Richard Rorty’s “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality”: Response

Rorty advances several thesis in his essay, but his pragmatism shows itself in the orientation of the essay: while he would like us to have certain beliefs, the philosophy that he advances in the article itself states that there is little hope of convincing anyone reading the article who strongly disagrees with him. Instead, he wants those of us who already agree with him, or who are inclined to agree, to adopt a certain policy of action. This policy is to focus on using education to raise successive generations that hold the values of the enlightenment. According to Rorty, this will eventually create what he calls the “enlightenment utopia.” This philosophy is entirely logical with the basic suppositions that he brings into the argument, but I do not agree with some of his assumptions about the world.
Rorty’s solution to conflict and genocide is mechanistic: he wants us to produce children who will grow up with our values in a similar way that we might produce cars at a factory. We take certain basic alloy of a human mind, and apply the tools of material comfort and education in liberal values to create our ideal citizen. This si a natural result of Rorty’s rigid insistence on a complete lack of innately human moral qualities. Because there is nothing inside us that is “relevant to moral choice”, we are completely at the mercy of what is outside of us. However, it leaves no room for the fact that there are infinite examples of sympathy and sentimentalism by those who have neither comfort nor security, and jus as many visa versa. As the recent economic crash, which was caused in large part by the uncontrollable greed of banks and other lending institutions demonstrates, it is possible for a person to be raised in absolute comfort and security, and receive the best liberal education that money can buy, yet still cause economic destitution to untold numbers of innocent people. There may be general rules that can increase the likelihood of creating a person who shares the values of the enlightenment, but even if we do exactly as Rorty tells us, we cannot ignore the aspect of human choice.
Rorty’s historical analysis is superficial and incomplete. What is especially startling is how Rorty contradicts his own previous claims. For example, he states in the essay that it is up those in power to change the situation, yet his own book “Achieving Our Country,” he criticizes “the Marxist cult of the proletariat, the belief that there is virtue only among the oppressed” which he sates has “brushed aside fifty years’ worth of off-and-on cooperation between the elites and the oppressed” (65). The view presented in Rorty’s book is that this cooperation is required for any real progress to be made. Yet that idea is ignored in this article.

If history is established as the only legitimate guide to human behavior, than the next step is to look at history at see what works. Our understanding of history creates how we respond to it, and Rorty’s understand ignores very important aspects of history. Rorty’s understanding of encourages us that there are a limited amount of people” who have the power to change things,” and that like it or not “We shall have to accept the fact that the fate of the women of Bosnia depends on whether TV journalists mange to do for them what Harriet Beech Stowe did for black slaves, whether these TV journalists can make us, the audience back in the safe countries, fell that these women are more like us, more like real human beings, tan we had realized.” Rorty repeatedly references the material aspect of this group, saying, “Security and sympathy go together.” He has come to the conclusion that those who live comfortable lives typically hold the values of the enlightenment. Therefore, change can only come to places such as Bosnia from without, and that wealthy western nations must consciously raise it’s youth to be this external influence. In Rorty’s words, “Producing generations of nice, tolerant, well-off, secure, other-respecting students…in all parts of the world is just what is needed– indeed, all that is needed–to achieve an Enlightenment utopia.” While he admits that “…it is revolting to thinks that our only hope for a decent society consists in softening the self-satisfied hearts of a leisure class,” this is the only way that he can plausibly imagine widespread social change.
While there are many ways in which I disagree with Rorty’s analysis, there are more generable aspects of his approach that I find necessary. The most important of these is his focus on practical action for worldly effects. In this paper, he emphasizes how pragmatism is concerned with philosophical and global practicality in achieving social and political goals. This is clearly an important theme for Rorty; he also states in Achieving Our Country that “the left should put a moratorium on theory. It should try to kick its philosophy habit,” (91) and criticizes theoretical leftist books for having “on a level of abstraction too high to encourage any particular political initiative” (78). Although he does not say so explicitly, Rorty is making the exact same critique of contemporary philosophy, arguing that philosophy is to abstract to have concrete results, even implying “philosophy should try to kick it’s Philosophy habit.” Even though I disagree strongly with Rorty’ conclusions, the goal of attempting to turn thought into action is an admirable one.

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