05 September 2010

Pluralism and the Big Experiment

On Friday, I quoted William James thus:

"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.


Henry said...


Free-love advocates would not forbid monogamous relationships among those who desire them; they merely seek the freedom to engage in conduct that does not harm others. Even if they were motivated by lust, satisfying lust in consensual relationships is a good thing.

Nazis, by contrast, sought to achieve good for themselves (lebensraum) at the expense of others. In plain English, they murdered others in order to steal their property. The fact that some Nazis were miserable in the Weimar Republic and stood to benefit from such murders does not make Naziism an attempt to achieve the maximum amount of good in this world. To attempt to achieve good for oneself by doing evil is not an attempt to achieve the maximum amount of good in this world.

Henry said...

To conclude my above comments, Nazis are to other political groups as rapists are to free-love advocates.

Christopher said...

"Even if they were motivated by lust, satisfying lust in consensual relationships is a good thing."

That's a rather hotly contested point. Many would argue, for example, that however consensual, the spread of free-love ideas undermines child-raising arrangements, clogs the courts with property-splitting disputes, etc.

"Nazis are to other political groups as rapists are to free-love advocates."

I assure you I'm not soft on Nazism. I do believe, though, that taking a long view of the turmoil caused by its rise and fall, one can plausibly see it as part of a historical process that represents progress. That is not at all a matter of consolation for its victims. Nor should it be. The good it has quite accidentally done is something like the good a boil does you when it comes to a head so it can be lanced.

The Jamesian progressive view of history is akin to theodicy, although it is a theodicy that works on behalf of a God admittedly only a limited struggling sort of Being Himself. A God within a pluralistic universe, not an absolute Monarch, might have thought that the best available way to get the world, or the western chunk of it, past a certain combination of Hegelianism and eugenics was to let such ideas have their way, and have the flagship regime thereof end ignominously and claustrophobically in a bunker.

Henry said...


Your latest reply is well-taken, and I will not dispute it. I will say only that a god who would rid the world of eugenics by allowing the Holocaust would be a stupid god, because it would take eons for the enforcement of eugenics laws (as in Buck v. Bell) to equal the harm that the Nazis did.

Paul Krugman wrote that some people advocate cutting back Social Security benefits because, if we don't, then some time in the future, we might have to cut back Social Security benefits. The god who would allow the Holocaust in order to save the world from eugenics would be even more foolish than these advocates of cutting back Social Security benefits. This god's "solution" would not be the same as the evil that it is intended to prevent, as in Krugman's example; it would be even worse.

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.