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Paul Grobstein's picture

Rorty, empathy, and "ethical" societies

Looking forward to "thoughts to come," but already intrigued by what's here. My guess is that Rorty would not argue that "empathy" is a "quick and simple solution" to the problem of human indifference/cruelty to other humans. And I certainly wouldn't. At the same time, he (and I ) might well argue that "when we are able to give up our need to preserve our sense of security/uncertainty, we will be more open to facing the injustices in the world" and perhaps other useful things as well.

Rorty's point is not so much that "empathy" is a guarantee of a "just" or "ethical" society, but rather that the place to start in thinking about human collective well-being "is not with looking for something more to rely on than the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings," not with "a knowledge of something not merely human" but rather with "mere" humanness itself. The position is not really so extreme. Its quite similar to John F. Kennedy's "the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings", an assertion that we should look to ourselves rather than to some external authority to find ways to solve our problems (see On Being a Lonely Atheist).

Along these lines, a couple of other points you touch on seem relevant. The first is that Rorty would probably argue (and I certainly would) that there isn't any such thing as "just" or "ethical" in the abstract, ie no place to get to but only the ongoing process of seeing where one is and what one would like to change (Oliver Wendell Holmes made this argument as a Supreme Court Justice; see The Metaphysical Club). Maybe there would be less resistance to change if we looked for local consensus on small projects rather than trying to get wide-spread agreement on where we want to get to for eternity? Perhaps "an ethical society in which there exists no universal code of ethics?"

Along these lines, maybe we're putting too much emphasis on the importance of identifying with the suffering of others? After all, social interactions are not based solely on shared experiences of pain or unhappiness but also on shared experiences of enjoyment and creativity. Perhaps we would all find it easier to contribute to improving the lot of people who are suffering if we thought first not about sharing/relieving someone else's pain but rather about what new places we and they could reach by closer interactions? This in turn might spread "localized" activity into more global forms.

Finally, your writing verges on the argument that certain things can't be done because of "human nature". But, "I am, and I think, and therefore I can change who I am," which in turn says that what we think about what we are at any given time isn't the end but rather the starting point of a discussion of what might yet be, both individually and culturally?


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