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Re: [boston-philosophy] Pragmatism and the Metaphysics Club; slavery and absolutely evil

From: John B.
Sent on: Saturday, December 15, 2012 4:09 PM
Lets take this as the heart of Mike's argument, "I suspect that Menand fears that explicitly admitting Pragmatism's true origins will discredit Pragmatism and its founders.  And I think that it does. After all, wasn't slavery an absolute evil? And doesn't the existence of one absolute evil disprove Pragmatism?"

To speak about this in a Pragmatist vocabulary: "Deploying the language of 'absolutes' or, equivalently, 'rights' is a rhetorical ploy that may be useful at times, although it is always unnecessary, but doesn't correspond to any underlying reality."  Each person will have a different assessment of how evil slavery is and what it is worth to try to bring about its end in the future.  (Mike, you say this when you note that blacks and whites may tend to exhibit different weighting of the magnitude of the evil.)  Some may dislike this arrangement of the facts. Some may wish that everyone agreed to tag it with the rhetoric "absolutely evil," but the fact is that everyone does not.  Maybe we wish that the moral world consisted of shining absolutes, but it does not.  Every attempt to create verbal constructions that will show it to so consist has failed.  

So given this arrangement of the facts how does a pre-civil war pragmatist speak about the situation when not trying to deploy persuasive rhetoric or when possessed with the view that one ought not do so.  Maybe something like this.  "Slavery is the worst thing about this nation in my view. It is so bad that if there was an organized effort that gave me a realistic hope of ending it within the nation, then I would lay down my life to contribute to that cause.  Such an effort would require a huge number of people being willing to do so.  There might not be enough people who believe as I do, who would be willing to sacrifice their lives for this cause, even if it was a well organized effort.  But, it would be best if we could accomplish this and also preserve the union. If we do not also preserve the union then the great experiment of this nation will be at grave risk, and democracy will be taken for a failure around the world.  That would also be a great evil.  Since this whole problem is due to the willingness of the South to exploit blacks with slavery, and they are crazy in their determination to preserve slavery, maybe we could maneuver them into acting in such a way as to unite all of us Northerners who despise slavery with all of us Northerners who would fight to preserve the Union.  If we could get the South to behave so rashly as to rebel against the Federal authority and attack us, then we might get rid of slavery and preserve the Union by means of a punishing war against the rebellious South.  Given the overwhelming industrial and population superiority of the North, such a war probably wouldn't last long before the South was crushed, and it offers our best hope of getting rid of slavery while establishing that we are 'one nation, indivisible' for all time.  If 25000 were killed, even 50000, including me, it would be worth it to get rid of slavery affecting millions and blighting the nation's future. Maybe it would even be worth it if far larger numbers perished in a successful such effort, but we can hope that even these estimates will be far higher than the reality."

This imagined pragmatist seems very admirable to me, thinking here without absolutes.  These could even be Lincoln's private thoughts.  Of course as Lincoln said in the Second Inaugural "Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained."  Pragmatists are willing to act on hopes for the future, but know that they can be optimistic at times.  

Pragmatist language must always be situated in a real time. The pragmatists "moral transcendent"  is the possibility of a better future. Pragmatists make decisions about slavery and war without knowing what the costs and outcome will be. Platonists, even Kantian Platonists, pretend that they speak for all times, but Pragmatists believe that such talk is theistic and imaginary at its core.  Pragmatists say that there is no moral choice that is real that includes "if you knew how many would die in the next war would you..."  But, even without accepting absolutes some pre-civil war Pragmatists who believed that the war would be worse than it actually was, might still have entered it if they had very strong views about the evil of slavery.  They know that not everyone can be made to agree.


On Sat, Dec 15, 2012 at 12:20 PM, mike <[address removed]> wrote:

I suspect that Menand fears that explicitly admitting Pragmatism's true origins will discredit Pragmatism and its founders.


And I think that it does. After all, wasn't slavery an absolute evil? And doesn't the existence of one absolute evil disprove Pragmatism?

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