Holbo on Rorty

John Holbo’s brilliant post explains exactly why I always found Rorty puzzling.

His reformist reach exceeds his justificatory good conscience. He really thinks he’s right, but doesn’t think he can give his opponents rational grounds that they are compelled to accept. The one point he’s got is that, if the sort of change he wants comes, it will come as a sort of ‘conversion’ to a new way of thinking (cultural shift, call it what you will). This is true, but – again – not exactly a reason to convert. But what else can he say? Rorty ends up more or less boxed into a narrow hortatory row: not even straight preaching to the unconverted. Instead, preaching the meta-possibility of conversion to the unconverted.

Which seems to me to be a way of saying that Rorty was a dismally bad pragmatist. If he really cared about reducing cruelty, he would have availed himself of the most muscular and effective modes of persuasion — i.e., empirical argument about and vivid demonstration of what actually reduces suffering — rather than “preaching the meta-possibility of conversion to the unconverted.” Rorty seems to have knee-capped himself with his undermotivated epistemic convictions, which is indeed ironic, since those very convictions say he shouldn’t take them seriously. But he does; he evidently takes them more seriously than his professed moral aims. I was amused reading Achieving Our Country when Rorty says, quite explicitly, there is no fact of the matter about the past, and now I am going to try to convince you of a story about our history that I think it would be good for us all to believe! If you thought it was so important for people to believe it, why would you start out by telling them that you yourself don’t, actually? Here’s one completely conjectural suspicion: Rorty was in love with the idea of social democratic justice, but did not think that he had any warrant for the belief that it actually would make people better off. A child of committed communists, he saw that passionately loved moral ideals can be completely disastrous. But he believed what he believed, damn it. Knowing it might be false, and even harmful, he was ironic about it. And he effectively reduced suffering by arguing for his political ideals in such a painfully narcissistic and completely ineffectual fashion that they never actually affected the world. For this, he deserves our thanks.

By way of contrast, if Lant Pritchett succeeds in even slightly opening up wealthy labor markets to workers who lost the passport lottery, he will have done more to end needless cruelty than a million Rortys. But then, Lant Pritchett believes that the effectiveness of his favored means to that end of reducing suffering is a fact of the external world. And it is. That’s powerful.