05 September 2010
Pluralism and the Big Experiment
"See everywhere the struggle and the squeeze; and ever-lastingly the problem of how to make them less. The anarchists, nihilists and free-lovers; the free-silverites, socialists, and single-tax men; the free-traders and civil-service reformers; the prohibitionists and anti-vivisectionists; the radical darwinians with their idea of the suppression of the weak, -- these and all the conservative sentiments of society arrayed against them are simply deciding through actual experiment by what sort of conduct the maximum amount of good can be gained and kept in this world."
This is from The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, an essay in which James anticipated the point of view that later came to be known as "value pluralism," a theory in meta-ethics associated with Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Raz.
Henry responded, in the comments section, that James was too optimistic. Surely the advocates of some of those viewpoints were after things nastier than seeking the maximum amount of good that can be gained and kept in the world?
Yes, I answered, they were. And their counterparts today are. Indeed, James' language about those he here calls "radical darwinians" suggests he thinks of them as rather malevolent. He isn't referring simply to the Spencerian notion of failing to assist "the weak," but to something more active, the "suppression" of the weak, which seems to me a reference to the spread of eugenic ideas in his day.
But still, as Henry notes, James refers to these radical Darwinians as part of the great higgle-haggle with the others, so they must in some sense be part of the Big Experiment. Isn't this too optimistic a view of them?
I think James would say that the functioning of one particular faction within this Big Experiment does not depend upon the motives of anyone involved. Thus, for instance, at least some of those "free lovers" he mentions might be motivated by old-fashioned lust, and an unwillingness to abide by the contraints of monogamy. rather than by a desire to produce the best possible mutual accomodation of conflicting values. Still, if such a movement finds resonance, if it builds a base and becomes politically or demographically significant, it will be because it speaks to some dissatisfaction. It will be because the status quo locks out some sentiments, frustrates some energies, and there will be -- should be -- a constant press to include what is so far excluded.
And, yes, one could say the same about Nazism. Hitler didn't build a popular following because a lot of Germans decided they wanted to kill a lot of people. war. He built a following because life in the Weimar Republic was miserable for many, and he gavwe them a vent for that misery. This qualifies Nazism, too, as part of the Big Experiment deciding through actual experiment by what sort of conduct the maximum amount of good can be gained and kept in this world, even though nobody involved would have described it that way, and even though that particular trial was an enormous failure by that test. The idea of a Big Experiment is a way of understanding history, and thus a history-based way of understanding morality. It is not a hypothesis about the psychology involved among the people 'making' history.
Even the wreckage of Nazism, BTW, left some benefits behind. In the English-speaking countries, especially, the war seems to have thoroughly discredited eugenic ideas, for example, so that have disappeared from the fray.
Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.