Universal not Neo-Subjective Pragmatism


Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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26 Responses

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

      I agree with that one. Habermas sorta gets at that with his deploying of Piaget’s cognitive developmental scheme.Report

      • Avatar John Henry says:

        I can see the appeal of the Habermas, but I’m not sure, in the end, it really represents a third way. It seems more like a minor tweak to Freddie’s unusually candid embrace of subjectivity. Once you’ve acknowledged the customs/habits change, you’re still left with the questions of whether their is some sort of universal against which the customs and habits he describes may be judged (as all condemnations of earlier ages as cruel, violent, homo-phobic, and bloodthirsty rely upon), or not. Freddie says not; in the end, I think Habermas would say so too.Report

        • Avatar John Henry says:

          Also, I may have misunderstood the post, so if the above is based on a misreading, I welcome correction.Report

          • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

            For Habermas, the constraints are what he calls validity claims. For subjectivity it’s truthfulness, for objectivity truth, for social existence functional fit, and for intersubjectivity, (our case): justness.

            So we can evaluate between cultures as opposed to creating (as Harris does, here I agree with Freddie) science versus all the rest of the “primitive peoples” on earth.

            Versus also saying all cultures are islands unto themselves, and each can’t be judged and/or is equal (in whatever way that is meant) to all others.

            So cultures/values shift and evolve, but for Habermas they do so in non-arbitrary manners, in ways that allow us to make relative distinctions.

            As opposed to say a Deleuze, where they shift via the process of de-territorialization and re-territorialization in a rather chaotic fashion.

            It’s interesting I think that at the end of their respective lives, both Foucault and Derrida ended up in discourse with Habermas and basically aligning themselves socially and politically with his point of view. Or something very close to it anyway (and by extension Kant).Report

  1. Avatar Francis says:

    It’s really not that hard to figure out what people value; just look at what they do. The people who make up the Taliban, for example, value the subjugation of women more highly than the economic value that women who were not subjugated would offer.

    Now, personally, I think they’re a bunch of dark age theocrats badly in need of some Enlightenment. They probably think that I’m some kind of amoral libertine.

    The only way we get to decide who’s right is that my country can drop bombs on theirs all day long, and station USAID personnel on their soil, while they got lucky with a one-day suicide strike. So, should my (actually real) friend in USAID set up schools for the education of women, knowing that some of these women will get killed and that the mere existence of the school is an affront to many of the men?

    I dunno. For me, a group has no more rights than the rights of the most oppressed individual within that group. But that’s a very American approach. Just about every other country in the world values the rights of groups more highly. (See, eg, anti-free speech laws.) The Taliban just take that idea farther than most.

    So, if we’re serious about changing Afghanistan, it means staying for two generations — fifty years — and utterly exterminating the old way of life. Not only is that a huge commitment of American resources — in both blood and treasure — but it’s a major assertion that our might makes us moral.

    On the other hand, since we’re already there, how can we tolerate the utter destruction of human capital that their society mandates? Don’t we have some obligation towards the oppressed?Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    To discuss the issue, rather than the meta-issue, it seems to me that we *KNOW* that the “humanities-postmodern-humble skeptical but pragmatic opinion” is wrong… and Freddie seems to know that it’s wrong. I mean, yes. Using pure reason and objective subjectivity and whatnot, we know that we do not have standing to judge.

    But then we see, for example, any given political discussion. We *KNOW* it’s not just this subset of cultural norms ranked differently from how this other subset of cultural norms is ranked hammering it out and may the best meme win.

    Of course, sitting around a table we can reason ourselves above the fray… but when we get back out to “the real world” we understand that the people who oppose health care reform are being “selfish” (or that the people who support health care reform are being “selfish” in a different way).

    Now, perhaps, this is a lot like what it’s like to be a new Christian. Sure, we talk about love for Christ and all that but we walk past a, ahem, “bookstore” and find ourselves purchasing DVDs on sale… or we find ourselves accidentally on purpose forgetting to declare all of the barter income we had from the last year on our taxes… or we find ourselves at a stoning party of a lady caught in adultery (again). We *KNOW* the truth of Christ but find ourselves backsliding into sin over and over and over again… but it’s not exactly like that.

    Instead, we reason ourselves into an inability to judge 1938 Germany… but then find ourselves repulsed by wanton execution of children. We reason ourselves into an inability to judge Objectivism but cannot help but notice that they’re all guys, they’re all in a basement, and they’re all a little aspy.

    We get out into the real world and we *KNOW* that there is an underlying moral fabric. We know it.

    We can reason ourselves away from it but then we see the real world and we feel the fabric under our feet… this very fabric that we reasoned away back inside at the table. Once we get outside, we feel the Tao flowing around us.

    And, no, it’s not reasonable.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      This is very nice, Jay. Very nice indeed.Report

    • Avatar Freddie says:

      It is more than unreasonable; it is anti-reason, because it is nothing but argument by assertion. Jaybird says this, so it must be so. Which, come to think of it, is all you ever contribute around here.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        It’s not argument by assertion. It’s argument from experience. I have *FELT* this. Moreover, I deeply suspect that you have felt it too.

        When you get into an argument about, say, Health Care Reform, you know (YOU *KNOW*) that it is, really, a moral debate. It’s not merely a group of people with a handful of cultural norms talking past a group of people with a different handful of cultural norms, don’t you?

        You know that, at its heart, it is a debate about Ought.

        You can reason yourself away from it… but it comes back to Ought, doesn’t it? It always comes back to Ought.

        This is not anti-reason… it is exceptionally reasonable to take one’s experience of the universe into account and incorporate it into one’s theory of the universe’s metaphysic. If there is a Moral Fabric to the universe (hey, I could be wrong!), then it’s not a huge leap to get from “there is a Moral Fabric” to “we can, somehow, figure out the warp and weft”.

        Hell, I’ll even bust out an analogue of Pascal. If there is a Moral Fabric to the universe, we ought search for it and live in harmony/flow/follow its dictates. Indeed, if there is a Moral Fabric to the universe, it would be Immoral to *NOT*.

        I suspect that you know this too.

        Is it argument by assertion to say that I have felt something like the Moral Fabric? I would say that it depends very much on whether I have (and whether I was mistaken when I felt it, and how likely that was, and so on).

        But this doesn’t seem to me to be either “anti-reason” (I’d go with “extra-rational” if it weren’t so friggin’ pretentious) nor based on little more than assertion (assuming, of course, I felt what I felt).

        From what I’ve seen of your writings… I deeply suspect that you’ve felt the Moral Fabric too.

        Of course, I could be wrong.Report

    • Avatar Freddie says:

      Incidentally, on a simple, archeology of ideas level, the whole reason that these questions began in the first place is because so many people very much did not know what the authoritarians like yourself around them told them they knew. Very, very many people continue to know that homosexuality is evil, Jay. They know it. They know it as deeply and as certainly as you know that infant murder is wrong. It flows from the nature of the universe. It comes from above. They connect with the Tao and it tells them “kill the fags.” They know it so deeply that they will commit the greatest intellectual violence there is, which is that they will insist to others that not only are they right, that no one can actually oppose them.

      That is precisely the totalitarianism of ideas I was talking about originally, Jay. And that’s you– self-styled libertarian, intellectual fascist. Enjoy, dude. I read your comments and I wonder, will you ever fall out of love with yourself? With your own certitude? I doubt it; that’s the problem with men of perfect vision. They have no self-critical process.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        See? This is *EXACTLY* what I’m talking about!

        Feel the warp! Feel the weft! You can grasp it! It’s right there! Do you see?Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Freddie, for someone who complained that he was not being read charitably, you certainly read Jaybird uncharitably.

        Freddie, the problem is that you switch (somewhat arbitrarily it seems) between in my humble opinion type of statements and it is objectively the case type statements without explicitly doing so.

        Lets assume that you are always speaking in a subjectivist framework and rephrase what you are saying such that your subjectivity is more explicit.

        I think/believe that very many people continue to know that homosexuality is evil… I think that this drives them to commit what I believe to be the greatest intellectual violence there is, which is that they will insist to others that not only are they right, that no one can actually oppose them…”

        At best all your commitment to subjectivity says is that you don’t like the connections that you make in your head to objective truth claims. You’ve lost any ability to make serious criticism of Jaybird’s claims. But in so far as you are criticising Jaybird, then you are implicitly saying that there is something he is doing that he ought not to be doing. Now, you could say that you are not really criticising Jaybird, but that opens you up to 2 criticisms

        1. You write as though you are criticising jaybird, and pretty much everybody else who reads what you have written would take it to be a criticism of Jaybird. In other words, for a long time blogger, you are extremely poor at communicating your ideas. You’re trying to make subjective statements using objective type language.

        One of the biggest reasons why this is irritating is because while you are sufficiently scrupulous to never outright say that intellectual violence is objectively wrong or bad and therefore ought to be avoided, that seems to be the obvious implication if we give what you say an objective truth-like reading. (A subjectivist reading of what you hav said borders on incomprehensibility wrt what point you are actually making other than I dont like what you have said. You cannot even claim that you disagree, as in order to disagree, you are making the meta claim that your claim has kind of truth value to it) It really seems that you are setting us up to make such a reading

        2. Given that you are only putting your ideas out there without making any kind of truth claims (except about the contents of your mind), is it any wonder that you are accused of a lack of intellectual seriousness?

        Some clarification regarding intellectual violence:

        Are you saying that claims to objective truth lead to violence against people who disagree?

        Or are you saying that claims to objective truth are oppressive akin to physical violence against people?

        Both are highly questionable claims, the latter even more so than the former, and it is not clear whether you intend either meaning or both. These views also need to be defended, and not merely asserted. You accuse everyone of merely making assertions, but you dont seem to be doing any better yourself.Report

  3. Avatar Mchael Drew says:

    I thought this ongoing disussion was about scientific truth. Turns out it was about moral realism the whole time? As Ted said: “Whoa.”Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

      insofar as Harris is arguing for a science of values/morality it was.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Yeah wow, missed that entirely. That puts everything Freddie’s written since in a completely different light for me. Screw a science of morality, except just insofar as science describes “morality” as enacted/performed in nature.Report

        • Avatar Murali says:

          screw a science of morality, but for different reasons than freddie makes. As I’ve said before, Morality is like maths. What makes rape wrong or 2+2=4 is independent of whether or not there actually is anything out there to add, or anyone out there to rape. The problem of universals of course is what type of thing it may be. But the standard empiricist solution which Harris un-reflectively endorses is false. As per Hume you cannot get an ought from an is. It of course doesnt follow that some some foundational oughts are more reasonable than others.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            I leave it to observers of this conversation to determine whether morality is as abstract and determinate as “maths.” Somehow I think the answers will be more diverse than those to the question of what 2 and 2 put together make.Report

  4. Avatar Philip says:


    You have no reason (save self-gratification) to believe that your vision is an accurate representation of reality. You have even less reason to believe in your vision’s universality. The “argument” you advance is all assumption and projection, with blithe disregard for the variety of human experience and the limits of your own cognition.

    Ironically, the strangeness of your self-absorbed and self-centered absolutism validates my skepticism by emphasizing the staggering diversity of interpretation.

    I like to imagine truth as radically unsettled; a subject of curiosity rather than an object of worship and deference; a process instead of a position.

    If you can’t swallow that, consider this somewhat more existentially-confident take: Truth is merely a condition of shared coherence; what happens when the mind’s eye beholds a pattern in the dense, endless rain of data and sensation, and perceives — to its wonderment — that other brains have apprehended a similar picture. The more communal fantasies tend to endure, as do those which can be “validated” by a self-fulfilling, self-satisfying, self-contained system, such as science.


    • Avatar Jaybird says:


      I have no reason (save self-gratification) to believe that my vision is an accurate representation of reality. Sure.

      But I don’t even have self-gratification as a reason to believe anyone else’s if they do not line up with my vision, my experience.

      Hell, I’m not even saying “there is a God, he’s like this, great teeth, and he has all these sorts of rules for people like you, and, by the by, he told me that I’m A-Ok.”

      I’m saying that there is a moral fabric.

      Hell, maybe I’m wrong. If I’m wrong, no big deal. At least I had fun deluding myself whilst denying myself all sorts of sensory pleasures.

      If there *IS* a moral fabric (have you felt it? The extra-rationalness of it?), Oughtn’t we explore it? Try to figure out what we Ought do?

      “I like to imagine truth as radically unsettled; a subject of curiosity rather than an object of worship and deference; a process instead of a position.”

      Oh, fine. I’ll post my essay again.


      *THAT* is what I suspect the moral framework is *really* like. But I’m not debating whether it’s *really* like that at this point. I’m merely debating that, jeez, it *FEELS* like something (ANYTHING!) is there!

      Have you felt it?Report

  5. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Wow, people are spectacularly missing Jaybird’s point in this thread (unless I am). He isn’t saying what people “know” when they experience outrage in the world is the final word on true morality. He’s just saying that experience, that sensation — not reason — is the real grounding of how people truly deploy morality in their lives. And he’s not saying that makes it inviolate; rather he fully realizes (if I may be so bold) how culturally and even individually contingent that sense is in everyone — depending on the way experience and constitution have interacted to form any given individual — and as such is something that, while real, we should be duly skeptical of any ‘rightness’ or universal claims we might make on its behalf. But beyond that he is perhaps even more skeptical about any “rational” or “objective” attempt to come at morality via reason, as it doesn’t account for the real, on-the-ground experience of oral intuition. For those coming at him from an anti-universalist position, you’ve radically misread him: he’s got you dramatically outflanked to that side.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      @Michael Drew, Thinking now I am the one who is mistaken.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      @Michael Drew,

      “we should be duly skeptical of any ‘rightness’ or universal claims we might make on its behalf.”

      Oh, I totally agree with that. 100%.

      “But beyond that he is perhaps even more skeptical about any “rational” or “objective” attempt to come at morality via reason, as it doesn’t account for the real, on-the-ground experience of oral intuition.”

      I agree with that even more than 100%.Report