Our ultimate moral duty

Photo by Tu Trinh on Unsplash

This essay was inspired by the following Twitter exchange:

As far as I know, Rorty only explicitly dealt with the tension (priority) between our moral duties in two essays (please let me know if there are others).

I think that it is worth subjecting oneself to such accusations to insist on this point. “Representationalist totalitarianism,” and attempts to claim “that some vocabularies possess a special sort of cognitive authority stemming from ontology alone” (p. 180)) are bolstered by the idea that pain is our best example of contact with reality. This idea, in turn, is supported by saying, correctly, that our most pressing moral duty is to relieve the social and economic deprivation which fills so many human lives with unnecessary pain. But if asked why that is our duty, I think the best answer is that we want everybody to be able to lead a specifically human life: a life in which there is a chance to compose one’s own variations on old themes, to put one’s own twist on old words, to change a vocabulary by using it. Brave New World — still the best introduction to political philosophy — shows us what sort of human future would be produced by a naturalism untempered by historicist Romance, and by a politics aimed merely at alleviating mammalian pain.
‘Rorty’s Response’ to ‘Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesizing Naturalism and Historicism’ in Rorty and His Critics

Here, Rorty characterizes our duty to relieve the suffering and deprivation of others as our most pressing. However, he also characterizes such a duty as instrumental; not an ultimate duty.

In Contingency I was, yet again, trying to fuse two lines of thought, and two sets of books, that I found equally appealing. One was the idea common to Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde, that aesthetic enhancement is the aim of human life. The other was the belief, common to Kant Mill Rawls and Dewey, that our responsibility for other people comes first. It seems to me that Wilde’s dictum “Socialism is for the sake of individualism” does a lot to resolve the tension between these two claims.

Yes, our first duty is to others, but we also have duties to ourselves. If we did not, if we were not the sort of beings who are capable of self-creation, we would not be worth caring about. We would be, like the inhabitants of Huxley’s Brave New World, less than human. It is not because we are rational agents that we should strive to create a democratic utopia. The Alphas and Betas whom Huxley describes, like the bourgeois conformists satirized by Sinclair Lewis and anathematized by Horkheimer and Adorno, reason perfectly well. Rather, we humans are worth caring about because we all have, given sufficient security, wealth, education and leisure, the capacity to be the artists of our own lives. The point of creating just social institutions is to make possible a world in which everybody gets to fulfill both sets of duties-gets a chance to be both rational and imaginative.
Intellectual Autobiography

Here, Rorty describes our duty to others as our first duty. But again, he emphasizes that such a duty is instrumental. And this time he describes our exercising our capacity for imaginative self-creation, our fruitfulness, as a duty to ourselves.

Clearly, adjectives matter here in a profound but subtle way. I’m convinced that Rorty consciously avoided describing our duty to others as our highest or most fundamental or ultimate duty. He very carefully chose the adjectives first and most pressing. This enables him to valorize such a duty while still describing it as instrumental. Reducing the suffering and deprivation of others is not an end in itself. Perpetual fruitfulness is.

Others may read Rorty’s use of these adjectives differently, and I’d love to see various takes on this from others. But reviewing this tension yet again has finally made me realize that my deepest inspiration for the moral value of fruitfulness isn’t Rorty — it’s Robert Brandom.

So to put the first Rorty quote (which is from his response to Brandom) in context, allow me to quote at length what Rorty was responding to:

I am inclined to extract more specific political claims from this observation by following the model of Kant and Habermas. Doing that is thinking of our moral value — in terms of which the purpose and limitations of political institutions and activities are to be understood — as deriving from our nature as essentially discursive creatures: vocabulary-mongers. What matters about us morally, and so ultimately, politically is not ultimately to be understood in terms of goals available from the inevitably reductive perspective of the naturalist: paradigmatically the avoidance of mammalian pain. It is the capacity each of us discursive creatures has to say things that no-one else has ever said, things furthermore that would never have been said if we did not say them. It is our capacity to transform the vocabularies in which we live and move and have our being, and so to create new ways of being (for creatures like us). Our moral worth is our dignity as potential contributors to the Conversation. This is what our political institutions have a duty to recognize, secure, and promote. Seen from this point of view, it is a contingent fact about us that physiological agony is such a distraction from sprightly repartee and the production of fruitful novel utterances. But it is a fact, nonetheless. And for that reason pain, and like it various sorts of social and economic deprivation, have a second-hand, but nonetheless genuine, moral significance. And from that moral significance these phenomena inherit political significance. Pragmatist political theory has a place for the concerns of the naturalist, which appear as minimal necessary conditions of access to the Conversation. Intrinsically they have no more moral significance than does the oxygen in the atmosphere, without which, as a similar matter of contingent fact, we also cannot carry on a discussion. What is distinctive of the contemporary phase of pragmatism that Rorty has ushered in, however, is its historicist appreciation of the significance of the special social practices whose purpose it is to create new purposes: linguistic practices, what Rorty calls ‘vocabularies.’ There is no reason that the vocabulary in which we conduct our public political debates and determine the purposes toward which our public political institutions are turned should not incorporate the aspiration to nurture and promote its citizens’ vocabulary-transforming private exercises of their vocabularies. The vocabulary vocabulary brings into view the possibility that our overarching public purpose should be to ensure that a hundred private flowers blossom, and a hundred novel schools of thought contend.
‘Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesizing Naturalism and Historicism’ in Rorty and His Critics

When I read this passage I shudder with awe. (I urge those who feel likewise to read the full essay. It is brimming with inspiration.) Brandom is unequivocal in his resolution of the tension between our two duties. Our highest moral worth is our fruitfulness and our moral duty to reduce the suffering and deprivation of others is second-hand because such suffering interferes with joining the fruitful conversation of humanity.

Others may recoil in horror at such a passage. Rorty says as much in the paragraph just before the one I quoted at the beginning of this essay:

In such passages as this, Brandom leaves himself open to the same accusations of pseudo-aristocratic condescension and ivory-tower aestheticism as are frequently leveled at me. He courts them when he sympathizes with my suggestion that “our overarching public purpose should be to ensure that a hundred private flowers blossom” . He courts them again when he goes on to say that “pain, and like it various sorts of social and economic deprivation, have a second-hand, but nonetheless genuine, moral significance”.

Such a different reactions are to be expected. Brandom quotes Rorty:

The demands of self-creation and human solidarity [are] equally valid, yet forever incommensurable.

This is what Rorty wrestled with his entire life — Trotsky and wild orchids — the incommensurable demands of public and private moral duties. Like Brandom and Rorty, while I feel a deep and genuine public duty, my reason for being is my private duty to fruifulness. And I deeply respect those who tilt the balance in the other direction.

Photo by G T on Unsplash




I am an Ironist currently exploring new career paths.

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Nick Gall

Nick Gall

I am an Ironist currently exploring new career paths.

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