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., 07 Sept. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

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