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A Provocation: Liberal Intellectuals, Universals, and Particulars

October 17, 2013

UDHR-End-to-Genocide-FB-pageWhy is it that many intelligent people—especially academics, but even many liberal intellectuals who believe in human rights and espouse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)—won’t generally acknowledge their belief in universal principles, or philosophical universals? I’ve been thinking about this for years, but haven’t yet come up with a solid answer. Of course hanging out with historians doesn’t really help—since we’re all circumstance this, context that, contingency this, situations matter, etc. It’s a great paradox.

What’s the solution? – TL

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  1. “Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment of the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40

    A humanist translation of the “Great Commandment” might go like this: “Love good. And love good for others as you love it for yourself. All other rules derive from these two.”

    Although the lawyer in the story was asking about ethics. Jesus explained morality.

    The reason for ethics is morality.

    Ethics are about rules. There are many kinds of rule systems, including customs, manners, principles, ethics, rights and law. An ethical person tries to do what he feels he ought to do as defined by one or more rule systems.

    Morality is about good, that which improves our well-being and the well-being of others. A moral person seeks good for others as well as for himself.

    The point of Jesus’s answer to the lawyer was that ethics serve morality. We judge rules and laws by how well they reduce harm and improve good for ourselves and others.

    The goal of Morality is “the best possible good for everyone”. The goal of Ethics is the best rules. The criteria for judging all laws, rules, and rights is how well they improve good (or reduce harm) for everyone.


  2. Paul Kern permalink

    Tim, does universal in your question mean a priori? I think many people, including myself, think providencial when they hear philosophical universals. It appears Mr. Edwards does too, could you elaborate on your meanings? Thanks


    • Paul, if by “providential” you mean “as dictated by a third party in the sky”, then, no. My point is that no rule or law is universal. Only the “point” or “reason” or “why?” for rules and laws is universal.

      The REASON for rules is to accomplish good and reduce harm for everyone. That is the only thing which is constant. The rules themselves are impermanent and evolve over time toward that end. Slavery is the common example. It was once a “universal” principle that black Africans could be enslaved. Later it became a “universal” principle that no one could be enslaved.

      The rules change. Each change is brought about by re-evaluating the benefits and harms of one rule (Africans can be enslaved) versus another rule (no one may be enslaved). Evaluating the benefits and harms is called “moral judgment”.

      The scary thing is that moral judgment does produce different answers over time. Empirical evidence is often evaluated subjectively through the viewer’s own perceptions of “how things ought to be”. So moral judgment matures over time.

      How we viewed women, for example, has changed over history: first as possessions, then as people, and finally as citizens with an equal voice and vote.

      The only thing that remains constant is the question: “What rules/rights will produce the best good and the least harm for everyone?”


    • Paul: Thanks for the comment. On whether the universal means *a priori*, not necessarily—to me anyway. I suppose that some *a priori* universals could be thought of as “providential,” though Aristotle and other pagan philosopher didn’t strictly see it that way. I think that some thinkers (e.g. Critical Theorists) see any generalizations we make as contingent only. I think it’s *useful* to see them as contingent, though another part of me sees both *a priori* and *a posteriori* as potentially, if rarely, transcendent. – TL


  3. Paul Kern permalink

    Hi Marvin, thank you for the clarification.

    “The REASON for rules is to accomplish good and reduce harm for everyone. That is the only thing which is constant.”

    I agree with your material conclusion that there are no universals but I disagree that the reason for rules is intended universally “to accomplish good and reduce harm”. I think most human motivations are predicated on the benefits of self-interest. These self-interests may or may not be beneficial or intended to be beneficial for the whole of society. Your example of slavery (in the U.S.) is a good one, its’ development could never be interpreted as a good that would reduce harm for everyone nor could its’ demise be interpreted as an act of altruism. The Emancipation Proclamation was a pragmatic move by Lincoln who calculated that a liberated class of people would be militarily advantageous to the northern cause and an added source of social chaos for the south. The benefit to slaves was not seen (general white society) as a social good, indeed most thought it would cause deleterious effects. Lincoln thought that shipping freedmen to other locations away from America would mitigate problems for white society more than how it might help former slaves.
    I don’t see society making rules based on moral judgment as much as competing interests jostling for advantage and in a society where capital carries greater privilege it also carries greater influence e.g. the citizens united case.

    How rules are enforced acts as a corollary to your statement and rules are enforced quite unevenly depending on a variety of factors amongst which include race and the ability to pay. Rules as such are intended to order society but how those rules are enforced reveals what values that society holds dear.


    • Wow. That’s a pretty cynical evaluation of history. While Lincoln may have had concerns about the practical consequences of emancipation, it would be very short-sighted to view it as only a military strategy, since he could have avoided the war entirely by not threatening to end slavery in the first place.

      The Abolitionist movement, and accounts of slavery by those who lived it, like Frederick Douglass, caused resistance to slavery’s expansion into new territories, and refusal to participate in returning escaped slaves. The argument was a moral one, based upon the harm done to the black victims.

      In a democracy, especially one supported by a population raised with Christian values, the moral argument is the way we convince each other to support one course of action rather than another. Those who make the rules are elected by a one-person-one-vote principle, which means that an “interest” cannot be so “special” as to be in the minority. And if money were all that was required, then that rich white guy would be president today.

      Appearances are sometimes deceiving. Rules may in fact be enforced much more consistently than you think. And when there is corruption, you’ll hear about it on “60 Minutes”, etc.


  4. Dear Paul and Marvin,

    As I’m reading your comments, I’m seeing that I should’ve made a distinction between one’s willing to to admit of ‘universals’ versus admitting of ‘generalizations’. Now, I guess a further question is whether some of those generalizations are transcendent, which seems implied in ‘universals’. But it seems you’re both willing to admit there are contingent generalizations covering wide swaths of people and situations, and perhaps even exist for long periods of time (courtesy of social constructions that ‘abide). But you both deny ‘universals’ that do the same, whether those are argued to arise a priori or a posteriori. Yes? Does this summary advance the discussion somewhat?

    – TL


    • “A priori” implies deduction from existing definitions, which is what I think the “deontologists” do. I run into that a lot doing missionary work among the Libertarians and Anarchists.

      I believe that what is right and wrong is evolving as our ability to discern benefits and harms has improved over time.

      During the historical period where slavery was commonplace, the arguments justifying it would have covered the full spectrum. There were those who considered it moral because they viewed the “natural” state of the black man to be inferior. There were those who justified it with Christian scripture. There were those who justified it as a “benefit” to the black man to expose him to Christianity and train his behavior.

      To introduce change requires challenging those arguments. Because the deontological arguments are based purely in rhetoric, you only end up in a yelling match. But those using the moral argument, based on benefits and harms, can easily be confronted with empirical evidence, such as the scars from whips and chains, or the reports of abuse by escaped slaves.

      The same is true today of the LGBT movement. Empirical evidence can be brought to bear to challenge prejudice and present harms done by bullies and discrimination.

      If your argument is deontological, it is basically to conserve the rules as they are now, because the deontologists make up their own claims as they go along. They will eventually adapt, but they will not be changed by deductive reasoning.

      Moral judgment, on the other hand, can be challenged and modified with empirical data.


  5. Paul Kern permalink

    Thanks Tim you’re clarifying my thinking on this subject. I’ve always thought of universals as having a religious origin and implying a certain determinism but you’re observation about a posteriori got me to thinking about my comment on self interest. My comment was indeed a generalization but one I’ll also say is not absolute. I do allow for moral judgment in my worldview it just isn’t as ‘constant’ as I think Marvin seems to hold. My position on self interest is probably an outgrowth of evolutionary theory which of course has a certain universal application,no? I don’t know if this is transcendent or if we could even theorize on that since we can only speak about our own earthly experience so I suppose this is a contingent observation.


  6. Paul Kern permalink

    I thought of this conversation when listening to this interview. If you didn’t already know it thought you might find it interesting.


  7. Thanks Paul! I’ll check that out. – TL


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