The Psychological Benefit of Ahistorical Morality in Times of Unprecedented Crisis

     Richard Rorty in his essay “Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism” describes the political philosophy of the same name, as the Hegelian attempt to justify modern day liberal institutions without relying upon any kind of a priori moral justification. His aim is “to suggest how such liberals might convince our society that loyalty to itself is morality enough” (Rorty 1983). Rorty makes an excellent case to this point. However, there are a few unique cases, such as the Vietnam War (which Rorty brings up) and the 9/11 terror attack, where an appeal to ahistorical morality in democratic discourse is psychologically beneficial to the continuation of the fostering of liberal democratic principles.

     At one point in his essay Rorty notes that “this view of moral and political deliberation was a commonplace among American intellectuals” (Rorty 1983). This was in the time of John Dewey, and Rorty here is referring to the fact that for a long time ahistorical moral justification was uncommon within American political discourse. According to Rorty, this changed during the Vietnam War because the shared sense of American identity was lost and this fracturing led to those who were opposed to the Vietnam War arguing against the war on grounds of immorality. In its simplicity, this seems to imply that before the Vietnam War the U.S was generally unified in its anecdotal democratic discourse until the war when a schism in the American democratic psyche formed. Rorty also ignores whether there was any benefit to opposing the Vietnam war on grounds of immorality.

     I can agree with the necessity of moving away from ahistoricity in democratic discourse as a general principle however this notion of a singular definitive moment seems too reductionist to be accurate. I would argue that, in fact, many times in American history have we seen the rise of transcendental justifications in democratic discourse when the stakes are highest simply because appealing to the transcendental carries more psychological impact.

     A prime example of this is the 9/11 terror attack. This terror attack was beyond the scope of our prior historical understanding and so, could not be properly deliberated on using “anecdotes about the past effects of various practices and predictions of what will happen” (Rorty 1983). The easy debate and subsequent decision was how to react militarily. A much more difficult and troubling debate that was brought up by this terror attack was how to view Muslims and respond to their culture as an American people. Miroslav Volf stated that “9/11 plunged us into in a moral struggle for our soul as a people” (Volf 2011). This struggle could simply not be deliberated on the terrain of antecedent due to its unprecedented nature. Antecedent was insufficient and so this debate shifted primarily to a terrain of transcendental moral justification.

     However, this was far from injurious to the American people. In fact, it was ultimately positive and allowed our national psyche to deal and cope with an unprecedented crisis in a way that contributed to our Hegelian morality as the event was absorbed into our historically conditioned community. In the case of unprecedented crises, falling back on empiricism and social constructs can seem insufficient. Thus, the psychological benefit of shifting discourse onto the terrain of ahistorical moral justification should not be understated. It allows the community to be sure in its actions and move stridently forward. Without this occasional discourse shift, psychological disunity would weaken the community’s commitment to liberal democratic principles and this is not the purpose of Rorty’s postmodernist political philosophy. Allowing ahistorical moral justification to enter democratic discourse in times of unprecedented crisis is a case of giving up an inch of philosophical probity to gain a yard of democratic continuity.

 

 

Rorty, Richard. “Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism.” The Journal of Philosophy 80.10 (1983): 583. Web.

Volf, Miroslav. “Did 9/11 Make Us Morally ‘Better’?” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 07 Sept. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Societal Complacency Regarding The Disabled

     According to a recent report, “Disabled people are being ‘left behind in society’ and have ‘very poor’ life chances” (BBC). This report covered six key aspects: “education, work, standard of living, health and care, justice and detention, and participation and identity.” (BBC). In all of these aspects disabled people have faced an increase in disadvantage. It is very difficult for people to take care of the disabled and this burden often falls on the family of the disabled. These costs can be enormous and unduly burdening to those who of no fault of their own are disabled or have a disabled child or family member that they have to take care of.

     The reason for this increase in disadvantage is due to the way we currently view the disabled. In our market society, we tend to value people on their perceived worth within the market. One might argue that this is not the case and we do not assign worth based upon labor value within the market but in a market society it is difficult to disentangle perceived societal worth from labor value. “The market is hardly ever avoidable in a market society” states Cohen, and this fact leads to the often unfortunate conditions the disabled find themselves in. Because the labor of the disabled is not as valuable the disabled are seen as less valuable and worth less.

     According to this report, the disabled young have the lowest median earnings of any demographic group, they are less likely to own their own home, and families with a disabled member are more likely to live in relative poverty. In response to this report, a government spokesperson said that the government was committed to “ensuring equality of opportunity for disabled people”. This is another way of saying they will continue to promote bourgeois equality of opportunity, the prevailing liberal egalitarian principle. However, trying to promote this equality of opportunity within a market society lends itself to a systematic complacency due to the insurmountability of the task. A disabled person can never truly have equality of opportunity within a market society because they will never achieve the wage labor value of a fully-abled person. Because of this a societal complacency exists where the public can never truly achieve its goal; so then why expend too much effort when more realistic goals are at hand? This complacency is clearly to the detriment of the disabled.

     The solution is to reframe how we define our egalitarian principle. Cohen offers a socialist equality of opportunity where “differences of outcome reflect nothing but differences of taste and choice”. If this egalitarian principle were used in a non-market society the underlying motivation for helping disabled people would shift from trying to make the worth of the disabled (which is based on labor-value) equal to the fully-abled to making the quality of the lives of the disabled within the community “reflect nothing but differences of taste and choice” (Cohen). This would mean that the disabled would be part of communal networks engaged in planned mutual giving where the disabled are not simply viewed as less because their labor is worth less.

     In a society based on Cohen’s socialist equality of opportunity and anti-market communal reciprocity the socially constructed inferior worth of the disabled is exposed and subsequently swept away. There is no reason a disabled person’s value should be less but in our current liberal society that emphasizes equality of opportunity we view the disabled as being worth less. This makes it impossible to make them equal to the fully-abled which encourages laxness and complacency in aiding and improving the lives of the disabled.

 

Cohen, G. A. Why Not Socialism? Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009. Print.

“Disabled People ‘left behind in Society’, Report Finds.” BBC News. BBC, 03 Apr. 2017. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.