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Moral Universalism and Economic Triage by Richard Rorty

  1. Nov 2, 2003 #1
    "Moral Universalism and Economic Triage" by Richard Rorty

    "Who are we?" is quite different from the traditional philosophical question "what are we?". The latter is synonymous with Kant's questions, "What is Man?". Both mean something like "how does the human species differ from the rest of the animal kingdom?" or "among the differences between us and the other animals, which ones better most?". This "what?" question is scientific or metaphysical.

    By contrast, the "who?" question is political. It is asked by people who want to separate off the human beings who are better suited to some particular purpose than other human beings, and to gather the former into a self-conscious moral community: that is, a community united by reciprocal trust, and by willingness to come to fellow-members' assistance when they need it. Answers to the "who?" question are attempts to forge, or reforge, a moral identity.

    Traditional moral universalism blends an answer to the scientific or metaphysical "what?" question with an answer to the political "who?" question. Universalism presupposes that the discovery of traits shared by all human beings suffices to show why, and perhaps how, all human beings should organise themselves into a cosmopolis. It proposes a scientific or metaphysical foundation for global politics. Following the model of religious claims that human beings are made in the image of God, philosophical universalism claims that the presence of common traits testifies to a common purpose. It says that the form of the ideal human community can be determined by reference to a universal human nature....

    The idea that some such vocabularies are somehow closer to the intrinsic nature of reality than others makes sense to religious believers. For those who believe that a certain religion enshrines the Word, and thus the Will, of the Creator and Lord of the Universe, not only does the question "In what language does the universe demand to be described?" make sense, but the answer is already evident. For secularists, however, the only way to make sense of the idea that the universe demands description in a certain vocabulary is to turn to science. Enlightenment secularism suggested that the vocabulary of the natural sciences is nature's own - the divisions made by this vocabulary are the joints at which nature demands to be cut....

    The rich parts of the world, the ones which have already realized some of the dreams of the Enlightenment, are also the places where technology took off. Technology began making Europe rich even before the Enlightenment began making it democratic. Only people who were already exceptionally rich, and therefore exceptionally secure, could have taken the idea of democracy, much less of global democracy, seriously. Moral idealism goes along with economic success. The latter is obviously not a sufficient condition for the former, but I think we should concede to Nietzsche that it is a necessary one....

    It has often been suggested that the authors of the Constitution of the United States of America were not entitled to describe themselves as the people of the United States. They were, it is said, only entitled to call themselves something like "We, the representatives of the property-owning white males of the United States". Their black slaves, their white servants, and even their wives and daughters, did not really come into the picture. Similarly, it has often been suggested that when the representatives of governments signed the Charter of the United Nations, the most that they were really entitled to say was something like "We, the representatives of the political classes of our respective countries".

    The existence of a moral community which can plausibly and without qualification identify itself as "we, the people of the United States", is still a project rather than an actuality. In a few respects, my country is closer to accomplish this project now than it has ever been, thanks to the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960's and to the continuing pressure exerted by feminists. In most respects, however, it is losing ground. For the gap between the rich and poor Americans is widening steadily, and the latter are increasingly bereft of hope for their children's future...

    uppose that there is no imaginable way to make decent life-chances available to the poorer five billion citizens of the member states of the United Nations while still keeping intact the democratic socio-political institutions cherished by the richer one billion. Suppose that the hope of such availability is doomed to be either hypocritical or self-deceptive. Suppose that we have passed the point of no return in the balance between population and resources, and that it is now sauve qui peut. Suppose that the rich and lucky billion come to believe that this is the case - not out of selfishness and greed, but as a result of accurate economic calculation. Then they will begin to treat the poor and unlucky five billion as surplus to their moral requirements, unable to play a part in their moral life. The rich and unlucky people will quickly become unable to think of the poor and unlucky ones as their fellow humans, as part of the same "we".

    This may seem overstated. For surely, it might be objected, one can have a sense of identification with people whose suffering one has no way of alleviating...

    This objection is plausible, but not, I think, convincing. Consider the analogy, suggested by Posner's phrase "pathological situation", between finding it politically unfeasible to give people hope and finding it medically unfeasible to do. When a hospital is deluged with an impossibly large flood of victims of a catastrophe, the doctors and nurses begin to perform triage: they decide which of the victims are "medically feasible" - which ones are appropriate recipients of the limited medical resources available. When the American underdass is told that it is politically unfeasible to remedy their situation, they are in the same situation as accident victims who are told that it is unfeasible to offer them medical treatment.

    In both cases, those who make the decision about feasibility are answering the question "Who are we?" by excluding certain human beings from membership in "We, the ones who can hope to survive". When we realize that it is unfeasible to rescue a person or a group, it is as if they had already gone before us into dealh. Such people are, as we say, "dead to us". Life, we say, is for the living. For the sake of their own sanity, and for the sake of the less grievously wounded patients who are admitted to the hospital, the doctors and nurses must simply blank out on all those moaning victims who are left outside in the street. They must cease to think about them, pretend that they are already dead...

    On this Peircean, pragmatic account of belief, to believe that someone is "one of us", a member of our moral community, is to exhibit readiness to come to their assistance when they are in need. To answer the question "who are we ?" in a way that is relevant to moral questions is to pick out whom one is willing to do something to help. Pressing Peirce's point, I would argue that one is answering the question "who are we?" in a useful and informative way only if one thereby generates reliable predictions about what measures the group identified as "we" will take in specified circumstances.

    It follows that it is neither useful or informative to answer this question by reference to a class of people whom one has no idea how to help. Moral identification is empty when it is no longer tied to habits of action. That is why it is either hypocritical or self-deceptive for the doctors to think of those who are left outside the hospital as "us". It is why it is either hypocritical or self-deceptive for those who agree with Posner about the hopelessness of attempting to rescue the black American underclass from its pathological situation to continue to use a phrase like "We, the people of the United States". It would be equally self-deceptive or hypocritical for those who do not believe that the industrialized democracies can bring either hope or human rights to the billions who lack both to use the term "We, the people of the United Nations".

    When the founders of the United States and of the United Nations originally used these terms, however, it was neither self-deceptive or hypocritical. For the foundation of each of these institutions was part of a project - a project of forming a moral community out of a mass of people which was not yet such a community. Both were founded not only in a spirit of hope, but in the midst of a plethora of practical proposals - proposals which looked, at the time, as if they might be politically and economically feasible. At the time of the foundation of the Untied Nations, when the world's population was only half its present size and everybody assumed that the forests and the fish would last forever, many proposals seemed politically feasible that seem so no longer.

    As I said earlier, I am not trying to make predictions. Nor am I offering recommendations for action. Rather, I have been putting forward a philosophical argument that depends upon three premises. The first is that the primordial philosophical question is not "what are we?" but "who are we?". The second is that "who are we?" means "what community of reciprocal trust do we belong to?". The third is that reciprocal trust depends on feasibility as well as on good will. The conclusion I draw from these premises is that thinking of other people as part of the same "we", depends not only on willingness to help those people but on belief that one is able to help them. In particular, answering the question "who are we?" with "we are members of a moral community which encompasses the human species", depends on an ability to believe that we can avoid economic triage.

    read whole article: http://www.unesco.org/phiweb/uk/2rpu/rort/rort.html
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 5, 2003 #2
    This is very interesting reading, RageSk8. I have one question though. I may have missed something while reading (I had to skim a little, since I have to get off-line soon), but why should the "founding fathers" not have referred to themselves as part of the "we", when they were in fact trying to enter a position of reciprocal trust with the rest of "the people"?
  4. Nov 6, 2003 #3


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    I am afraid this strikes me as a nonsequiter. How does the fact that the gap (I presume he means economic gap) between the rich and poor Americans is widening have any bearing on the formation of a moral community? Can moral communities only form between economic equals? Can poor people not have a say (via the democratic process) in their own governance?

    I was raised in a time when the poor (at least the educated poor, and there was no fuss about public education in those days) thought of themselves as every bit as good as the rich and every bit as able to think about issues and cast a vote. If you had asked them "Are you and John D. Rockefeller both members of the American people?" they would not have hesitated to say yes.

    So this counsel of perfection, that we can't have political and moral equality unless we have economic equality too, where does it come from?
  5. Nov 11, 2003 #4
    Uh, Rage, a little help?

  6. Nov 17, 2003 #5
    Because they did not view the “other people” as “themselves.” It would be more than a stretch to say that the Founding Fathers saw women and black slaves as the same type of people that they were. Rorty’s message however is not a negative one - he does not view the Founding Fathers as “self-deceptive or hypocritical.” Rorty writes:

    That is, if one views the Founding Fathers as part of a larger “project”, a project that America continues today, as expanding the scope of “we". According to Rorty, we should view them as part of a historical contingency rather than an accordance to a static goal. If we do so then the Founding Fathers’ racism, sexism, and classism do not exclude them from being visionaries who expanded moral good.
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2003
  7. Nov 17, 2003 #6
    I do not think that Rorty is saying economic equality is necessary, I think he is talking about real oppertunity. That is why right after he talked about the widening gap between rich and poor he said " and the latter are increasingly bereft of hope for their children's future." I will now quote part of the essay that I did not quote before (I left out a lot because of space):

  8. Nov 17, 2003 #7


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    Has either Rorty or Posner paused to notice that the high murder rate in the black neighborhoods, and all other forms of crime too, have gone down? And that the murder rate was in the first place primarily associated with the drug trade? And that the solution of that trade will surely not depend on giving welfare to black communities?

    Try this on for size: A dole corrupts both the giver and the receiver. It corrupts the giver by encouraging him to hold the receiver in low esteem. Witness Posner, who thinks the black community violence is a white problem, as if the blacks were too incompetent or childish to solve their own problems.

    And it corrupts the receiver by encouraging in him a feeling that he deserves to be supported, thus enticing him into a life of profitless and psychologically debilitating idleness. A dole is a positive feedback loop of negative social consequences.

    That is why I was enthusiastic for the original welfare reform as developed in Wisconsin under former governor Thomson. And I still supported, though it was an altogether lesser program, the Federal welfare reform under the Clinton administration. Let everyone have a job, and if it doesn't pay a living wage, subsidize them through a negative income tax. It's a better way.
  9. Nov 18, 2003 #8
    I see. So, in hope of unifying the people, they made statements such as "we the people of the United States", which are in the sense of already being unified, right?
  10. Nov 19, 2003 #9
    Re: "Moral Universalism and Economic Triage" by Richard Rorty

    It is hard for me to truly get a handle on writings such as this that are based on what appears to be very simplistic, naive assumptions. The gap between a billionaire and a millionaire is huge and will likely continue to grow as a rule of math but are either of these people suffering? The extent and growth of a gap alone is not sufficient to get a complete picture of status.

    Measuring an economic gap and concluding it is widening is one thing but then linking this to a subjectve term like opportunity also seems a bit hasty to reach conclusions.

    And lastly, this statement seems to begin with the premise that all humans have equal abilities and desires and the only reason for economic distinction is "luck". I can honestly say that there is no way in the world that this is true and I find it hard to believe that anyone would think so. Is it true in some cases? Of course it is. But this statement paints such a broad brush over it that it appears naive.

    I haven't really touched on the point of this post. My comments are focused on the assumptions underlying the point. Ideas around asking the question "Who are we?" may actually make some sense. But the assumptions and examples used to make the case seem a bit too presumptious and "colored".
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2003
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