Universal not Neo-Subjective Pragmatism
To those who say that I am not disagreeing with Harris, I’m a bit confused: here I am, disagreeing with him. Harris claims that, despite uncertainty and a multiplicity of moral actions, we can make objectively moral or immoral actions or statements. I don’t believe in transcendent morality of any kind. Morality, to my lights, is best thought of as an agreement between people, which is therefore never certain, timeless, or transcendent. I think it is to our practical benefit to act as though there is no moral value that transcends limited human agreement. Which means, yes, I am incapable of saying that the Taliban is objectively or certainly of inferior moral value to the Dalai Llama. And if you’d like to haul out the high school debating team tactic, no, I can’t say that Hitler, the Holocaust or Nazism are permanently, objectively and non-contingently evil in some transcendent way.
[For background, Freddie’s original post here. He’s also written (and even vlogged) a few updates after the post I’ve quoted above–also worth the read.]
Given all of that, I can’t set the whole context for this one. I’m just gonna dive in.
In this analysis quoted above there are I think only two philosophical positions to be held; Freddie’s humanities-postmodern-humble skeptical but pragmatic opinion and an idea of an objective moral universe. The latter position can be held by individuals who see that moral reality a product of a transcendent God or through science (a la Sam Harris).
This place is precisely where Jurgen Habermas’ Universal Pragamatics comes into play. Habermas will agree will Freddie that morality is a consequence of human agreement. It is intersubjective in the first place not objective.
However Habermas would point out a deeper underlying quasi-transcendental that Freddie appears to be missing–or rather implicitly assuming though not explicitly confirming.
Namely: the (quasi) transcendentals of human agreement. We write or speak assuming the other can come to meaningful understanding of what we are saying, that we can meaningfully self-disclose in a public format our thoughts, feelings, actions, intentions.
From this ground, Habermas argues, we can form a transcendental for a post-positivist scientific and a post-ontotheological age. In fact, for Habermas, this ground can serve as the lifeworld bridge for both religious and secular people in an age of post-secularism.
Vis a vis, universal pragmatics, consider this paragraph from Freddie’s post:
Suppose I had said the descriptive phrase, “there are no certain truth claims,” or the prescriptive phrase, “we should proceed as though we know nothing for certain.” This is the sort of thing that those who want to enforce strong truth claim visions of human knowledge jump all over. But are they really self-contradicting? Only if you assume exactly the vision of truth that I am denying. If you assume that the statement “metanarratives are untrue” means “it is objectively and non-contingently true that strong truth claims are untrue,” then yes, that would be self-contradicting; but assuming that is to beg the question. To talk as though it is always the case that descriptive or prescriptive language makes appeals to objective truth is to assume exactly the vision of truth that I am telling you I don’t assume. If I said, “metanarratives are untrue,” I would mean “from my subjective standpoint, I find it useful not to take metanarratives as transcendentally true.” And in the context of that post, you should be able to figure that out; after all, I was busy telling you that this was how I look at truth claims.
Freddie’s post is filled with pleas for understanding and reading in good faith. Freddie would I think respond by saying that for him, taking the notion that we can understand each other and we can self-disclose in not totally arbitrary and (at least) somewhat meaningful ways is a useful way to proceed.
But if that is his response (and again I’m guessing here, he would know better than I), then why wouldn’t a commenter who by Freddie’s lights is a “bad” reader, simply respond by saying something to the effect of:
“What you Freddie call reading/commenting in bad faith is what I take to be a useful way of proceeding along with apparently quite a few others, given your response to the comments.”
Just to be clear, I agree with Freddie that many of his responders rather ignorantly misread him (at best) or at worst simply had their pre-arraigned views that they simply fired at him.
I don’t think it fair to call all forms of pluralism relativism. Pluralism can be true pluralism with humility, some skepticism but nevertheless ability to make choices and stand for them in the world. I think Freddie represents this position quite articulately. It’s not in the end my position, but I can appreciate those who hold it genuinely as I believe Freddie does.
Still I don’t think Freddie has grounds to ask for better reading/commenting from his interlocutors given the admittedly subjetivist orientation of his position. He certainly wants to have such a grounds for his criticism, but I don’t know where that ground is located from within his worldview. I think he’s wanting to have it both ways and I’m not sure he can legitimately do so and still hold true to his position.
But then again you already should have guessed that given that I said I don’t share his view.
In that sense, I think Habermas is right and on to something very very important. We do assume what are de facto universal (transcendental or at least soft transcendentals by any other name) “rules” of communication. Maybe habits is a better term than rules.
Charging a reader/commenter with bad faith interpretations (seems to me) assumes a model of a good faith reading, a model that could undoubtedly include much difference of opinion, while still communicate among persons, in ways that both sides would acknowledge that they were heard and understood at a fundamental level in the midst of their (potentially still held) different views.
If you criticize someone for a bad faith reading, then that charge comes with an unspoken but clearly meant reference to what a good faith reading would be. One we all know even if we don’t refer to it explicitly.
Commenters may have disagreed with Freddie in his interpretation of their interpretation of his original post as a bad faith reading exercise, but nobody was confused as to the charge laid. Nobody said, “Hey, what the hell is this whole bad faith reading thing anyway?” Nobody questioned in principle the validity of such the bad faith reading charge (qua charge) being laid at all—only counters that it shouldn’t have been leveled specifically in this case by Freddie.
Such a model would not be subjective in the Freddie sense nor yet objective in the Harris sense, but still universal (via intersubjectivity).
All of which lends support I believe to Habermas’ claims. The Habermasian view has the bonus (in my mind) of moving to a third moral discourse position that can include the best elements of Freddie’s view and Sam Harris’ view without the downsides I see associated with both or either of them.