All together now

Much of Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts is relevant to all this – not surprisingly: it’s about higher education (and education more broadly), Bhattacharyya’s piece is about higher education (and education more broadly), and Dawkins’s work is partly about higher education (and education more broadly).

He talks in chapter 6 – ‘Postmodernism’ – about the difficulties of grounding moral intuitions, via Lyotard’s disagreement with Habermas about consensus and difference, and via feminist epistemology and local and ‘situated’ knowledge (with a reference to Meera Nanda), and Rorty’s antifoundationalism (about morality rather than epistemology). He quotes (page 256) from an essay of Rorty’s that I’ve always liked, despite disagreeing with much of it, ‘Wild Orchids and Trotsky’:

The democratic community of Dewey’s dreams is…a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters.

I don’t buy it. I think I might have, once, but I don’t now. I’ve become too suspicious of all those words – too aware of the need to ask for further details on all of them: democratic, community, and solidarity. Democratic – well, it depends: is this a democratic community of narrow parochial authoritarian people who hate fags and independent women and ruffians and atheists and elitist intellectuals? Is it the kind of community that expects and demands that everyone fit in and conform? Is it the kind of solidarity people feel when they unite against a putative enemy who is in fact merely different in some harmless way? Perhaps it’s the kind of democratic community that finds solidarity in voting to make the public high school teach ID in its biology classes.

Human solidarity is only as good as it is. Sometimes human solidarity can be murderous, even genocidal; often it can be coercive and limiting. And to at least some people, it is knowledge of something not merely human that really matters – cosmologists, physicists, artists, geologists, poets, musicians, mountaineers; many people. It’s of course true that grounding morality is very difficult, but recourse to solidarity is…dubious.

Michael makes a similar point himself earlier, on pp 222-3, in discussing Lyotard’s disagreement with Habermas:

Habermas imagines the “ideal speech situation” as something oriented not merely toward understanding, as I said above, but toward consensus. This…basically says, “We will all sit down and deliberate as equals – and then, when we’re done deliberating, we will agree.”…[I]n suggesting that consensus is the goal of the discussion, Habermas has left himself wide open to the charge that he does see universalism as the eradication of difference – that universalism will have done its job only when there is no one left to dissent from it. And that, Lyotard insists, puts us right back on the road to Terror.

Same thing. Consensus, too, is only as good as it is. So is agreement; so is universalism. They’re all – democracy, community, solidarity, consensus, agreement, universalism – only as good as they are. They’re all capable of being merely agreement to do bad things, consensus that outsiders are the spawn of the devil. Bertrand Russell’s grandmother was fond of the Biblical saying, ‘Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.’ I quite like that myself.

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