Nick comments on the last thread:
If I have a commitment to a certain conception of justice, is this practically any different from someone who has an elaborate metaphysical system that tries to justify this same principle?
I think this is a somewhat different conversation, I hope, at least that’s how I would see it, yet it is related to our whole conversation about realism because, if anyone remembers, it started with a simple of question of the nature of normativity – to simplify it significantly, I think I was asking a question not unlike this one: If a realist is someone who thinks that is a knowable world out there and all our philosophical efforts should be directed at getting to know it better, then this attitude seems to lack a dimension of “ought” and is found primarily in the dimension of “is” which is to say, it does not seem to be concerned with the way the world should be but only with a way the world is. Many objections were raised, the discussion veered off into Kantian ethics and so on, but still I thought that the only way “ought” would enter a realist world view is through a kind of fiat: there are ideas of justice and peaceful coexistence, we don’t know where they are coming from, but we have them now so there.
Of course, knowing that we have ideas of justice and not knowing where they are coming from is precisely the problem. Levi proposed that all of these ideas come from evolutionary development, biology and so on and so forth, a kind of reductionist reading that I sure some find to be comforting, but that I find to be more or less relativistic, not to sound like a fundamentalist Christian here, but my point is this: if the idea of justice come from nature, then saying it is a result of evolution is really not saying much – walking upright also comes from evolution, but it does not explain why people also put scates on their feet and play hockey. In this sense, a simple reference to biology does not give much to work with either philosophicall or politically, because it still does not explain the “ought” just the “is” I think.
My overall point here is this: commitment to a certain conception of justice is a commitment to a conception, therefore, without an ability to demonstrate what that conception is or how we come up with that conception might work just fine on the level of pedestrian politics, mass movements, populist ideologies, but it is ultimately empty without at least some philosophical justification. Even “good” conceptions like “human rights” are in need of justification: I was a symposium some months back and one of the speaker’s questions to another speaker, a philosopher, concerning his reflections on the nature of human rights was something like this: “Human right discourse has established itself today to be a prevalent discourse in international studies, why do you philosophers have to go and question it potentially giving the enemies of human rights weapons in their fight against the concept?” To which philosopher responded, perhaps naively, but correctly, I think: “Since when did the hegemonic status of a discourse also somehow demonstrated its truth, since when do we think that just because a particular conception is prevalent and useful, we must accept its truth and stop questioning it?” Can we imagine a smooth functioning of the human rights movement without much conceptualization? Sure, but not before it became a household term and only until someone challenges the idea and we will have to justify its prevalent use.
Politics without an elaborate metaphysical system, I think, has a tendency toward pure instrumentality, a kind of managerial support – and by “metaphysical system” here I mean a simple idea of what the world is like and what it should be and how we know that it is the case. Well, at least I’ll say that to see if there’s any interest in this sort of conversation…