Richard Rorty: "Dewey and Posner on Pragmatism and Moral Progress"
Richard Rorty (1931-2007) was Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Philosophy at Stanford University. This talk was recorded April 10, 2006 as the annual Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy. © 2006 The University of Chicago
Martha Nussbaum: Hi, I'm Martha Nussbaum. I'm just going to briefly welcome everyone on behalf of the Dewey Committee, then turn it over to my colleague Bernard Harcourt who will do the extended introduction of Professor Rorty. But just to say that this Dewey lecture is an annual event, and we always try to have someone in the philosophical range of things. The first one of these was given by John Rawls. In fact it became a very famous published paper called "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited," and we've had a very distinguished series but we're absolutely thrilled that we can add to it a lecture by Professor Rorty whom we've wanted to get for a long time. And very glad to. I told him now that this turnout is better than most of the distinguished people who've given it. So we will have the introduction and then the lecture and then there will be about a half hour for questions from the floor and then you're all invited to a reception that will be in the corridor outside where more informal discussion can continue. But now I'll turn things over to Bernard Harcourt, professor of law who will introduce Professor Rorty.
Prof. Harcourt: Richard Rorty introduces his work in philosophy and social hope in these terms. "Most of what I've written in the last decade consists of attempts to tie in my social hopes, hopes for global, cosmopolitan, democratic, egalitarian, classless, casteless society with my antagonisms towards Platonism. These attempts have been encouraged by the thought that the same hopes and the same antagonisms lay behind many of the writings of my principal philosophical hero, John Dewey." John Dewey, Richard Rorty explained, is the philosopher whom I most admire and of whom I would most like to think of myself as a disciple. If the world were a perfect place and we could magically choose the person who is most perfectly suited in the entire universe to give the Dewey Lecture on Law and Philosophy. And there were no constraints, no transaction costs, no risks of rejection, no scheduling conflicts. We would choose Professor Richard Rorty.
Prof. Harcourt: Unfortunately, the world isn't a perfect place, but it is right here and right now, and in the next hour and a half at the University of Chicago. Since, well before the publication of Philosophy in the Mirror of Nature in 1979, Richard Rorty has been one of the leading philosophical thinkers of our time. He has moved philosophical discourse in new directions, helping to produce, borrowing a term from perhaps a soul mate, Thomas Kuhn, a paradigm shift in philosophy toward what may be called post-philosophical thinking. Richard Rorty is among other things the world's leading student of John Dewey. But as with most world historic philosophical thinkers, his relationship to Dewey is just a prolegomena to the development of his own unique and brilliant thought. For Professor Rorty, one of Dewey's main accomplishments was in his own words, negative. Dewey showed us how to get rid of what Richard Rorty calls the intellectual baggage which we inherited from the Platonic tradition.
Prof. Harcourt: But to move forward, Professor Rorty argues we must rely on what he calls Dewey the prophet, rather than Dewey the pragmatist philosopher. This is the Dewey who was wedded to a more romantic ideal of human and moral progress. It is here, of course that other pragmatists differ, and one of these is our own Judge Richard Posner, whose work Richard Rorty will be addressing today. And as many of you know in this regard, Professor Rorty is not writing on a blank slate. He has written extensively about Judge Posner's views and the use of pragmatist thought in law, and Judge Posner has written extensively on Professor Rorty and his form of pragmatism. Now being in Chicago where ideas matter. I think it's only fair to say that Rorty and Posner do not see eye to eye. Um, and uh, I think it's important to set the stage properly. Judge Posner has criticized Professor Rorty's pragmatism in law as a form of judicial, Don Quixotism. In his book, "Law, Pragmatism and Democracy" in 2003, Judge Posner writes, "Rorty's advocacy with what appears to be a specific pragmatic philosophy of adjudication, namely a visionary mode of judicial decision making, owes little that I can see to pragmatic philosophy and will simply frightened judges for whom visionary is not part of the job description."
Prof. Harcourt: Dewey, Rorty, Posner, great thinkers who claim the mantle of pragmatism. Where does this all take us? I for one, and I know everyone else in this room, is thrilled and honored to be here for the continuation of this remarkable conversation, and it gives me great pleasure to welcome back home to the University of Chicago, Professor Richard Rorty.
Richard Rorty: Thank you very much, Professor Harcourt. I was honored by Dean Levmore's invitation to give this lecture and I'm always very happy to have an occasion to revisit the scenes of my adolescence. I matriculated in the so-called Hutchins College in 1946 and left with an MA in 1952. Those were the six richest and most stimulating years of my intellectual life, and I owe the University of Chicago an enormous debt. When I came to Chicago, John Dewey was still alive, but his influence had long since peaked. In those days, the best students in the University were sitting at the feet of Leo Strauss who taught them that Plato had been magnificently right and Dewey dangerously wrong. Utility and truth, Strauss wrote, are two entirely different things. In recent decades, pragmatism has emerged from the shadows among those who have done the most to revive it is Richard Posner. I've learned a great deal from Judge Posner's books, and our philosophical outlook is pretty much the same. But we still disagree on certain issues. I'm going to use this lecture to explain why I think that on some of those issues, Dewey would have been on my side.
Richard Rorty: Strauss wasn't the first German to be dismissive about pragmatism. Georg Simmel described it as what the Americans were able to get out of Nietzsche. Simmel was wrong if he thought that James and Dewey got ideas from Nietzsche, but he was right to see their views as overlapping with his. To my mind, the most important area of overlap is their opposition to positivism, to the idea that physical science can answer metaphysical questions by discovering the intrinsic nature of reality. All three philosophers, James, Dewey, and Nietzsche, wanted us to stop asking such questions, but James and Dewey did better than Nietzsche at formulating a coherent anti-metaphysical view. That's because they were never attempted to adopt Nietzsche's dry, aloof, condescending attitude toward human beings' struggle for happiness. Instead, the pragmatists urge that we judge all philosophical views, including their own, by whether they aided in that struggle. They thereby achieve that consistency that Nietzsche never managed.
Richard Rorty: Nietzsche is notorious for his vacillations. He waivers between criticizing the very idea of objective truth and proclaiming that his own views are objectively true and everybody else's objectively false. On one page, he tells us, quote, "We simply lack any organ for knowledge, for truth, we know or believe or imagine just as much as may be useful in the interest of the human herd." But a few pages earlier in the Gay Science, he wrote, quote, "even we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire too from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old. The faith of Plato. The truth is divine." At his best, however, Nietzsche explicitly rejected the sort of science worship that links much of 21st century analytic philosophy to 19th century positivism. When Nietzsche says there are no facts, only interpretations and seems willing to admit that that goes for his own assertions as well.
Richard Rorty: He's edging closer to the more coherent position that James and Dewey adopted. Both pragmatists would have agreed with them that quote, "A scientific interpretation of the world might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations, one of the poorest in meaning." Unfortunately, however, passages like that one are offset by bursts of positivistic braggadocio as when Nietzsche writes, I quote, still the Gay Science, "Long live physics and even more so that which compels us to turn to physics, our honesty." The best thing about pragmatism as that it does consistently what Nietzsche did only occasionally and half-heartedly, it abandons positivism's attempt to elevate science above the rest of culture. It rejects the quarrel between Platonic and materialism and democracy and materialism and all other metaphysical disputes because they are irrelevant to practice. Pragmatists substitute the question, "Which descriptions of the human situation are most useful for which human purposes?
Richard Rorty: For the question which description tells us what that situation really is." Pragmatism thus puts natural science on all fours with politics. It treats science as one more source of suggestions about what we human beings might do with ourselves. We might, for example colonize the planets of other stores or we might tweak our genes in order to give birth to Ubermenschen. But we might instead try to equalize the life chances of rich children and poor children or we might try to make our lives into works of art. Philosophers, Dewey thought, should consider the relative merits of such proposals, but they should not try to ground the choice between them on knowledge of what human beings really are. Or, as Dewey said, I quote, "The term reality as a term of value or choice." Philosophy, he concluded, I quote again, "is not in any sense whatever a form of knowledge."
Richard Rorty: It is rather "a social hope reduced to a working program of action. A prophecy of the future." If you agree with do is I do about what philosophy is good for, you will see contemporary philosophy in the English speaking world as a contest between the heirs of Kant and the heirs of Hegel. Present day neo-Kantians try to grasp the human situation and to practice moral philosophy without reference to history. The neo-Hegelians, on the other hand, hope to grasp the present historical moment and thought in order to formulate better prophecies of better futures. Dewey praised Hegel for having recognized that, as Dewey put it, "the moral consciousness of the individual is but a phase in the process of social organization." Dewey thought that the way to do moral philosophy was to compare alternative programs of action and alternative prophecies.
Richard Rorty: But among present day fans of Dewey, there is still plenty of disagreement about what programs of action follow from his pragmatist philosophy. Cheryl Misak and Robert Westbrook, for example, claim that Dewey argued successfully from a pragmatist view of truth and knowledge to the need for deliberative democracy. Misak urges that a pragmatist approach to knowledge provides argumentative ammunition against, for example, fascists and religious fundamentalists. Westbrook says, quote, "Pragmatist epistemology alone is enough to provide grounds for criticism of those who refuse to open themselves to the widest possible range of experience in argument," and then claims that deliberative democracy is the only form of government that provides the maximum amount of openness. Judge Posner and I do not think that pragmatist epistemology is up to the jobs that Misak and Westbrook think it can perform. Westbrook ruefully notes, I quote, "No pragmatist has worked harder to break the link between pragmatism and deliberative democracy than Richard Posner."
Richard Rorty: I agree with Posner when he writes, quote, "the bridge Dewey tried to build between epistemic and political democracy is too flimsy to carry heavy traffic." Dewey's attempts to build that bridge where I think halfhearted and spasmodic. As long as he defined democracy merely as "a name for a life of free and enriching communion," it was easy for him to argue that the cause of democracy might be assisted if we abandoned both metaphysics and the correspondence theory of truth. One can agree, but sorry, but it is a long time, a long way from recommending such a life to the claim that the masses should have a larger role in informing public policy. One can agree whole heartedly with Dewey about the nature of truth, knowledge, and inquiry, and nevertheless believe that what Posner describes as, quote, "our present system of elective aristocracy" is the best form of government we can hopeful. But though Posner and I agree on this point, we disagree about another deeper issue. We both think that Hegel and Dewey were right to view the moral consciousness of the individual as a matter of internalized social norms, but we disagree about whether our norms are better than those of our ancestors. Posner rejects the idea that we have made moral progress. I think that at that point he is relapsing from the true Deweyian faith into positivistic science worship.
Richard Rorty: During the beginning of his book, The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, Posner defines morality as, quote, "the set of duties to others that are supposed to check our merely self interested emotional or sentimental reactions to serious questions of human conduct." He goes on to say, quote, "the genuineness of morality as a system of social control is not in question," but he argues "since systems of social control are obviously local, so our moralities." Posner admits that, quote, "there are a handful of rudimentary principles of social cooperation such as "don't lie all the time" that may be common to all human societies," but these he says, quote, "are too abstract to be criterial." To get guides to action, genuine checks to self interest, you need thicker notions then those used to state such principles. As Posner says quote, "what counts as murder or is bribery varies enormously from society to society." So he continues, quote, "meaningful moral realism is out, and a form of moral relativism is in. Moral principles that claim universality can usually be better understood as just a fancy dress of workaday social norms that vary from society to society." His words.
Richard Rorty: Up to this point, Posner and Dewey are pretty much in accord. Dewey's early reaction against both Calvin and Kant left him very suspicious of universal moral principles. He writes, for example, quote, "ready-made rules available at a moment's notice for settling any kind of moral difficulty have been the chief object of the ambition of moralists. In the much less complicated and less changing matters of bodily health, stuff pretentions are known as quackery." One searches in vain through Dewey's work for the sort of abstract principles offered by Kant, Mill, Rawls, and Habermas, and indeed for anything that can happily be described as a moral theory. Dewey might well have agreed with Posner when he writes, quote, "academic moralism isn't capable of contributing significantly to the resolution of moral and legal issues." Dewey would also have agreed with the metaethical view that Posner shares with Nietzsche, Anscombe, and Bernard Williams. As Posner puts it, quote, "the only warrant for believing that there is a moral law that is out there is in the very strong sense claimed by a Plato or an Aquinas is faith in a supreme law giver in a spiritual reality as real as material reality."
Richard Rorty: But it is far less clear that Dewey would have inferred as Posner does for moral realism being out to moral relativism being in. It depends obviously on what you mean by moral relativism. If you mean merely that as Posner puts it, quote, "our modern beliefs concerning cruelty and inequality are contingent rather than being the emanations of the universal law" then both Hegel and Dewey will count as relativists, so for that matter will Rawls. In this sense, moral relativism is merely the denial that knowledge of something transcultural, something like the will of God or the dictates of pure practical reason, can help us decide between competing systems of social control. But when Posner goes on to say quote, "it is provincial to say that we are right about slavery, for example, and the Greeks wrong." I think Dewey would demure. He would be startled by Posner's claim that quote, "the relativity of more morals implies that there is no moral progress flattering to the residents of wealthy modern nations."
Richard Rorty: I think Dewey would respond to Posner by along the following lines. He could say, Of course our judgment of our own rightness is provincial, so or oh our judgments about anything, but why should the fact that we use the criteria of our own time and place to judge that we've made progress cast out on that judgment. What other criteria are available? If you mean simply that only nations as rich and lucky as those are of the modern West can get along without slaves, you have a point, but why deny that our wealth and good fortune have enabled us to become morally better? Dewey would, I think, argue that the contingency of our moral outlook, it's dependence on material conditions, no more impugns our moral superiority then Galileo's dependence on expensive new optical technology impugned the Copernican theory of the heavens. We can no more help thinking of ourselves as morally superior to our ancestors, then we can help believing that our astrophysical theories our better than theirs. Mock modesty about either intellectual or moral progress is an example of what Peirce called make-believe doubt, doubt that has no effect on practice.
Richard Rorty: The line of argument I'm attributing to Dewey marks the point at which I take pragmatism and positivism to diverge. Pragmatism, pragmatists of my persuasion spend a lot of time doing what Posner disparaging describes as leveling down science. We do this so that science will no longer seem to tower over morality. Posner says of this strategy that it "may succeed in equating the scientific tomorrow inquiry at the semantic level, but it leaves untouched the vast practical difference in the success of these two enterprises." I do not see any such difference. We in the modern West know much more about right and wrong than we did two centuries ago, just as we know much more about how nature works. We have been brilliantly successful in both morals and physics. The difference between my view and Posner's reflects my Kuhnian view of scientific inquiry.
Richard Rorty: I see it as working in much the same way as does moral or political inquiry whereas Posner sees a big difference. He argues that moral philosophy is, as he puts it, "epistemically feeble" because quote, "the criteria for pronouncing a moral claim valid are given by the culture in which the claim is advanced." Kuhnians like myself reply that the same argument would show the epistemic feebleness of physics and biology. Posner does concede that Kuhn might've had a point in a long sentence that I'll scrutinize in some detail. He writes, I quote, "Even if scientific realism is rejected in favor of the view that science yields "objective" results only because scientists happened to form a cohesive likeminded community. Even if that is we accept the view of consensus is the only basis on which truth claims can or should be accepted because consensus makes truth rather than truth forcing consensus, moral theorists are still up against the brute fact that there is no consensus with regard to moral principles from which answers to contested moral questions might actually be derived."
Richard Rorty: Posner is claiming that even if we give up the idea of truth-forcing consensus, the crucial difference between science and morals remains. I would rejoin that what remains is only the difference between moral theory and scientific theory. This difference is compatible with saying that morality and physics have made progress in exactly the same way. True beliefs have gradually replaced false beliefs. As I said earlier, I agree with Posner and Dewey that we are never going to get agreement on moral principles from which answers to contested moral questions might actually be derived. We will never have principles that bear on particular cases in the straightforward and uncontroversial way in which physical theory bears on particular observable events, but that asymmetry between physics and morality does nothing to impugn the existence of moral progress. For both moral and scientific progress are matters of agreement about practices, not about principles.
Richard Rorty: Posner has remarked that even Justice Scalia would now judge the lash and the stocks to be cruel and unusual punishments even though they were not so regarded by those who drafted the Eighth Amendment. Most of us and probably Scalia as well would agree that this change constitutes moral progress. One can agree with Posner that moral philosophy is of no help and providing the courts with reasons for preventing local authorities from using the lash, but that just shows that our judges have become better able to tell cruelty when they see it, even if they can't define it. I suggested earlier that the advantage of pragmatism over positivism is that pragmatists have no trouble with the idea that proposition such as the stocks and the lash are cruel punishments and there is nothing immoral about sodomy have recently been discovered to be true. They are true on a pragmatist view in just the same way that it is true that E= mc squared. The fact that moralities are, among other things, local systems of social control does no more to cast doubts on moral progress than the fact that scientific research is financed by people hoping to, hoping to get better technology cast out on scientific progress.
Richard Rorty: Willingness to level down science in this way is, as I see it, the biggest difference between pragmatism and positivism. So Kuhn was one of the best things that ever happened to pragmatism. His work helped us to accept Dewey's suggestion that reasoning in morals is no different from reasoning in science, a suggestion Posner explicitly rejects.
Richard Rorty: Admittedly, however, this leveling down looks fishy both to common sense and to the majority of analytic philosophers. That's because both are still tempted to say that if a sentence is true, there must be something that makes it true. The physical world, they continue, makes physical theory true, but it's not clear what makes moral judgments true. So the argument goes, perhaps the only value judgements that can be thought of as proof are empirical predictions about what means will best serve what ends. Posner seems to accept this line of thought for he is quick to argue from what he calls our "inability to reason about ends" to the conclusion that there is no such thing as "better apprehension of moral truth." But pragmatists of those, at least, of my sect don't think that anything either the physical world or the consensus of inquirers makes beliefs true. All that consensus does is to help us recognize moral truth.
Richard Rorty: Pragmatists should cheerfully agree that truth, all kinds of truths are eternal and absolute. It was true before the foundations of the world were laid, both the two plus two is four and that I would be wearing this particular tie today. It's also true that the lash. It was also, it was also true that the lashes and the sense of the Eighth Amendment, a cruel punishment. Eternal and absolute truth is the only kind of truth there is even though the only way we know what's true is by reaching a consensus that may well prove transitory. All the can be salvaged from the claim that truth is a product of consensus is that finding out what other people believe is most of the time a good way to decide what to believe. So, but only most of the time. If consensus we're all we ever had to go on, there would be neither scientific nor moral progress. We should have had neither Galilean mechanics nor the Civil Rights Movement.
Richard Rorty: One of the features of science the Kuhn helped us appreciate is that great leaps forward occur only when some imaginative genius puts a new interpretation on familiar facts. Shelly's defense of poetry helped us appreciate that the same thing is true of morality. As Shelly wrote, quote, "Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance." Dewey endorsed that analogy and also Shelly's claim that quote, "the great instrument of moral good is the imagination and poetry administers to the effect by acting on the cause." Dewey agreed with Shelly when, again, when Shelly wrote, quote, "Ethical science arranges the elements that poetry has created." In both physical and ethical theory, only the imagination can break through the crust of convention. Galileo did for Aristotle hylomorphic physics what Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King did for the Southern way of life.
Richard Rorty: He'd dreamed up an alternative. The attractiveness of that alternative shattered an old consensus and built up a new one. Poser's label for people like Parks, King, and Catherine MacKinnon is moral entrepreneur. Posner is quite ready to acknowledge that if it were not for these entrepreneurs, we should still be sentencing criminals to the lash, segregating the water fountains, and enforcing the anti-sodomy laws. But his positivistic leanings are apparent in his description of how these entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs get their job done again. Of MacKinnon, he writes, quote, "Her influential version of radical feminism is not offered without supporting arguments, but her influence is not due to the quality of these arguments, it is due to her polemical skills, her single-mindedness, her passion. In another passage, Posner writes, "moral entrepreneurs persuade but not with rational arguments. They use nonrational means of persuasion."
Richard Rorty: Posner's positivism takes another form when he tries to explain the success of these entrepreneurs by saying that they are quote "like arbitragers in the security market, they spot the discrepancy between the existing code and the changing environment and persuade the society to adopt a new, more adaptive code." I think the Dewey would have found this analogy with the arbitrager misleading and perhaps a bit repelling, whereas Posner is dismissive of moral idealism, Dewey reveled in it. It seems to me more in accord with Shelly's and Dewey's account of moral progress to think of Martin Luther King, Betty Friedan, and the leaders of the gay rights movement as creating rather than detecting a changed environment. They changed it by a single mindedly and passionately telling us about the damaged lives caused by present social arrangements. They incited social hope by proposing programs of action and prophesying a better future. These so called "nonrational methods" worked. Posner's notion of adaptation seems to me to do nothing to explain why these entrepreneurs succeeded.
Richard Rorty: Posner has set things up so the moral idealists cannot look good, for if they try to avoid nonrational persuasion by appealing to abstract principles, they're being disingenuous. They're ignoring the Wittgensteinian point at which Stanley Fish has made so much that no rule can determine its own interpretation. The more resoundingly universal a moral and legal or legal principle is, the more flexible it's application. But on the other hand, if the Romantic idealist refrained from citing such principles and from giving arguments, give, giving deductive arguments inferring from those principles, Posner will tell them that they have abandoned rational argumentation in favor of nonrational strategies. Posner draws an invidious contrast between heroic figures like Mill or Nietzsche, whom he admires, and what he calls modern moral philosophers such as Rawls, Dworkin, and Scanlon about whom he's less enthusiastic. He says that the latter are not a likely source of moral entrepreneurship. But Posner, again, I think is setting things up so that his opponents are damned no matter what they do. The more unlike Nietzsche and MacKinnon Scanlon and the rest are, the more useless, the more like them the less rational. Consider the following conundrum: Is Posner's own attempt to stigmatize various of advocacy as nonrational itself an example of rational argumentation or a polemical strategy? I have no idea how to answer that question and see no point in trying to do so. For I would say about criteria of rationality, what Posner says about moral principles, namely "they are just the fancy dress of workaday social norms that vary from society to society." In the 16th century, for example, it was only rational to test astrophysical and biological theories against scripture.
Richard Rorty: We can rightfully claim to be more rational than most of Copernicus' contemporaries if that means simply that our beliefs about what to test against what and more generally of what is relevant to what are true whereas many of their beliefs about relevance were false. But that's just another way of saying our social norms are better than their social norms. Most of us do not read Genesis literally and would oppose bringing back the lash and the stocks. We've made progress on both fronts, but there is no neutral, nonparochial standpoint to which we can repair to show that we've done so. Our judgments of progress and of rationality will remain as parochial as our judgments of everything else. But the parochial historically condition character justification is entirely compatible with the eternal and absolute character of truth. Dewey saw no point in dividing the various tactics we use to persuade our fellow citizens into the rational ones and the others. What difference in practice one can imagine him asking is this different supposed to make? The question of whether it was rational to let Galilean mechanics to undermine Christian faith or whether that was the result of passionate, irrational Holbachian and Voltairean polemic does not seem worth raising. Neither does the question of whether the suffragettes achieved victory through the use of reason or by virtue of passionate single mindedness.
Richard Rorty: Again, consider Posner's claim that, quote, "at its best, moral philosophy like literature enriches. It neither prove nor edifies." Well what follows? What does it matter whether we say with Posner, that "moral philosophers are poets and novelists monquet" or say instead that poets and novelists are amateur moral theorists? We know the sorts of things that moral philosophers, poets, novelists, economists, and lawyers have achieved, and we know how they did it. We're in a position to evaluate their contributions to culture and to consider how they might best make further contributions. Is any purpose served by separating them into rational sheep and nonrational goats? Posner seems to think that such separation is essential to doing good sociology. Sociology, he tells us, is the scholarly niche that his work on moral and legal theory occupies. He describes himself there as quote, "deploying Weberian professionalization and its alternatives including charismatic, moral entrepreneurship."
Richard Rorty: And as he also describes himself as skeptical about knowledge claims advanced by various academic disciplines, saying that such skepticism as a leitmotif of sociology. But adopting an Kuhnian view of scientific progress, replacing epistemology of science with history and sociology of science, has not encouraged skepticism about the knowledge claims made by physicists. Nor should it. For it was only invidious contrast between natural science and the rest of culture, the contrast that was at the heart of positivism, that made possible skepticism about moral entrepreneurs and talk of epistemic feebleness. From a Kuhnian perspective, Weberian skepticism looks just one more strategy employed by self interested professional sociologists hoping to carve out a niche for themselves within the academy.
Richard Rorty: It would be silly to think that the stunning news that some Nobel Prize winners in physics and biology are self interested in devious academic politicians impugns their claims to have discovered new truths. It seems equally wrong to think that Dworkin sometimes exaggerated claims for academic moral philosophy gives us reason to doubt that Rawls has added to our stock of moral truth. The aggressive tactics of bulldogs like Huxley and Dworkin should not be held against the people who's newly discovered truths they helped to disseminate. Nor should one infer epistemic feebleness from the fact that as things are presently going, Rawls' work is impotent to advance the cause of social justice. That would be like inferring the epistemic feebleness of Darwin's theory from the increasing popularity of creationism. The main reason that positivism still seems attractive and pragmatism counterintuitive, I think, is our resistance to the idea that criteria of rationality are just "a fancy dress of workaday social norms."
Richard Rorty: This resistance is the product of the passionate singleminded polemics of entrepreneurs such as Descartes, Bacon, and Locke. They attempted to substitute a quasi-deity called reason for the Christian God and thus to make the word "irrational" do the work previously done by un-Christian. Among the tactics they employed was an insistence that relations of relevance between propositions are noncontingent and nonlocal, and that an innate ability called reason combined with a moral virtue called intellectual honesty will make such relations evident. To think that Genesis is relevant to biology, we're told, is to be either irrational or dishonest, and the same goes for believing Leviticus to be relevant to gay marriage.
Richard Rorty: But reading Kuhn leads one to realize that criteria of relevance and thus of rationality are social norms resting on nothing more than consensus. Pragmatism is compatible with the claim that consensus can change both for the better and for the worse. All it denies is that we can judge whether we're advancing or regressing by assuming an Archimedean position outside the contingencies of history. That position would be one from which one can compare our sentences with the things that make them true or false. To deny that there is such a relation as being made true by is to deny that there could be any such position. Pragmatists argue in addition that even if there were such a relation, we should only be entitled to invoke it if there were a consensus about whether it held. Nothing except consensus can validate the claims of our purportedly consensus independent standpoint. So the pragmatists conclude we might as well stick to achieving first order consensus in physics and morals and forget about second order consensus on such philosophical topics as the existence and location of unmediated relations between the human mind and reality. I've been arguing in this lecture that Posner's refusal to admit that we have made moral progress is too much like Nietzsche's condescending attitude toward human hopes. Both seem to me rhetorical gestures that have no bearing on practice. For moral progress is not an idea we could possibly get out of our heads. The idea that the human future might be morally better than the human past is not one we could have genuine doubts about.
Richard Rorty: Let me conclude by illustrating this point with one more example. Consider Posner's claim that if he had been a colonial official in India under the Raj, he would have forbidden sati because he found that disgusting, not because he found it immoral. He explains that although "we tend to find deviations from our own morality disgusting," those reactions, quote, "prove nothing about the wrongness of the disgusting morality." Posner asked us to imagine someone saying, "I find it disgusting that these widows are expected to burn themselves alive, but I have no idea whether this practice is morally wrong." That stance seems to me as artificial and as irrelevant to action as the one affected by the sort of philosopher of whom Hilary Putnam has dubbed a metaphysical realist. Philosophers of this sort are the ones who say, I'm certain that my assertion will survive all challenge that it will remain justifiable to any audience anytime, but I have no idea whether it's true.
Richard Rorty: Metaphysical realists try to disjoin truth from any possible human activity. Posner, it seems to me, tries to do the same to the notion of moral rightness. But that sort of disjunction is just what Dewey wanted to avoid. Once we give up the attempt to see things under the aspect of eternity, we are left with nothing except the hope that we will look good to our future selves or to future generations. Dewey thought that that hope was enough. Thank you.
Martha Nussbaum: Do you want to call on some questioners yourself? Okay. We have about half an hour before we adjourn to the reception. Let me remind you all that you're all invited to a reception immediately following questions.
Question One: You came just to the edge of saying that the success of a moral entrepreneur could be somehow explained by their moral right. You said of Posner that he had no way to account for the success of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King because he disjoins their particular reforms of social norms from moral truth. Alright, you're, you're shaking your head vigorously enough that I would just like to ask, what is it that you meant then by saying that, what do you think you can explain about their success that Posner can not? And how is that you think their success teaches us anything about the reality or unreality of moral truths?
Richard Rorty: I don't think anything could teach us anything about the reality or unreality of moral truths. I don't, as Dewey said reality is a term of value or choice. I'm in favor of truth, so if you like, I can say yeah, moral truths are real, but it adds nothing whatever to saying I believe that the following are some moral truths. All I said about Posner and the moral entrepreneurs' success was that he couldn't explain it by adaptation to a changed environment and it seems to me that the careers of moral entrepreneurs show them, show the environment changing because they did what they did rather than they were adapting to previous causes. But I haven't gotten an explanation for their success. That is, I don't, I don't know why gay rights came along 20 years ago instead of 50 years ago.
Richard Rorty: I don't, I don't know what it was in society, in the economy and in whatnot that made it possible. I don't know why Galileo in physics came along in the 17th century rather than the 14th century either. Does that speak to what you were asking?
Question One: Do you think that from the fact of a moral entrepreneurs' success we can infer moral rather than immoral entrepreneurs? Does the fact that the gay rights movement succeeded tells us that it was right that it succeeded?
Richard Rorty: No, no more than the fact that the National Socialist Movement succeeded shows anything about them. You can never infer from success to rightness. You can never infer from anything straight to either truth or rightness. Life would be simpler if we had criteria for truth and rightness other than entrepreneurship in the manner of Galileo and the gay rights movement, but we don't. That's the. That's the point Shellyan point about the imagination.
Question Two: Doesn't your position imply that there is some kind of, I don't want to call it Platonic ideal, but that there is some kind of better as opposed to a worse in morality when it isn't just a question of contemporary habit?
Richard Rorty: Well, I think before plato loused things up by introducing the notion of objectivity into the area, we all thought that some moral judgments were true and others were false. We also thought Athenian Society was better than Sythian society and so on. Plato then said, how come there can be true moral judgments? What makes them true? And we've been worried about that ever since. Dewey suggested we not worry about that anymore. We just go along with the common person in the street and say yeah, there is truth and falsity in morals as elsewhere. And you would only think so if you were interested in praising some other area of culture as somehow superior to morality, like for instance, theology or physics.
Question Two: Well, what is it that allows people to say this really is wrong even if it was okay in the past? What's the referent?
Richard Rorty: If you ask what causes them to say that instead of what allows them to say that, the answer would be obvious: all the stuff that's happened in history between us and them. If you ask what allows them, you're already asking for an Archimedean point, rising above history and saying, you know, don't just tell me that causes tell me the reasons where reasons mean attaching to a sky hook that is immune from the contingencies of history. That's what Plato did for us. He makes it, he tempts us to ask for that kind of sky hook. And I see Dewey as doing his best to rid us from the impulse.
Question Three: It strikes me that pragmatism made... Well to me it seems pretty similar to the ... method. I was wondering if you could speak to the relation between the two methods and if they are similar that may cause Rawls to be called a pragmatist perhaps despite himself.
Richard Rorty: I guess I never found much use for the notion of method either the method, either the pragmatic method or the method of reflective equilibrium. I mean to say that Rawls practiced the method of reflective equilibrium is just to say crudely he balanced some of the theoretical segments un the philosophers against some of the intuitions of the people in the street and you know came out with something trying to do justice to both. Well, of course he wasn't the first one to do that. Everybody has always done exactly that. So you know, I don't see he picked out anything when he talked about reflective equilibrium and I don't think Dewey picked out anything special when he talked about the scientific method. My, one of my favorite presenters and do is when Carnap and the positivists asked him to write for the Encyclopedia of Unified Science an article on scientific method and he, he praised the chauffeur as an excellent paradigm of the scientific method. That was not what Carnap had in mind.
Question Four: Given all that you said this afternoon, indeed a metaphysical realist but without any skepticism. What I mean is the following, I still think this isn't quite right: physics and in morals, judge true according to the standards that are at our disposal; the standards that are in various ways marked by our place in history, time, and place. So if we have only the standards that are at our disposal, you disagree with someone's position which would be Richard Posner when it comes to morals who says well, if we're only judging by contemporary standards, how can we claim that what we're judging to be morally right is morally right. Well if you wanted to say, well indded, we can say it's morally right, precisely the way in which when we judge questions about physical nature, we rely upon the standards that are at our disposal and there's no reason why we shouldn't hesitate to say that the we can meet those standards that are indeed true. So why not say that in both morals and in physics the things that we judge by our present standards are indeed.
Question Four: True, as you yourself said, timelessly so. The standards we use are bound up in our time and place, but the truth that we judge in physics or in morals are timeless things. It looks like metaphysical realism, except that you don't want to be, you don't want to allow that particular version of metaphysical realism which says the following: truth is timeless, we have only our time-bound standards, so how could we ever calim that judging things by our time-bound standards gives us timeless truths. That's the kind of metaphysical realist that you were associated with the title metaphysical realist, but I think you are actually a metaphysical realist in another sense which is that you were quite willing to say, quite frankly, we use time balance standards to determine what is timelessly true, for morals and for physics. Why isn't that metaphysical realism?
Richard Rorty: I guess it doesn't... Putnam defines the term in such a way that the metaphysical realist... he sets him up in that way. To me, you are not making sense.
Question Four: if I could, we would go into Putnam thought but when he did that, he did it by saying that truth that as we actually should understand it, internal realism, is truth in something less than timeless sense. That is truth as judged by consensus or what would be assertive under ideal conditions or all that sort of stuff which is not what you are doing.
Richard Rorty: I never understood what Putnam said by metaphysical realism. He lately had said he didn't either. But I don't want to be any kind of realist because it suggests that there's an interesting question about realism versus antirealism. And that suggests that there's an interesting question about which two sentences are made true by the world and what true sentences are not made true by the world. If you don't believe that anything is made true buy anything, you don't want to raise the question. You do raise the question, you will find yourself making a distinction between realism about x and and I realized something about y. I don't much care whether you are realist or antirealist as long as you're the same for every sentence in every area of discourse, but if you are, then there's no point in using either term because the terms were invented to make a contrast between sentences.
Question Five: This is a question about whether these remarks get to the heart of pragmatism. Prompted by your remark about Leo Strauss and the claim that utility and truth aren't the same, and Dewey thought they were, I think Posner's version of pragmatism says with respect to a cell phone, we know whether it's useful. We have a criterion we can point to smoking and occupational illness. We know we can connect causes to harms. I think what's in his book is for things like gay rights or feminism what utility calls for, what works, it's hard to figure out what is meant by that. That's what's behind it I think, and when you talk about gay rights, you said well we think this. Well with cell phones, it's not just that we think this, we see it in a way that it's not clear see with respect to gay rights, or is it? When you talked about Rosa Parks, racial equality wasn't what you were saying with gay rights I don't think or at least it was less explicit. You said there was damage to persons, something like that. You used the word damage. That suggests some kind of a prompt to know about what works.
Question Five: That isn't just what we see. Now, I'm not sure what's behind, maybe nothing is behind the damage of persons, but at least I thought you might have a consequentialist or utilitarian account or something which would make the word damage, the concept intelligible. We would know what it was and we know how it was bad. And that I think is the correct direction to go. That's how to beat Posner I think. Rather than by saying that we believe with respect to science is no different from what we believe in respect to morals because what he says with respect to science itself or a computer, what works is not just a matter of consensus, but it's a matter of something else.
Richard Rorty: And you can you agree with him or?
Question Five: I do. In the following, I agree with you and not him in the conclusion. The answer is not the line of analogies, but it's instead an account. I thought you got at it with the damage to persons, the account which does the same work, I guess, as the tacit account that we rely on when we see a cell phone working or when we agree that smoking makes people sick.
Richard Rorty: Let me try to put the matter in somewhat different terms. Why do we, why is it easier to get agreement in science and technology then in morals?
Question Five: It depends on the right with respect to some scientific discussions there's more dispute, but there are with respect to some moral disputes.
Richard Rorty: Okay, but what, what, why do people like Posner take it for granted that science is an area in which you get lots of consensus and morals is an area in which you don't., which by and large is true. At least in our society.
Question Five: I do not think it's true. I think it depends on the level of generality. You can ask is quantum mechanics right? People would be very puzzled to try to answer that. But whether is Darwin is right is disputed with respect to slavery, that one's done. There's more consensus on the wrongness of slavery or the wrongness of torture than on many scientific questions.
Richard Rorty: This is getting too complicated. Some other, too many issues. Let me, let me try again to see what you think. It seems for me that the relative ease of getting people to say quantum physics must be true because it gave us the atomic bomb or there must be electrons because look at my cell phone or Darwin must be right because I understand that without these stem cells, I'd never would have been cured of whatsit. We want science to help us predict and control stuff. We have faith that all this stuff about quantum physics and evolution is what enables us to get what we want namely prediction and approval. Recently in the modern secular West as Judith Shklar has said, cruelty has become the prime sin and everything.
Richard Rorty: Everything political is judged by reference to does it produce unnecessary suffering. Well. My view is that predictability and control in science and avoidance of unnecessary suffering in morals are choices made by the modern West. Choices I have no objection to, but choices of the same sort. You can imagine society is the Chinese of 17th century who were told about Galileo by the Jesuits or someone. You can imagine societies who didn't think science had much to do with prediction and control. You can imagine societies, you know societies in which morality doesn't have much to do with unnecessary suffering.
Richard Rorty: I mean, when Posner says we don't argue about ends, I'm inclined to say yeah, we do. We argue with the Chinese about science, and we argue with the ancient world about slavery and gay rights and whatnot. The arguments are complicated, but they're the same arguments in both. But I think you think that analogy messes up.
Question Five: No I think it's right, but I think the answer to Posner depends, I'm not sure you would like this, on some sort of account such as minimizing suffering is good. Over there would be some kind of override to that goal, but that is if you have something like a utilitarian account or...?
Richard Rorty: Well, or if you, have something like the right passages in the Christian scriptures for that matter. I mean I don't much care whether you quote the Gospels or quote Mill, I mean so long as you can convince people to minimize unnecessary suffering. But I don't see that either offers an account. They're just...
Question Five: I think this is what Posner's challenge really is on gay rights or segregation. The minimization of unnecessary is evil because...
Richard Rorty: Whether but I want to put it in parallel the moral entrepreneurs making debit to us saying, you know, look, there's suffering and here's a future in which they don't. So it's unnecessary. It seems to me on all fours with the physicist saying to use, you know, look, here's something that the old theory can't explain. Here's something my theory can explain. You know, so my theory is better. That's common ground.
Question Five: I was going to say they talk About poetic truth and rational truth, and they mean different things. Why not just throw out poetic truth?
Richard Rorty: if you try to throw it out, you'll lose your audience.
Question Five: Well let me ask you a simple question about theology. And there's the Taliban who stone people during the half time of a football game for fornication and it's based on their law, Sharia law and the Koran. We very quietly and in private use a lethal injection for the same result, but it's not as disgusting as stoning somebody. Isn't one or the other more or less immoral?
Richard Rorty: Yes, and we will find out from the moral entrepreneurs have done their work on both sides.
Martha Nussbaum: I wanted to ask you how much really caves under use of the notion of progress? It looked like when you were trying to take science out of it's special position and make it look more like ethics, you were trying... You were saying that just as in science, we understand more and more so to in ethics, we understand more and more. And your examples were good ones for that: feminism and gay rights and so on. But it seems to me that that's probably not going to work across the board; that in science, however, Kuhnian the picture, we really do have something like a notion of lurching progress in understanding, but in ethics there's some large areas where let's say take the treatment of animals the ancient world understood a great deal more about that than we currently understand. There was and you can give an account of flight that was understanding was lost because in the middle there was a metaphysics that told us we were above nature.
Martha Nussbaum: We were separate from the rest of nature, so the Judeo-Christian tradition blotted out a kind of understanding of the commonality with other animals in respect to suffering that we used to have. Now, I guess I think that that means that it's not very safe to rely for you, I don't want to say debunking of science, but despecializing of science on this parallel with respect to progress. Unless you have something more like passes deeper account, in which case you could say, well, we've made progress in that we understand more and more about pain and that's why now we can look at our current treatment of animals and begin to recover some parts of the loss of the understanding that we didn't have before or something. Something to that effect. But I guess I just want to hear you say how much you think rests on this notion of progress in your argument.
Richard Rorty: It seems to me that you are using a notion of progress in which it always happens. It's inevitable. The later is always the better. I was just using the progress as what we think we made; what we can't help but think we've made. We may be wrong, but we, but we have to think of ourselves as making progress. We have to think of the future as being capable of being made morally better than that.
Martha Nussbaum: I think it is quite important to see that we declined from something that we did once understand. Of course, you are right to say that the person who sees that is going to think that's already an achievement and that other people should see that too and that would be progress. But I guess I still there's an asymmetry between science and ethics in that respect. That we're all the time trying to recover pieces of understanding that have been lost or eclipsed. And that's certainly one of the things that Nietzsche was most perceptive about the need to do that. Whereas in science, I can't think of a major case where we think, oh, there's a whole piece of physical reality we just completely neglected that we now have to recover.
Richard Rorty: I guess I don't think of much ethical thought as a matter of we must recover. Dewey didn't; he was not interested in recovery. He just wanted us to be imaginative enough to create a future. To me, that's the more official method of moral progress.
Martha Nussbaum: Sometimes you might need to recognize that certain things that you bought into are impediments to good thought. That's certainly what Nietzsche thought about Christianity.
Richard Rorty: Dewey called grading progressive convention, but it's not by saying did we miss something back then but by saying, could we do it better next time?
Martha Nussbaum: But I mean I guess you can say, well what's wrong is the pain that animals are caused and that's something that was always there. It isn't that we exactly have made progress in identifying your new consideration, but we just have dispelled some obstacles to our understanding of the salience of that which were created Judeo-Christian tradition. So that would be a much more complicated story about progress.
Richard Rorty: I guess I think it's not a necessary story. I think stories about once we saw through a glass darkly but now we see clearly. Once we were trapped in appearance but now we are in reality. That doesn't really do much for us. What does work for us is look at how we could do if we could use the new physical theory or the new moral entrepreneur. Look ahead, don't worry what was real and what was appearance. One way to put the big pragmatism versus platonism is just to say reality versus appearance was a really bad distinction. We don't need it.
Prof. Harcourt: So I tend to think that there are, there are possibly different shades of your arguments. And I kind of see it in a two by two table. One shade would be that we have to believe that science is like morality. And the other is that well you could actually see some differences and nevertheless still buy the Kuhnian way of thinking about both science and morality. I am thinking a little bit on Cass's idea of the cell phone, but you think of scientific predictability, right? It was the ability to predict some future event that in some sense is often what validates a scientific theory or at least in the eyes of ... right. And um, and there and there just doesn't seem to be the same metric or way of doing that in morality. The ability to kind of just predict a physical event is going to happen in the future.
Prof. Harcourt: Now, but I don't think that even if one saw those distinction between normal scientific knowledge and normal moral knowledge that you necessarily would have to give up on the whole idea that there is something very similar between those two. And then along that line in terms of Kuhnian normality, you could have one idea that as simply being, it is the consensus, normal sciences get consensus. The moral agreement about torture or about, um, or about gay rights is the consensus that now exists and that's of language of normal morality that we talk about now. Versus something where we think that entity, it's actually better than the previous state of normal moral thinking at the time, which requires some notion of progress. And so what I'm wondering is, do I need to, can I leave today thinking that, well, there's something about physical sciences that is different than morality?
Prof. Harcourt: Yet still by your argument about taking a Kuhnian approach to moral progress and also skip the idea of progress or would I in some sense would I be misinterpreting what you are trying to tell me what I should do?
Richard Rorty: I lost you at some point. Why do you want to give up the notion of progress?
Prof. Harcourt: Because it could be that we could have normal moral discourse that was different from the normal science, right? That was different from 200 years ago, and yet not necessarily and view it as a new consensus formation but not necessarily view it as necessarily progress.
Richard Rorty: Well, we could if we never had to make any decisions ourselves, if we were just spectators. When we ask who's side am I on, you do. I think Stanley Fish made a good point when he said there are no moral relativists in practice. As a practical matter, nobody is a relativist. You can't stand back from a moral decision but I have no idea whether it is a good consensus or not. You have a moral outlook.
Richard Rorty: All the stuff about epistemic feebleness doesn't make the slightest difference to what you do with a moral outlook.
Prof. Harcourt: So that would be a difference between describing a situation and actually being a part of it?
Richard Rorty: You can describe science, modern Western high class cell phone science as a flash in the pan which will doubtlessly be succeeded by some other form of understanding of the world. You can, but you still want to use your cell phone. You can't be a relativist about physical science to that extent. You can't be a relativist about torture when to ask to go torture somebody. I think Dewey was trying to say this whole absolute versus relativist thing like the appearance versus reality thing just puts the emphasis on how things would look from an ideal point of view. But since there is no ideal point of view, let's forget about those distinctions and get on with the difference between the present and the future which is all, all the great big philosophical distinction we need.
Question Six: Are you saying we do not have to any other criteria other than looking toward the future?
Richard Rorty: Criteria that we apply in both science and morals are so complicated, so much a product of the current state of scientific and moral discussion that there is just no hope that a philosopher will tell you what criteria you are applying when you choose to believe in quantum mechanics or what criteria you are applying when you're deciding you are in favor of gay rights. The notion of criteria gets no grip here.
Question Seven: I just want to make two statements. I think there are two claims that I picked up in the comments. ... So the first major claim that I picked up is that you could rule out the ruling out of moral progress, that's Posner's position. But I think you made a much more robust claim in the answers. Which is that maybe, it is useful to believe in moral progress, but if that's the claim you want to make, it is so far not defended and to me not intuitively attractive in any way. To see the decline of progress is disheartening. First, is that completely wrong, and if it is not wrong please let me know what you think.
Richard Rorty: It's wrong. I did quote Strauss on utility, but I didn't actually say anything about utility in the talk because I don't think that there is a criterion called utility that anybody knows how to apply. So I don't think it. You know, my argument was not "it's useful to believe we have made moral progress," it's that "as agents we can't help but think we've made moral progress."
Question Seven: How can you support that?
Richard Rorty: By asking the audience to perform thought experiments. We live in an age in which the last of the stocks are no longer used and the anti-sodomy laws are no longer enforced. Isn't that progress?
Question Seven: Lots of people saying no. It's not my position but many say no.
Richard Rorty: They're wrong. All I can say is people who don't, people who think that Darwin was not scientific progress are wrong. There are great many of them. They may be the majority, they may take over and so on. They are still wrong. In exactly the same sense, the people who thought the sodomy was wrong were wrong. We've made progress. Darwin was progress. The the idea of, to judge that we have made progress is to take an attitude toward the course of human events; to ask for a criterion be it utility or anything else is to try to rise above human events and inspect it from some non-human point of view.
Martha Nussbaum: I think we have time for just one more question. Last one.
Richard Posner: The last stocks example was very odd I think. We would put people in stocks, but now we put them in cages. How is that progress? Why is that progress? Especially since there's a lot of interest in actually returning to some cases to shaming penalties, very much like the stocks. It seems to be a very debatable and ambiguous example of moral progress.
Richard Rorty: Debatable yes. There's more and more willingness to say, you must not treat human beings like animals. Lashing them is like treating them like animals; putting them in cages is treating them like animals. Our prisons are now rather less like cages than they used to be. And the prisons in the United States are less like cages than the prisons in most other countries. This is called progress.
Richard Posner: But if you visited a prison and you've seen the prisoners with their arms hanging out of the bars, you would think you were in a zoo. There are 2 million people there. I make the point because there's a self-congratulatory talking about moral progress which it seems to mean people have always been the same as we've always been since we are monkeys, but the difference is that because of wealth and knowledge we manipulate me, exploited and achieve our ends in different ways. But I don't think it makes us better, and I don't think I'm a better judge because an 18th century judge was sentencing people to the stocks or being drawn or quartered. It's just different circumstances gave rise, give rise to different methods of coercion.
Richard Rorty: Well, there is certainly, you know, as far as explanation goes, there's a perfectly good story told without reference for moral progress. You can explain the causal factors that created the difference between this and that and so on. What's missing is whatever it is that has transformed civilization, which wasn't just increasing wealth, it was also moral ideas. There had to be people who said this is disgusting, we can't do it anymore. There had to be Romantics. When we argued about this in the past, you said romanticism and visionary is not really your thing. It was Dewey's thing. And I think that it's a precious thing to hold onto; the idea that we're not responding to circumstances. We're also using our imagination to make ourselves different. So you really aren't just doing the same kinds of things that monkeys do, not because we're in touch with the material world, but because we have imagination that monkeys don't.
Martha Nussbaum: Okay, well at this point we are going to thank Professor Rorty!