for fear American troops will bring the troops home sooner than anyone thought. With the writing clearly on the wall that the United States will leave Iraq worse off than under a brutal, sociopathic dictator, Saddam Hussein, it is simply heart-breaking to learn of the deaths of more American soldiers for the sake of an egregiously reckless, immoral venture. Let’s honor those soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice by beginning to redeploy those still living. Lets take them from harm’s way in the winless context of urban fighting and move them to the borders of the fractured nation and to the oil fields. And let’s do so while holding impeachment hearings to determine the truth about those who orchestrated this debacle.

Defending Rorty: The Kibitzer’s Kibitzer

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on June 27th, 2007

Richard Rorty’s death has prompted well-deserved praise and appreciation for a public life well spent. There has been, however, little serious discussion of his political views. This is unfortunate, because politics is the radiating core of his philosophy. Rorty’s project replaces epistemology with politics and knowledge with warranted assertability which is achieved through political debate. More precisely, conversation–deliberative debate designed to achieve unforced inter-subjective agreement–is the goal of Rortyan politics. Similarly, deliberative conversation is the method for talking about politics and culture. By engaging in this multi-layered conversation, we may be able to agree about some critical features of social life. When we agree we achieve provisional closure of debate. When we disagree, the debate must continue until we achieve agreement. If agreement is improbable at the time, we can at least appreciate just what is at stake in our disagreement. Often underlying our disagreement are two incommensurable perspectives. When this occurs we must pause, but then return to “debate” through poetry–non-discursive suasion–which may help us to achieve agreement through edifying vocabularies that convert others to our point of view.

It’s not Rorty’s intention to try to refute the framework of truth, knowledge, reason, and reality, whatever that would be like. He doesn’t seek to demonstrate that this framework is self-contradictory, for example. On the contrary, he engages in kibitzing–a form of jocular coaching–about the usefulness of retaining this framework. Rorty urges us to imagine a new world where people were simply uninterested in philosophical justifications of the judgments that matter most to them. These new worlders are deadly serious about whether these judgments are true, but not about what is meant by “truth.” They seek true judgments, but not true judgments about the nature of truth. In this new world, the word “true” applies simply what other people let us get away with. It is the normative compliment awarded to the judgment that withstands criticism best. The nature of truth, knowledge, reason, and reality–these foundational justifiers–simply don’t turn new worlders on. In a similar fashion, the nature or existence of God leaves these new worlders cold. Instead, they are engaged in building a future dedicated to minimizing cruelty and suffering. They are always ready to argue whether a particular policy reduces cruelty and suffering. But they find it tedious to try to demonstrate why cruelty and suffering should be reduced in the first place. These new worlders have experienced cruelty and suffering themselves and just want them eliminated. Their experiences is all the proof necessary. For them, seeking a demonstration of whether cruelty and suffering should be eliminated is a fool’s errand. We have no guarantees or guarantors in trying to eliminate cruelty and suffering, just our own and others’ experiences, and a conviction that we can do better. Rorty suggests that these new worlders can be us.

Some critics insist that the above story makes Rorty a relativist or worse, a nihilist. Maybe. But perhaps these critics can only envision the framework of either-or: either God and foundational justifiers or relativism and nihilism. These critics should explain why we need to retain this framework. Rorty wants to kibitz long enough for us to take seriously that there are other possibilities. We can seek the framework best suited to achieve our goals. We don’t need guarantees (nor guarantors) that this framework will work. We just continue its promotion by experiencing and acting upon the world through an edifying vocabulary to see if it does.

Most people in contemporary society retain deeply held moral convictions while rarely asking whether these convictions are grounded in God or foundational justifiers. Sure, if challenged, they might attempt to defend their entire system of convictions by appealing to God or the foundational justifiers, but for the lion’s share of their everyday lives, they never give them a thought. Yet, these same people disdain cruelty, refrain from mayhem, and would never contemplate killing their neighbors. Rorty’s point stripped down is simply that God and all the foundational justifiers aren’t necessary for human society to be populated by people who passionately seek to create better opportunities for human liberation, where what’s deemed “better” isn’t completely known in advance.

When a critic asks how can “better” have any significance without tying it to “God” and “truth” Rorty’s might reply as follows: Imagine reading in tomorrow’s newspaper “God is dead and there is no such thing as truth.” Suppose you were convinced by this report. What would you do? Go out and murder your neighbor? Probably not. Instead, you would trudge along as before. Why? Because cruelty and suffering have their own experiential (avoidance) hold over us. Try excising them from your personality and psychological reactions. In short, go forth into the world and see cruelty, and suffering; then imagine no God and no foundational justifiers. Do you think for a moment the horror you feel when confronting, cruelty, and suffering would dissipate? You might be inclined to reply that the intelligibility of this hypothetical depends on the existence of God and the foundational justifiers both of which serve as the basis of morality. Without their existence or at least their intelligibility the hypothetical has no force. Yet, that is precisely the problem. Where Rorty sees a world in which people work together to create a better future, his critics see God and rationality creating and guiding the entire operation. However, if one is authentically moral, if morality is integrated in one’s personality in an Aristotelian fashion, no further grounding is necessary. Relativism and nihilism are not implausible because some remarkable philosopher refuted them. Rather, they are implausible because the hard and soft wiring of human personality invariably rejects them. Natural and environmental factors together contribute to make most people sensitive to cruelty and suffering, though some people ignore the suffering of others by compartmentalizing their experience of it. More tragically, some notorious and infamous cases exist of sadists who enjoy cruelty and suffering. But as it now stands, God and the foundational justifiers have not successfully prevented these moral monsters; so why should Rorty’s proposal be held to a higher standard?

Rorty urges us to imagine a world where our passion for creating a better society does not depend on first rationally demonstrating that we possess a better way, just that it’s worth a try. Of course, in the “wrong” hands, danger might result. But in the “right” hands danger results now. For Rorty, we should continually strive to seek novel ways to cope with life’s vagaries. Imagine if talented undergraduate intellectuals spent less time trying to discover whether God exists or what reason demands and redirected their efforts to figure out how to reduce homelessness, war, brutality, and as so forth. “Devote yourself to first-order problems, not second-order ones” is the pragmatist’s advice. Let’s abandon a framework which requires us to first seek permission from an external authority before we try to follow where commonsense and passion suggest it’s more profitable to go. This search for a better world here and now–a utopian and more liberated America if you will– prompts Rorty to reject the panoply of “authorities” standing in our way.

Summarizing, Rorty embraces conversation–a type of fancy kibitzing–designed to formulate provisional solutions to social problems, but it is a kibitzing that should never end. We’re ready to terminate kibitzing only if we’re ready to give up freedom. The first photograph of Rorty was taken by Suhrkamp Verlag.

An “Honor” Killing in Britain

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on June 16th, 2007

Several weeks ago, ECA posted an item on the perverse practice of so-called “honor” killing in Iraq. Just this past week, a Muslim man, Abdullah Yones, was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing his daughter. Why did he kill her? He killed her simply because her boyfriend was Christian. A salient commitment of any pluralist democracy is the valorization of diversity. In order to embrace diversity, democratic society should encourage tolerance, respect, and even an appreciation of cultural differences. However, tolerance is a two-way street. We cannot ask others to strive for tolerance if we do not do so as well. So even when cultural practices seem inexplicable, peculiar, or repugnant, good little liberals must practice what they preach. They must make peace with their own negative or hostile reactions and permit these practices to flourish. But an absolute commitment to almost any value tends to ignore other equally important values. Indeed, an absolute commitment to almost any value in a pluralist democracy tends to undermine that value itself. Clearly, an absolute commitment to tolerance will undermine tolerance. If we tolerate the exclusionist who seeks to dominate by force and violence, tolerance will quickly disappear. A baseline of what can be tolerated must be established and to do that we must encourage deliberative conversation regarding where that baseline is drawn. Some cultural commitments, however sincerely held, simply cannot be tolerated, and only a puerile understanding of tolerance could insist that drawing such a line or having such a baseline is inconsistent with the values of tolerance and diversity. Even if you conscientiously believe that women embody the honor of the family and their transgressions disgrace its members, in pluralist democracies, killing these “transgressors” must be impermissible. In deciding what counts as a crime and the degree of punishment must be ignored. At least in Western democracies, honor killings must not be tolerated. Abdullah Yones must learn this lesson as should others who share is system of values.