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May 28, 2008


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Careful not to confuse temporality and causality. Just 'cause deconstruction "followed existentialism" and Paul de Man was implicated in Nazi collaboration does not mean that deconstruction "demolishes the possibility of ethics". Deconstruction demolishes the possibility of epistemological foundationalism but it does not necessarily erode the foundations of ethics. The tendency towards conflating epistemology and ethics is a vestige of Enlightenment reasoning. A wrong-headed attempt to elaborate the G.U.T. of philosophy. Ethical living is a choice, more akin to existentialism of the Kierkegaardian kind.


Unhunh, the Englightenment is the period in which I operate. It seems wonderful to me having living through the Dark Ages. I am proud to be an 18th century Fool among the postmodern Wise. I guess, Maureen, we both date ourselves, writing period pieces from different periods.

Jeff Doyle

I can believe that "what is going on?" is the first ethical question without believing that it has a single correct answer. My understanding is that the ethical issue alluded to is the need to decide whether - among all the things that are going on or might be considered to be going on - what is salient is that John is saying something mean to Sally, they are both being ugly parents by fighting in front of the kids, they are wasting gas by driving an SUV, or Sally is being selfish by going on vacation while her sister is going through chemotherapy. Asking "what is going on" is primary because it selects and frames the ethical enterprise. The question of whether the universe is made out of red jelly beans or is simply an epiphenomenon of the abyss between vocables is irrelevant.


The point is that upon how things seem to us hangs a moral fate. The point is that hermeneutics in real life is in itself a form of moral action, or habit. The eye frames the picture, sees or misses the pattern. What I take Neibuhr to be saying is that we are morally responsible for our blindness, or selective vision, for what we see and what we overlook. That is a shocking suggestion. How can we be held accountable for what we do not see? Well, because we have cultivated habits of inattention, and partial attention, and glibness, that lead us not to see what makes us uncomfortable. I think this is a profound point. And, actually, an indictment.

Taking this starting point, we have to ask whether the blizzard of words around theory of meaning is not intentionally obfuscatory of moral responsiblity. That was the question raised in my post. I think certain kinds of theoretical wordiness are not illuminating but intentionally dimming. They distract from the urgency of seeing what is going on, naming it, and taking the heat for so doing.

As they used to say of my wife's father, who was purportedly deaf, "He hears well enough when he wants to."

What prevents us from seeing what is going on is very often cowardice, operating at the preconscious level of eye and ear. "Eh, Phil, eh Phil, speak up boy! I can't hear ye." Right.

A lot happened since 2001 to our Constitution. Did you see that? Notice that? Maybe you were not paying attention. It didn't receive a lot of press. So, surely, we are not responsible. We did not even notice. As you well say, everything has more than one interpretation.

Jeff Doyle

Agreed on all points except for the way the metaphor of overlooking suggests the independent existence of the pattern apart from the observer. I could believe or disbelieve in the independent existence of the pattern without prejudice to the validity of Niebuhr's dictum.

I think what is going on with arguments of the "If God does not exist, everything is permitted" variety is a failure to grasp the full significance of the death of god. Blaming the continentals for this is a bit too easy - A.J. Ayer would wholeheartedly agree that appeals to metaphysics are simply ethical intensifiers. The real problem arises when such 20th century seed falls into the paradigmatically foundationalist American psyche.

Look at the structure of the sentence and the way what is denied in the first clause is assumed in the second. If god does not exist, then the concept of anything being permitted in the sense intended is simply meaningless.

I think a lot of people assume that we will behave badly unless we believe that we are "accountable" to something or someone. Or at least that others would. Just like most people believe that others tend to vote in their own narrow economic self-interest even though they themselves don't.

The assertion that "epistemological relativism entails moral relativism" sounds perfectly reasonable if you believe that the epistemological and the ethical registers are connected in such a way to permit entailment. (Or, more cynically, if you believe that we need to pretend they are in order to keep the rabble in line.)


Jeff, which of the three brass monkeys is your personal favorite? I have a set by my computer, and rest my mitre board on them.


"During the 1930s, Niebuhr was a prominent leader of the militant faction of the Socialist Party of America. He promoted adoption of the United front agenda of the Communist Party USA, a position in sharp contrast to ideas later in his career. According to the autobiography of his factional opponent Louis Waldman, Niebuhr even led military drill exercises among the young members.

"During the outbreak of World War II, the pacifist leanings of his liberal roots were challenged. Niebuhr began to distance himself from the pacifism of his more liberal colleagues and became a staunch advocate for the war. Niebuhr soon left the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace-oriented group of theologians and ministers, and became one of their harshest critics. This departure from his peers evolved into a movement known as Christian Realism. Niebuhr is widely considered its primary advocate. Christian Realism provided a more tough-minded approach to politics than the idealism held by many of Niebuhr's contemporaries. Within the framework of Christian Realism, Niebuhr became a supporter of US action in World War II, anti-communism, and the development of nuclear weapons." wp

Know very little about Niebuhr, but he seems, not unlike the rest of us, a bit uncertain of what was going on.


Thank you, Tom, very interesting. I don't know his work or its context. To have a sense of what is going on is already to have a moral stance. The eye no less than hand, foot, or mouth is an organ of ethical action. Does not mean that what Niebuhr "saw" that right, but that his vision is one for which he is accountable, right or wrong? That strikes me as a laudable position.

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