Hermits Rock

Go to content Go to navigation

It occurred to me a few minutes ago that my assertion of a moral Iraq policy is quaint. Moral policy is not realpolitik. It may not yield pragmatic action. It’s not even necessarily reasonable, nor is it always self-interested. (Any of those things create a world where hawks can declare in a breath that trading Saddam Hussein for Augusto Pinochet might be a smashing good idea.) Morality acts outside of power, either to support or to undermine it. But it is policy’s goal to gain or maintain power. Although power can be gained with moral action, moral action has little to do with the acquisition and maintenance of power. Morality acts from outside a system, but policy is the system. “Moral policy,” in other words, is an oxymoron. It runs counter to the aims of the American state because it may ask the American nation to admit guilt, or vice versa. But because I do believe such thing as national character exists and that nations can and should act ethically, facing each other in equality, I believe moral policy is necessary to ensure that ethical action takes place.

(I’d be content with policy that was merely ethical, since to my mind, moral policy and ethical policy result in the same thing. I realize that I’m being philosophically trite and idiosyncratic, but the way I tend to think—that is, when I am caught up in the everyday—names ethics as the system of just actions between two actors and morals as those things—urges, duties, expectations, whatever—that compel actors to ethical actions.)



There has been, of late, a “return to ethics.” If you look at the calls for papers these days it seems like half of them want to address ethics, boundaries, etc. The past 50 years, however, have problematized any foundation for ethics. Kant gets laughed out of the room with his categorical imperatives. So how (just curious) does one issue a general call to ethics when there is no collectively assumed foundation from which to do this?

Off the top of my head, you explore other modes? I mean, postcolonial discussions have sought for a long time to explore the ethical relations between nations and states. It’s one reason for a renewed interest in cosmopolitan political theory (cf. Appiah). Plus, post-Holocaust ethics are still influential, too. Quite a few people are still making efforts to practice what Levinas and others taught.

Moreover, I suspect the current situation of international terrorism battling America’s neo-imperial actions has caused a lot of people to question the efficacy those ethical systems.

But, I’m neither a philosopher nor an ethicist, and I’ve never been one to bury myself in any one subject, so take my superficial surveys for what they’re worth.

Kant has been laughed out of the room for a hell of a lot longer than 50 years now.

I was trying to say that delicately, JH.

Indeed, postcolonial discussions of ethics have been fruitful in mapping ethical forms of individual and collective engagmenent. Gayatri Spivak (though I’m no great fan of those impossible to read sentences) describes ethics as “the experience of the impossible” suggesting that ethics are the very attempt to live out the moral desires that you describe HG.

For my money, I’m going to stick with a good liberal humanist like Edward Said because I think that respect for others in human relationships, while not an absolute moral foundation, provides us with a good starting point for trying to be ‘good’ people.

And I don’t think that that is too much to ask from a nation-state either.

Woo hoo! I am philosophically consistent!

Don’t get too excited HG. Anyone who has spent as much time in 19th cent. America as you have should know that hobgoblin “consistency” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

That’s why we need ethics, after all.


Anyway, I do recognize that my own estimation of what should happen is likely exactly opposite what will: Not only increased meddling, but also more of the same “blame the Iraqis if things go badly” (which would not be bad in and of itself if we blamed the Iraqis and got out of their country, but instead we blame them and then stick around with our tanks and guns and meddling idiots in that medieval fortress known as the “green zone”). It looks like the President favors John McCain’s “escalate to win” “strategy.”

I, unfortunately, have buried myself in the subject of philosophy of late. I know how hot postcolonialism is right now, but for some reason I haven’t taken a shine to it (yet). Educate me on the subject. Aren’t imperialism and the Holocaust just symptoms of the problem? They point toward a need for ethics, but I don’t see them establishing a foundation for them. I need to read Levinas so that I don’t sound so naive, but maybe one of you can enlighten me.

Because it sounds as if you’re substituting “colonialism” and “Holocaust” for things that came after, in response to them, will you explain what you mean by “foundation”?

Anyway, I don’t know Levinas well, either, so you’ll have to do some reading on your own.

What I’m saying is that for the West ethics have traditionally been anchored in metanarratives and appeals to higher powers. You yourself say something to the effect that morals (a term anchored in universality) are the urges to behave ethically.

All universals and metanarratives were problematized over the last century, undermining the foundation for morals and ethics. The Wars happen, imperialism happens, terrorism happens, and everybody’s busy reacting to them now calling for a return to ethics.

What I’m trying to say is that we can shout all day long for someone to bring back ethics, but we’ve undermined any foundation for them.

In my opinion, you can’t bring back ethics until you concede two things philosophically:

1) There is a universal, ontological foundation that everyone shares.

2) Progress can be made toward knowing more about that ontology.

Once these have been conceded, you can talk in terms of how to move in the direction of knowledge more efficiently (ethics).


I think you misunderstand the political theories you’re naming as if they’re merely reactions to events. First, it’s not merely. There will never be anything but reactions to events. Locate your theory in the purest logic, and it will become swallowed by time or by events, passed by anyway, and if you’re lucky, it will be picked up again some other day. Thinkers have always been returning to roots—such is the story of Nehemiah, for example—and they participate in ethics and/or morals quite without needing “metanarratives” to bury their selves in.

Second, the things you dismiss are grounded deeper than you allow. Cosmoplitanism comes not only from the greeks, but from Kant as well. It has been bandied about and debated and thrown away and adopted for centuries. Postcolonialism too finds roots in Western thought: made as it is in opposition to metropolis, it still is informed by metropolis because that’s the nature of colony.

Third, you read too much into my own definition of morals, which is slipshod and rather wiggly. “Urges, duties, expectations, whatever” don’t necessarily appeal to something higher—they appeal to something parallel.

Finally, you’re making much more of ethics than I am. I called ethics a system above, but you’re more nearly thinking of them as as a system than I am. I treat them as action. As such, they’re constrained to the semantic world. Which is good. It means that they can be appealed to regardless of attempts to place the cart before the horse—or vice versa.

Does that make you a pragmatist HG?

The term ‘foundation’ is, of course, fraught with its own perils. There are a good number of thinkers working toward universalism and/or ethics(for example, some pragmatists and cosmopolitan like Appiah — who I think may be a closet pragmatist) rather than treating universalism as a pre-existing foundation for all moral and ethical action.

Yes, a pragmatist’s glove would probably fit my hand fairly well.

The tone of our exchange is more polemic than I’d like it to be. I’ve already admitted that I haven’t dived into Postcolonialism and that I’m naive. There’s no need to spend so much energy proving this. I was just trying to start a conversation, and I succeeded, but I’ve become the token “guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about” instead of “guy who brought up something slightly irrelevant but fun to talk about nonetheless.” No need to be so defensive — I’m not threatening anybody here.

On the contrary, I’m certain you know more what you’re saying than I—I’ve been reading your blog today and can tell. But polemic—really?

BT, I don’t know that you’ve become a punching bag on this. My apologies if it appears that I made you one in my comments.

I think HG brought in postcolonialism because he and I have been discussing it some. I do study postcolonialism and some philosophy in general (technically what literary folks call ‘critical theory’), and it seems to me that your claims about the necessity of an ontological foundation are ones that many people have been working against for some time. For that reason, it’s not safe to assume that such a foundation is necessary. I know I don’t think that’s the case. Is it not possible to have ethical action and moral desires that are not identifiably universal?

Maybe I’m being overly sensitive (I have a history of misreading things), but your earlier post sure reads like 4 reasons why I’ve “misunderstood,” “dismissed,” “read too much into,” or “made much more of” various things.

I shouldn’t come into another man’s home, however, and tell him how to write — I’m being unethical :)

For what it’s worth though, I enjoy your blog and will continue to make silly comments.

Well, you did say that contemporary ethics are reactionary and (in so many words) nigh impossible because “we’ve undermined any foundation for them.”

That sounds like dismissal to me. :)


Sorry you had to tiptoe around my feelings.

The Critical Realists (Bhaskar, etc) are arguing that just because all things need to be provisional does not mean that there can’t be the assumption that quite independent of anyone’s subjective point of view there exists an objective reality that we can come to know better.

I think a mistake is made when, in the enterprise to make sure that no one has a privileged corner on reality, we go a step too far and say there is no such thing as reality.

Reality exists though we perceive it subjectively. If we can collectively progress toward “knowing” more about that reality, then this becomes a framework to argue for ethics as that which makes this progress more efficient.

On the individual level, I’m very interested in some of the recent work by Marc Hauser on the idea of innate morality.

I’ve never studied ethics formally, but I wonder who, if anyone, argues that the behaviour of nation states should derive from personal morality.

The more I think about it, the more I realize the phrase “moral policy” is meaningless.