Sunday, June 14, 2009

American moral judgments


       It is fashionable, among postmodernists and other relativists, to say that our moral judgments about human capacities and freedom are only those for right now.  “Moral” judgments are merely shifting sands, based on class interests or historical epochs or personal biases; there is no integrity to ethics, this view maintains.  Richard Rorty, a onetime Trotskyist and a decent person, made a tremendous hit with a book that urges such a point of view. Since every present, every circumstance, is particular and as Micheal Oakeshott says, contingent, there is obviously some truth in this perspective.

      During the fight against slavery in the American Revolution, however, three farmers in Western Massachusetts (they fought in the Shays’ Rebellion, the revolt of debt-enslaved farmers who were former revolutionary soldiers to keep their farms, mocked by the Federalist Papers) wrote a letter to the Hampshire Gazette.  They asked people to think: what if your children, like those of blacks, when they went down to the stream to fetch some water, were to be kidnapped and sold into slavery? The Constitution that allowed that, they said rightly, could not be theirs. 

       As Abraham Lincoln once put it, “Although volume upon volume has been written to prove the good of slavery, I have yet to meet the man who wants to take the good of it by becoming a slave himself.”

      In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues for imagining oneself behind a veil of ignorance (one does not know one's social position, historical era, family or gender) and for choosing only those policies that also benefit the least advantaged.  Despite an unnecessary gesture at utilitarianism – the talk about “maximin” - his original position models what any of us do when we put ourselves in the shoes of others. It gives a theoretical framework for the moral judgments of these farmers or of Lincoln.

      Rawls’ meta-ethics is complex and constructivist.  But he affirms that there are exceptionally deep moral judgments, ones that are bedrock, ones through which all our principles, to be moral principles, must pass. 

       In my book Democratic Individuality, I name the insight into human life that slavery is an evil and trace how it emerged and triumphed historically.  Slavery is not a decent life for humans.  We have yet to see a movement of former slaves agitating for the restoration of their “lost paradise.”  Lincoln, among many others, gives us a reason.

       Two posts ago, “Trucks” (here) gives us some others.  That a view is fashionable, even for some good reasons, as Rorty’s was among academics, particularly in English departments, until torture became the American way, does not mean that it is even close to being true.

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