Tag Archives: agreement

Rorty on Threats vs. Offers

This passage from Richard Rorty’s Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism resonates with some of the posts I’ve written about orders vs. requests, consultation and non-coercive practices, and what we are doing (or what we should do) when we ask someone to do something. It seems even more relevant now than when the lectures included in this book were delivered (in the 1990s), especially that last paragraph.

…[T]he only notion of rationality we need, at least in moral and social philosophy, is that of a situation in which people do not say “your own current interests dictate that you agree to our proposal” but rather “your own central beliefs, the ones which are central to your own moral identity, suggest that you should agree to our proposal.” …To appeal to interests rather than beliefs is to urge a modus vivendi. Such an appeal is exemplified by the speech of the Athenian ambassadors to the unfortunate Melians, as reported by Thucydides. To appeal to your enduring beliefs as well as to your current interests is to suggest that what gives you your present moral identity—your thick and resonant complex of beliefs—may make it possible for you to develop a new, supplementary moral identity. It is to suggest that what makes you loyal to a smaller group may give you reason to cooperate in constructing a larger group, a group to which you may in time become equally loyal, or perhaps even more loyal. The difference between the absence and the presence of rationality, on this account, is the difference between a threat and an offer—the offer of a new moral identity and thus a new and larger loyalty, a loyalty to a group formed by an unforced agreement between smaller groups.

…any unforced agreement between individuals and groups about what to do creates a form of community, and will, with luck, be the initial stage in expanding the circles of those whom each party to the agreement had previously taken to be “people like ourselves.” The opposition between rational argument and fellow feeling thus begins to dissolve. For fellow feeling may, and often does, arise from the realization that the people whom one thought one might have to go to war with, use force on, are, in Rawls’s sense, “reasonable.” They are, it turns out, enough like us to see the point of compromising differences in order to live in peace, and of abiding by the agreement that has been hammered out. They are, to some degree at least, trustworthy….

If we cease to think of reason as a source of authority, and think of it simply as the process of reaching agreement by persuasion, then the standard Platonic and Kantian dichotomy of reason and feeling begins to fade away. That dichotomy can be replaced by a continuum of degrees of overlap of beliefs and desires. When people whose beliefs and desires do not overlap very much disagree, they tend to think of each other as crazy, or, more politely, as irrational. When there is considerable overlap, on the other hand, they may agree to differ, and regard each other as the sort of people one can live with—and eventually, perhaps, the sort one can be friends with, intermarry with, and so on. To advise people to be rational is, on the view I am offering, simply to suggest that somewhere among their shared beliefs and desires there may be enough resources to permit agreement on how to co-exist without violence. To conclude that somebody is irredeemably irrational is not to realize that she is not making proper use of her God-given faculties. It is rather to realize that she does not seem to share enough relevant beliefs and desires with us to make possible fruitful conversation about the issue in dispute. So, we reluctantly conclude, we have to give up on the attempt to get her to enlarge her moral identity, and settle for working out a modus vivendi—one which may involve the threat, or even the use, of force.