Moralism is back with a vengeance. Judging is all the rage, and no one is safe, because no one is righteous. The physical destruction that began with attacks on Confederate statues has evolved into toppling anyone on a pedestal, even abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln.
As with monuments in marble, bronze, and granite, so too with everything else. From editors to Eskimo Pie ice cream, anyone and anything can be cancelled. No one is virtuous enough to withstand the scrutiny of the new moralists.
The air is thick with moral pronouncements, but the ground is bereft of foundations for them. I would like to blame the late Richard Rorty, but that would be giving him too much credit—even well-known American philosophers are practically anonymous. But while Rorty’s ideas are not directly responsible for present conditions, his arguments foreshadowed much of what is now happening.
Rorty did not believe moral relativism precluded forceful public moral proclamations and judgments—he thought we should assert and enforce our moral preferences even while recognizing that they have no basis beyond our own contingent experiences and will. Examining this “liberal ironist” view, aided by Alasdair MacIntyre’s analysis in After Virtue, thus helps explain these hot days of wrath.
Pretend Truth Exists Even Though It Doesn’t
In his book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Rorty welcomed the “historicist turn” that has freed us “gradually but steadily, from theology and metaphysics.” He urged us to accept the contingency of our “most central beliefs and desires” and abandon the idea that they “refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance.”
He argued that although there is no Truth for our beliefs to correspond to, we may nonetheless advocate and act for our values even as we are cognizant of the relativistic nature of our convictions. For instance, liberal ironists may consider cruelty to be the worst thing possible and fight against it even while accepting they have no rationally compelling reasons why someone should not be cruel.
Rorty declared his “fundamental premise” to be that “a belief can still regulate action, can still be thought worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstances.” He wanted us to view questions of truth and meaning as nonsensical except in reference to the values and preferences that we have created or inherited—and which we recognize as created or inherited. We would thereby exist more poetically, living by, and perhaps even dying for, values that we accept as not rationally demonstrable.
We All Have Cognitive Dissonance Now
This sketch of Rorty’s ideals provides insights into the current resurgence of moral judgment. Our culture has gone from the “don’t judge” mantra of a couple decades ago to judging everyone, but we did not reestablish a rational foundation for that judgment along the way. A culture that philosophically endorses moral relativism is thus producing political and social demands for moral purification.
So are we all liberal ironists now? Not quite. For one thing, there is much more outraged sanctimony than Rorty seems to have expected. This anger may be traced, at least in part, to a complication that Rorty acknowledged within his theory, which is that the private self-creation of the ironist must be cordoned off from public life.
The fundamental values (“final vocabularies” is the term he adopts) of a person’s public and private spheres of being may be separate, even opposed. As he put it, “Ironists must reconcile themselves to a private-public split within their final vocabularies, to the fact that resolution of doubts about one’s final vocabulary has nothing in particular to do with attempts to save other people from pain and humiliation.” The liberal order protects the private doubts and self-creation of the ironist, but may demand public adherence to a liberal final vocabulary.
Don’t Tell People You’re Irrational
This divided mind is necessary because the public argument and policy of liberalism cannot survive under the dissolving effects of widespread public irony. Rorty wrote that “even if I am right in thinking that a liberal culture whose public rhetoric is nominalist and historicist is both possible and desirable, I cannot go on to claim that there could or ought to be a culture whose public rhetoric is ironist. I cannot imagine a culture which socialized its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious about their own process of socialization.”
The ironist may privately doubt all fundamental values and vocabularies, including his own, but he need not, indeed, should not, export these doubts into the realm of public debate. Rather, if he follows Rorty, the private ironist will support and promulgate public certainties even while recognizing their contingency and engaging in a curated personal self-creation that may reject them. The private sadist must still be a public humanitarian.
Thus, the ironic acceptance of contingency that Rorty recommended produces public dogma without reason or authority, which is an apt description of our situation. Moral instruction, judgment, and disagreement have not disappeared, they have only become ungrounded, with no rational means of reconciliation or arbitration between disparate premises. Furthermore, sentiments of solidarity with those who are culturally and morally alien to us are unlikely to be sustained absent belief in some common human ground.
No Wonder Everyone’s So Angry
The dissolution of the possibility of shared rational dialogue does not reduce wrath, but intensifies it. In the absence of a common standard or tradition of reasoning, moral arguments appear intractable.
Most people are not sophisticated ironists, continuously cognizant of the contingency of their own beliefs. They will still think in terms of truth or falsehood, but be persistently frustrated by disagreement and the lack of any rational means of resolving it.
Indeed, even those who are liberal ironists may still find the apparent intractability of moral disagreement infuriating. Thus, rather than the ungrounded liberal humanitarianism Rorty hoped for, passionate anger is dominating our discourse.
Without Reason, All We Have Is Emotion
Without appeals to a shared reason or authority, there remain only appeals to sentiment. This encourages intense displays of emotion because the force of an argument can only be supported by emotional intensity. Once appeals to sentiment are exhausted, what remains are anger and attempts at coercion.
Moral disagreements become irreconcilable, and one’s opponents therefore seem alien and monstrous, an unintelligible evil. Disagreement is treated as impurity, something to be shunned and silenced, rather than engaged.
Even before Rorty made his case for liberal irony, another philosopher had foreseen its practical defects. In After Virtue, MacIntyre diagnosed the emotive nature of contemporary debate, which has only worsened as we have become more like what Rorty hoped for. As MacIntyre observed,
It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable. From our rival conclusion we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate.
Moral debate is no longer slightly shrill. Without a way to mediate between competing basic premises, we debate through demonstrations of the intensity of our beliefs. As MacIntyre notes, this emoting may be further increased if we suspect that our moral commitments are, as Rorty averred, indeed based on irrational contingencies. Emotion is a means of demonstrating commitment to fundamental values and vocabularies when doubt suggests ours may be as irrational as those we detest.
We are not, it seems, cut out to be ironists. Indeed, as MacIntyre foresaw, without the possibility of rational persuasion, we turn not to irony but to passion. Thus, MacIntyre argued that “Emotivism has become embodied in our culture” and that it “entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.”
Instead of moral discourse as a (hopefully) shared effort to discern truth, dialogue is treated as a power struggle, and rhetoric as pure manipulation. In such conditions, new dogmatisms will angrily assert themselves.
We Have to End Relativism to Recover
Rorty and MacIntyre had similar diagnoses. But whereas Rorty endorsed dissolving a common moral ground and vocabulary, and abandoning the quest for truth, MacIntyre responded by seeking ways to apprehend real moral truth within the limits of human existence and knowledge. In this he followed Hans-Georg Gadamer, the great hermeneutical philosopher who also influenced Rorty.
Unlike Rorty, MacIntyre and Gadamer rejected thoroughgoing moral relativism while acknowledging the contingency and historicity of human knowledge. MacIntyre has devoted his career since After Virtue to defending the possibility of knowing truth despite our historical and contingent existence. Whether he and others engaged in similar efforts have succeeded is beyond the scope of this essay, although I believe MacIntyre at least has made a good case for the development of reason within tradition.
What is clear is that Rorty’s vision of liberal irony is being established—even if those doing so do not know whose philosophy they are following—and is in practice leading to illiberal dogmatism. Emancipation from theology and metaphysics does not free us from dogma. Indeed, it has had the opposite effect. Rorty’s radical emphasis on contingency leaves no possibility of rational persuasion, but only emotive manipulation.
The contingency and irony that Rorty recommended lead not to solidarity, but to fury.