Pragmatism: The Unknown Ideal

The inestimable Richard Posner is guest blogging at Leiter's place, and his first post (and followup response) has been more interesting and more controversial than nearly everything he has posted at his digs with Becker.

Posner notes that secular liberals of both the left and libertarian variety “tend to deny religious doctrine a role in political justification." After all, secular liberals argue, how can we have a tolerant, diverse society if groups are allowed to impose their preferred policies on the rest of us without having to explain the reasons behind their preferences? If you ask why you should be forced to respect a law against murder or theft, I might explain to you various reasons why it is in your interest to do so. But if you ask why you should be forced to rest on the Sabbath day when you do not believe in God and do not subscribe to any particular religion, there is not much with which a supporter of a Sabbath law can respond other than sheer political power.

But Posner then observes that "much or even most morality seems based, rather, on instinct, emotion, custom, history, politics, or ideology, rather than on widely shared social goals."

Are there really compelling reasons for these unarguable tenets of the current American moral code? One can give reasons for them, but would they be anything more than rationalizations? They have causes, that history, sociology, or psychology might elucidate, but causes are not reasons.

If morality, or at least a large part of the moral domain, lives below reason as it were, isn’t the practical consequence that morality is simply dominant public opinion? And so if the population is religious, religion will influence morality, which in turn will influence law...

Posner's point is well taken. U.S. law as it currently exists is certainly no more discussable in terms of reason or consistency than laws which are justified solely on the grounds of religious belief. But the problem is greater than that. Even if we were to conceive of what the laws ought to be rather than merely describe them as they actually exist, no matter how consistent or reasonable we find our proposed system, at the end of the day, it must still be built on a certain amount of thin air - intuition and preferences. A moral system cannot be built on reason alone. And because of this, the secular have no greater claim to lawmaking than the religious. If law ultimately depends upon morality and morality ultimately depends upon unexplained and unexplainable intuitions and preferences, then my preferences for prosperity, peace and happiness deserve no more advantage over my neighbor's preferences for ludditism, sexual chastity, and biblical reenactment.

Posner seems to approve of this state of affairs, which is strange, given his disinterest in theism and the unstated implication that he prefers not being ruled by theists. But he graciously submits, because that is the dominant public opinion and he believes in the Will of The People™. The one thing I've never understood about Posner is his love affair with democracy, knowing what he knows about public choice economics. Perhaps he sees it as a necessary evil, a least-bad option. But he sure seems enthusiastic about it.

Posner's post provoked many comments, in his own thread and on other blogs. Notably, Richard Rorty, the leading advocate of pragmatism among contemporary philosophers (Posner considers himself a pragmatist as well), leaves the following comment in a lengthy discussion on Left2Right:

The invocation of a quasi-deity called “Reason” who favors leftist candidates for office is as unhelpful as the claim that God favors rightist candidates. Saying that rational reflection has shown that women should no longer be subordinate to men is like saying that God has always been a feminist, but has only recently clarified her views on the subject. I think we leftist intellectuals, and we philosophy professors in particular, should stop suggesting that we have Reason on our side. One can offer good reasons for one’s political views without making any such claims.

Rorty's distinction between "Reason" and "reason" is a useful one; quite similar to the distinction between "Truth" and "truth" he makes elsewhere. The capitalized version of each is the objective sense of the word, the sense that the Truth of the matter in ethics can be resolved conclusively with appeal to Reason alone, if only others are willing to listen. Rorty, as a pragmatist, does not deny the existence of truth, so long as we understand truth to be contingent. Nor does he claim that all reasons given for one's views are equally valid. Some reasons are simply more reasonable than others, given what we know and what we hope to achieve. There are indeed good reasons why almost everyone would not want to live in a diverse society in which any single group has the power to impose its religious preferences upon everyone else - even reasons that most religious people themselves find appealing.

Share this

Is the assertion that "truth

Is the assertion that "truth is contingent" intended as recognition of a contingent truth or an objective truth?

There has been some recent

There has been some recent work noting the connection between legal systems and prosperity. Countries with civil law systems do less well by every measure than countries with common law systems. Reason seems inadequate to the needs of societies, at least so far.

Even if we were to conceive

Even if we were to conceive of what the laws e rather than merely describe them as they actually exist, no matter how consistent or reasonable we find our proposed system, at the end of the day, it must still be built on a certain amount of thin air - intuition and preferences.

Micha, some sort of editing error occured in this sentence around where the single italic letter "e" sits.

Thanks Virginia; it's been

Thanks Virginia; it's been corrected.

Response to JTKennedy's

Response to JTKennedy's question:

"Is the assertion that “truth is contingent” intended as recognition of a contingent truth or an objective truth?

I would characterize the assertion that "truth is contingent" as useful advice. Advice, because it is intended as guidance for future thinking about the idea called "truth," and useful because it points toward the world around us as we contemplate our beliefs, reasons, and conclusions and consider awarding the title "truth" to some of them.

Objectively useful?

Objectively useful?