Ad hominem worries about global justice

by Chris Bertram on October 10, 2008

In political philosophy you should play the ball rather than kicking the player, right? Well I agree. But then it gets hard to find a legitimate role for the Mandy Rice-Davies argument. And such arguments sometimes seem appropriate. It seems ok to notice that Hegel might have erred in finding that the local socio-political framework was what _Geist_ was aiming at all along, and that this might represent a kind of dull parochialism on his part. And when Kant isn’t willing to admit barbers to citizenship, but has fewer qualms about wig-makers, and thinks that reason supports him, we suspect something has gone wrong. It isn’t hard to multiply the examples …. Aristotle on slavery anyone?

Generally, I think, one should expect the comparatively liberal people in a society to articulate a kind of weaselly compromise between an impartial perspective and whatever the local chauvinisms and prejudices are. Partly this is psychological: it is hard to believe that uncles, aunts, cousins and neighbours are bad people, so one gives some weight to their attachments and beliefs as legitimate. Partly the pressure is political: in a democratic society winning means building a coalition and that means including the median voter. It is hard to build a coalition in bad faith, to secretly believe that your nation is a rapacious imperial power whilst reaching out to others who believe that it is a great country which (despite mistakes) basically does good in the world. And then there’s the fact that intellectuals who do try to detach themselves from local prejudice, from what the person on the bus thinks and cares about, often seem to lack a necessary reality check and end up saying a lot of crazy stuff that then earns them hostility and ridicule, some of it deserved. You don’t want to be like those guys.

So, for example, liberal Serbs kind of acknowledge that Milosevic did some bad stuff, but urge you to see the context, the other side of the picture. Liberal Israelis loathe the settlers and all their works and feel kind of bad about the Nakba and the occupation, but think of the Zionist project as basically legitimate and good. Liberal Russians might bemoan some of Putin’s excesses, but think that something had to be done about Chechnya. Etc. And, again, you can multiply the examples. Moreover (and it complicates the picture) some of these people might actually be right. In their case, the truth really might lie in the middle.

So, leaving the supporting arguments to one side, for a moment, what sort of conclusions about the world would you expect well-paid American liberal intellectuals to reach when they came to think about global justice? I guess I’d expect the following. I’d expect a good deal of hand-wringing about the relationship between patriotism and universal morality, and I’d expect them to discover a legitimate role for patriotism. They’d find out that it is perfectly permissible to have a limited preference for one’s fellow citizens (especially poor and minority ones) over outsiders. They’d therefore agonize about issues such as immigration but accept the right of states to control their borders, reject the notion that justice requires any kind of global redistributive principle but favour some limited doctrine of “assistance” to those suffering desperate poverty overseas. And I’d expect them, being smart people, to come up with some varied and ingenious arguments to support such conclusions. John Rawls, Michael Blake, Samuel Freeman, Richard Miller, Thomas Nagel, Elizabeth Anderson … even (or especially?) Michael Walzer, end up in the same place. Kind of a coincidence huh? What would Mandy say about that?



Farren 10.10.08 at 8:22 am

I have no idea who Mandy Rice-Davies is but thank you for eloquently articulating a dynamic I’ve recognised in a blurry way for a long time, but never as clearly as I do after reading this.


Walt 10.10.08 at 8:36 am

Apparently I’m a well-paid American liberal intellectual, except for the “well-paid” part.


Otto Pohl 10.10.08 at 8:38 am

Other than perhaps Valery Tishkov, who lives in Norway, I do not believe that there are any Russian liberals currently still alive. Sakharov has been dead for some time now. But, maybe you can name some Russian liberals that are both still alive and living in the Russian Federation that I do not know about.


Joel Turnipseed 10.10.08 at 8:41 am

She’d say, “He would, wouldn’t he.” Well… mostly because she did.

But then, like “de gustibus non disputandem est” and “festinare lente” and “everything in moderation, including moderation” (or even, my all-time favorite, Hofstadter’s Law), such courtesanal, Polonial wisdom is… well, sometimes wise counsel.

Even so, we’ll grant your point that some circumstantial evidence (or: some ad hominem attacks–and you surely chose Mandy Rice-Davies for her conceptual proximity to both) is worth considering: as Henry Thoreau said of our own, homegrown U.S., tainted milk scandal: “Sometimes circumstantial evidence is very strong, such as when there’s a trout in the milk.”

I take it, however, that your implication is that our current crisis calls for a more cosmopolitan view–and that the (doesn’t this bring up a 30-odd year critique) liberal philosophy–and subsequent liberal critiques–of Rawls are just so much paint on so much political paste? Maybe so. But maybe not. Perhaps a cosmopolitan view will involve, say, China granting the U.S. (and, potentially, some combination of the U.S./EU) a half-trillion or so to a) bail us out and b) continue to prop their export-based economy up. Not sure what this does for, say, Malawi–but I don’t know: it may only continue to improve the relative standing of countries outside of the G7/BRIC to watch us struggle through an uncertain period.

Which is to say (and I’ve thought it in response to many of the recent posts on CT): is there really anything like a major philosophical crisis at hand? Surely the (anomalous and now hopefully defunct) Republican ascendancy of the last 30 years or so did not represent anything like mainstream political or social thought as embodied in working academe?

Realizing Rawls may not be easy (as Realizing Rawls was not that easy), but surely a more progressive income tax, a better social welfare safety net, and a much lower willingness to grant society-shaking bets to the whims of those who disproportionately benefit from their payoff (and who rig the game to avoid, in similar fashion, the losses) are hardly “end of the Western political/philosophical order.”

Or warrant the suggestion that certain ad hominem attacks on that tradition are suddenly, in the light of scandal, appropriate.


Chris Bertram 10.10.08 at 8:52 am

Joel, I didn’t take myself to be responding to “our current crisis”. In fact, I’ve been leaving comment on that to others.

Otto, I can, in fact, name a Russian liberal resident in the Russian Federation. At least, he seemed liberal to me last time we talked. But there would be no more point naming him to you than there would be in divulging the name of next door’s cat.


Kordo 10.10.08 at 8:57 am

I’m with Farren here, I have no idea who Mandy Rice-Davies is, but after this fascinating post, I’d really like to find out. Plz provide link (tho I am googling her now). As for Rawls, I hafta admit that I haven’t read him as carefully as I read R. Nozick’s counter-argument “Anarchy, State, & Utopia”. I will rectify that ASAP. I hope JT is right here-
“Is there really anything like a major philosophical crisis at hand? Surely the (anomalous and now hopefully defunct) Republican ascendancy of the last 30 years or so did not represent anything like mainstream political or social thought as embodied in working academe?”
I am fascinated with, and woefully outclassed by, this discussion. I hafta go do some studying…


Joel Turnipseed 10.10.08 at 9:01 am

O.K. (and seriously: must. get. Ambien. prescription. renewed), Chris: what is the point of this post, other than to generate some sort of weird, rambling response (to be followed by the usual descent into irrelevance and/or the “trollery | godwin” function)?

I’d hate to call it a banality (it’s half the point of my war memoir!), but seriously: isn’t part of, you know, adulthood the realization that there are real, embedded (embodied?) difficulties to living some kind of “right” life–even if you’re clear (possibly–or even probably–mistakenly so) about what that kind of life might look like? And, by extension, that there are concomitant practical constraints as a result? You know, you mention Aristotle… I don’t know, the older I get, the more the triad of “ethos/pathos/logos” as necessary functions of (political or other) communication really do seem like he more-or-less dialed it.

Which is to say, unless Mandy’s ad hominem charge holds (which, in her case, it did), and the correspondence to liberal political philosophy also does (and why, if not in response to the current crisis, bring that sort of thing up?), what the hell direction can someone expect to take your post?


Chris Bertram 10.10.08 at 9:10 am

Joel, I don’t know what you think the point of blogs like CT is. Certainly it isn’t to generate our comments threads. Nor is it (simply) to respond to whatever is in the headlines. Sometimes we just write about what we’ve been thinking about, and, personally, I was thinking about this (also for my own case, since I’ve published in support of not dissimilar conclusions to the ones whose possible unconscious genesis I’m troubled by). If a particular post doesn’t do anything for you (banal, obvious, stupid) then you have the rest of the interwebs to amuse you instead.


Scott Martens 10.10.08 at 9:43 am

Mandy Rice-Davies is hardly the sort of political philosopher to see her remark as having any bearing. To be sure, she isn’t a political philosopher at all. (Hint for those who don’t know who she is, there is a Wikipedia page on her, and some naked photos – albeit not of her – if you google it.) And the man she was referring to was, I think, a Tory. Which is something of an irony when you consider that “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” seems to the Republican party platform this year. Obama talks about good stuff, but so would any secretly Muslim, socialist, radical black nationalist running for president, wouldn’t he?

I think somewhere in Draper’s commentaries on Marx, he discusses the idea that Marx is trying at once to be two less than perfectly compatible things: the outraged revolutionary and social reformer who is incensed at the injustice around him, and the calm, rational, dispassionate social scientist who places that same injustice in context. I remember someone saying a lot of the same things about Clinton: a guy who could say in complete honesty that he “feels your pain” and really does, and at the same time the man who ambitiously and pitilessly aspired to the presidency. Being out of step with the people around you doesn’t get you elected, and being a liberal – or I suppose anyone committed to any sort of principles – requires you to have commitments that are out of step with the people around you. Mastering the required cognitive dissonance is a virtue in a politician.

In an academic, it’s understandable, but I’m not prepared to call it a virtue. And in response to finding out that public thinkers tend to moderate their opinions in ways that advance their careers, I’m sure Mandy would say, “they would, wouldn’t they?” But then, she would say that, wouldn’t she?


Adrian 10.10.08 at 10:08 am

At least they go to the trouble of coming up with varied and ingenious arguments to support their conclusions. Which can be grappled with independently of the bias behind them.

But I would say that, I’m a lawyer.


Daniel 10.10.08 at 10:19 am

The other thing is, of course, that if you’re a middle-class local liberal who regularly finds yourself on an intellectual track that might lead you dangerously far away from the mainstream of the political views of the people around you, then you’re going to experience a lot of psychological tension and status insecurity. And one way to deal with this tension is to regularly denounce, very very very vigorously, anyone to the left of you. And since the reasons for doing this would have very little to do with the actual arguments, you’d expect such denunciations to often be very very very unfair indeed – I think this works as a “General Theory of Liberal Red-Baiting” too.


Neil 10.10.08 at 10:27 am

Actually I think Walzer thinks that the content of principles of justice are reached in just the way you describe; a compromise between universality and parochialism. Gil Harman has similiar views on the contents of morality.


Lex 10.10.08 at 11:27 am

Let’s face it, if anyone living above the poverty-line in a developed country had anything approaching a truly universal sense of justice, they’d give away their possessions and go work in an African orphanage, or some such. Since none of us do, all we’re doing is arguing over the finer shadings of grey in our hypocrisy, selfishness and cowardice.


Jamie 10.10.08 at 11:50 am

I’m not convinced. It’s true that one explanation for why Walzer, Freeman, et al. end up in the same place is that it’s the place that suits their prior prejudices, but another perfectly good explanation is that it’s the right place. (Newton and Leibniz arrived at about the same results too, after all.)

The analogy with Kant and Hegel (and those are excellent examples, by the way) would be stronger if the contemporary compromisers were claiming that their position was entirely a product of the impartial perspective (as Hegel and Kant did). But they don’t say that; they say that partiality is also important. So the jarring feature of the old Germans (that they are plainly not aware of their own parochialism) isn’t present, and that makes it less convincing that our contemporary liberals are collectively making a mistake.

I’m not saying or arguing that they haven’t made a mistake; only that the ad hominem argument isn’t convincing. (What if someone accused Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor Mill of special pleading because, well whaddya know! It turns out that exactly their gender is the one being mistreated and deserving of more than it has? Not very convincing, right?)


Slocum 10.10.08 at 12:13 pm

I guess I’d expect the following. I’d expect a good deal of hand-wringing about the relationship between patriotism and universal morality, and I’d expect them to discover a legitimate role for patriotism. They’d find out that it is perfectly permissible to have a limited preference for one’s fellow citizens (especially poor and minority ones) over outsiders. They’d therefore agonize about issues such as immigration but accept the right of states to control their borders, reject the notion that justice requires any kind of global redistributive principle but favour some limited doctrine of “assistance” to those suffering desperate poverty overseas.

A good reason for that is prosperity is the functioning of a complex economic/political engine, not an accidental unequal endowment of natural resources. And as we’re seeing, that not-very-well-understood complex engine is prone to surprising, not-very-well-understood malfunctions. We shouldn’t take its smooth function or its output for granted and assume that we can modify it or stress it in any way we’d like without breaking it.

If all borders were thrown open or if a massive global redistribution system were implemented to equalize wealth across the globe, there is every reason to expect that the prosperity engine would operate with much lower output or even grind to a halt in dramatic fashion, and there would then be very little reason to cross borders and little wealth to redistribute. This is exactly the point the Lex misses in #12.

So while redistributing some of the surpluses created by the best prosperity engines is obviously worth doing (as is allowing immigration at manageable levels), clearly the best long-term strategy is to work on assembling engines of prosperity in places that don’t yet have them. We’ve seen that this can happen quite rapidly, with dramatic results, given the right combination of factors. But exactly what that set of conditions is and how to establish them is also not very well understood.


Lex 10.10.08 at 12:22 pm

And to return to the basic point of the OP, while I think of it: “one should expect the comparatively liberal people in a society to articulate a kind of weaselly compromise between an impartial perspective and whatever the local chauvinisms and prejudices are”.

Isn’t that just a [snide, unduly negative] definition of what “comparatively liberal” means? Sitting somewhere on precisely that spectrum between [pointless, unrealisable] utopias of universal justice and equality, and [nasty, unconscionable] fuck-you insularity?

And given that global politics [and/or the blogosphere] seems to be divided [the latter in particular] between people articulating a wide and mutually-incompatible variety of those polar positions, might there not be a case for saying that the “comparatively liberal” folk who are willing to conceive of a compromise between them deserve better than the adjective “weaselly”? [Especially since there seems to be quite a lot of “fuck-you” in the actual make-up of quite a lot of the universalist-utopia-advocates.] And that we might in fact, if we got out of our holes, be obliged by the reality of the landscape around us to acknowledge that the “weaselly” liberals are probably the only kind of people with a chance of reversing the tendency of all global arguments to descend ever-more rapidly to “fuck you, with missiles on”?


John Quiggin 10.10.08 at 12:29 pm

I’ve proposed the acronym MRD to cover all cases of statements that are automatic for anyone in a given situation and therefore have zero information value.


Chris Bertram 10.10.08 at 1:04 pm

#10, 16 ….. BDL could, similarly, cover Daniel’s case.


Matt 10.10.08 at 1:13 pm

There’s maybe something to this, but only something, and it’s obviously too quick. David Miller, after all, is one of the most influential and important proponents of a fairly “nationalist” view, after all. Given this, it does seem better to bother to deal with the arguments given by these people, since they do in fact give arguments. After all, things can be turned, to where we wonder why it is that, say, those who support an essentially intuitionist approach to justice a la the Cohen line seem to have just the intutions of their upbringing. This is annoying and somewhat telling, of course, but again, isn’t it better to just engage with the arguments rather than go down this line?


Matthew Yglesias 10.10.08 at 1:17 pm

It’s of limited relevance, but I’m pretty sure Michael Blake (my political philosophy teacher back in the day) is Canadian rather than American.


dsquared 10.10.08 at 1:24 pm

#18: I was thinking more of “well, some people would think it’s a bit strange to write an obituary of Paul Foot which neglected all his achievements in favour of bizarre and malicious harping on about Trotskyite grouplets of the 70s, but it’s basically an OK piece of analysis”.


Chris Bertram 10.10.08 at 1:34 pm

#13, well yes. And as someone who is drawn to similar conclusion, I worry whether I’m doing so (a) because the arguments are right and good, or (b) because my self-interest, social position etc is making them seem better and righter than they are.

btw I think the universal/local thing in Hegel is there too.

#15 Yes indeed, but there’s no contradiction between acknowledging that such people are a force for good in the world (especially given where we’re starting from) and believing that many of their beliefs are false.


Chris Bertram 10.10.08 at 1:37 pm

#19 _isn’t it better to just engage with the arguments rather than go down this line?_

Well it is _always necessary to engage with the arguments, but I don’t think that excludes worrying about their causal genesis. And, especially in one’s own case, such worrying might be required.


Chris Bertram 10.10.08 at 1:39 pm

#20 but isn’t BDL to OK as sidewalk is to pavement?


psychology grad student 10.10.08 at 1:49 pm

Here is what I wonder. So Chris is making this essentially psychological claim about what is driving these philosophers’ moral beliefs. But suppose that beliefs about global justice were uniformly distributed amongst philosophers (some had more radical views, others more in line with what Betram’s characterization of Rawls etc.) In that case, then, what’s driving his argument is a kind of confirmation bias.. he’s only considering the political philosophers who have this set of beliefs without considering all the Anglo-Americans (such as perhaps himself) that may not share them. What would be so special about some minority of philosophers coming out in favor of partial parochialism?
On the other hand, he may be making a claim that these philosophers are putting their ideas in with what most laypeople tend to think, and thus one can see their limited globalism as in sync with how people typically form their moral sentiments.. Taken that way, it is an interesting psychological claim, that there is almost a process of anchoring and adjustment (you anchor on your narrow emotion-driven beliefs) and cognitively adjust away from them until you find a comfortable middle ground.


Rob 10.10.08 at 2:21 pm

Say one had a really strongly communitarian view about justice, a kind of uber-David Miller. One might then think that it is perfectly understandable that all these liberal intellectuals, lacking deep roots in the societies which they live in, would think that the content of obligations of justice did not depend on context: after all, they would want to rationalise their failure to engage in and support the morally valuable life of their communities by undermining the thought that it is morally valuable. Ad Hominem arguments of this sort don’t seem to me to get you anywhere.

Also, I think it is substantially wrong to characterise the liberal political theorists Chris mentions as making an appeal to patriotism. The appeal rather seems to be to a claim about the significance of sharing a political system with one’s fellow citizens, and not with non-citizens. Michael Blake, Sam Freeman and even Nagel are appealing not to shared ethno-cultural or even historical traits, but to the fact of living under a massively coercive state apparatus. I don’t need to have the same patria as someone to share a basic structure with them, and may indeed feel considerably personally or culturally closer to people whom I do not share a basic structure with. Because of that, I think even the language of partiality is out of place here: this isn’t about personal – or at least personal in the sense of private – relationships for them.


Chris Bertram 10.10.08 at 2:39 pm

#26 point (in 2nd para) taken Rob. I could certainly have expressed myself more clearly, but I’m not sure it weakens the basic idea. I did write about the “varied and ingenious arguments” deployed to reach a conclusion, and the conclusion that I had in mind was that strong distributive justice duties hold among co-citizens (and there are only weaker duties of assistance to outsiders).


Chris Armstrong 10.10.08 at 3:10 pm

I think that part of what may create this suspicion – leaving to one side for now whether it is justified or not – is the way the literature works. Step 1. X (let’s say Nagel, for now) produces an argument which he thinks delivers the conclusion that equality should be restricted to co-citizens, given certain empirical facts. Step 2. That conclusion is refuted (not necessarily the argument) by Y. Step 3. Someone (X2) then realises that you can fine-tune the argument so that, when empirical facts about the world get fed in, you produce Nagel’s original conclusion. Step 4, 5 etc… repeat the last two steps indefinitely. The holy grail (or a publication in Philosophy and Public Affairs) goes to the person who can produce the best argument for the normative peculiarity of the state. And continual work is available for the Ys of the world – including myself.

There are two views about what is going on here. The first is that there’s an intuition that the state is normatively special, and that our Xs are sincerely trying to work up that intuition so that it is normatively compelling, without personal or sectional interests interceding. The second was suggested to me by a well-known cosmopolitan, in a rather off-hand comment, about the most recent X: ‘it’s amazing what convoluted arguments people will produce once they’ve fallen in love with a conclusion.’ I guess Chris’s original question was: which view is right? I guess some mixture of the two, differing in different cases. Why do we hold the views we hold? Are we genuinely prepared to renounce them when they lead us to conclusions we’d find personally uncomfortable? You would hope that as theorists / philosophers the answer would be yes. But continually examining all of your views for self-serving bias is hard work.


HH 10.10.08 at 3:19 pm

A thick layer of philosophical makeup can be layered over the ugly face of tribalism, but that doesn’t alter the gross unsuitability of tribalism for governing states in a globally interconnected and nuclear-armed world.


Michael Drake 10.10.08 at 3:49 pm

Living by all and only those conclusions reached independently “because the arguments [for them] are right and good” never ends well. Society just doesn’t have any use for that kind of integrity.


virgil xenophon 10.10.08 at 4:07 pm

It surly says something about societal historical memory and sense of perspective as to what will be important to future generations (and also of the state of the teaching of history in today’s educational system) when so many commenting here have absolutely no clue who party-girl Mandy-Rice Davies (let alone her pal Christine Keeler) was, and the role she and Christine played in bringing down a British Government by compromising John Profumo in what at that time was the major political sex-scandal
of the era. It makes one wonder what will be remembered as significant some 40-50 years hence, doesn’t it?


geo 10.10.08 at 4:15 pm

what sort of conclusions about the world would you expect well-paid American liberal intellectuals to reach ?

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media and many other essays by Chomsky address (and, to my satisfaction, answer) this question, but in the form: “Reaching what sort of conclusions about the world would you expect to result in someone’s becoming a well-paid American liberal intellectual?” The answer is: the sort of conclusion that (broadly speaking) suits those who are able to pay well.


djw 10.10.08 at 5:09 pm

Virgil–an alternative explanation is that few commenters here are from the UK.


Stuart 10.10.08 at 5:21 pm

Maybe I have an atypical knowledge of the subject, but I recognise the name Christine Keeler and her connection to a political sex scandal (but no details came to mind), but I don’t think I have heard of Mandy Rice-Davies at all before. (From UK born in 1974).


Farren 10.10.08 at 5:42 pm

Hold on – is Ms Rice-Davies the woman that brought Profumu down? Forgive spelling – Jack Daniels


harry b 10.10.08 at 6:19 pm

I’d guess that Mandy Rice-Davis is largely unknown to anyone under 40, and even among those of us under 50 its a very particular kind of person who remembers her (sorry Chris, I’m one too). She’s remembered better than Monica Lewinsky will be, because, well, she said one thing that was funny and on the mark.


harry b 10.10.08 at 6:22 pm

Also, Chris, if it makes you feel better, I find the arguments for a more moderate view of the kind that you, Dick Miller, etc, hold quite hard to refute, but I still believe you’re all wrong, and have a much more radically egalitarian (and inconvenient for me) view: one that I would struggle to defend if I tried.


Phil 10.10.08 at 6:23 pm


virgil xenophon 10.10.08 at 6:47 pm


Well, I’m 64, so Mandy baby was a contemporary of mine; and I’m an American, but I can tell you that the Profumo scandal played almost as big over here as it did in the U.K. One would be hard pressed to find anyone of my age who had even a nodding acquaintance with a newspaper who was not at least vaguely familiar with the scandal. Of course we are so saturated with scandal of all kinds these days 24/7/365 (Hollywood Insider, TMZ, You Tube, the web in general etc., world-wide satellite coverage and streaming video on cell phones) perhaps the likes of Mandy, Christine and John Profumo would only be a blip on the radar.


Katherine 10.10.08 at 6:53 pm

Like Stuart @ #34 I had heard of Christine Keeler but not of Mandy Rice-Davies. Am from (and living in) the UK, born in 1976.

Now I have, I shall use “MRD” whenever I possibly can.


Donald Johnson 10.10.08 at 7:33 pm

The best example of a well-intentioned liberal weasel is Samantha Power, who is exactly the kind of conscience-stricken guru one would expect to become famous and appear on TV pontificating about genocide and the US. She cares about genocide, but she also wants to be taken as a serious person by the foreign policy establishment , so when she writes a book on the subject she focuses mostly on our sins of omission, and not cases like East Timor, where five successive Administrations assisted Indonesia while they killed Timorese. She says nothing about the role of her friend Richard Holbrooke in the story of East Timor, though he appears elsewhere as a hero. And in the opening chapter where she summarizes her point she says (page XVII)–

” Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their heads down will be left alone. They urge ceasefires and donate humanitarian aid.”

Truly a hard-hitting critique–American policymakers are at fault because they are just too damn good for this cruel world. She should have a fine career ahead of her.


Martin James 10.10.08 at 7:45 pm

The question is what kind of political philosophy explains how absurd morality/normativity/political identity is?


andthenyoufall 10.10.08 at 9:35 pm

The one point in the original post that I don’t follow is the transcendental deduction of the hand-wringing. If we already know that position X is badly wrong, even preposterous, we might want to think about why philosopher Y held position X; and frequently, Y’s historical context will give us ample reasons to conclude “Y would say X, wouldn’t he?” However, post hoc identification of the sources of known bad ideas is very different from identifying in advance what, precisely, we would expect someone who was just blindly prejudiced to say, in order to level an ad hominem attack which convinces us that a plausible idea is wrong.

(Think about it in a Bayesian way. I know someone who is suddenly quite sick; did he catch it from someone else, or did was it something he ate? If I know for a fact that he has barely left his apartment in the last week, I deduce that it was almost certainly something that he ate. Once I know that, I can decide that of the things he ate, the mostly likely culprit is either the clams or the bread. But I can’t run this backwards in the same way; if my friend is suddenly sick, I can’t use the fact that he ate clams to prove that he didn’t catch the bug from someone else unless I can also argue that we should expect no other result from clam-eating than violent illness.)


rmz 10.10.08 at 10:52 pm


What are your criteria for absurdity and what are you getting at?


Martin James 10.10.08 at 10:55 pm

Also, I thought everybody now agreed that belief in an impartial universal morality is about as parochial and chauvinistic as one can get.


rmz 10.10.08 at 11:05 pm


Well, I hope that you are right.

Unfortunately, we may be shifting the conversation away from political philosophy into political science, and as far as that is concerned, I like that discipline better when it is called anthropology.


novakant 10.10.08 at 11:36 pm

It seems ok to notice that Hegel might have erred in finding that the local socio-political framework was what Geist was aiming at all along, and that this might represent a kind of dull parochialism on his part.

Only if shallow, sloppy and misleading readings, like Popper’s, of Hegel are ok.


Martin James 10.10.08 at 11:43 pm


I guess I’m getting at a few different things.

The first level of absurdity is the simple hypocrisy of the mismatch between professed morals and actions. The second level of absurdity is the search for a good theory of the best morals given that we know that almost everyone is hopelessly hypocritical in action.

Whatever you call it, political science, anthropology, psychology or criminology I’m looking for a robust theory of morality and hypocrisy. Why do some people profess altruism moral and practice it, some profess it as moral and don’t practice it, some deny the morality of altruism and don’t practice it and then the positively most absurd of all (my group) those that don’t believe in it and feel horribly conflicted as they continue to practice it.

I believe that we KNOW that morality is an historical prejudice all the way down but don’t know how to function if we admit it.


Seth edenbaum 10.11.08 at 5:03 am

[aeiou] I would spend all I had to save the life of someone I loved, while I would spend less on someone I was merely fond of, and maybe I’d toss some money to Oxfam for a kid somewhere.
Viewed objectively all three are equally deserving, but that’s not the way the world works.

Also: is Tony Judt a leftist in the US but merely a liberal in London?

Is liberalism rationalism and system-building, or is it cosmopolitan empiricism, and the cultivation of the flexibility required to negotiate their inevitable failure?


Chris Bertram 10.11.08 at 7:39 am

#49 I thought I’d made it clear that you aren’t welcome to comment on my posts. Any more, and you’ll get a comprehensive ban from CT as a whole.


Brian 10.13.08 at 10:32 am

I am inclined to write a vague speculative riposte suggesting that British philosophers are *too* ambivalent, circumspect, and diffident to blog effectively…I always read your posts with interest, but I always end thinking, “dammit, what does the man THINK?” In any case I don’t think you should lump all us well-paid liberal Americans together like that.

Or do you regularly sport tweeds?

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