The other week, I had a great chat with the new head of Zero Books, Doug Lain, and the podcast is now available for your listening amusement. You can find it over on the Zero Books blog, entitled Zero Squared #28: Imaginary Games.
In Part II: Allen Wood on Tolerance, Professor Allen W. Wood argued against my concept of ‘intolerant tolerance’. This final part explores the contemporary political situation in the United States, and asks what hope there might be for peace.
Chris: One clear difference between us is that, in resisting political injustice in the U.S., you are on a ‘war footing’ – and as I argue in this book, we need people to take such positions to defend against what is indefensible – especially in your nation at this perilous time. But as is well known, a warrior cannot make peace. I have my eye on a future peace, one perhaps beyond your horizons. We could not afford everyone to be on my path... evil must be resisted... but we cannot afford nobody to be on my path either.
Allen: ‘War’ is being used metaphorically here, I assume, and also hyperbolically. But let's be literal for a minute. When it comes to literal war, my position is not different from yours. And I want to be among those who are on the side of peace when it comes to literal wars. Of course I am not going to go out and murder Republicans (except in my fantasies). I want them defeated (decisively) in political terms. Unlike Obama, I do not want to compromise with them, or tolerate them, because I think their position on most issues, and their modes of political conduct (buying elections, gerrymandering, voter suppression) are intolerable – beyond what may justifiably be tolerated. So in that sense, I do not want to make peace with them. But we are talking here about politics, not violent slaughter. (The gun-carrying faction of their side wants to intimidate with weapons, but I do not.) To want to defeat someone politically, and not compromise (or that sense, make peace) with some people, is not wrong, if their views and actions are beyond what can be justifiably tolerated. But do not confuse this with war in the literal sense, or a refusal to behave peacefully, in the literal sense. I am, when it comes to literal violence, a pacifist. This dates from the Vietnam War, and even before it.
Chris: Just to clarify that I of course meant ‘war’ figuratively, politics-as-war, and I am in no doubt that you are a pacifist at heart. It is politics-as-war that I hope to find a way to move beyond... I am uncertain it is possible – perhaps, as Kant has it, it is “merely possible”. But such is my hope.
Allen: I dearly wish I lived in a country where the range of potent political options never exceeded the acceptable. I think it probably was this way for a long time in the US during the twentieth century. But it no longer is. The other side has claimed that we are now at a stage comparable to before the U.S. civil war. I think that is an exaggeration, but it is an exaggerated version of a truth, and what is more frightening, it is the way some of them definitely see it. Republicans will be the first to tell you that ‘peace’ (in your sense) is not possible. They are the ones who declare this not an option, and refuse to compromise or to accept the will of the majority, the interests of the majority, even the rights of the majority.
Chris: Indeed [the political options do exceed the acceptable in the contemporary US] – and its troubling that the situation seems to have become far worse in the last thirty years or so. I always think it disturbing that the citizens of the US were able to get outraged over Watergate, and now seem to take in their stride all manner of horrors perpetrated in their name...
Allen: I do not think that peace in your metaphorical sense is a realistic option when dealing with such a party. My honest conviction is that if the U.S. is to survive as a country worth living in, the Republican party in its present form must cease to exist as a potent political force. The party must either fundamentally change – go back to being something like what it was about mid-20th century – or it must lose its capacity seriously to affect our political life. But mid-century Republicanism (of Eisenhower, for instance) is as much an enemy of the present day Republican party as anything. At the time, Eisenhower was accused of being a communist by the direct ancestors of today's Republicans.
Chris: I do not believe ‘peace’ in my sense can be attained in the US by the current politicians – Democrat or Republican – it must begin elsewhere, at the grassroots, perhaps, anywhere but Capitol Hill where peace is perhaps already impossible under the current conditions of political practice. As I suggested before, it is not something I see attainable in the short term – but it must be something we see as at least possible in the future, certainly if the Kantian Realm of Ends is to remain “merely possible”.
Allen: There is no moral equivalence here. Democrats and Republicans are not equally to blame for the present metaphorical state of war. Indeed, regarding the point on which you are focusing (and without denying that there are many other things on which I’d be the first to criticize Democrats), I don’t think the Democrats are to blame at all for it.The mentality that now dominates the [Republican] party is one which for most of the 20th century (even as late as the Reagan era) was that of a tiny marginalized and fanatical minority that was out of touch with basic realities and believed whatever suited its ideology and its quest for power. ‘Peace’ (in your sense) with such a mentality is not possible on mutually acceptable terms, because the only terms acceptable to them would be their total domination and the total acceptance of their delusions, which would preclude dealing realistically with the world as it is, and preclude even recognizing the basic rights of the vast majority of society.
Chris: Something is required to restore politics to governance in the United States, but I do not think this is a problem solely for the Republicans. It disturbs me that Obama has felt it acceptable to pursue drone assassinations with fearful loss of live to innocents, or at the very least has been unwilling or unable to intercede against these attacks. Your nation has fallen far from its ideals – and this, we can agree, is a tragedy.
Allen: I criticize Obama too, for perpetuating the wartime policies of the previous administration. This is literal war, and it is not about the political conflicts within our system. On that subject, I fault Obama only for thinking naively that he can treat Republicans as if they were reasonable people and expect them to respond in kind. He began his presidency this way and learned the hard way the high cost of it. Even now, he has this tendency more than is desirable. Obama is himself a decent, reasonable man; this is not always optimal in a politician, though it is refreshingly rare among American presidents, which is why I have a hard time condemning him even where I disagree with his positions or actions.
Chris: It may be that Obama’s political hands are tied, but this only serves to emphasise the terrible problems in US politics at the moment. But I do not know if I can forgive him for letting the CIA rain death upon innocents... what can be done when the President cannot stop the institutions of his own nation from doing evil?
Allen: Regarding drones, deportations and other acts of the current administration that we on the left deplore, I think Obama is politically boxed in on these issues. Even as it is, Cheney and McCain accuse him of being "weak" in foreign affairs, and people still listen to that crap. The way the US is positioned in the world now, when you elect someone President you are essentially electing them to be Darth Vader (or whatever metaphor one wants). It’s not a question of forgiving or not forgiving a given individual. It is a question of what the world is going to do about an empire out of control that increasingly is being run by a party, which, even when it is supposedly out of power, is quite literally criminally insane. The insanity is even increased when the party is out of power, because then its members feel they are not responsible for what happens. They can force the government to do or not do certain things, or to continue policies and actions inherited from the previous Republican administration, and then the government (in this case, Obama) takes the blame. This dynamic explains a lot of what is going on in American politics right now.
The opening image is Red by Matthew James Anderson, which I found on his websiteAbstract Art Sydney. The artist suggests this painting “represents peace and innocence”. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.
In Part I: Against Chaos the conversation focussed upon Professor Allen W. Wood’s arguments against my association with liberal movements and chaos. In this second part, the discussion switches to tolerance, and the political implications of intolerance.
Allen: I resist your criticism of intolerant tolerance [in Chaos Ethics]. Tolerance is a virtue, but by its very nature, it must have limits. Tolerance is the willingness to permit what you regard as dubious or even wrong to go on unhindered. Clearly there have to be limits to this, and good judgment is required in deciding what may be tolerated and what not. One obvious limit is that practices that make tolerance itself impossible cannot be tolerated. Unlimited tolerance leads only to chaos, which is bad. Tolerance must be intolerant of some things or it is not only not a virtue, but it is nothing at all (it is even self-undermining).
Chris: Here I am indebted to Isabelle Stengers, and probably should not fight her corner. But her point, that I support, is that there is a risk with 'tolerance' that we have not fully appreciated, an ability to destroy the hope of equality by dismissing other people's practices for living as 'mere belief'. In doing so, we are saying 'we know better' and in so doing the conditions for the Realm of Ends are lost because autonomy is undermined. As a Kantian, even a heretical Kantian, that is too great a price to pay.
Allen: Tolerance implies disagreement. It is like forgiveness, which implies grounds for blame. If you think the other should not blame you, you will be insulted if you are forgiven. Analogously, if you think the other is required to agree with you, you will reject their tolerance. But I think we should take it for granted that people disagree, that what some do or think will not be accepted by others. And then tolerance is what we should hope for. To disagree is, in one sense, to put yourself above the other, since you must think you are right and they are wrong. But we have to accept that others will think this too about us, and (always within limits) that it is OK for them to think that. To be tolerant is to invite tolerance in return. Those who are offended because you are tolerant (and therefore think you are right and they are wrong) are already being intolerant. Unless your position here is intolerable, that puts them and not you in the wrong.
Chris: Yes, perhaps I wasn't clear that 'intolerant tolerance' is a specific risk – it is not necessarily inherent to tolerance, although whenever people relate to each other through toleration rather than mutual respect, the risk can manifest as a kind of bigotry.
Allen: I find it odd to contrast ‘mutual tolerance’ with ‘mutual respect,’ since I think tolerance is precisely the way you do show respect for those with whom you disagree. How else could you show respect for them except by tolerating them? I think the cases you are thinking about (where "tolerance" becomes problematic and begins to look objectionably intolerant) are those in which there is something important going on that is well beyond the question of disagreement and tolerance. If an economically, politically and militarily dominant colonial power is engaged in minority rule over a foreign population, with different beliefs and practices, it may describe its attitude toward them as 'tolerant'. But in such cases that may be a euphemism, distracting from the real issue. If the colonial power is imposing its way of life on the native majority, and says it "tolerates" it (but only at those points where its capacity to dominate has given out), then this is not an admirable or even an acceptable attitude. (I don’t think it is even a form of genuine tolerance, though it may feel like it from the self-deceptive standpoint of the dominators.) It masks the unjust domination that is really the basic fact about the situation.
Chris: This is an extremely salient perspective on the issue I am raising, although it applies not just in the colonial situation – it can happen anywhere that there is a power imbalance, which is to say, everywhere. The intersectionality critique within feminism is an example of coming to terms with what I am calling 'intolerant tolerance'; the gradual recognition that in fighting for 'women' the feminists have inadvertently been enforcing ideals of white, middle-class women in developed nations. The clearest and most disturbing sign of this for me was those feminists willing to support war in Iraq on the grounds that the military action would be 'liberating' Muslim women... To my knowledge, none of the politically active women's groups in Islamic nations asked for war – nor, it might be added, was it wise to think that liberty could flow effortlessly from the barrel of a gun.
Allen: I think before I can decide what you or Stengers object to is something I would defend, I would need to know which cases you are talking about in particular, and I would have to decide what I think about those specific cases. I think if our only choices are tolerating the abuse of women and invading (with the aim of dominating) other cultures, then so far we have been offered no acceptable alternative.
Chris: This is undoubtedly a wise response, and both Stengers and I have somewhat different targets, although we are working on similar ideals and our goal is little more than to invite a pause, a hesitation, a scruple, whenever we are tempted to place our values and culture above those of others whose actual values and experiences we know very little about beyond our own ragged assumptions. This is what she calls 'the curse of tolerance', which is very close to what I mark by 'intolerant tolerance': the risk that our toleration is actually masking an unrecognised attempt to have power over others, to pre-empt the discourse or respect necessary for equal partnership, because we are sure that 'we know' and others 'merely believe' (i.e. are mistaken).
Allen: I think the issue we are now discussing illustrates a point I tried to make earlier. It is always a mistake to turn your justified reaction to common rhetorical abuses of certain moral concepts or principles into a general objection to those concepts or principles. This is what I fear may be happening in the case of your objections to tolerance.
Chris: Although I may oversell this point in the first chapter [of Chaos Ethics] for dramatic effect, I am not arguing against being tolerant. I am only trying to warn that we are unable to fairly judge whether we are tolerant when the only people we speak to share identical values to us – and even more so when the only people we will accept as part of our world are those who share our values. That, in essence, is the risk.
This discussion continues in the final part: Against War. The opening image is The Canary Test: Levels of Tolerance by (and copyrighted to) Nicola Moss, and is used with permission. I found it on her website, Layers of Life.
Earlier this year, I exchanged emails with Professor Allen W. Wood after sending him a copy of the page proofs for Chaos Ethics which I described as “the least Kantian book of Kantian ethics thus far written”. To my surprise, Professor Wood got back to me with some interesting challenges to my ideas. This is the first of a three-part edited version of our exchanges.
Allen Wood: I haven't had time (nor will I) to read all of your provocative, lively, engaging, and erudite book. But I have looked at parts of it. I am pleased by the way it engages with Kant and Parfit, as well as my own work. I appreciate your quotation from Anscombe, with whose moral and political views I generally strongly disagree. But her quoted remark about consequentialism seems to me right on target.
[The 1958 quote referred to is as follows:
...the point of considering hypothetical situations, perhaps very improbable ones, seems to be to elicit from yourself or someone else a hypothetical decision to do something of a bad kind. I don't doubt this has the effect of predisposing people - who will never get into the situations for which they have made hypothetical choice - to consent to similar bad actions, or to praise and flatter those who do them, so long as their crowd does so too, when the desperate circumstances imagined don't hold at all.]
I have made a similar (analogous) point myself about something else (which may be related): I think that most instances in which people invoke the true proposition that moral principles have exceptions are cases in which they are trying to rationalize violating a moral principle in precisely a case where they should not be violating it. More generally, moral truths are more often used to justify wrongdoing that moral falsehoods, because if they are misapplied, they make good rationalizations for bad conduct. The most important truths are often the most easily abused. It is a common mistake made by non-philosophers in reading moral philosophy, especially the moral philosophy of the past, to react only to the rhetorical force that some assertion might have for us (for instance, the way it might be abused in some present-day political context) rather than considering what it actually means, and whether it is true. Thus to argue that some principle P is a bad or false principle because it has been used by Nazis, terrorists (or whoever your bugaboo happens to be) is in general a bad form of argument. This point might even be turned against Anscombe, if she were to use the common abuse of consequentialist reasoning as an argument that consequentialism is false.
Chris Bateman: There are definite problems here, and difficult ones to iron out! I learned a lot thinking about your "ends justify the means" argument [i.e. that all means are by definition justified by the ends they aim at], which is indisputably correct – and indeed, I had a go at refining this particular objection. My alternative "the goodness of ends cannot justify the immorality of means" seems to me an improvement (and obviously Kantian), but I feel it could be snappier!
Allen: I note that you even read my footnotes, to the extent of having caught me in one footnote from 1999 - a dismissive one about Lévinas – that I now regard as hasty, regrettable and based on insufficient engagement with his thought. It may be that further acquaintance would lead me back to the same dismissive conclusions, but I now think there is more to his views than I appreciated in 1999 and that I shouldn't have written what I did. My consolation over the years is that this was buried in a note in the back of the book, which few people would read. You have, at least to a degree, deprived me of that consolation. Some people will have the persistence to seek out my precipitous remarks, and even report them. I am at least glad that you do so in a way that makes me look moderate compared to Badiou, who himself is flatteringly presented in your book.
Chris: I always read footnotes – and yours are far more interesting than many philosophers! I have found a wealth of treasures hidden away in the back of your books... Although you may not appreciate this particularly ‘find’, I was glad of finding someone who would say aloud what many analytic philosophers think when facing Lévinas. I have to say, I dread to think what is going to be thrown back at me in the years to come! Perhaps it is best not to think about it...
Allen: I don't want to try to engage with all, or even very many, of the deliberately controversial things you thrust at us in this book. But I do want to dispute – as not only mistaken, but also too easy – the association of law with conservatism or the right and chaos with progressive politics or the left. I think we leftists have the correct take on law, seeing it as arising from reason rather than tradition, and capable of correction without relinquishing its authority.
Chris: I may need to stress that this association is more complex than a simple 'conservative = law' and 'liberal = chaos', since many aspects of the liberal political traditions (and especially in the U.S.) are deeply engaged with Law. Although this is how I introduce the concepts, the complexity of the concepts build slowly across the chapters so that it is only by the end that what I am gesturing at with 'Chaos' (and 'Law') is clear.
Allen: I am myself not in favour of chaos at all. I see chaos as simply the result of confusion and error. I do defend uncertainty and an awareness of our own fallibility. But that is not chaos. Conservatism can easily lead to chaos. Of course I may be taking the term ‘chaos,’ in your use of it, too literally. You are defending chaos in order to be provocative, and when someone does that, they usually have a more complex thought than the provocative word would normally suggest.
Chris: I am well aware that you have no truck with 'chaos' of any kind – but again, I think the concept of moral chaos I am defending is defensible, and actually inherent to virtue ethics. But key to my argument is that an excess of either Law or Chaos is always problematic, and one needs to be conditioned with the other.
Allen: 'Conservative' itself is a problematic term, especially in this period and in the U.S. One might associate it with a tendency to caution, taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions, believing according to the evidence, reluctance to embrace untried solutions too hastily, and wanting to preserve things as they are if they have proven to be the things that work best. But none of these traits characterize our self-described political 'conservatives' at present. Our self-described conservatives are really impetuous radicals, who substitute a simplistic dogmatic ideology for evidence and use it to rationalize any kind of corrupt or unwise scheme that seems to fit it.
The only things associated with the word that do characterize them is a stubborn tendency to defend unjust privileges and a bigoted and dogmatic defence of traditional superstitions. Conservatism in the present day U.S. sense leads directly to chaos, and this is not good. Conservatism leads to chaos when it confronts conditions under which traditional superstitions, entrenched privileges, and even excessive or misplaced caution or what you erroneously think of as responsible behaviour, result in "blowback" and conditions the conservative cannot have contemplated.
Chris: I believe I discuss the problems of 'conservative chaos' under the discussion of drone assassinations and recent unjust wars, in which I recognise a highly immoral chaos emerging from conservatively-motivated foreign policy... My goal is to recognise some forms of chaos as moral and some forms of law as immoral – not to give a free ride to either, and also to suggest that the Realm of Ends is unobtainable without this recognition.
This discussion continues in Part II: Tolerance next week. The opening image is Turmoil by Vitor, which I found at his site, The Fractal Forest. It is used with implicit permission of the author, who retains all rights to this image.
In Autumn 2012, I ran a two-part interview with moral philosopher and Kantian ethics expert Allen W. Wood. For more than forty years, Professor Wood has expanded people’s understanding of Kant’s ideals, and helped foster a lively community debating and sharing perspectives on Kantian ethics.
In August 2011, I ran a two-part interview with Catholic theologian John F. Haught. An active voice in attempting to reconcile theology and evolutionary theory, Haught has also worked to reform Christian attitudes towards ecology and the environment.
Last week I talked to Professor Allen Wood about Kant's Groundwork, the diversity of moral theories available today, and the common misunderstandings about Kantian ethics. This week, the discussion moves from discussion of realism towards issues of contemporary politics.
Chris: You were one of a number of philosophers who provided feedback to Derek Parfit on his monumental On What Matters – and your essay in the second volume of that great work was absolutely phenomenal! It is without a doubt my favourite moral philosophy paper of all time – it completely changed the way I thought about 'trolley problems' (or 'lifeboat problems'), and about the costs inherent in reducing moral issues to mathematics. But it seemed to me that Parfit didn't really wrestle with the challenges you raised there – was that a disappointment?
Allen: I am a great admirer of Parfit's book On What Matters, which deserves the praise it has been given, and does not deserve the criticisms some of its detractors have quite predictably levelled against it. But I admit I am more in agreement with his realist meta-ethical arguments in the second volume than of his attempts to construct a moral theory in the first volume. I can't speak for him, of course, and don't know why he chose not to respond to my criticism of the use of 'trolley problems' in present day moral philosophy. But I do think that his use of these kinds of examples is not really fundamental to his project, so I would be the last to reproach him for his choice to talk about other matters in his reply to me.
Chris: What I loved about your essay in Parfit's book was the way it tilts at something that is seductively appealing – accessible thought experiments – and demonstrates that to make the answers intuitive, we end up throwing away all the context that perhaps really ought to be our focus.
Allen: The currently fashionable model for doing moral theory – the model that attempts to formulate principles that capture our 'intuitions' or 'considered judgments' – was really invented by Sidgwick, and then brought into general use by Rawls. It is understandable that people have found it useful in moral argument between people who cannot agree on deep foundations and are also at odds on the urgent moral issues and decisions we face immediately in daily life and politics.
Chris: There's a sense of desperation sometimes in contemporary politics that despairs of agreement, and so will consider any route that might help attain to it.
Allen: Philosophers using these kinds of techniques look to opinions on which we think we can get general agreement, and try to use these to justify more basic principles that can then be applied to the urgent issues and decisions. The pragmatic utility of this procedure is obvious, but I think this too can be overestimated.
Chris: I confess I misread your essay as being more critical of Parfit than it now seems is the case.
Allen: My friend Philip Kitcher has written a very critical review of Parfit, arguing that a truly pragmatist approach – in the Deweyan tradition – would look quite different, and he cites my remarks about 'trolley problems' in support of his argument. My own view, different from both Parfit's and Kitcher's, is that we need to face the fact that ethics has and requires basic foundations, and cannot be honestly done in ways that avoid the (admittedly hopelessly problematic) questions these raise.
Chris: Even within one tradition, such as Kantian ethics, there are no easy answers; no shortcuts for agreement.
Allen: I admit my view does not leave us with any good prospects for immediate agreement on ethical questions. If we are honest, I think we have to admit that such prospects are bleak.
Chris: I'm perhaps more optimistic than you, in so much as I don't see agreement on foundational principles, or their implications, as either necessary or desirable – I get a little squeamish about realism being used as a big stick to beat people with. After Parfit's Reasons and Persons, there was talk about his moral theory being used to mandate a kind of paternalism – that kind of attitude terrifies me more than moral disagreements.
Allen: One of the basic objective values we Kantians believe in is the external freedom of persons – in particular their freedom from having other people decide for them what their good consists in and their right that nobody should try to dictate through coercion what they ought to believe. People should believe what evidence and argument indicates is true, according to their own free judgment. It would be patently absurd to suggest that these propositions about what is objectively right could 'mandate' paternalism or browbeating.
Chris: The Parfit of Reasons and Persons isn't yet a Kantian, however – he's much closer to utilitarianism at the time, which notoriously lacks the amicable restraint of Kant's philosophy. But either way, meta-ethical realism sometimes makes me nervous because of the possible risk of tipping over into dogmatism, conservatism, or paternalism. Can I take it you'd dismiss this as a misconception?
Allen: I guess so, at least if the realist's substantive views are exactly the opposite of all these '-isms'. I see it as a sad fact that people sometimes form their views about philosophical questions based not the merits of the arguments and evidence for them, but instead on how they think the rhetorical act of stating a view might sound. Is that your complaint about Parfit's meta-ethical realism – that (judged rhetorically) it sounds "paternalistic"? Or it sounds to you as if Parfit might want to beat somebody over the head with a stick?
Chris: It's rather that I read some papers responding to Parfit noting that possibility – even though Parfit clearly doesn't say anything that strong himself.
Allen: What sounds one way to one audience may sound exactly the opposite way to another, and no one should let their philosophical position be dictated by such considerations. Politicians often lie about their positions; they show one face to one audience and a different face to another. The press then congratulates them for their political skill. By contrast, a politician commits a political 'gaffe' when he blurts out the truth to the wrong audience. In politics, lying is rewarded and truthfulness is punished.
Chris: Spoken like a true realist!
Allen: I think most metaethical anti-realists would agree just as strongly, as long as they hold the attitudes that most philosophers do about truthfulness and deception. I think it is one of Jane Austen's characters who says of a candidate for public office that she pities him, because he has to try to make everyone like him. This is a good reason why we philosophers should also pity politicians – and should not imitate them!
Chris: Given the way Nietzsche's philosophy was abused by the Nazi party, you can understand a certain reserve about the possibility that one's philosophical views could be misused or misrepresented.
Allen: Of course this happens, but I think it is pointless to let your views themselves be dictated by such worries: because this can happen to any view – any view. I think most philosophical views that people have found credible have in fact been abused in this way at some time or other. Once you realize that no view is immune, you should recognize that it should not count against any view in particular that it can be so misused. It would be intellectual bankruptcy and moral cowardice not to state a philosophical truth because you are worried that certain people (sometime, somewhere) might twist or abuse it. If that terrifies you, then you could say nothing at all. What should be avoided are views that might lead to monstrous results without being abused or misinterpreted. I am afraid that may be true of some of Nietzsche's glorifications of cruelty and war and his advocacy of the domination of some individuals and groups over others. Even this, however, should not lead us to reject Nietzsche's ideas blindly where they are genuinely insightful and challenging.
Chris: Kant believed that 'moral law' was an objective fact – for all that individuals and societies might fail, in various ways, to attain to it. Parfit is another example of what I would call a Law Ethicist – he not only believes that there is (in principle) a correct answer to moral questions, but he is concerned that if this were not so, we would be doomed to fall into Nietzsche's nihilistic abyss. You, on the other hand, are much harder to read in this way. You appear to share many of Kant's views (while critiquing and updating many others), but I'm not entirely convinced you believe that there are, in principle, definite answers to moral questions. Is that a fair claim?
Allen: I agree with Parfit that there are objective truths about what matters, about good and evil, right and wrong. I reject the nihilistic position some find in Nietzsche, or the expressivist, emotivist and more generally anti-realist position you find other philosophers adopt nowadays, often on what they call 'naturalistic' (that is, empiricist-scientistic) grounds, but usually without Nietzsche's more honest insistence that this nihilism (a term such philosophers avoid like the plague) threatens to make human life quite unliveable.
Chris: Yes, I'm often shocked that some philosophers working today somehow take Nietzsche as having declared open season on nihilism, without noting how hard he worked to try and establish ways to avoid it. I've noticed that one of the advantages you suggest can be found in foundational principles for ethics, such as those Kant offers, is that they allow people with different viewpoints to frame their arguments cogently – is this an admission of the inevitability of moral diversity? Or simply an acceptance that we still have a long way to go?
Allen: It is certainly true – isn't it obvious and undeniable? – that the human species has a long way to go in finding a way to live with one another on this little planet. Our cultural traditions, based largely on religious superstitions of one sort or another, our political and economic traditions, based largely on the unjust domination of the vast majority by those in possession of wealth and the means of violence, are pretty clearly opposed to basic moral values, no matter how you approach these – if only you look at the matter with basic rationality and honesty.
Chris: I'm perhaps more forgiving than you when it comes to religion and cultural traditions, but I share your concern that we have an urgent need to do better.
Allen: The question is whether we will make any progress on these matters before the short-sighted and irrational behaviour of our species in relation to the natural environment has resulted either in our extinction or at least in a regression to a desperate stage of want and scarcity that it looked like we had overcome for good between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries.
Chris: But presumably you think moral philosophy can help avert the worst of the catastrophe we have become embroiled in?
Allen: I do think that basic ethical values, such as human flourishing and the dignity of human persons, have a role to play in helping people to think better about the terribly problematic situations that face us.
Chris: Why not take to the political stage yourself, like (say) Charles Taylor did in Canada? Philosophy and politics can (occasionally) mix!
Allen: If I had a talent for politics – which I don't – I would use it to struggle against the inhumanity and inequality in present day society, and against the utter barbarism that many in our political system favour based on greed, fear and religious superstition. The U.S. Republican party is not only a political engine of backwardness and oppression, but even a mortal threat to the long term survival of the human species. I think that last statement is not the least bit exaggerated.
Chris: I can definitely appreciate your concerns, although I'm afraid I don't really find the Democratic party in the US to be that much better, and I'm nervous about a politics of opposition – whereby people fight against things instead of finding things to fight for. Isn't that what moral philosophy can offer to politics? A clarification of what matters, what is worth fighting for?
Allen: It is a sadly common mistake to equate the two U.S. parties, simply on the ground that both parties are obviously far to the right of where we are. What I say about this is that the trouble with the Democrats is that you cannot trust them: on many issues, they take the right view, but on others they don't, and they are too willing to give in and compromise their principles. "They lack backbone," as it is sometimes put. But the trouble with the Republicans is that you can trust them: They hold the wrong view and the wrong policies – as wrong as it is possible to be – on every single issue, right down the line. And they are fanatical; they will not compromise.
Chris: The inability to compromise is the most shocking thing about U.S. Republican party politics to me – especially as this is often seen by their supporters as their strength!
Allen: They will settle for nothing except the complete tyranny of their party and their ideas over everyone else. (In this respect the American right is at present a kind of grotesque mirror image of early twentieth century Russian Bolshevism.) The very existence of a party with such extreme and such misguided views, and such irrational and uncompromising resoluteness, is a danger to the U.S., and – given U.S. economic and military power – to the rest of the world as well. In the face of such a world-historical danger, it seems to me rather obtuse to talk in abstract and high-minded terms about its being better to be 'for' rather than 'against' something.
Chris: I can understand the importance of resistance, but I meet too many politically active people in the US who worry me because I just cannot see what they could really believe they are fighting for. In your case, however, it's very clear what your positive values are – and why you feel the need to vehemently oppose the political right – precisely because you explicate an extremely coherent ethical system, with very distinguished roots.
Allen: Certainly, my own talents run more to helping us to understand some of the basic ethical values that we have inherited from philosophers such as Kant. We each must do what we are able, and not foolishly take on tasks – however important – for which we are unsuited.
Allen Wood's book Kantian Ethics is available from Amazon and all good booksellers.