Political morality reconsidered: a rejoinder.

Author:Ryn, Claes G.
Position::A Symposium: Morality Reconsidered

When preparing my remarks for the annual meeting of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters in 2014, it did not occur to me that they might become the basis for a symposium on morality and politics. Although I took the opportunity to make philosophical points and expected them to spark discussion, I was carrying out a tricky dual assignment and did not structure my remarks solely with a view to arguing for a reform in moral philosophy. It was after the speech that others suggested a symposium on the issues that I had raised. I assented to the idea with the mentioned reservations and revised and expanded my manuscript for the new purpose. As I did not play any role in organizing the symposium, the size and philosophical range of the comments on my text took me by surprise. I am flattered that my remarks should have generated such extensive and elaborate discussion but also feel more acutely than before that what I argue in the article is but the tip of a philosophical iceberg. To respond adequately I will need to relate my argument to other writings of mine and make points that I could not go into in my original remarks.

Because the three commentaries are quite different in philosophical emphasis, I will need to deal with them separately for the most part, but whenever possible I will try to frame responses so that they address the concerns of more than one commentator. I should mention that the order in which I take up particular issues is not my way of ranking their importance.

Let me begin by trying to clear away what appear to me to be plain misunderstandings or misrepresentations of my article and /or general philosophical stance, most of which are found in one of the commentaries.

What I Do Not Believe

It is common for academic writers who have been criticized to complain that their views have been misunderstood or distorted. Who is not familiar with the sentiment, "He didn't read what I wrote!" Sad to say, such complaints are all too often well-founded. Scholars are, it seems, about as prone to incomprehension, carelessness, willfulness, and irritability as human beings at large. Instead of attentively reading and trying to understand what a person wrote, scholars sometimes pass judgment on a mere caricature of work under review or even substitute for it something more serviceable to propounding ideas of their own. To a puzzling extent Professor Kenneth McIntyre's commentary on my article falls in that category. It occurred to me to note as much in this rejoinder and to spend more time on the other comments, but I do not want to appear to be avoiding a troublesome critic, and so I will patiently respond. I will do so partly because it will afford me an opportunity to elaborate on my earlier arguments and set them in a wider philosophical context, which can be done in ways relevant also to the other commentaries.

I am not sure how to explain McIntyre's misrepresentations and distortions, most of which are flatly and repeatedly contradicted by my text. A part of the problem may be his being simply unprepared for a philosophical position like mine. It is as if he were wearing glasses that concealed from view all but snippets of text that he might use to bring up his own ideas. But how to explain his carelessness and his disregarding sections of my article that fly in the face of his depiction of my thinking? He attributes to me ideas that I prominently, explicitly, and emphatically reject--in the very article on which he is commenting.

I should have thought that it would be obvious how I respond to the question, "How desperate should we be?" I respond at considerable length and unambiguously: We should not be desperate at all. If we are desperate or prone to desperation, I argue, something is wrong: we are showing ourselves to be without the proper moral preparedness. Desperation is, I say, "a sign of failure." I demonstrate why the strain of moral rationalism and idealism in Western moralism that I criticize predisposes people to just this deficiency. I argue that it should be one of the purposes of moral education to reduce the risk of desperation "to a minimum" by teaching "moral versatility." I point to the danger that in increasingly troubling and frightening historical circumstances the dubious moralism will make people liable to desperation and despair in various forms. Discussing the need to counteract this state of moral debility and paralysis, I write that genuine morality is a readiness to deal with the world as it is. It has an adaptability and resourcefulness that inclines the person to be constructive even in the least encouraging circumstances. In dark, difficult situations genuine morality does not leave the person stranded, as is the case with the rationalistic or idealistic moralism that I criticize. The latter tempts individuals who feel themselves cornered to become desperate, to strike out recklessly or to retreat into a "noble" or "holy" passivity. (1)

Yet Professor McIntyre tells his readers that I believe just the opposite. He asserts that in my view our historical situation is such that "it is in fact a time to be desperate." He writes of me that I am "like others who have despaired or, perhaps, more accurately, become desperate." He refers to "Professor Ryn's type of desperation." Contrasting his own view with the one that he attributes to me, he writes, "It is not immediately obvious to me that I, as a political theorist and intellectual historian, should be desperate." In the place of the author of the article "How Desperate Should We Be?" and the novel A Desperate Man McIntyre puts somebody wholly different. (2)

Modest in size and limited in objective, my article could not set forth a fully argued alternative to the moralism that it criticizes, but it describes at considerable length what I call "the proper antidote to desperation." (3) It indicates the general nature of what should replace moral rationalism and idealism. McIntyre does not discuss my argument, much less specify how it might fall short. He writes nevertheless that it is not clear that I have offered "any reasonable alternative." (4) But without examining and assessing what I have to say he has no basis for determining whether my alternative is reasonable.

I can think of one possible but only partial explanation for McIntyre's so distorting what I argue in the article. It involves an error in how he understands my novel that no student of fiction would make: He assumes that the chief character in the novel, Richard Bittenberg, and the author of the novel are one and the same person. Despite some similarities between Richard and the author, it should be obvious that Richard is a fictional character, a person in a novel, with a mind and imagination of his own and with his own strengths and weaknesses. Some of McIntyre's comments about the novel make me think that I had better reiterate what should also be obvious, that the America of the novel is fictional. It has disturbing aspects that are not present or are less pronounced in actual America. Right at the beginning of my article I mention the difference "between the stark, fictional circumstances of the narrative and our actual predicament." (5)

Throughout his commentary McIntyre seems oblivious of the fact that creative and philosophical writing are very different undertakings. They may be connected in that authors of both kinds draw upon a sense of what life is like and have something to say about it, but whereas the novelist appeals primarily to the imagination and is free to invent characters and events, the philosopher appeals chiefly to the conceptual, discursive mind and is trying rigorously, without distortion, to articulate what the actual, historical world is like. The philosopher builds an argument rather than "shows" something, reasons rather than creates images. I refer to this basic difference in the article, but McIntyre is inattentive, and the result is yet more distortion. He "quotes" me as saying about the novel that I wanted "to set forth a philosophical argument ... [about] the predicament of civilized persons who are caught in historical circumstances that seem to conspire against everything they value." (6) But that is not at all what I say. The words are mine, but McIntyre is improperly combining sentence fragments that are not only from different but from widely separated paragraphs, making it appear that I embarked upon a novel in order to set forth "a philosophical argument." McIntyre's error is two-fold in that he also betrays unfamiliarity with central issues of epistemology and aesthetics. What I say in the article is the opposite of what he asserts. I say that when writing the novel I did not have any obvious or conscious didactic intent. I say that I did not write it to argue for a philosophical position, so that, for example, the characters would become "spokesmen for ideas," as in an Ayn Rand novel. (7) In the "quoted" passage McIntyre has lifted the opening phrase--"to set forth a philosophical argument"--from one paragraph and has joined it to the sentence fragment after the ellipses, which refers to a different subject, the moral predicament of the central characters in the novel. The "quotation" is a fabrication, but because McIntyre is not alert to the mentioned issues of epistemology and aesthetics, he is unaware of the extent of his mistake.

A curious part of McIntyre's critique is a comment on how I relate the problem of moral rationalism and idealism to Plato. He takes me to mean that "the problems of contemporary ideological morality and politics can be laid at the feet of Plato." But then, he comments, "we went to Hell in a hand basket long before college professors started growing beards and wearing jeans to work," the latter being a misleading reference to something Richard Bittenberg regards as symptomatic of the decline of his society. (8) Again, McIntyre misconstrues something that I would have thought was rather straightforward....

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