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Human Rights

Richard Rorty On Rights

Patrícia Fernandes looks at Rorty’s idea for promoting human rights.

For his 1993 Oxford Amnesty Lecture, the American philosopher Richard Rorty presented a paper that would become one of his most popular texts: ‘Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality’. In it he argued for the following ideas: 1) We cannot justify human rights; 2) Reason is a useless apparatus to promote human rights; 3) We should concentrate our energies instead on sentimental education.

The Contingency of Reason

Richard Rorty
Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

To understand what Rorty meant by this, we need to go back to his first original book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). In it Rorty offered an analysis of the philosophical context of the second half of the Twentieth Century. According to him, ever since Descartes, Locke, and Kant in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, philosophy has been centered on questions about knowledge (as the relation between humanity and reality), and in the study of the mind (as the entity able to establish that relation). From this perspective, knowledge is a matter of establishing a representational relation between ideas and reality. As Rorty writes, “to know is to represent accurately what is outside the mind” (p.3). Rorty says that this is the core of the representationalist paradigm, and that analytic philosophy is the heir of this paradigm. However, Rorty uses Twentieth Century developments in the analytic tradition (by the later Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars, W.V.O. Quine, and Donald Davidson, among others) to argue that the representationalist paradigm is merely contingent, and so philosophically optional.

Language plays an important role here. For Rorty, language is not merely a medium between the self and reality. Language has, rather, a constitutive role in thought: it determines the way we think. The availability of particular words or a specific grammar, for instance, sets how we think about reality. And language use is ubiquitous. We cannot access reality without it. That means we can’t know if the language we use accurately represents the world. To use Hilary Putnam’s expression, we cannot step outside language to see the world from ‘a God’s-eye point of view’. In this sense, our language is contingent: we use a certain language for accidental reasons, and not necessarily because that’s the way the world works. After all, as Rorty said ten years later in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, “the world does not speak. Only we do” (p.6).

This philosophical position means that we have to give up the project of philosophy as the search for Truth. We are stuck in our historical conditions and our contingent language, and we cannot expect to step outside them to reach absolute Truths or Reality-In-Itself. Ultimately, we cannot offer any absolute foundation to our beliefs, nor can we can find absolute justifications which would be able to persuade every reasonable person that we are right. It means giving up what Nietzsche called ‘metaphysical comfort’. However, Rorty wants to persuade us that we can gain something better. What?

If we give up the notion of knowledge as representation, we can think of a more useful paradigm of knowledge. In the first volume of his Philosophical Papers (1991), Rorty proposes that we should substitute the representationalist paradigm for an anti-representationalist one. He argues that this new paradigm would renew our sense of community and would be more useful for achieving our social aims. In this sense, Rorty sees philosophy as serving political purposes: if our political values, inherited from the Enlightenment, are to create a more democratic society and to promote human solidarity, then a non-representationalist or pragmatic paradigm will be more useful in achieving them than a representationalist one.

Rorty’s Pragmatic Approach to Rights

These are the most important of Rorty’s ideas. But how can we apply them to the matter of human rights? Rorty does so in ‘Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality’ (published in the third volume of his Philosophical Papers, 1998). His central goal is to show that a pragmatic paradigm would be more efficient for promoting a ‘human rights culture’ (Eduardo Rabossi’s term) than projects that try to give rights a foundation in objective truth. Let’s see how he does it.

Firstly, for Rorty, ‘foundationalist’ philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and Kant tried to find premises about human beings capable of being known to be true independently of our moral intuitions and capable of justifying those moral intuitions. But as we saw, from Rorty’s perspective we cannot find such foundations; rather, our moral community determines what is morally good, and we can’t go beyond our language and our historical conditions to find moral Truth-In-Itself. In that sense,

“the most philosophy can hope to do is to summarize our culturally influenced intuitions about the right thing to do in various situations. The summary is effected by formulating a generalization from which these intuitions can be deduced… That generalization is not supposed to ground our intuitions, but rather to summarize them.” (Philosophical Papers III, p.171).

Secondly we must keep in mind that Rorty is a pragmatist – his main concern is not with proving moral statements to be true, but about finding what works, and in this case about how best to fulfill the utopian vision sketched by the Enlightenment:

“If the activities of those who attempt to achieve this [foundationalist] sort of knowledge seem of little use in actualizing this utopia, that is a reason to think there is no such knowledge. If it seems that most of the work of changing moral intuitions is being done by manipulating our feelings rather than by increasing our knowledge, that is a reason to think there is no knowledge of the sort that philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and Kant hoped to get.” (p.172)

Appeals to reason and knowledge have little effect in Rorty’s thought. We have to concentrate on what works, he says, and his conclusion is that “the emergence of the human rights culture seems to owe nothing to increased moral knowledge, and everything to hearing sad and sentimental stories” (p.172). Since there is probably no knowledge of the sort Plato imagined, it’s useless to point at rationality as the thing we all have in common. Rorty uses the examples of the Serbian torturers who didn’t recognize their Muslim victims’ humanity, or the Nazis in relation to the Jews:

“[I]t does little good to point out to the people I have just described that many Muslims and women are good at mathematics or engineering or jurisprudence. Resentful young Nazi toughs were quite aware that many Jews were clever and learned, but this only added to the pleasure they took in beating such Jews. Nor does it do much good to get such people to read Kant and agree that one should not treat rational agents simply as means. For everything turns on who counts as a fellow human being, as a rational agent in the only relevant sense – the sense in which rational agency is synonymous with membership in our moral community.” (p.177)

Thirdly of course we should remain profoundly grateful to Plato and Kant, “not because they discovered truths but because they prophesied cosmopolitan utopias” (p.173); but if we put foundationalism behind us, we could “concentrate our energies on manipulating sentiments, on sentimental education” and that would be the best way to promote those cosmopolitan utopias:

“That sort of education gets people of different kinds sufficiently well acquainted with one another that they are less tempted to think of those different from themselves as only quasi-human. The goal of this sort of manipulation of sentiment is to expand the reference of the terms ‘our kind of people’ and ‘people like us’.” (p.176)

This would correspond to what the ethicist Annette Baier called “a progress of sentiments” – which progress is towards increasingly seeing the similarities between ourselves and others instead of the differences.

Finally, as an anti-foundationalist, Rorty doesn’t think of ‘bad people’ as being deprived of moral knowledge. Instead, he thinks that a well-functioning human rights culture results from two conditions, security and sympathy:

“By ‘security’ I mean conditions of life sufficiently risk-free as to make one’s difference from others inessential to one’s self-respect, one’s sense of worth… By ‘sympathy’ I mean the sort of reactions Athenians had more of after seeing Aeschylus’s The Persians than before, the sort that whites in the United States had more of after reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin than before, the sort we have more of after watching television programs about the genocide in Bosnia.” (p.180)

Rorty for our Current Crises

Rorty’s account is particularly relevant in our day. The recent surge of xenophobic movements in Europe, the hostility to immigration in many countries, and all the polemic surrounding the giving of support to desperate refugees – none of this is independent of the current global economic crisis. People didn’t suddenly become more ignorant concerning human rights, they simply feel more insecure, and that’s an obstacle to more sympathy. As Rorty says, “The tougher things are, the more you have to be afraid of, the more dangerous your situation, the less you can afford the time or effort to think about what things might be like for people with whom you do not immediately identify.” (p.180).

This is why Rorty’s account is so interesting. On the one hand, his idea of contingency liberates us from the endless quest for Truth, Certainty, and Nature. On the other hand, it liberates us from the burden of rationally justifying our moral sentiments that we have been carrying over the last two hundred years. Finally, a Rortian perspective is a great one for thinking about the challenges we are presently facing. “Sentimental education works only on people who can relax long enough to listen” Rorty writes (p.180) – so let’s relax and listen to the tribulations of other people. This is how we can build and improve human rights culture.

© Patrícia Fernandes 2017

Patrícia Fernandes is a PhD student at the University of Minho in Portugal.

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