Hegel, MacIntyre, and the (Living) Death of Moral Relativism

A recent piece in the Atlantic by Jonathan Merritt declares the “death of moral relativism.” It echoes observations made by other pundits that there seems to have been a shift in cultural attitudes concerning morality. In the United States, subjectivist, relativist, and “postmodernist” stances are said to have been replaced by robust commitments to social justice, tolerance, and inclusion. David Brooks also, for example, discusses the rise of a veritable “shame culture,” particularly evident on American college campuses and social media, ready to condemn and ostracize those who fail to acknowledge the importance of upholding these new, powerful norms of respect and recognition for the marginalized and oppressed. Indeed, the trend is so omnipresent that there has been significant backlash—critics decry the policing efforts of “social justice warriors” and the scourge of “political correctness.”

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Suffering Violence at Your Own Hands: Hegel on Ethical and Political Alienation

Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of history chart the development of free, reflective self-conscious selves, but what exactly does that mean? For skeptics, it doesn’t mean much, as Hegel notoriously appears to ground this development in the development of the state. This has inspired Popper’s well-known accusations that Hegel was a puppet of the Prussian monarchy, the “enemy of the open society,” etc., etc., and that the “free” subjects of the state as Hegel describes it are anything but. Further, from Marx to Habermas, Hegel is indicted as one who adopts a quietist attitude of priestly monasticism, so while those imbued with the proper critical, historical consciousness are busy trying to change the world according to the dictates of one or another praxis philosophy, Hegel is content to contemplate it as it goes up in flames. Habermas sees in Hegel’s mature work a “blunting of critique” and a “stoic retreat” from the problems of modernity, the very ones that Habermas believes the younger Hegel so incisively diagnosed.

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The Science of Deception

The Republican National Convention has been interesting if not useful in a major regard: its reliable falsehood.

I find the concept itself striking: what in general can be considered reliable, much less reliably false? To borrow a distinction made by Harry Frankfurt, while bullshit abounds, the number of conclusively identifiable liars who truck in “credible” deceit is comparatively scarce.

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Two Dogmas of Multiculturalism: Nietzsche, Rushdie, and Values Discourse (part 2)

The so-called value of tolerance too is reduced to an unjustifiable, arbitrary attitude if it is held from the standpoint of a multicultural liberalism conceived in the terms of a values discourse rather than in those of a discourse of reason. It is the standpoint that is at issue, rather than tolerance itself; tolerance, like the historically evolved conception of justice, is arguably rational to the core. Its conceptual heritage lies in the work of Locke and Kant, and forms part of the rational basis of modern liberal democracies; as advocated by these thinkers, tolerance is not merely a value, but a rational value, what Aristotle and Plato called a virtue. By “rational basis,” I mean this: tolerance is a condition for dialogue. The capacity to allow for beliefs or proposals that may run against the grain of one’s expectations or preferences is a sine qua non for coming to any kind of agreement or understanding. Therefore, if rationality has a normative and social significance, the virtue of tolerance must play an important role in its realization.

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Two Dogmas of Multiculturalism: Nietzsche, Rushdie, and Values Discourse (part 1)

A broadly liberal, tolerant attitude toward the values, beliefs, and practices of members of different groups, both religious and cultural, is evident among the educated in the modern world. Both the terms “multiculturalism” and “liberalism” capture different dimensions of this broad attitude; hence I will employ the term “multicultural liberalism.” In some sense, the master concept of multicultural liberalism is “tolerance,” proffered as a normative ideal. The educated members of societies throughout the world, from East to West, speak of the importance of the “value of tolerance,” and tend to diagnose cultural conflict in particular as rooted in an absence of it. Indeed, it is clear for example that the educated of Lebanon (the place where I am writing this) regard themselves not only as belonging to a multicultural society, but also as in some sense adopting the standpoint of multicultural liberalism as it is here employed. When something goes wrong and clashes erupt, there is the sense that it is partly due to a lack of tolerance, and a failure in some or all of the communities in question to recognize the importance of a commitment to this value.

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Identity and Difference: Stalled Nationalism in the Lebanese Republic

In the streets of Beirut, one notices a preponderance of Lebanese flags—hanging out of windows, on cars, in doorways, on buildings. A nationalist gesture, it paradoxically signifies the opposite. Both the “opposition” and government supporters are equally zealous flag wavers. Meant to signify the universal of nationalism, the flag in fact symbolizes fragmentation and impermeable particularity. In this sense, the flag truly represents Lebanon.

It is difficult to imagine what a “united” Lebanon would be. There is a deep and chronic lack of acknowledgement of genuine otherness. In order to unite, there first has to be acknowledgement and tolerance of genuine difference. Lack of respect for boundaries seems to be a nationwide difficulty, seen at both the individual and collective levels. One is indeed tempted to demand a theory—psychoanalytic, speculative, or otherwise—of social boundary malformation. From traffic patterns, to interpersonal relations, to sectarian violence, Lebanon is beset with problems that appear diagnosable in such terms. At the individual level, it does not seem to be particularly inspired by belligerence that people do not recognize lines in banks and airports, or do not honor norms of basic courtesy such as reflexively yielding partial passage on sidewalks and in doorways. These seem rather to be microsocial, sensuous indications of broader social attitudes that fail to recognize the genuine existence and autonomy of others. I believe that, at the highest cultural level—politics—these attitudes achieve their full expression and significance in and as sectarianism.

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