Monday, March 08, 2004
in case any of you are wondering what I've been wondering about lately
Here's some stuff that was going to turn into a paper, until I realized it was too general a rant. But still, it outlines the kinds of worries I've had lately. (Ah, the fun of being in philosophy -- worrying about this is work!)
What is the purpose of ethical philosophy? If, as Marx says, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,” then where can we get to with meta-ethics and normative ethics? Would Bush and Cheney be convinced by Kantian argument that the wealthy are not the only ones who require aid, corporations not the only persons requiring welfare? Would Ashcroft be swayed by a Levinasian plea for the Other, if that Other happened to be an Arab-American calling for legal representation? Did the joint plea, by Derrida and Habermas, for peace in the face of the US-British war in Iraq, do any good, regardless of the philosophical interest of the two working so closely together on a common project (differance and universalist discourse, united for peace and justice; so like the common banner of anarchists, feminists, environmentalists, unionists, religious leaders, and socialists united against the FTAA, the WTO, the IMF, and other organizations and schemes with menacing acronyms)? Despite a great number of academics who spoke out forcefully against the war (or, at the very least, against the urgency that saw no utility in continued inspections), and summoned lovely arguments rooted in lovely theory, the leaders of the enlightened Anglo-American West went ahead to war. “It is little wonder, then,” writes Mark Lilla in Harper’s [May 2003, p.89], “that the ‘Plea’ of Professors Habermas and Derrida met with such a tepid response in the European press and has since had no discernible influence on public debate over foreign policy.” According to Lilla, Europeans have been less likely during recent years to grant their intellectuals the “priestly function” of issuing commands and exhortations. It is uncertain how recently North Americans have done so. We are still witnessing the backlash against identity politics and “political correctness,” and the case for corporate responsibility and business ethics is always made in business terms, according to the bottom line, and the positive P.R. and fewer lawsuits to be gained therein (“Doing Well By Doing Good” is the mantra of corporate ethics consultants), rather than from any philosopher’s call for a rethinking of capitalist values.
Currently, the battle seems to be to convince our leaders to follow the values that they claim to profess; to actually live up to the liberal humanism enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to obey the laws of the Geneva Conventions and the hodgepodge of international law that, while still in its shaky infancy, seems to be the best thing we’ve got so far. We don’t need Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, or Rorty to get us there; Kant and Western legal tradition still suffices.
But does this liberal humanism and legal tradition actually correctly encompass the potential for human communal life? There are so many other possibilities, so many other ways of seeing human beings. Care ethicists, moral phenomenologists, and relational theorists in law all criticize the atomistic picture of humans presented by liberalism and traditional legal theory. While we, in our active political life, call for human rights, it is our duty as philosophers to envision and develop alternate theories, possibly truer, possibly more useful, possibly more humane.
jane 3:24 PM [+]