Sunday, 5 September 2010

Pascal on extreme virtues - versus Rorty

"I do not admire the excess of a virtue like courage unless I see at the same time an excess of the opposite virtue, as in Epaminondas, who possessed extreme courage and extreme kindness.

"Otherwise it is not rising to the heights but falling down.

We show greatness, not by being at one extreme, but by touching both at once and occupying all the space in between."

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Pensees. Number 681 - Penguin Classics translated A.J Krailsheimer, 1966.


Comment, it used to be common sense that any individual virtue in excess or unbalanced would lead to vice. Somehow this universal perception has been lost in the context of secular leftism.

Richard Rorty (1931-2007) is representative of contemporary liberalism in trying to build an ethic around a single primary virtue - i.e. the virtue of kindness, empathy, minimization of suffering, elimination of humiliation.

When I used to read Rorty I would read this stuff, and it seemed very obviously wrong, obviously incoherent.

But Rorty was obviously clever, people took Rorty seriously, people took this ethic seriously (and implicitly based modern public policy upon it) - so I assumed I must be missing something important and that Rorty couldn't be just plain wrong, he couldn't really be spouting utter nonsense.

But he was - he really was...


P.S. I actually exchanged a couple of e-mails with Rorty, who regarded himself as a great democrat. I put it to Rorty that a belief in democracy entailed regarding a democratic decision as superior to a decision by an expert such as himself.

I observed that the fact that US democracy would elect a Republican president as often (or more often) than a 'liberal' president, must mean (because 'democracy-knows-best') that an alternation between right and left must be better than having a Democrat elected all of the time.

But Rorty would not accept this line of reasoning, he found it hard to believe that there could be any value in a right wing administration. And that therefore democracy was making a mistake whenever it elected a right wing administration.

It seemed to me very obvious that Rorty was not actually a democrat at all - since he regarded his own judgment as superior to that of the democratic process.

Now, I am not a democrat either, nowadays - but even in those days when I was a doctrinaire democrat, I found it remarkable that Rorty could not perceive this very obvious contradiction in his own thought.


  1. I'm no democrat, but I don't think Rorty's position is necessarily self-contradictory. You can acknowledge that democracy very often makes mistakes, but if the mistakes it makes are fewer and less severe than the mistakes which other political systems would tend to make, it would still be reasonable to be a democrat.

    Rorty considered his own judgment to be superior to that of the democratic process (who doesn't?), but "Do whatever Richard Rorty thinks is best" is not a coherent system of government which could be put forward as an alternative to democracy. We could have made Rorty a dictator -- but when he died, who would take his place? How would that be decided? Would we have hereditary succession or vote or what?

    That one particular person could make better choices than the democratic process is not an argument against democracy. The question is whether there is some other political system, such as hereditary monarchy, which would tend to govern better than a democracy.

  2. @wmjas - Your argument seems coherent, and explains how in principle it would be possible to be pro-democracy while believing that democracy 'gets it wrong' every time.

    But it seems an absurd, un-refutable position to hold! On the one hand - no matter how bad the results of democracy, no matter how catastrophic it seems to one's personal judgment and knowledge, then these observations make no difference to anything.

    On the other hand, one will never learn anything from the democractic process - no specific democratic decision, not even any sequence of decisions over time, would make any difference to one's own convictions.

    This is such a feeble doctrine it is hard to know good reasons why 'democracy' would have such a positive connotation, why it would be an inmportant part of someone's self definition.

    But there is a strong bad reason why democracy of this type might be important, and that is to disguise elitism as 'the will of the people'. Disguise elitism to oneself, I mean.

    So that rigged elections (and all elections are rigged - to some variable extent) serve a mystical, psychotherapeutic purpose of self-validation.

    It is a remarkable *psychological* fact that the professional election-riggers and vote-buyers in modern politics all profess to be zealous democrats.

    Cynically, I suppose this simply means that people support the system which gives them such power and prestige; but these manipulators of democracy also seem to feel that they are themselves instruments of the Zeitgeist.

  3. It appears that you start with the premise that to believe in democracy entails believing that the people know best, which then leads you to wonder why believers in democracy neither (a) notice the obvious fact that the people do not know best nor (b) modify their own opinions so as to bring them in line with the supposed wisdom of Wocky-Bocky.

    But the premise is mistaken. A belief in democracy does not entail "regarding a democratic decision as superior to a decision by an expert." One concludes that democracy is the best system, not by comparing the wisdom of Wocky-Bocky with that of various individuals and finding Wocky-Bocky the wisest, but by comparing the democratic algorithm with other algorithms by which public decisions might be made and finding it the best of the lot.

    In the same way, a royalist need not believe that the King just happens to be the wisest person in the country; only that the monarchical system tends to yield better results than other systems. If one can, without contradiction, think oneself wiser than the King and yet support the King's right to rule, then one can have the same attitude with regard to the democratic process.

  4. @wmjas - I think you are pushing this too far. I see your point about systems, and do not disagree with this framing - but democracy *does* entail some level of belief that the decision making process (mass voting) is more valid - overall and in the long term - than alternatives.

    For example, democracy is essentially about replacing government; and democracy therefore implicitly entails an assumption that that it is better (overall and in the long term) to replace a king by democratic/ mass-voting mechanisms than by having him name a successor, or having a council nominate a successor, or having a successor chosen by God (the Byzantine method), by lineal succession or whatever...

    My feeling is that the legitimacy of democracy has gathered strength (as has bureaucracy) as policy has become one-sidedly obsessed with preventing the corrupting effect of power - driven by egalitarian motivations.

    So democracy has no need to perform even as well as random decision-making (and it probably does not do so), because its purpose is simply to prevent the emergence of authoritarianism of individuals.