Friday, June 06, 2008

Naturalistic Fallacy, Schmaturalistic Schmallacy

Guess what this post is about? No, seriously, you'll never guess. Think "dead things that I like to keep on kicking"....

Yeah, that's right, it's another installment in my weak humanism series. 'Cause there's something about being atop this particular soapbox that I find just so damn edifying.

There may be some concern that I am, like my be-turbaned friend to the left, trying to derive the "ought" of human rights from the "is" of human weakness. And, the truth is, I am. Frankly, I just don't believe in the value of David Hume's (in)famous "guillotine," which seeks to completely sever the "ought" from the "is", the prescription from the description. My guess is that most of the participants in this discussion so far don't ascribe to Hume's Guillotine either, so the real issues here involve differences in (1) how we are describing the "is", and (2) how we are getting from that "is" to an "ought." (Although I feel semi-confident that we have a general consensus on what the "ought" is, so to speak, that may still be up in the air.)

With regard to (1), I am obviously the most strongly influenced by Foucault and Derrida, both of whom I think give us way more in the way of descriptions than prescriptions. Of course, as has been pointed out to me almost every time I have a conversation about this with someone familiar with contemporary philosophy, neither Foucault nor Derrida had any (explicit) interest in preserving the old idea of the "human" or resuscitating the old idea of "humanism" in any way. In fact, they were both openly hostile to such projects. So I'm treading on thin ice, I know, whenever I try to move from Foucaultian or Derridean descriptions to some sort of humanist prescriptions. I'm treading on very thin ice...wearing a tuxedo, cape and turban... and trying to pull a bug-eyed philosophical rabbit out of my hat.

That said, I still maintain that this "weak humanism" project is the "ought" that ought to be derived from the "is" that Foucalt and Derrida say that "is" is.

That is in part because I assume that we don’t want to say something as ridiculous as “Foucault and Derrida were merely interested in describing x. Full stop.” Such a position would have a hard time accounting for the stubbornly persistent moments of quasi-prescription in their work, not to mention their personal lives. But it’s also because I think our job, as their philosophical successors, is to figure out what we “ought” to do with the insights we’ve inherited, in the world as it “is.” One of the things that worries me is the possibility of an overly-reductive reading of postmodern/poststructuralist critiques of “the Enlightenment,” the canon, the metaphysics of presence, et cetera—ones that, I think, ultimately end up sanctioning complicity while people suffer and die.

In his book, Postcolonialism, Robert Young wrote: “In any system of force there will always be sites of force that are, precisely, forced, and therefore allow for pressure and intervention.” As a deconstructionista, I am always looking for those “forced-force” sites and always trying to see how much pressure and intervention they permit... because that is where I think the move from the “is” to the “ought” is possible, even necessary. As should be evident in this discussion by now, I think the fact that critics of “humanism” have difficulty rejecting the moral validity of “human rights” is one of those sites—perhaps the most important ones.

4 comments:

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

You know what we should bring back from Hume? Moral sentiment.

This might sound like a non-sequitur, but I think that it shows that even in Hume the relation b/w oughts and is's is more closely fraught than I think we give him credit for.

And I really do think we should bring back moral sentiment...

DOCTOR J said...

Actually, I kind of agree with you, Ideas Man. "Moral sentiment" would be one way, at least, of explaining the persist disturbing of conscience that seems to plague anti-humanists who still can't let go of human rights.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I'm glad that you're surprised but that you "kind of agree with me..."

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Oh, but I think the example is a good one. When I gave a paper down in Western NC, I tried to argue that aesthetic sensibility (and by extension moral sensibility) ought to survive humanistic sensibilities. The conversation got off on a tangent onto child killers (not my fault --- fucking Dostoevsky!) But I think it was still a productive conversation....