Up until this point, I’ve avoided talking about Jordan Peterson in any serious manner. In part because I thought (and continue to hope) that he’s the intellectual version of a fad diet who will shortly become irrelevant. My general impression of him is that when he’s right, he’s saying rather banal, cliché truisms with an undeserved bombastic air of profundity, such as his assertions that there are biological differences between men and women, that many religious myths share some similar features, or that taking personal responsibility is good. When he’s wrong, he’s talking way out of the depth of his understanding in his field (like the infamous lobster comment or this bizarre nonsense). Either way, it doesn’t make for a rather good use of time or opportunity for interesting, productive discussion—especially when his galaxy-brained cult-like fanboys are ready to pounce on anyone who criticizes their dear leader.
However, since everyone seems to be as obsessed with Jordan Peterson as he is with himself, I guess it’s finally time to talk about one example of him ignorantly bloviating that particularly annoys me as a philosophy student: his comments on postmodernism. There’s a lot one can talk about with Jordan Peterson because he says almost anything that comes to his mind about any topic, but for the present purposes you can pretend that I think everything he’s ever said that isn’t about postmodern is the deepest, most insightful thing ever said by any thinker in the history of western thought. I’m not interested in defending any overarching claims about him as a thinker. At the very least, his work on personality psychology does seem rather well respected and he surely got to his prestigious academic position with some merit, though I am not qualified to really appraise it. I am, however, more prepared to talk about his rather confused comments on philosophy which might shed light on why people are generally frustrated with his overly self-confident presence as a public intellectual.
Postmodernism, According to Peterson
Peterson often makes comments about “postmodern neo-Marxism,” which he calls a “rejection of the western tradition.” Now the very phrase “postmodern neo-Marxism” strikes anyone remotely familiar with the academic literature on postmodernism and Marxism as bizarre and confused. Postmodernism is usually characterized as skepticism towards grand general theories. Marxism is a grand general theory about how class struggle and economic conditions shape the trajectory of history. Clearly, those two views are not at all compatible. As such, much of the history of twentieth century academia is a history of Marxists and postmodernists fighting and butting heads.
Postmodernism is essentially the claim that (1) since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived (and those are tightly associated) then (2) no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.
That’s the fundamental claim. An immediate secondary claim (and this is where the Marxism emerges) is something like “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.”
He then goes on to concede to the criticism that Marxism and postmodernism can’t be described as theoretically aligned, but moves the goal posts to say that they are practically aligned in politics. Further, he contends postmodernisms’ commitment to analyze power structures is just “a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare.”
It is worth noting that this attempt at nuance is surely an improvement at Peterson’s previous comments that postmodern a Marxism are a coherent “doctrine” that just hated logic and western values. But his attempt at a “definition” is unsatisfactorily way too restrictive for every thinker who gets called “postmodern,” and the attempt to link the politics of postmodernism up with the politics of Marxism is a complete mischaracterization. Further, his attempt to “critique” this position, whatever one wants to call it, is either (at best) vague and imprecise or (at worst) utterly fails. Finally, there really is no alliance between postmodernists and Marxists. Whether or not a thinker is called a “postmodernist” or not is not a very good predictor of their political views.
Why Peterson’s Definition isn’t what Postmodernists Believe and his Critique Fails
First of all, I am really not interested in dying on the hill of offering a better “definition” of postmodernism. Like any good Wittgensteinian, I tend to think you can’t really give a good list of necessary and sufficient conditions that perfectly captures all the subtle ways we use a word. The meaning of the word is the way it is used. Even within academia postmodernism has such broad, varied usage that I’m not sure it has a coherent meaning. Indeed, Foucault once remarked in a 1983 interview when asked about postmodernism, “What are we calling postmodernity? I’m not up to date.” The best I can give is Lyotard’s classic “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which is rather vague and oversimplified. Because this is the best I think one can do given how wildly unpredictable the usage of postmodernism is, we’re probably better off just not putting too much stock in it either as one’s own philosophical position or as the biggest existential threat to western civilization and we should talk about more substantive philosophical disagreements.
That said, Jordan Peterson’s definition is unsatisfactory and shows a poor understanding of postmodernism. While the first half of the fundamental claim is a pretty good stab at generalizing a view most philosophers who get labeled as postmodern agree with, the second half is rather unclear since it’s uncertain what Peterson means by “canonical.” If he takes this to mean that we have no determinate way of determining which interpretations are valid, then that would be a good summary of most postmodernists and an implication of Peterson’s own professed Jamesian pragmatism. If what he thinks it means is that all perspectives are as valid as any other and we have no way of deciphering which ones are better than the other, then nobody relevant believes that.
Peterson objects to is the implication “that there are an unspecifiable number of VALID interpretations.” He tries to refute this by citing Charles Pierce (who actually did not at all hold this view) and William James on the pragmatic criterion of truth to give meaning to “valid interpretations.” He says valid means “when the proposition or interpretation is acted out in the world, the desired outcome within the specific timeframe ensues.” However, it doesn’t follow from this view that you can specify the number of valid interpretations. It just begs the question of how we should understand what “the desired outcome” means, which just puts the perspectivism back a level. Even if we did agree on a determinate “desired outcome,” there are still multiple beliefs one could have to achieve a desired outcome. To put it in a pragmatically-minded cliché, there is more than one way to skin a cat. This is why, in fact, William James was a pluralist.
Perhaps by “specifiable,” he doesn’t mean we can readily quantify the number of valid interpretations, just that the number is not infinite. However, nobody believes there are an infinite number of valid perspectives we should consider. The assertion that a priori we cannot quantify the number of valid perspectives does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid or that there are an infinite number of valid perspectives. Peterson’s argument that we have limited cognitive capacities to consider all possible perspectives is true, it’s just not a refutation of anything postmodernists believe. On this point, it is worth quoting Richard Rorty—one who was both a Jamesian pragmatist and usually gets called postmodern—from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:
When it is said, for example, that coherentist or pragmatic “theories of truth” allow for the possibility that many incompatible theories would satisfy the conditions set for “the truth,” the coherentist or pragmatist usually replies this merely shows that we have no grounds for choice among thse candidates for “the truth.” The moral to draw is not to say they have offered inadequate analyses of “true,” but that there are some terms—for example, “the true theory,” “the right thing to do”—which are, intuitively and grammatically singular, but for which no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can be given which will pick out a unique referent. This fact, they say, should not be surprising. Nobody thinks that there are necessary and sufficient conditions which will pick out, for example, the unique referent of “the best thing for her to have done on finding herself in that rather embarrassing situation,” though plausible conditions can be given as to which will shorten a list of competing incompatible candidates. Why should it be any different for the referents of “what she should have done in that ghastly moral dilemma” or “the Good Life for man” or “what the world is really made of?” [Emphasis mine]
The fact that we cannot readily quantify a limited number of candidates for interpretations or decide between them algorithmically does not that we have absolutely no ways to tell which interpretation is valid, that all interpretations are equally valid, nor does it mean there are an infinite number of potentially valid interpretations. Really, the view that many (though not all) postmodernists actually hold under this “primary claim” is not all that substantially different from Peterson’s own Jamesian pragmatism.
As for the secondary claim, which he thinks is Marxist, that “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.” This view is basically just one just Foucault might have held depending on how you read him. Some would argue this isn’t even a good reading of Foucault because such sweeping generalizations about “all interpretations” is rather uncharacteristic of a philosopher who’s skeptical of sweeping generalizations. However, you read Foucault (and I’m not really prepared to take a strong stand either way), it certainly isn’t the view of all postmodernists. Rorty criticized this habit of Foucault (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 63), and thought that even if power does shape modern subjectivity it’s worth the tradeoff in the gains to freedom that modern liberalism has brought and thus is not the best way to view. It’s also telling that Peterson doesn’t even try to critique this claim and just dogmatically dismisses it.
Postmodernism’s Alleged Alliance with Marxism
So much for his vague, weak argument against a straw man. Now let’s see if there’s any merit to Peterson’s thought that Marxism and postmodernism have some important resemblance or philosophical alliance. Peterson says that the secondary claim of postmodernism is where the similarity to Marxism comes. However, Marx simply did not think that all theories are just attempts to grab power in the Foucauldian sense: he didn’t think that dialectical materialism the labor theory of value were just power grabs, and predicted a day when there was no competition for power in the first place at the end of history since a communist society would be classless. If anything, it’s the influence of Nietzsche’s Will to Power on Foucault, and oddly enough Peterson thinks rather highly of Nietzsche (even though Nietzsche anticipated postmodernism in rather important ways).
The only feature that they share is a narrative of one group trying to dominate another group. But if any attempt to describe oppression in society is somehow “Marxist,” that means right libertarians who talk about how the state and crony capitalist are oppressing and coercing the general public are “Marxist,” evangelicals who say Christians are oppressed by powerful liberal elites are “Marxist,” even Jordan Peterson himself is a “Marxist” when he whines about these postmodern Marxist boogeymen are trying to silence his free speech. He both defines “postmodernism” too narrowly, and then uses “Marxism” in such a loose manner that it basically means nothing.
Further, there’s Peterson’s claim that due to identity politics, postmodernists and Marxists now just have a practical political alliance even if it’s theoretically illogical. The only evidence he really gives of this alleged “alliance” is that Derrida and Foucault were Marxists when they were younger who “barely repented” from Marxism and that courses like critical theory and gender studies read Marxists and postmodernists. That they barely repented is simply a lie, Foucault left all his associations with Marxist parties and expunged his earlier works of Marxist themes. But the mere fact that someone once was a Marxist and then criticized Marxism later in their life doesn’t mean there was a continuing alliance between believers in their thought and Marxism. Alasdair MacIntyre was influenced by Marx when he was young and became a Catholic neo-Aristotelian, nobody thinks that he “barely repented” and there’s some overarching alliance between traditionalist Aristotelians and Marxists.
As for the claim that postmodernists and Marxists are read in gender studies, it’s just absurd to think that’s evidence of some menacing “practical alliance.” The reason they’re read in those is mostly courses is to provide contrast for the students of opposing perspectives. This is like saying that because Rawlsian libertarians are taken seriously by academic political philosophers there’s some massive political alliance between libertarians and progressive liberals.
Really, trying to connect postmodernism to any political ideology shows a laughably weak understanding of both postmodernism and political theory. You have postmodernists identifying as everything from far leftists (Foucault), to progressive liberals (Richard Rorty), to classical liberals (Deirdre McClosky), to anarchists (Saul Newman), to religious conservatives (like Peter Blum and James K.A. Smith). They don’t all buy identity politics uniformly, Richard Rorty criticized the left for focusing on identity issues over economic politics and was skeptical of the usefulness of a lot of critical theory. There really is no necessary connection between one’s highly theoretical views on epistemic justification, truth, and the usefulness of metaphysics or other metanarratives and one’s more concrete views on culture or politics.
Now Peterson can claim all the people I’ve listed aren’t “really” postmodern and double down on his much narrower, idiosyncratic definition of postmodernism which has very little relation to the way anyone who knows philosophy uses it. Fine, that’s a trivial semantic debate I’m not really interested in having. But it does create a problem for him: he wants to claim that postmodernism is this pernicious, all-encompassing threat that has consumed all of the humanities and social sciences which hates western civilization. He then wants to define postmodernism so narrowly that it merely describes the views of basically just Foucault. He wants to have his cake and eat it too: define postmodernism narrowly to evade criticism that he’s using it loosely, and use it as a scare term for the entire modern left.
Peterson’s Other Miscellaneous Dismissals of Postmodernism
The rest of what he has to say about postmodernism is all absurd straw men with absolutely no basis in anything anyone has ever argued. He thinks postmodernists “don’t believe in logic” when, for example, Richard Rorty was an analytic philosopher who spent the early parts of his career obsessed with the logic of language. He thinks they “don’t believe in dialogue” when Rorty’s whole aspiration was to turn all of society into one continuous dialogue and reimagine philosophy as the “conversation of culture). Or that they believe “you don’t have an individual identity” when K. Anthony Appiah, who encourages “banal ‘postmodernism’” about race, believes that the individual dimensions of identity are problematically superseded by the collective dimensions. This whole “definition and critique” of postmodernism is clearly just a post-hoc rationalization for him to continue to dishonestly straw man all leftists with an absurd monolithic conspiracy theory. The only people who are playing “crooked games” or are “neck-deep in deceit” are ignorant hucksters like Peterson bloviating about topics they clearly know nothing about with absurd levels of unmerited confidence.
Really, it’s ironic that Peterson has such irrational antipathy towards postmodernism. A ton of the views he champions (a pragmatic theory of truth, a respect for Nietzsche’s use of genealogy, a naturalist emphasis on the continuity between animals and humans, etc.) are all views that are often called “postmodern” depending on how broadly one understands “incredulity towards metanarratives,” and at the very least were extremely influential over most postmodern philosophers and echoed in their work. Maybe if Peterson showed a fraction of the openness to dialogue and debate he dishonestly pretends to have and actually read postmodernists outside of a secondary source, he’d discover a lot to agree with.
[Editors note: The last line has been changed from an earlier version with an incorrect statement about Peterson’s source Explaining Postmodernism.]
Note: This was written about 18 months ago and posted on my now-defunct blog. I figure it might be worth reposting, mostly for posterity.
Throughout most of my youth, like the majority of middle-class Americans, I was raised as a Christian. As an argumentative and nerdy teenager, much of the intellectual energy throughout my adolescence was dedicated to the fervent apologetics of the Christian faith. In my eyes, I was trying to defend some deep, correspondent truth about the Lord. Today, I realize that was mostly youthful self-deception. I was trying to make beliefs I had made an epistemic and personal commitment to due to my social situation work with the experiences of the modern world I was thrust into. There is nothing wrong with my attempts to find some reason to cling to my contingent religious beliefs, and there is nothing wrong with people who succeed in that endeavor, but it was wrong for me to think I was doing anything more than that—something like defending eternal truths I knew certainly through faith, which I did so dogmatically.
As the title of this post suggests, my quest to make my religious beliefs work was ultimately unsuccessful, or at least have been up until this point (I’m not arrogant enough to assume I’ve reached the end of my spiritual/religious journey). For a variety of personal and intellectual reasons, I have since become a sort of agnostic/atheist in the mold of Nietzsche, or more accurately James (not Dawkins). Most of the point of this post is to spell out for my own therapeutic reasons the philosophical and personal reasons why I have the religious beliefs I have now at the young age of twenty. To the readers, this is ultimately a selfish post in that as the target audience is myself, both present and future. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy this autobiographical/religious/philosophical mind vomit. Please, read it as like you would a novel—albeit a poorly written one—and not a philosophical or religious treatise.
Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning of my childhood. But to understand that, I guess it’s better to start with my mother and father’s upbringing. My mother came from an intensely religious Baptist household with a mother who, to be blunt, used religion as a manipulative tool to the point of abuse. If her children disobeyed her, it was obviously the influence of Satan. Of course, any popular culture throughout my mother’s childhood was regarded as the work of Satan. I’ll spare you the details, but the upshot is this caused my mother some religious struggles that I inherited. My father came from a sincere though not devoted Catholic family. For much of my father’s young adulthood and late adolescence, religion took a backseat. When my parents met my father was an agnostic. He converted to Christianity by the time they married, but his religious beliefs were always more intimately personal and connected with his individual, private pursuit of happiness than anything else—a fact that has profoundly influenced the way I think about religion as a whole.
Though neither of my parents were at all interested in shoving religion down my throat, I kind of shoved it down my own throat as a child. I was surrounded by evangelical—for want of better word—propaganda throughout my childhood as we mostly attended non-denominational, moderately evangelical churches throughout my childhood. My mother mostly sheltered me from my grandmother’s abuses of religion, and she reacted to her grandmother’s excesses appropriately by trying to make my religious upbringing centered on examples of God’s love. However, her struggles with religion still had an impact on me as she wavered between her adult commitments to an image of an all-loving deity with the remnants of her mother’s conception of good as the angry, vengeful, jealous God of the Old Testament. She never really manifestly expressed the latter conception, but it was implicit, just subtlety enough for my young mind to notice, in the way some of the churches we chose in my youth expressed the Gospel.
At the age of seven, we moved from Michigan to the heart of the Bible belt in Lynchburg, VA, home to one of the largest evangelical colleges in the world: Liberty University. Many of the churches we attended in Virginia had Liberty professors as youth leaders, ministers, and the like, so Jerry Falwell’s Southern Baptist conception of God which aligned closely with my grandmother’s was an influence on me through my early teenage years. Naturally, religion was closely linked with political issues of the day. God blessed Bush’s war in Iraq, homosexuality was an abhorrent sin, abortion was murder, and nonsense like that was fed to me. Of course, evolution was an atheist lie and I remember watching creationist woo lectures with my mother while she was taking an online biology course from Liberty (she isn’t a creationist, for the record, and her major was psychology, which Liberty taught well enough).
Though it certainly wasn’t as extreme, some of the scenes in the documentary Jesus Camp are vaguely like experiences I had around this time. I was an odd kid who got interested in these serious “adult” issues at the age of nine while most of my friends were watching cartoons, so I swallowed the stock evangelical stance hook, line, and sinker. But there was something contradictory between my mother’s reservations about an angry God and refusal to push my religious beliefs in any direction thanks to the influence of her mother, my father’s general silence about religious issues unless the conversation got personal or political, and the strong evangelical rhetoric that the culture around me was spewing.
Around seventh grade, we moved from Virginia to another section of the Bible-Belt, Tennessee. For my early high school years, my interest in evangelical apologetics mostly continued. However, religion mostly took a backseat to my political views. With the beginning of the recession, I became far more interested in economics: I wanted an explanation for why there were tents with homeless people living in them on that hill next to Lowe’s. My intellectual journey on economics is a topic for another day, but generally, the political component of my religious views was slowly becoming less and less salient. I became more apathetic about social issues and more focused on economic issues.
It was around this time I also became skeptical of the theologically-justified nationalistic war-mongering fed to me by the Liberty crowd in Virginia. We lived near Ft. Campbell and I had the displeasure of watching family after family of my friends ruined because their dad went to Afghanistan and didn’t come back the same, or didn’t come back at all. The whole idea of war just seemed cruel and almost unjustifiable to me, even though I still would spout the conservative line on it externally I was internally torn. I would say I was beginning to subconsciously reject Christianity’s own ontology of violence (apologies to Millbank).
It was also around this time, ninth grade, that I began more systemically reading the Old Testament. War is a common theme throughout the whole thing, and all I could think of as I read about the conquer of Israel, the slaying of Amalekites, the book of Job, and the like were my personal experiences with my friends who were deeply affected by the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this point, there was skepticism and doubt about how God could justly wage war and commit cruel mass-killings in Biblical times.
Around tenth grade, I became immaturely interested in philosophy. I’m ashamed to admit it today, but Ayn Rand was my gateway drug to what would become an obsession of mine up until now. I loved elements of Rand’s ethics, her individualism, her intense humanism (which I still appreciate on some level), and of course her economics (which I also still appreciate, though they are oversimplified). But her polemics against religion and her simplistic epistemological opposition between faith and reason put me in an odd position. What was I, a committed evangelical Christian, to do with my affinities with Rand? Naturally, I should’ve turned to Aquinas, whose arguments for the existence of God and his unification of faith and reason I now can appreciate. However, at the time, I instead had the misfortune of turning to Descartes, whose rationalism seemed to me seemed to jive with what I saw in Rand’s epistemology (today, I definitely would not say that about Rand and Descartes at all as Rand is far more Aristotelian, ah the sophomoric follies of youth). Almost all of my subsequent intellectual journey with religion and philosophy could be considered a fairly radical reaction to the dogmas that I had bought at this time.
I had fully bought perhaps the worst of Rand and Descartes. Descartes’ philosophical method and “proofs” of God, with all the messy metaphysical presumptions of mind-body dualism (though I might’ve implicitly made a greater separation between “mind” and “spirit” than Descartes would’ve), the correspondence theory of truth, quest for certainty, and spectator theory of knowledge, the ego theory of the self, and libertarian free will. From Rand I got the worst modernist presumptions she took from Descartes, what Bernstein calls the “Cartesian Anxiety” in her dogmatic demand for objectivism, as well as her idiosyncratic views on altruism (though I never really accepted ethical egoism, or believed she was really an ethical egoist). The flat, horribly written protagonists of Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead I took to be somehow emblematic of the Christian conception of God (don’t ask me what in the hell I was thinking). Somehow, I couldn’t explain it then coherently and cringe at it now, I had found a philosophical foundation of sorts for a capital-C Certain belief in protestant Christianity in God and a watered down Randian ethics. Around this time, I also took an AP European History class, and my studies (and complete misreadings of) traditional Lutheranism and Catholicism reinforced my metaphysical libertarianism and Cartesian epistemological tendencies.
Around this time, my parents became dissatisfied with the aesthetic and teachings of evangelical non-denominational churches, and we started attending a run-of-the-mill, mainline PCUSA church my mom had discovered through charity programs she encountered as a social worker. I certainly didn’t buy Presbyterianism’s lingering affinities for Calvinism inherited from Knox (such as their attempt to retain the language of predestination while affirming Free Will), but the far more politically moderate to apolitical sermons, as well as focus on the God of the New Testament as opposed to my Grandmother’s God, was a refreshing change of pace from the evangelical dogmatism I had become accustomed to in Virginia. It fit my emerging Rand-influenced transition to political libertarianism well enough, and the old-church aesthetic and teaching methods fit well with the more philosophical outlook I had taken on religion.
In eleventh grade, we moved back to Michigan in the absolute middle of nowhere. Virtually every single protestant church within a twenty-mile radius was either some sort of dogmatically evangelical nondenominational super-church where the populist, charismatic sermons were brought to you buy Jesus, Inc.; or an equally evangelical tiny rural church with a median age of 75 where the sermons were the somewhat incoherent and rabidly evangelical ramblings of an elderly white man. Our young, upper-middle-class family didn’t fit into the former theologically or demographically and certainly didn’t fit into the later theologically or aesthetically. After about a year of church-shopping, our family stopped going to church altogether.
Abstaining from church did not dull my religion at all. Sure, the ethical doubts I was having at the time and the epistemological doubts caused by my philosophical readings were working in the background, but in a sense, this was my most deeply religious time. I had taken up fishing almost constantly all summer since we lived on a river, and much of my thoughts while sitting with the line in the water revolved around religion or politics. When my thoughts turned religious, there was always a sense of romantic/transcendentalist (I was reading Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman in school at the time) sublimity in nature that I could attribute to God. Fishing, romping around in the woods, hunting, and experiencing nature became the new church for me and was a source of private enjoyment and self-creation (you can already see where my affinities for Rorty come from) in my late teens. Still, most of my intellectual energy was spent on political and economic interests and by now I was a fully committed libertarian.
Subconsciously earlier in my teens, but very consciously by the time I moved to Michigan, I had begun to realize I was at the very least on the homosexual spectrum, quietly identifying as bisexual at the time. The homophobic religious rhetoric of other Christians got on my nerves, but in rural northern Michigan I was mostly insulated from it and it never affected me too deeply. Since I assumed I was bi, it wasn’t that huge a deal in terms of my identity even if homosexuality was a sin, which I doubted it was though I couldn’t explain why, so I never really thought too deeply about it. However, it did contribute to my ethical doubts about Christianity further; if God says homosexuality is a sin, and Christians are somehow justified in oppressing homosexuality, how does that bode for God’s cruelty? It became, very quietly, an anxiety akin to the anxieties I was having about war when I moved to Tennessee.
Though abstaining from church didn’t cheapen my experience of religion, my exposure to my grandmother’s angry God did. Up until that point, I had mostly been ignorant of her religious views because we lived so far away; but moving back to Michigan, as well as some health issues she had, thrust her religious fervor back into my—and my mother’s—consciousness. The way she talked about it and acted towards non-Christians reeked of the worst of I Samuel, Johnathan Edwards, John Calvin, and Jerry Falwell rolled into one. My skepticism towards the potential cruelty of the Christian God caused by my experiences with war and homophobia were really intensified by observing my maternal grandmother.
The year was 2013, I had just graduated from High School, I had just turned eighteen, and I had chosen my college. I had applied to some local state school as a backup which I only considered because it was a full-ride scholarship, my father’s alma-mater, the University of Michigan, and Hillsdale College. After the finances were taken care of, I’m fortunate enough to be a member of the upper-middle class, the real choices were between Michigan and Hillsdale. For better or for worse, I chose the latter.
My reasons for choosing Hillsdale were mostly based on misinformation about the college’s mission. Sure, I knew it was overwhelmingly conservative and religious. But I thought there was far more of a libertarian bent to campus culture. The religious element was sold to me as completely consensual, not enforced by the college at all other than a couple vague comments about “Judeo-Christian values” in the mission statement. I wanted a small college full of intellectually impassioned students who were dedicated to, as the college mission statement said, “Pursuing Truth, Defending Liberty.” The “defending liberty” part made me think the college was more libertarian, and the “pursuing truth” part made me assume it was very open-minded as a liberal arts education was supposed to be. I figured there’d probably be some issues about my budding homosexuality/bisexuality, but since it wasn’t a huge deal at the time for me personally, and some students I’d talked to said it wasn’t a big deal there, I thought I could handle it. Further, I suspected my major was going to be economics, and Hillsdale’s economics department—housing Ludwig von Mises’ library—is a dream come true (my opinion on this hasn’t changed).
If I ever had problems misunderstanding the concept of asymmetric information, the lies I was told as an incoming student to Hillsdale cleared them up. The Hillsdale I got was far more conservative than I could ever imagine and in a ridiculously dogmatic fashion. It was quickly revealed to be not the shining example of classical liberal arts education I had hoped for, but instead little more than a propaganda mill for a particularly nasty brand of Straussian conservatism. The majority of the students were religious in the same sense of my grandmother. Though they would intellectually profess to a different concept of God than my grandmother’s simplistic, lay-man Baptist understanding of God as an angry, jealous judge, the fruits of their faith showed little difference. My homosexual identity—by this point I’d abandoned the term “bisexual”—quickly became a focal point of my religious anxiety. Starting a few weeks in my freshman year, I began to fall into a deep depression, largely thanks to my treatment by these so-called “Christians”—that would cripple me for the next two years and that I am still dealing with the after-shocks of as I write this.
Despite the personal issues I had with my peers at Hillsdale, the two years I spent there were hands-down the two most intellectually exciting years of my life until that point. My first semester, I took an Introduction to Philosophy class. My professor, James Stephens, turned out to be a former Princeton student and had Richard Rorty and Walter Kauffman as mentors. His introductory class revolved first around ancient Greek philosophy, in particular, Plato’s Phaedo, then classical epistemology, particularly Descartes, Kant, and Hume, and a lot of experimental philosophy readings from the likes of Stephen Stitch and Joshua Knobe. The class primarily focused on issues in contemporary metaphysics which I had struggled with since I discovered Rand—like libertarian free will and theories of the self—epistemological issues, and metaphilosophical issues of method. Though only an intro class outside of my major, no class has changed my worldview quite as much as this.
In addition to the in-class readings, I read philosophy prolifically and obsessively outside of class as a matter of personal interest. That semester I had finished Stitch’s book The Fragmentation of Reason (which I wouldn’t have understood without extensive talks with Dr. Stephens in office hours), worked through most of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, basically re-learned Cartesianism, and read Hume’s Treatise. By the end of the class, I had completely changed almost every element of my philosophical world view. I went from a hardcore objectivist Cartesian to a fallibilist pragmatist (I had also read James due to Stitch’s work with him), from a fire-breathing metaphysical libertarian to a squishy compatibilist, from someone who had bought a simple referential view of language to a card-carrying Wittgensteinianist (of the Investigations, that is).
Other classes I took that first semester also would have a large impact on me. In my “Western Heritage” class—Hillsdale’s pretentious and propagandized term for what would usually be called something like “History of Western Thought: Ancient Times to 1600”—I essentially relearned all the theology I had poorly understood in my high school AP Euro class by reading church fathers and Catholic saints like Augustine, Tertullian, and, of course, Aquinas as well as rereading the likes of Luther and Calvin. Additionally, and this would have the most profound intellectual influence on me of anything I have ever read, I read Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty in my first political economy class cemented my epistemological fallibilism (although, I also read Fatal Conceit for pleasure which influenced me even more).
Early on that year, after reading Plato and Augustine, I began to become committed to some sort of Platonism, and for a second considered some sort of Eastern Orthodoxy. By this point, I was a political anarchist and saw the hierarchical and top-down control of Catholicism as too analogous to coercive statist bureaucracy. By contrast, the more communal structure of Orthodoxy, though still Hierarchical, seemed more appealing. To paraphrase Richard Rorty on his own intellectual adolescence, I had desperately wanted to become one with God, a desperation I would later react to violently. I saw Plato’s ideas of the Forms and Augustine’s incorporation of them into Christianity as a means to do that. But as I kept reading, particularly James, Hume, Kant, and Wittgenstein, the epistemological foundations of my Platonist metaphysical and theological stances crumbled. I became absolutely obsessed with the either-or propositions of the “Cartesian anxiety” and made a hobby of talking to my classmates in a Socratic fashion to show that they couldn’t be epistemically Certain in the Cartesian sense, much to the chagrin of most of my classmates. You could’ve played a drinking game of sorts during those conversations in which you took a shot every time I said some variation “How do you know that?” and probably give your child fetal alcohol syndrome, even if you weren’t pregnant or were a male.
In the second semester of my freshman year, I had turned more explicitly to theological readings and topics in my interests. (Keep in mind, I was mostly focusing on economics and math in class, almost all of this was just stuff I did on the side. I didn’t get out much in those days largely due to the social anxiety caused by the homophobia of my classmates.) My fallibilist/pragmatist epistemic orientation, as well as long with conversations with a fellow heterodox Hillsdale student from an Evangelical background, wound up with me getting very interested in “radical theology.” That semester, John Caputo had come to Hillsdale to discuss his book The Insistence of God. I attempted to read it at the time but was not well-versed enough in continental philosophy to really get what was going on in it. Nonetheless, my Jamesean orientation had me deeply fascinated in much of what Caputo was getting across.
My theological interests were twofold: first, more of an epistemic question, how can we know God exists? My conclusion was that we can’t, but whether God exists or not is irrelevant—what matters is the impact the belief of God has on our lives existentially and practically. This was the most I could glean out of Caputo’s premise “God doesn’t exist, he insists” without understanding Derrida, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Foucault. I began calling myself terms like “agnostic Christian,” “ignostic Christian,” or “pragmatist Christian” to try and describe my religious views. This also led me to a thorough rejection of Biblical literalism and infallibility, I claimed it was more a historical document on man’s interaction with God from man’s flawed perspective.
But, now in the forefront, were questions of Christianity’s ethical orientation that had lingered at the back of my mind since the early teens: why did the Christian God seem so cruel to me? I had resolved most of it with my rejection of Biblical infallibility. Chances are, God didn’t order the slaughter of Amalekites, or Satan’s torture of Job, or any of the other cruel acts in the Old Testament—the fallen humans who wrote the Bible misunderstood it. Chances are, most of the Old Testament laws on things like homosexuality were meant specifically for that historically contingent community and were not eternal moral laws and God of the New Testament, as revealed by Jesus, was the most accurate depiction of God in the Bible. Paul’s prima facie screeds against homosexuality in the New Testament, when taken in context and hermeneutically analyzed, probably had nothing to do with homosexuality as we know it today (I found this sermon convincing on that note). God sent Jesus not as a substitute for punishment but to act as an exemplar for how to love and not be cruel to others. I could still defend the rationality of my religious faith on Jamesean grounds, I was quoting Varieties of Religious Experience and Pragmatism more than the Bible at that point. I also flirted with some more metaphysically robust theologies. Death of God theology seemed appealing based off of the little I knew about Nietzsche, and process theology to me bore a beautiful resemblance to Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order. Even saying it now, much of that sounds convincing and if I were to go back to Christianity, most of those beliefs would probably remain in-tact.
But still, there was this nagging doubt that the homophobic, anti-empathetic behavior of the Hillsdale “Christians” somehow revealed something rotten about Christianity as a whole. The fact that the church had committed so many atrocities in the past from Constantine using it to justify war, to the Crusades, to the Spanish conquistadors, to the Salem witch trials, to the persecution of homosexuals and non-believers throughout all of history still rubbed me the wrong way. Jesus’ line about judging faith by its fruits became an incredibly important scripture for me with my interest in William James. That scripture made me extremely skeptical of the argument that the actions of fallen humans do not reflect poorly on the TruthTM about the Christian God. What was the cash value of Christian belief if it seemed so obviously to lead to so much human cruelty throughout history and towards me personally?
That summer and the next semester, two books, both written by my philosophy professor’s mentors coincidentally enough as I had independently come across them, once again revolutionized the way I looked at religion. The first was Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the second was William Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Psychologist, Philosopher, Antichrist which I had read in tandem with most of Nietzsche’s best-known work (ie., Beyond Good and Evil, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Genealogy of Morals, and, most relevant to this discussion, The Antichrist).
Rorty had destroyed any last vestiges of Cartesianism or Platonism I had clung to. His meta-philosophical critique of big-P Philosophy that tries to stand as the ultimate judge of knowledge claims of the various professions around me completely floored me. His incorporation of Kuhnian philosophy of science and Gadamer’s hermeneutics was highly relevant to my research interests in the methodology of economics. Most importantly for religion was his insistence, though more explicit in his later works I had noticed it fairly heavily in PMN, that we are only answerable to other humans. There is no world of the forms to which we can appeal to, there is no God to whom we are answerable to, there is no metaphysical concepts we can rely on to call a statement true or false. The measurement of truth is the extent to which it helps us cope with the world around us, the extent to which it helps us interact with our fellow human beings.
Nietzsche’s concept of the Death of God haunted me, and now that I was beginning to read more continental philosophy some of the concepts in Caputo that flew over my head began to make sense. The Enlightenment Project to ground knowledge had made God, at least for much of the intellectual class who were paying attention to the great philosophical debates, a forced option. No longer could we rely on the Big Other to ground all our values, we had to reevaluate all our values and build a meaningful life for ourselves. Additionally Nietzsche’s two great criticisms of Christianity in the Antichrist stuck in my mind. Nietzsche’s critique that it led to the inculcation of slave morality, a sort of resentiment for the “lower people” didn’t quite stick because it seemed cruel. But his view that Christianity’s command to “store our treasures in heaven” took all the focus off of this world, it ignored all those pragmatic and practical results of our philosophical beliefs that had become so important to me thanks to Matthew 7:16 and William James, and instead focused on our own selfish spiritual destiny did stick.The first critique didn’t quite ring with me because Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarian, and to be honest quite cruel, attitude seemed as bad as what I saw the Christians doing to me. But his criticism of Christianity’s afterworldly focus on the afterlife rather than the fruits of their faith in this life posed a serious threat to my beliefs, and helped explain why the empathetic, homophobic hatred I was experiencing from my classmates was causing so much religious anxiety and cognitive dissonance.
(Note: Clearly, I’m violently oversimplifying and possibly misreading both Nietzsche and Rorty in the previous two paragraphs, but that’s beside the point as I’m more interested in what they made me think of in my intellectual development, not what they actually thought themselves.)
Still, through most of my sophomore year, I tried to resist atheism as best I could and cling to what I saw as salvageable in Christianity: the idea of universal Christian brotherhood and its potential to lead people to be kind to each other was still promising. Essentially, I still wanted to salvage Jesus as a didactic exemplar of moral values of empathy and kindness, if not in some metaphysical ideal of God, at least in the narrative of Jesus’s life and his teaching. Ben Franklin’s proto-pragmatic, yet still virtue ethical, view on religion in his Autobiography lingered in my mind very strongly during this phase. I still used the term “agnostic Christian” through most of that time and self-identified as a Christian, but retrospectively the term “Jesusist” probably better described the way I was thinking at that time.
I came to loathe (and still do) what Paul had done to Christianity: turning Jesus’ lessons into absolutist moral laws rather than parables on how to act kinder to others. See, for example, Paul’s treatment of sexual ethics in 1 Corinthians. Paul represented the worst slave-morality tendencies Nietzsche ridiculed to the extreme, and the way he acted as if there was only one way—which happened to be his what I saw as very cruel way—to experience Jesus’ truth in religious community in all his letters vexed me. Additionally, I loathed Constantine for turning Christianity into a tool to justify governmental power and coercion, which it remained throughout the reign of the Holy Roman Empire, Enlightenment-era absolutism, and into modern social conservative theocratic tendencies in America.
But the idea of an all-loving creator, if not a metaphysical guarantee of meaning and morality, sending his son/himself as an exemplar for what humanity can and should be still was extremely—and in many ways still is—attractive to me. I flirted with the Episcopalian and Unitarian Universalist churches, but something about their very limited concept of community rubbed me the wrong way (I probably couldn’t justify it or put my finger on it).
Clearly, my religious and philosophical orientation (not to mention my anarchist political convictions) put me at odds with Hillsdale orthodoxy. I started writing papers that were pretty critical of my professor’s lectures at times (though I still managed to mostly get A’s on them). These essays were particularly critical in my Constitution (essentially a Jaffaite propaganda class) and American Heritage (essentially a history of American political thought class, which was taught very well by a brilliant orthodox Catholic Hillsdale grad) classes. I was writing editorials in the student paper subtlety ridiculing Hillsdale’s homophobia and xenophobia, and engaging in far too many Facebook debates on philosophy, politics, and religion that far too often got far too personal.
In addition, in the beginning of my sophomore year, I came out as gay publicly. With the Supreme Court decision coming up the following summer, never had Hillsdale’s religiously-inspired homophobia reached such a fever-pitch. I could hardly go a day without hearing some homophobic slur or comment and the newspaper was running papers—often written by professors—claiming flat out false things about gay people (like comparing it to incest, saying that no society has ever had gay marriage and the like). The fruit/cash value of Jesus’ teachings was quite apparently not turning out to be the empathetic ethos I had hoped for, the rotten elements of the Old Testament God which my grandmother emphasized, the Pauline perversions, and Constantine’s statism were instead dominating the Christian ethos.
At the end of that academic year (culminating with this) I suffered a severe mental breakdown largely due to Hillsdale’s extreme homophobia. By the beginning of the next school year, I was completely dysfunctional academically, intellectually, and socially; I was apathetic about all the intellectual topics I had spent my entire thinking life occupied with, completely jaded about the future, and overall extraordinarily depressed. I’ll spare the dirty details, but by the end of the first month of my Junior year, it became clear I could no longer go on at Hillsdale. I withdrew from Hillsdale, and transferred to the University of Michigan.
That pretty much takes me up to present day. But coming out of that depression, I began to seriously pick back up the question of why Christianity—even the good I saw in Jesusism—no longer seemed true in the pragmatic sense. Why was this religion I had spent my whole life so committed to all of a sudden utterly lacking in cash value?
I found my answer in Rorty and Nietzsche one cold January day while I took a weekend trip to Ann Arbor with my boyfriend. I sat down at a wonderful artisan coffee shop set in a quaint little arcade tucked away in downtown Ann Arbor, and was re-reading Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Rorty’s continued insistence that “cruelty is the worst thing you can do,” even if he couldn’t metaphysically or epistemically justify it, seemed to be a view I had from the very beginning when my doubts about the Christian faith started thanks to my experiences with the victims of war.
Now, I can say that the reason I’m not a Christian—and the reason I think it would be a good idea if Christianity as religion faded out as a public metanarrative (though not as a private source for joy and self-creation that my dad exemplified)—is because Christianity rejects the idea that cruelty is the worst thing you can do. According to Christian orthodoxy (or, at least, the protestant sola fide sort I grew up with), you can be as outrageously, sadistically, egomaniacally cruel to another person as you want, and God will be perfectly fine with it if you believe in him. If Stalin would “accept God into his heart”—whatever that means—his place in paradise for eternity is assured, even if he had the blood of fifty million strong on his hands.
I have no problem with that per se, I agree with Nietzsche that retributive justice is little more than a thinly veiled excuse for revenge. Further, I agree with Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender in saying “Revenge is like a two-headed rat viper: while you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.” As an economist, the whole idea of revenge kind of seems to embrace the sunk cost fallacy. I still regard radical forgiveness and grace as among the best lessons Christianity has to offer, even forgiveness for someone like Stalin.
What seems absurd is that while Stalin could conceivably get a pass, even the kindest, most genuinely empathetic, and outstanding human being will be eternally damned and punished by God simply for not believing. For the Christian, the worst thing you can do is not be cruel, the worst thing you can do is reject their final vocabulary. When coupled with Nietzsche’s insights that Christianity is so focused on the afterlife that it ignores the pragmatic consequences of actions in this life, it is no wonder that Christianity has bred so much cruelty throughout history. Further, the idea that we are ultimately answerable to a metaphysical Big Other rather than to our fellow human beings (as Rorty would have it) seems to cheapen the importance of our other human beings. The most important thing to Christians is God, not your fellow man.
Of course, the Christian apologist will remark that “TrueTM” Christianity properly understood does not necessarily entail that conclusion. No true Scotsman aside, the point is well taken. Sure, the concept of Christian brotherhood teaches that since your fellow man is created in God’s image harming him is the same as harming God. Sure, Jesus does teach the most important commandment is essentially in line with my anti-cruelty. Sure, different sects of Christianity have a different view of divinity that are more nuanced than the one I gave.
But, again, if we judge this faith by its fruits, if we empirically look at the cash value of this belief, if we look at the revealed preference of many if not most Christians, it aligns more with my characterization than I would like. Between the emphasis on the afterlife, the fundamentally anti-humanist (in a deep sense) ethical orientation, and the belief that cruelty is not the worst thing you can do, I see little cash value to Christianity and a whole bunch of danger that it is highly apt—and clearly has been empirically—to be misused for sadistic purposes.
This is not to say Christianity is completely (pragmatically) false. I also agree with Rorty when he says the best way to reduce cruelty and advance human rights is through “sentimental education.” The tale of Jesus, if understood the way we understand a wonderful work of literature—like Rorty himself characterizes writers like Orwell—should live on. It may sound corny and blasphemous, but if “Christian” were simply the name of the Jesus “fandom,” I’d definitely be a Christian. I also certainly don’t think Christianity is something nobody should believe. The cash value of a belief is based on the myriad of particular contingencies of an individual or social group, and those contingencies are not uniform to my experience. However, from my contingent position, I cannot in good faith have faith.
Perhaps it is a sad loss, perhaps it is a glorious intellectual and personal liberation, and perhaps it is something else. Only time will tell. Anyways, 6,325 words later I hope I have adequately explained to myself why I am not a Christian.
Most arguments for open borders are phrased in terms of universalized moral obligations to non-citizens. These obligations are usually phrased as “merely” negative (eg., that Americans have a duty to not impede the movement an impoverished Mexican worker or Syrian refugee seeking a better life) rather than positive (eg., that the first obligation does not imply that Americans have a duty to provide, for example, generous welfare benefits to immigrants and refugees), but are phrased as obligations based on people in virtue of their rationality rather than nationality nonetheless.
Whether they be utilitarian, moral intuitionist, or deontological, what these arguments assume is that nation of origin isn’t a “morally relevant” consideration for one’s rights to immigrate and rely on some other view of moral relevance implicitly as an alternative to try and cement a purely moral solidarity that extends beyond national border. They have in common an appeal to a common human capacity to have rights stemming from something metaphysically essential to our common humanity.
Those arguments are all coherent and possibly valid and are even the arguments that originally convinced me to support open borders. The only problem is that they are often very unconvincing to people skeptical of immigration because they merely beg the question of that moral obligation is irrelevant with respect to nationality. As one of my critics of one of my older pieces on immigration observed, most immigration skeptics are implicitly tribalist nationalists, not philosophically consistent consequentialists or deontologists. They have little patience for theoretical and morally pure metaphysical arguments concluding any obligation, even merely negative, to immigrants. They view their obligations to those socially closer to them as a trump card (pardon the pun) to any morally universalized consideration. So long as they can identify with someone else as an American (or whatever their national identity may be) they view their considerations as relevant. If they cannot identify with someone else based on national identity, they do not view an immigrant’s theorized rights or utility functions as relevant.
There are still several problems with this tribalist perspective, given that nation-states are far from culturally homogenous and cultural homogeneity often transcends borders in some important respects, why does one’s ability to “identify” on the basis of tribal affiliation stop at a nation-state’s borders? Further, there are many other affinities one may have with a foreigner that may be viewed as equally important, if not more important, to one’s ability to “identify” with someone than national citizenship. They may be a fellow Catholic or Christian, they may be a fellow fan of football, or a fellow manufacturing worker, or a fellow parent, etc. Why is “fellow American” the most socially salient form of identification and allows one to keep a foreigner in a state tyranny and poverty, but not whether they are a “fellow Christian” or any of the many other identifiers people find important?
However, these problems are not taken seriously by those who hold them because tribalist outlook isn’t about rational coherence, it is about non-rational sentimental feelings and particularized perspectives on historical affinities. Even if a skeptic of immigration takes those problems seriously, the morally pure and universalizing arguments are no more convincing to a tribalist.
I believe this gets at the heart of most objections Trump voters have to immigration. They might raise welfare costs, crime, native jobs lost, or fear of cultural collapse as post-hoc rationalizations for why they do not feel solidarity with natives, but the fact that they do not feel solidarity due to their nationalist affinities is at the root of these rationalizations. Thus when proponents of open borders raise objections, be it in the form of economic studies showing that these concerns are not consistent with facts or by pointing out that these are also concerns for the native-born population and yet nobody proposes similar immigration restrictions on citizens, they fall on deaf ears. Such concerns are irrelevant to the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment: a lack of solidarity with anyone who is not a native-born citizen.
In this essay, drawing from the sentimentalist ethics of David Hume and the perspective on liberal solidarity of Richard Rorty, I want to sketch a vision of universalized solidarity that would win over tribalists to the side of, if not purely open borders, at least more liberalized immigration restrictions and allowance for refugees. This is not so much a moral argument of the form most arguments for open borders have taken, but a strategy to cultivate the sentiments of a (specifically American nationalist) tribalist to be more open to the concerns and sympathies of someone with whom they do not share a national origin. The main goal is that we shouldn’t try to argue away people’s sincere, deeply held tribalist and nationalist emotions, but seek to redirect them in a way that does not lead to massive suffering for immigrants.
Rorty on Kantian Rationalist and Humean Sentimentalist Arguments for Universalized Human Rights
In an article written by American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty called “Rationality, Sentimentality, and Human Rights,” he discusses two strategies for expanding human rights culture to the third world. One, which he identifies with philosophers such as Plato and Kant, involves appealing to some common faculty which all humans have in common—namely rationality—and claim all other considerations, such as kinship, custom, religion, and (most importantly for present purposes) national origin “morally irrelevant” to whether an individual has human rights and should be treated as such. These sort of arguments, Rorty says, are the sort that try to use rigorous argumentation to answer the rational egoist question “Why should I be moral?” They are traced back to Plato’s discussion of the Ring of Gyges in the Republic through Enlightenment attempts to find an algorithmic, rational foundation of morality, such as the Kantian categorical imperative. This is the sort of strategy, in varying forms, most arguments in favor of open borders try to pursue.
The second strategy, which Rorty identifies with philosophers such as David Hume and Annette Baier, is to appeal to the sentiments of those who do not respect the rights of others. Rather than try to answer “Why should I be moral?” in an abstract, philosophical sense such that we have a priori algorithmic justification for treating others equal, this view advocates trying to answer the more immediate and relevant question “Why should I care about someone’s worth and well-being even if it appears to me that I have very little in common with them?” Rather than answer the former question with argumentation that appeals to our common rational faculties, answer the latter with appealing to our sentimental attitudes that we do have something else in common with that person.
Rorty favors the second Humean approach for one simple reason: in practice, we are not dealing with rational egoists who substitute altruistic moral values with their ruthless self-interest. We are dealing with irrational tribalists who substitute more-encompassing attitudes of solidarity with less-encompassing ones. They aren’t concerned about why they should be moral in the first place and what that means, they are concerned with how certain moral obligations extend to people with whom they find it difficult to emotionally identify. As Rorty says:
If one follows Baier’s advice one will not see it as the moral educator’s task to answer the rational egoist’s question “Why should I be moral?” but rather to answer the much more frequently posed question “Why should I care about a stranger, a person who is no kin to me, a person whose habits I find disgusting?” The traditional answer to the latter question is “Because kinship and custom are morally irrelevant, irrelevant to the obligations imposed by the recognition of membership in the same species.” This has never been very convincing since it begs the question at issue: whether mere species membership is, in fact, a sufficient surrogate closer to kinship. […]
A better sort of answer is the sort of long, sad, sentimental story which begins with “Because this is what it is like to be in her situation—to be far from home, among strangers,” or “Because she might become your daughter-in-law,” or “Because her mother would grieve for her.” Such stories, repeated and varied over the centuries, have induced us, the rich, safe and powerful people, to tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people—people whose appearance or habits or beliefs at first seemed an insult to our own moral identity, our sense of the limits of permissible human variation.
If we agree with Hume that reason is the slave of the passions, or more accurately that reason is just one of many competing sentiments and passions, then it should come as no surprise that rational argumentation of the form found in most arguments for open borders are not super convincing to people for whom reason is not the ruling sentiment. How does one cultivate these other sentiments, if not through merely rational argumentation? Rorty continually comments throughout his political works that novels, poems, documentaries, and television programs—those genres which tell the sort of long sad stories commented on above—have replaced sermons and Enlightenment-era treatises as the engine of moral progress since the end of the nineteenth century. Rational argumentation may convince an ideal-typical philosopher, but not many other people.
For Rorty, the application of this sentimental ethics had two main purposes, the first of which is mostly irrelevant for present purposes and the second of which is relevant. First, Rorty wanted to make his vision of a post-metaphysical, post-epistemological intellectual culture and a commonsensically nominalist and historicist popular culture compatible with the sort of ever-expanding human solidarity necessary for political liberalism; a culture for which the sort of algorithmic arguments for open borders I mentioned in the first half of this article would not seem convincing for more theoretical reasons than the mere presence of nationalist sentiment. Though that is an intellectual project with which I have strong affinities, one need not buy that vision for the purposes of this article—that of narrowly applying sentimental ethics to overcome nationalist objections to immigration.
The second, however, was to point out a better way to implement the liberal cultural norms to prohibit the public humiliation of powerless minorities. The paradigmatic cases Rorty says such a sentimental education has application are how Serbians viewed Muslims, how Nazis viewed Jews, or how white southern Confederates viewed African-American slaves. Though those are far more extreme cases, it is not a stretch to add to that list the way Trump voters view Muslim refugees or Mexican migrant workers.
A Rortian Case against Rortian (and Trumpian) Nationalism
Though Rorty was a through-and-through leftist and likely viewed most nationalist arguments for restricting immigration and especially keeping refugees in war-zones with scorn, there is one uncomfortable feature of his views for most radical proponents of immigration. It does leave very well open the notion of nationalism as a valid perspective, unlike many of the other arguments offered.
Indeed, Rorty—from my very anarchist perspective—was at times uncomfortably nationalist. In Achieving Our Country he likens national pride to self-respect for an individual, saying that while too much national pride can lead to imperialism, “insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.” He defended a vision of American national pride along the lines of Deweyan pragmatism and transcendentalist romanticism as a nation of ever-expanding democratic vistas. Though radically different from the sort of national pride popular in right-wing xenophobic circles, it is a vision of national pride nonetheless and as such is not something with which I and many other advocates of open borders are not sympathetic with.
Further, and more relevant to our considerations, is he viewed national identity as a tool to expand the sort of liberal sentiments that he wanted. As he wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:
Consider, as a final example, the attitude of contemporary American liberals to the unending hopelessness and misery of the lives of the young blacks in American cities. Do we say these people must be helped because they are our fellow human beings? We may, but it is much more persuasive, morally as well as politically, to describe them as our fellow Americans—to insist it is outrageous that an American to live without hope. The point of these examples is that our sense of solidarity is strongest when those with whom solidarity is expressed are thought of as “one of us,” where “us” means something smaller and more localized than the human race.
It is obvious why many critics of immigration restrictions would view this attitude as counterproductive. This type of description cannot be applied in many other scenarios at all relevant to questions of immigration at all. Liberalism, in the sense Rorty borrowed from Shklar (and also the sense which I think animates much of the interest in liberalized immigration policies), as an intense aversion to cruelty is concerned with merely ending cruelty as such. It wants to end cruelty whether it be the cruelty of the American government to illegal immigrants or suffering of native-born African-Americans as a result of centuries of cruelty by racists. This is surely something with which Rorty would agree as he writes elsewhere in that same chapter:
[T]here is such a thing as moral progress and that progress is indeed in the direction of greater human solidarity. But that solidarity is not thought of as recognition of a core self, the human essence, in all human beings. Rather, it is thought of as the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared to the similarities with respect to pain and humiliation—the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves in the range of ‘us.’
Surely, that moral progress doesn’t stop at the unimportant line of a national border. The problem is that appeals to national identity of the sort Rorty uses, or of mythologized national histories, do stop at the border.
Rorty is right that it is easier for people to feel a sense of solidarity with those for whom there are fewer traditional differences, and that no amount of appeal to metaphysical constructions of human rationality will fully eclipse that psychological fact. However, the problem with forms of solidarity along national identity is it is much easier for people to stop there. In modern pluralistic, cosmopolitan societies such as America, it is hard for someone to stop their sense of solidarity at religion, tribe, custom and the like. This is because the minute they walk out the door of their home, the minute they arrive at their workplace, there is someone very close to them who would not fit that sense of solidarity yet someone for whom they would still feel some obligation, just based off of seeing the face of that person, off of mere proximity.
Stopping the line at national identity is much easier since many Americans, particularly those in the midwestern and southeastern states which gave Trump his presidency, will rarely interact with non-nationals on a regular basis while they will more likely interact with someone who is more distant from them in other ways. While other forms of solidarity are unstable for most because they are too localized, nationalism is stable because it is too general to be upset by experience of others while not general enough to be compatible with liberalism. Moral progress, if we pursue Rorty’s explicitly nationalist project, will halt at the national borders and his liberal project of ending cruelty will end with it. There is an inconsistency between Rorty’s liberalism and his belief in national pride.
Further, insisting “because they are American” leads people to ask what it means to “be American,” a question which can only be answered, even by Rorty in his description of American national pride, by contrast with what isn’t American (see his discussion of Europe in “American National Pride). It makes it difficult to see suffering as the salient identifier for solidarity, and makes other ‘traditional’ differences standing in the way of Rorty’s description of moral progress as more important than they should be. Indeed, this is exactly what we see with most xenophobic descriptions of foreigners as “not believing in American ideals.” Rorty’s very humble, liberalized version of national pride faces a serious danger of turning into the sort of toxic, illiberal nationalism we have seen in recent years.
Instead, we should substitute the description Rorty offers as motivating liberal help for African-Americans in the inner city ,‘because they are American,’ with the redescription Rorty uses elsewhere: ‘because they are suffering, and you too can suffer and have suffered in the past.’ This is a sentimental appeal which can apply to all who are suffering from cruelty, regardless of their national identity. This is more likely to make more and more other differences seem unimportant. As Rorty’s ideas on cultural identity politics imply, the goal should be to replace “identity”—including national identity—with empathy.
Thus, in making an appeal to Rorty’s sentimentalism for open border advocates, I want to very clearly point out how it is both possible and necessary to separate appeals to solidarity and sentiment from nationalism to serve liberal ends. This means that the possibility of nationalist sentiments of seeming acceptable to a non-rationalist form of ethics should not discourage those of us skeptical of nationalism from embracing and using its concepts.
Sentimental Ethical Appeals and Liberalized Immigration
The application of this form of sentimental ethics for people who merely want to liberalized immigration should be obvious. Our first step needs to be to recognize that people’s tribalist sentiments aren’t going to be swayed by mere rationalist argumentation as it merely begs the question. Our second step needs to be to realize that what’s ultimately going to be more likely to convince them aren’t going to get rid of people’s tribalist sentiments altogether, but to redirect them elsewhere. The goal should be to get people to see national identity as unimportant to those sentiments compared to other more salient ones, such as whether refugees and immigrants are suffering or not. The goal should be for nationalists to stop asking questions of immigrants like “Are immigrants going to be good Americans like me?” and more “Are they already people who, like me, have suffered?”
This does not mean that we stop making the types of good academic philosophical and economic arguments about how immigration will double the global GDP and how rights should be recognized as not stopping with national identity—those are certainly convincing to the minority of us to whom tribalism isn’t an especially strong sentiment. However, it does mean we should also recognize the power of novels like Under the Feet of Jesus or images like the viral, graphic one of a Syrian refugee child who was the victim of a bombing which circulated last year. The knowledge that Anne Frank’s family was turned down by America for refugee status, the feelings of empathy for Frank’s family one gets from reading her diary, the fear that we are perpetuating that same cruelty today are far more convincing than appeals to Anne Frank’s natural rights in virtue of her rational faculties as a human being.
Appeals to our common humanity in terms of our “rational faculties” or “natural rights” or “utility functions” and the like are not nearly as convincing to people who aren’t philosophers or economists as appeals to the ability of people to suffer. Such an image and sentimental case is far more likely to cultivate a cosmopolitan solidarity than Lockean or Benthamite platitudes.
Rorty, Richard. “American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey.” Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010. 372-388. Print.
Rorty, Richard. “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.
“Identity politics” have been an intensely large obsession of the American left or the past forty or so years. Academic leftists have devoted their entire careers and even the organizations of their departments to studying notions of identity and the specific history and interests of certain identity groups—such as women’s studies, African-American studies, and other similar programs. The Democratic Party has put special emphasis on mobilizing various minority groups based on identity, focusing on “Women’s issues” such as abortion or “the needs of the African-American community” such as police reform or “gay rights” to get a certain of segment of voters to turn out in elections.
Yet, with the election of Trump, many moderate leftists are questioning the utility of identity politics. Mark Lilla had a prominent recent piece in The New York Times declaring the “end of identity liberalism.” Lilla’s main criticisms of identity politics focus on it as a “strategic mistake” in electoral politics and how it has made liberals and progressives “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside of their self-identified groups,” particularly white, middle class, working men in the Midwest. Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, responded by sounding off that all politics is identity politics, people always organize themselves in interest groups, writing that “any plausible account of political behavior by actual human beings needs to concede that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity rather than detailed policy proposals.” The left, he says, can’t abandon identity politics because “[t]here is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”
Those on what is traditionally considered the “right” end of the political spectrum (ignoring the specific phenomena of Trump voters and alt-righters, that is) tend to be dismissive of the whole project of identity politics. This approach is embodied by Robby Soave’s recent article in Reason claiming that identity politics is just a form of tribalism that seeks to subvert individual rights and overall social welfare to the tribalist demands of some salient group people self-identify with. Soave also sees the rise of Trumpism as itself a form of identity politics for white men, a claim which I’ll address at length in a moment.
What is one to make, then, of identity politics in the Trump era? First, it seems there is considerable confusion about what identity politics even is in the first place. Lilla, for an example, seems to imply that the left’s obsession with appealing to minority political coalitions is merely a strategy for winning elections. Soave thinks it’s pure tribalist and collectivist ideology, and Yglesias defines it so broadly that any political mobilization at all is considered identity politics. How are we to understand what operative definition of what is commonly called “identity politics” is most useful, or at least is closest to how its commonly used in political discourse?
Lilla and Yglesias understanding, it seems, misses the point about why so many leftists are so passionate about identity politics. People who are interested in cultural dramas and issues related to group identity are not just Democratic strategists in campaign war-rooms, but, as I mentioned earlier, academics, and “true believer” bleeding-heart progressive activists. It seems to me that identity politics—at least at first (and still is in the minds of the true believers post-1960s progressivism)—is not about an election strategy. It’s certainly become that for Democratic strategists, but it originally was motivated by the old liberal concern with ending the misery for stigmatized groups. Identity politics is not merely a political strategy, but a strategy the left used for getting rid of racism, homophobia, and otherization of outgroups in society at large.
The idea is like this: try to get, for example, white people to sympathize with black people by getting whites to recognize that black people have their own meaningful web of cultural associations which is just as valid as those of the dominant culture. Its roots are in cultural studies academia, such as the writings of Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser. Essentially, identity politics is rooted in philosophical attempts to end prejudice through emphasizing “cultural recognition” of despised groups. As Richard Rorty wrote in describing this strategy:
It helps, when trying to recognise a common humanity in a person of another gender, class, or ethnicity, to think of them as having as rich an inner life as one does oneself. To picture such an inner life, it helps to know something about the web of memories and associations which make it up. So one way to help eliminate prejudice and erase stigma is to point out that, for example, women have a history, that homosexuals take pride in belonging to the same stigmatised group as Proust, and that African-Americans have detailed memories of the battles which make up what Russell Banks calls “the three hundred year War Between The Races in America” – the sort of memories whites are currently learning about from Toni Morrison’s novels. It helps to realise that all such groups wrap a comforting blanket of memories and traditions, customs and institutions, around themselves, just as do classical scholars, old Etonians, or members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
Thus treating identity politics just as a way to get electoral coalitions out to vote, and also (as Soave does) as simply tribalism ideology when it was started as a strategy to mitigate tribalism, misses the point about why the left is so passionate about these cultural issues. It isn’t simple collectivism nor Machiavellian political strategy, but (hopefully) genuine concern for stigmatize groups that mobilizes this obsession.
Of course, as Rorty well-recognized, this way of ending prejudice is not the only way nor is it the most effective. First, it does make the left appear as this overly sensitive “politically correct” group of elitists who care little for the concerns of working class whites. As Rorty wrote that the left’s preoccupation with cultural identity politics would mean “the straight white male working class in America may find it tempting to think that the leftist academy is uninterested in its problems.” Indeed, most of why Lilla is concerned that identity politics has failed so spectacularly as an electoral strategy is that it has isolated progressives from middle America.
More importantly, however, is that emphasizing cultural difference has failed spectacularly at its initial aim of ending prejudice. The whole point of Soave’s Reason column is that leftist identity politics has become its own form of tribalism and have given rise to the right-wing identity politics of Trump. Not only have leftists often gotten so caught up in the identity politics language game that they call their own (such as Bernie Sanders) white supremacists for not playing along, it has created its own prejudice backlash. If your way of getting straight white males to recognize non-straight white males as worthy of equal treatment is to say “Those who are unlike you have different cultural values that are worth being celebrated and protected,” the response of straight white males is to say “Do not I also have a different culture worthy of being celebrated and protected?”
Indeed, this type of rhetoric is at the heart of the rise of the alt-right. It isn’t mere hatred of others that is animating this new populist, fascist movement (though that is certainly a concerningly large part of it), it is that they are making this hatred seem legitimate by couching it in terms of advancing “white interests” in a very similar rhetorical manner that the left has pushed the interests of minority groups. Richard Spencer’s “mantra” for the alt-right is “race is the foundation of identity” (emphasis mine) and calls himself an “identarian.” Even outside the small niche of the alt-right, average Trump voters often say they want a way to express and defend their identity—whether it is in the form of white nationalism or in forms of defending Christian “religious liberties” as its own identity coalition against gay rights.
Soave is correct that left-wing identity politics has given us this right-wing identity politics, and it is something Rorty himself saw as a potential consequence of this approach. In his 1998 book Achieving our Country, he explicitly predicted that the white working class would become disconnected from the academic left, and would “start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots[.]” He also predicted that when this strongman assumes office, “gains made over the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.” It is no coincidence that this sounds quite a bit like Trump.
It’s not surprising that emphasizing differences between the majority and a scapegoated group would mean that the majority group would start taking “pride” in its difference from the scapegoated. Of course, anyone who understands systemic power structures or how sociological hierarchy works understands why this response is not the same. There is a difference between cherishing the cultural differences of a scapegoated minority and using institutional power to coercively protect the cultural interests of the majority group at the expense of the minority. But you can’t expect a white adolescent basement-dwelling troll on 4-Chan or even a working class white voter from central Michigan to understand and fully internalize that difference, and they are likely to be very reluctant or overtly hostile to acknowledging it. All the alt-right has done is take identity politics and turn it against its original aim to advance the exact tribalism leftists have been trying to use identity politics to end.
A better strategy the left could have used was the strategy the old left used through classical feminism, abolitionism, the sixties Civil Rights movement, or some new progressives through the more pop-culture current of the gay rights movement. Rorty describes it beautifully:
Another way is to get the prejudiced to see the stigmatised as having the same tendency to bleed when pricked as they themselves: they too worry about their children and parents; they are possessed by the same self-doubts, and lose self-confidence when humiliated; their difficulties in moving from one stage of life to another are much like everyone else’s, despite the fact that their life-chances may be minimal. These ways of emphasising commonality rather than difference have little to do with “cultural recognition.” They have to do with experiences shared by members of all cultures and all historical epochs, and which remain pretty much the same despite cultural change.
There’s no real way for bigots to co-opt this approach to advance their bigotry. In fact, it explicitly avoids framing the discussion not as some necessary “culture war” between an oppressive majority and an oppressed minority as current identity politics rhetoric implies and alt-right identitarians have assumed as their rallying cry. Instead, it emphasizes the need to end culture wars in the first place by progressing people’s sentiments to stand in solidarity with an ever-growing chunk of humanity—it seeks to replace simple identity with empathy.
Is this approach still in the vein of “identity politics” as we currently understand it? If we take Yglesias’ understanding, sure it still “concede[s] that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity,” but it seeks to make salient aspects of group identity as banal as possible, to make people stand in solidarity based off empathy for everyone’s common human shortcomings rather than based off who they happen to be culturally similar to, to make one’s ingroup as inclusive as impossible. It certainly isn’t tribalist or collectivist as Soave is concerned. Though it still recognizes diversity as important, Rorty still explicitly says that we should see this diversity “as a diversity of self-creating individuals, rather than a diversity of cultures[.]” This liberal (and classical liberal as I see it as drawing off of Hume, Smith, and Mill more than anything) vision is one that is both pluralistic and individualistic.
Is this, however, a winning electoral strategy, as Lilla is concerned? I’m not sure. Tribalist urges of racism are certainly very powerfully woven into how humans have psychologically evolved, and perhaps in our current broken discourse of race relations it isn’t the best electoral strategy. There is, however, some reason for optimism; popular support for gay rights is at an all-time high, after all, and this was probably more a function of the victory of emphasizing the similarity of love between gays to that of straights then getting straight allies to march in gay pride parades. Regardless of electoral outcomes, shouldn’t the goal of civil discourse not be to win elections, but to ensure the most just, peaceful, and prosperous civil society—the zero-sum game of coercive politics be damned? Leftists should try to change the current broken discourse, rather than try to work within it to gain political power.
Over on my Facebook page, I posted a short criticism of both neoclassical and behavioral economic scholarship on rational choice (drawing from a paper I’m working on exploring that topic). Stated a bit polemically, though homo economicus has largely been dead in neoclassical theory, his spirit still haunts the work of most modern neoclassical scholars. Likewise, though behavioral economists are trying to dig the grave and put the final nails in the coffin of homo economicus, their nightmares are still plagued with the anxieties of his memory.
This led a former colleague from Hillsdale to ask me where I thought homo economicus came from historically. I wrote the following in response (lightly edited for this post):
It could be argued, in a sense, that the protestant Christian aim to complete moral purity and the Enlightenment aim to make man perfect in knowledge in morality (as embodied in Franklin’s virtue ethics) helped give rise to a culture that would be primed for such a model. Within economics, historically it comes from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Jevon’s mathematical extrapolations from Bentham’s psychology. However, I’d say this comes from a deeper “Cartesian anxiety” in Bernstein’s use of the term to make economic a big-T True, capital-C Certain, capital-S Science just like physics (which Jevon’s himself stated was an aim of his work, and has preoccupied economists since the days of JS Mill). If economic science cannot be said to be completely positive and “scientific” like the natural sciences with absolutely falsifiable propositions and an algorithmic means of theory-choice, it is feared, it must be written off as a pseudo-scientific waste of time or else ideology to justify capitalism. If economics cannot make certain claims to knowledge, it must be solipsist and relativist and, again, be another form of pseudo-science or ideology. If economic models cannot reach definitive mathematical results, then they must be relativistic and a waste of time. This is just another example of the extreme Cartesian/Katian/Platonic (in Rorty’s use of the term) either/or: objectivity OR relativism, science OR nonscience, determinate mathematical solutions OR ideological emotional bickering. Homo economicus was erected as a means to be an epistemic foundation to solve all these anxieties and either/ors.
Of course, as any good Deweyan, I think all these either/ors are nonsense. Their understanding of science, as revealed through the so-called “growth of knowledge” literature in postempiricist philosophy of science (ie., the work of Thomas Kuhn, Lakotos, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Michael Polanyi, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, etc.) has shown that this positivist conception of science, that is science consists of algorithmic theory choice selected based off correspondence with theory-free, brute “facts” of the “external world,” is woefully inaccurate. Dialogical Aristotelian practical reasoning in the community of scientists plays just as much of a role in formulating a scientific consensus as empirical verification. This does not undermine science’s claims to objectivity or rationality, in fact it puts such claims in more epistemically tenable terms.
Further, the desire to make the social sciences just another extension of the natural science, as Hayek shows in the Counterrevolution of Science, and as even positivists like Milton Freidman argue, is a completely misleading urge that has led to some of the worst follies in modern social theory. Obviously, I cheer the fact that “homo economicus is dead, and we have killed him,” but now that we’ve “out-rationalized the rationalizer of all rationalizers,” we must try to re-evaluate our economic theories and methods to, as Bernstein or Dewey would put it, “reconstruct” our economic science.
In short, immenatizing the eschaton in epistemology and philosophy of science created homo economicus.
For the record, you don’t have to be a radical scientific anti-realist like Feyerabend or Rorty to agree with my analysis here. I myself wax more towards Quine than Rorty in scientific matters. However, the main point of philosophy of science since positivism is the exact type of foundationalist epistemology undergirding modern positivist methodology in the mainstream of the economics profession, and the concept of rationality that is used to buttress it, is a naive view of science, natural or social.
Notably, this critique is largely unrelated to much of the Austrian school. Mises’ own conception of rationality is mostly unrelated to homo economicus as he understands rationality to be purposive action, emphasizing that economists first understand the subjective meaning from the point of view of the economic actor him/herself before declaring any action “irrational.” 
What are your thoughts on this? Are neoclassical and behavioral economics both still way too influenced by the spirit of homo economicus, or am I off the mark? Is my analysis of the historical conditions that led to the rise of homo economicus right? Please, discuss in the comments.
 Consider this quote from Jevon’s magnum opus Theory of Political Economy “Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.”
 In fact, I doubt anybody mentioned is really a scientific anti-realist, I agree with Bernstein that Feyerabend is best read as a satirist of the Cartesian anxiety and extreme either/or of relativism and objectivism in philosophy of science and think Rorty’s views are more complex than simple scientific anti-realism, but that’s an unrelated point.
 Of course, any critique of epistemic foundationalism would apply to Mises, especially his apriorism; after all, Mises did write a book called “Ultimate Foundations of the Social Sciences” and the Cartesian anxiety is strong with him, especially in his later works. Notably, none of this applies to most of Mises’ students, especially Schutz, Machlup, and Hayek.
 For a more detailed discussion of Mises and the Austrians on rationality, see my blog post here or this paper by Mario Rizzo. For a more general discussion of the insights of the type of philosophy of science I’m discussing, see Chapter 2 of Richard Bernstein’s excellent 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis.